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Essay/Term paper: Shakespeare's world

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's World

Almost every nation on earth reads, studies and performs the works of
William Shakespeare. No writer of any country, nor any age, has ever enjoyed
such universal popularity. Neither has any writer been so praised. As William
Hazlitt observed, "The most striking peculiarity of Shakespeare's mind was it's
generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds." It is perhaps
this quality that has earned Shakespeare the supreme accolade, that of lending
his name to an era. Other than a monarch or an emperor, few can boast that a
time or place is so exclusively theirs. As we talk about Napoleonic Europe or
Victorian England, so we speak of Shakespearean London or the Age of Shakespeare.
No other artist, let alone writer, has had their name inscribed on such a
towering edifice. "Thou in our wonder and astonishment, hast built thyself a
long-live monument," wrote Milton, in praise of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is by far and without doubt the most popular and successful
writer of all time. But what of the man himself? Who was William Shakespeare?
The life of William Shakespeare is shrouded in mystery. There is no
record of him receiving an education, buying a book or writing a single letter,
and no original manuscript of a Shakespeare play survives. There is no direct
record of his conversations, and no one in his home town seems to have known
that he was a successful playwright while he was alive. There is not even a
contemporary portrait to reveal his true appearance. Although a number of
mentions of William Shakespeare the poet-dramatist appear on record during the
1590's and early 1600's, they comment only briefly on his writings, telling us
nothing about the man. Less is known about Shakespeare than almost any other
playwright of his time.
The orthodox version of William Shakespeare's life is probably the most
widely accepted Shakespeare legend of them all. According to it, he was born on
23 April 1564, in an upstairs room of a Stratford house in Warwickshire. He was
born to John and Mary Shakespeare, and was baptized Gulielmus filius Johannes
Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare) three days later. His father ran a
successful glove making business on Henley Street. In 1565, his father was
elected alderman, and three days later he became chief magistrate. William began
his education at the local grammar school, learning to read and write. By his
early teens, he had mastered Latin and the art of acting. He took part in the
school's annual play every Whitsun. By his early teens he had moved into the
upper school where he studied logic, poetry and history.
In November 1582, at eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, and by twenty-
one he had fathered three children: twins, Hamnet and Judith, and their older
sister Susanna. In 1587, when Shakespeare was twenty-three, the premier acting
company The Queens Men visited Stratford. Just before their performance one of
the players died and Shakespeare stood in for that person. His natural talent so
impressed the players that he was offered a permanent place in the troupe.
Shakespeare began his new career at James Burbage's Theatre in London,
where he made extra money by looking after the patrons' horses. Before long his
writing potential was noticed by the Earl of Southampton, who used his influence
to make Shakespeare a full-time actor and eventually a dramatist. In 1592 the
playwright Robert Greene warned the country's most distinguished dramatists
that Shakespeare was their greatest potential rival.
On 18 April 1593 Shakespeare's first poem, Venus and Adonis was
patronized by Lord Southampton, and over the next few years he wrote well over
150 published poems. By 1595, Shakespeare was one of the most accomplished
dramatists of his day. In March of that year two of his plays were performed
before the Queen herself. Over the next twenty years he wrote no fewer than
thirty-seven plays.
By the late 1590's Shakespeare acquired shares in many theatres. In 1599,
he bought shares in the newly built theatre in Southwark. His financial acumen
had already reaped rewards. As early as 1597 Shakespeare returned to buy New
Place, the second largest house in the town of Stratford.
In 1599 Shakespeare's company moved to the Globe theatre, heralding his
finest hour. In 1603 his company earned the highest accolade of all. The new
King, James I, honoured the company with the title, The King's Men.
Unfortunately, on 29 June 1613 the Globe burned to the ground, and although it
was rebuilt the following year, Shakespeare retired to Stratford.
Shakespeare led a peaceful retirement, and hardly returned to London at
all. Sadly, on his birthday in 1616, Shakespeare contracted a fever and died in
his sleep, aged fifty-two. He was buried a few days later in a tomb at
Stratdford's Holy Trinity Church.
Shakespeare mixed freely with royalty and commoner alike. He never
looked down on anyone and made no enemies. He was a self-made man, a devoted
husband and a kindly father. Not only was his literary genius second to none, he
was also a superb level-headed businessman, one of Stratford's most respected
Although Shakespeare has been dead for many centuries, his legacy to
literature is still remembered when his plays are read. All of Shakespeare's
plays can be classified into four categories: The comedies, the tragedies, the
romantic plays, and the chronicled or historical plays. Shakespeare's poetic and
dramatic career has been divided into four periods corresponding to the growth
and experience of his life and mind.
The first division, is the Period of Early Experimentation (1588-93) To
this period belong: Titus Andronicus, Henry VI (three parts), Love's Labour's
Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Romeo and
Juliet, and Richard II. Other than these plays, he also wrote the two long poems,
Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. These were the first of Shakespeare's
great works, and his experience in writing plays grew with the increasing number
of popular plays that he wrote. Many critics have remarked that the work of this
period is, as a whole, extremely slight in texture. His critics have also said
that the treatment of life in these plays is very superficial, and the art is
evidently immature. There is evidence of this in Romeo and Juliet. The tragic
end of these "…star crossed lovers…" makes many raise their eyebrows and
question whether a young man like Romeo would have really committed suicide in
that situation. On the other hand, many readers have also noted that the works
of this period are characterized by the youthful exuberance of imagination, and
by the extravagance of language. Shakespeare has characterized his work by the
constant use of puns, conceits and other affections.
The second period is known as The Period of the Great Comedies and
Chronicle Plays (1594-1600). The works of this period are: King John, The
Merchant of Venice, Henry IV (Parts I and II), The Taming of the Shrew, The
Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
According to many observers, these plays show a rapid growth and development in
the Poet's genius. They reflect a deeper knowledge of human life and human
nature. The characterization and the humour have become more penetrating while
the thought has become more weighty. Many readers have noticed that the rime has
been largely abandoned for prose and blank verse and that the blank verse itself
has lost its stiffness.
The third period is usually known as The Period of the Great Tragedies
and of the Sombre or Bitter Comedies (1601-07). Julius Caesar, Hamlet, All's
Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King
Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens were all
written in this period. This is a period of gloom and depression and it marks
the full maturity of his powers. His dramatic power, his intellectual power, and
his power of expression are at their highest. This period is considered by many
experts as the time of his supreme masterpieces. However, many people argue that
Shakespeare fails to see the better part of human nature. His work is, in fact,
more concerned with the darker side of human experience. The themes of these
plays tend to dwell on the sins and weaknesses of man, and a lot of emphasis is
thrown on evil, thus the tone is either grave or fierce.
The fourth period is usually known as The Period of the Later Comedies
or Dramatic Romances (1608-12). The plays of this period are: Pericles,
Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and the unfinished Henry VIII. During
this period the temper of Shakespeare has changed from bitter and gloomy, to
serene and peaceful. As one observer put it, "The heavy clouds have melted away
from the sky, and a tender and graceful tone prevails. In these plays, the plays
are based on tragic passion, but this time the evil is controlled, and then
conquered by the good. According to Ramji Lal, "[These] plays show the decline
of Shakespeare's dramatic powers. They are often careless in construction and
unsatisfactory in characterization, while there is a decline in style and
versification also.
Shakespeare's plays were greatly influenced by the Renaissance. The
Renaissance is a period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the
arts. The Renaissance began in 14th- century Italy and spread to the rest of
Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the course of this
period, the European feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural
economy and church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed
into a society which was dominated by political institutions, with a more urban,
fiscal economy. A great deal of work was put forward increasing the standards of
education, the arts, and music. Renaissance literally means rebirth. This period
was given this name because it was believed to be the end of the Middle Ages,
and the birth of a new era.
Shakespeare lived during the renaissance period, and so many of the
features of this period had a huge impact on him. For example, Shakespeare
conveys Romeo's method of love for Rosaline, as one of the methods of courtly
love. Courtly love was very common during this period, and in fact it was a
disgrace for the person's social status if he did not observe this practice. The
Renaissance also affected Shakespeare in many other ways. All of Shakespeare's
plays are set in this period of time as well. The articulate language spoken in
those times was also a major characteristic of that era. A lot of time and
money was spent on the aspect of Drama and literature, and this explains why the
literary works that stem from this period are of such a high standard. The
Renaissance was a period in which people traveled a lot. Shakespeare is believed
to have traveled a great deal during his life. He allegedly made many journeys
to Italy which was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Perhaps the influence that
the Renaissance had on him encouraged him to set many of his plays in Italy. The
Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet are two plays which have been set in
places in Italy. The settings of such plays are described with a great deal of
Since the Renaissance was a period in which plenty of attention was
paid to the development of drama and literature, the Elizabethan theatre
underwent a great deal of improvements as well. During the middle ages, there
were hardly any theatres at all in Britain. Drama was usually staged in the
streets or in other unofficial places. They were generally a nuisance because
they attracted crowds and this blocked the streets. Sometimes, they were staged
in the market square or the village common. There was no entrance fee, and all
the actors were amateurs. The plays were seen by rich and poor alike. The crowds
here lacked discipline, and if the play was not well acted out, the audience was
known to pelt the actors on stage with anything they could lay their hands on.
During the Renaissance, however, the major interest in drama sparked of
a sudden increase in the building of theatres. In spite of objections by the
residents, and criticism by the Puritans, during the period between 1557 and
1629, no fewer than thirty major theatres were opened in London alone.
Considering the fact that London only had 300,000 inhabitants, this shows how
keen the interest in drama was. They usually resembled large wooden sheds partly
thatched with rushes. There was usually a flagstaff on the roof and a trench
around the theatre building.
Private theatres were designed on the model of the Guild Halls, while
the private theatres were made to resemble inn yards. The private theatres were
more luxurious, being fully roofed and seated. In the public theatres, on the
other hand, the auditorium, as in ancient Greece was open to the sky. Only the
stage was roofed, which made it difficult for plays to be seen in bad weather.

There were no tickets. An amount of five pence in modern reckoning
admitted a customer to standing room in the yard. Rich spectators watched the
performances from boxes on each side of the stage, paying about twelve shillings
for the privilege of a seat. In an upper box was the orchestra. The Globe
theatre, the largest in London, composed of ten performers with different
The fashionable part of the house was the stage itself. There sat the
royal patrons of the theatre and their friends. Here also sat the dramatic poets
of the time to who were given free passes. Most importantly, this is where all
the shorthand writers and the piratical book-sellers sat. They took down the
dialogue, under the pretence of criticizing it, and thus preserved for posterity
many plays that would have otherwise been lost. There was ceaseless chatter of
conversation between the fashionable spectators on stage, interspersed with
calls for drinks and lights for their pipes. Smoking went on throughout the
performance. The actors and the audience, however, accepted these interruptions
without much protest.
A trumpet blast started the performance. Then came the prologue, spoken
by an actor in a long black coat. The performance of a tragedy was signalized by
draping the stage with black; for a comedy, blue hangings were substituted. A
placard, hung upon one of the stage doors, indicated the scene of the play. With
the change of scene, the placard was changed. To restrain the audience from
feeling bored, a jester would entertain them during the change of scenes.
Hardly any women appeared on stage, and very few women went to see the
performances. The theatre was considered far too rough a place for decent women!
The Queen summoned the players to Court on special occasions, and this is why A
Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice have flattering allusions
made to the Queen.
The stage itself consisted of a bare platform, with a curtain across the
middle, separating it from backstage. On the backstage, unexpected scenes or
characters were presented to the audience by simply drawing the curtain aside.
At first little or no scenery was used, and this lack of scenery led to better
acting since the actor had to be realistic enough to make the audience forget
its shabby surroundings. By Shakespeare's day, however, painted scenery had
appeared. Thus the stage was no longer colourless and dull. It was hung with
tapestries and curtains which affected the emotional response of the audience.
The actors wore splendid clothes, largely inherited from noblemen. Music,
fireworks and thunder were all used to suggest the atmosphere. The audience was
expected to imagine a lot, and respond to an aesthetic experience as the result
of seeing a stage and the properties representing imaginary scenes in which
actors created character and incident by making the words of an author come
During Shakespeare's time, there were three main types of theatre. First
of all, there were the inn yard theatres, which were open to everybody, and they
were free. Secondly, there is also the Arena Theatres, which included the
theatres like the Globe. These were generally open to the middle and upper
classes. The third type of theatre were the Royal Theatres. These were very
luxurious, and they were only reserved for the nobility. Therefore, many people
were able to watch Shakespeare's plays, by going to the theatre of their socio-
economic group.
Shakespeare's plays were based on the Elizabethan belief in both fate
and fortune. Time and time again, we see evidence of these beliefs in
Shakespeare's plays. The Elizabethans were very religious and superstitious
people. Any unnatural circumstances was put to fate, and God was the highest
form of life there was. This can be seen in The Great Chain of Being. The
Elizabethans believed that everything was arranged in a fixed arrangement. God
was at the head of this chain, while Rocks and Minerals were at the bottom. A
king was the highest form of man, because he was believed to have been appointed
by God. I anybody killed the King, it was a sin against God, and they were given
the death sentence. I the order of the chain was broken, people believed that
the world would be thrown into chaos.
During the Elizabethan times, fate was considered to be a major
controlling force of life. The Elizabethans believed that a man's life was
likely to have its ups and downs, just like the points on a wheel. This meant
that someone in a low position could hope to rise to a high position while
someone in a high position could expect to fall to a low position. All these
would be brought about by a change in fate or fortune. Some people believed that
the people rose to a higher position during the spring and the summer, while
they sank to a lower position during the autumn and the winter. However, it was
later noticed that such beliefs were very unpredictable. Like the belief in the
zodiac, the Wheel of Fortune opposed the theory that fate was controlled by man.
Instead, fate was believed to be controlled by the stars. This is why in the
opening chorus of Romeo and Juliet, both of them are described as "… star
crossed lovers…" This suggests that the stars had already destined them to love
and then to die.
Shakespeare is arguably the best writer of all time, yet it is
interesting to know that so little is known about him. Perhaps no-one will ever
know who the real William Shakespeare was. Only one thing is certain:
Shakespeare may be dead, but his great works never cease to astound us and it
makes us wonder if any person will ever come to rival the maestro of English


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