William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The greatest dramatist of the Age William Shakespeare was often called “The Great Unknown”, or “Our National Bard”. He was born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564; his father, John Shakespeare, was a wool merchant. His business was the wool industry. Nevertheless, the family was not rich. They rented a house and a land. There were eight children in the family: four girls and four boys. William was the third child, he was free and open-hearted. William attended a local Grammar school where the priest of the church was also the schoolmaster. William was still a boy when he began to set and produce plays. It was his hobby, and nothing could stop him, nothing could make him give up his hobby.

A short distance from Stratford in the village of Shottery there lived Ann Hathaway, a daughter of a farmer. She was also poor and worked for the merchants of Stratford.

William and Ann fell in love with each other and married. Shakespeare gave her a ring and a poem. Their living was not rich. They had three children, and William had to work as an assistant at Stratford Grammar School. Soon life in Stratford became intolerable for him, and he decided to try his luck in London. He came to London to be ready to enter upon a living as an actor and playwright.

London Period

London had many playhouses. Shakespeare joined “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men” Company, first as an assistant of the director. He had to help the actors to appear on the stage in time. But Shakespeare was a very good actor himself. Shakespeare improved the plays, paying much attention to the comic characters, clowns. He breathed life into them and made them the central heroes of the dramas. So step by step, William Shakespeare became not only a good actor but an excellent dramatist as well. The actors of the company had to play before Queen Elizabeth. “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men” Company had no theatre of their own. That’s why Shakespeare decided to build a profitable theatre where the actors could work. That was a great idea, and by the end of the 16th century the playhouse was built. It was called “The Globe”, because the building was round. The galleries and the stage had a roof over them to be protected from rains and hot sun. But the pit was open to the sky. This theatre was summer, and it was called “The Golden Theatre”.

Shakespeare became the manager of the theatre. He was honest and hard-working. Both qualities attracted many actors to his playhouse. He was open-hearted, sociable, and he gained a lot of friends among the actors and dramatists. The performances were not only interesting. They were striking. By the end of the century the London stage shook with Shakespeare’s plays. His creations were great. His tragedies were splendid; they reflected his personal life experience, his own feelings and thoughts. We can judge about his intellect by his masterpieces. But we know little about this period of Shakespeare’s life. We only know that he lived in London for twenty-five years. He regularly visited his native town, and the last two years of his life he spent there.

William Shakespeare died on 23 April, 1616. His tomb is in the Stratford church.

He was a poet of nature and a real representative of the Renaissance. He was a humanist, he wanted to overcome evil and stressed the fact that killing is not the way out. Shakespeare was a poet of realism, that’s why most common people understand him better than did the aristocracy.

Shakespeare’s Contribution to World Literature.

William Shakespeare created a new epoch in world literature. The ideas set forth by the Renaissance, the ideology of Humanism are expressed by him in the most realistic way. Shakespeare has faith in Man. He hates injustice. His plays have become popular throughout the world because of his realistic characters. The history of English drama is reflected in Shakespeare’s works. The development of his characters makes him different from his predecessors (Christopher Marlowe and others). Shakespeare’s characters don’t remain static, they change in the cause of action. More than that, Shakespeare was the first dramatist to mix comedy and tragedy: “The Merchant of Venice” (1596-1597) is called a comedy, though Shylock is in fact badly treated. He has been called the first great tragic figure.

Shakespeare was a great master of plot. In his tragedy “The King Lear” we can distinguish several important themes. They centre around the main plot of the tragedy when an old king is thrown out of his home by two wicked daughters, and as a result, King Lear goes mad.

Shakespeare’s language is understandable even by the common people of those times. The soliloquies in his plays are not long, the dialogues are true to life. Many well-known English sayings come from his works. He had a great influence on the English language and English literature. His work is known for its beautiful language, as well as for its understanding of the way people think and feel. Shakespeare is so great a writer that every generation discovers new ideas and social problems concerning the relations of man to man in human society. Shakespeare’s plays do not grow old with time. His plays are regularly performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and studied as part of English studies by most schoolchildren not only in the United Kingdom but also all over the world.

Research work and study of Shakespeare’s literary heritage by scholars will never cease.

The name of Benjamin Jonson is worth mentioning in connection with the Shakespeare’s works. It was Benjamin Jonson, an actor of Shakespeare’s Company and his close friend who published Shakespeare’s plays in 1623. Jonson was not only an actor, he was also a dramatist. He wrote more than twenty plays; some of them were staged at the “Globe” by Shakespeare’s Company. Jonson scorned much of the other dramatists of his time, but not Shakespeare. He was fond of him:

Soul of the Age!

The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!

My Shakespeare, rise!

Benjamin Jonson believed in the unity of action, time and place. He himself followed this rule, and was proud of his plays.

More than that, Benjamin Jonson was a talented producer of masques which were the real performances with different plots and characters, dancing and music.

Shakespeare’s Works.

The Plays. The First Period.

We don’t know for sure the order in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. But traditionally his literary activity is divided into three periods.

The first falls between 1590 and 1600. His comedies belong to the first period of his creative work. In his plays of that period Shakespeare reflects the spirit of merry England of that time. The plays are full with light, wit and optimism. Even in “Romeo and Juliet”, the tragedy that was written in during this period, the author didn’t stress the note of grief. All the plays are written in their bright manner of the Renaissance.

The plays of the first period are:

1590, 1591 — “Henry VI” (parts 1, 2, 3). Henry VI (1421 – 1471) was murdered during the Wars of the Roses.

1592 — “Richard II”. Richard II (1377-1399) was the king of England from 1377—1399. He became very unpopular. He was removed by his cousin (Henry IV). In 1399 he was put into prison and died or was murdered there in 1400.

1592 — “The Comedy of Errors”.

1594 — “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”,

Romeo and Juliet”.

1595 —Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

1596 — “King John”. King John (1167-1216) was the king of England from 1199 until his death. He is famous for signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

1596 — “The Merchant of Venice” is called a comedy, though Shylock, a bad character, is the first great tragic figure.

1597 — “Henry IV” (Parts 1, 2). Henry IV (1366-1413) — the king of kingdom from 1399. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain control over Wales and Scotland.

1598 — “Much Ado about Nothing” — is a well-balanced comedy with excellent dialogues and monologues based on love affairs.

1598 — “Henry V”. Henry V (1387-1422) — the king of England from 1413 until his death in 1422, He defeated the French at the battle of Agincourt. This battle is described in the play.

1599 — “Julius Caesar” — the Roman Leader murdered by his friend Brutus, thinking Caesar is taking too much power.

1600 — Twelfth Nights” — the perfection of English Comedy. It is full of humour and action.

The Plays. The Second Period.

Shakespeare’s tragedies belong to the second period of his work. The second period falls between 1600 and 1608. During that time the author reaches his full maturity. He becomes a great dramatist of the Renaissance, his main ideology is humanism, and he presents the great human problems in his plays. The writer vividly reveals the human relations, shows his characters. Shakespeare portrays his personages with sympathy; he proves that it is not enough to be wise to become happy, that human relations depend on social problems. Shakespeare’s plays of the second period make the dramatist the greatest humanist of the English Renaissance.

The plays of the second period are:

1601 — “Hamlet”.

1602 — “All’s Well That Ends Well”.

1604 — “Othello”,

Measure for Measure”.

1605 — “King Lear”


1606 — “Antony and Cleopatra”.

1607 — “Timon of Athens”.

1608 — “Pericles”.

The Plays. The Third Period.

Shakespeare’s allegorical plays belong to the third period of his literary work. That period falls between 1609 and 1612. There are no tragic motives in the plays of the third period. The social conflicts are not so strong, and the dramatist transfers us to the world of fantasy and tale.

The plays of the third period are:

1609 — “Cymbeline”.

1610 — “The Winter Tale”.

1612 — “Henry VIII”. Henry VIII (1491 -1547) — the king of England from 1509 until his death. He got rid of the Catholic Church in England and made himself Head of the New Church.

Shakespeare’s plays of that period are called the Romantic Drama.

Only after his death in 1623 Shakespeare’s plays were published by his friend, an actor of his company Ben Jonson.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

William Shakespeare left 154 sonnets. They were written in 1590’s, and published in 1609. A sonnet is a poetical form that appeared in Italy in the 14th century. The Sonnet “came” to England during the early Renaissance.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are devoted either to his friend or to the “Dark Lady”.

His sonnet has 14 lines, but it is divided into three stanzas of four lines with a final rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme of the sonnets is: ababcdcdefefgg.

Sonnet 66

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

As to behold Desert a beggar born,

And needy Nothing trimmed in jollity,

And purest Faith unhappily forsworn,

And gilded Honour shamefully misplaced,

And maiden Virtue rudely strumpeted,

And right Perfection, wrongfully disgraced,

And Strength by limping Swan disabled,

And Art made tongue-tied by Authority,

And Folly doctor — like controlling Skill,

And Simple Truth miscalled Simplicity,

And captive Good attending captain III:

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,

Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

Shakespeare’s Comedies.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1594) is about two young men, Proteus and Valentine, who live in Verona. They are friends. Proteus is light-minded, he is always in love and “leaves his friends and all for love”. Valentine is honest and faithful, he “leaves his friends to dignify them more”. He longs to learn about the world by travelling. Valentine is to take service with the Duke of Mi­lan whose daughter, Silvia, is the Beauty of the city. When the day comes to leave his home and friends, Valentine is very sorry to part, with his friend Proteus. Proteus is deeply in love with Julia, a pretty young girl of Verona. Proteus’s father doesn’t like to see his son indulge in romantic emo­tions. He makes up his mind to send him to Milan to join his companion Valentine at the duke’s palace.

Meanwhile, at the palace Valentine is getting on very well. The Duke is very kind to him, and his daughter Silvia likes to talk with Valentine very much. Silvia and Valentine love each other, but there is little hope for Valentine to many Silvia, because Thurio, a rich nobleman, has been chosen by the Duke to become Silvia’s husband. Silvia doesn’t love him. Valentine tells Proteus of his plan to flee with Silvia from Milan and to marry her secretly. Though Valentine is in love, he is not a man who can forget a friend. Not such a friend is Proteus to Valentine. His friend’s happiness doesn’t interest him. No sooner has Proteus met Silvia than he forgets his love for Julia and his friendship with Valentine. He even wants to get rid of his companion. That’s why he tells the Duke about Valentine’s secret, and the Duke decides to banish his servant from Milan. When Valentine is banished by the Duke, he hides in the forest so that to be near Silvia. The outlaws make him their leader. Like Robin Hood, he is kind to the poor and chivalrous to women. Meanwhile, Julia comes to Milan and stays at an inn. She dresses as a page and decides to regain her lover Proteus. She comes into service with Proteus as a page.

Silvia is firm in her love for Valentine. She does not love Proteus who tries to win her love. Eglamour, a courtier and an old friend of the Duke’s family, helps Silvia to escape. In the woods near the town Silvia is stopped by the outlaws. They want to take her to their chief. Proteus, having been sent by the Duke to follow Silvia, attacks the outlaws. The leader of them, Valentine, sees everything from behind the trees, and he doesn’t let Proteus take Silvia away by force.

The end of the story is happy. In the last scene, the Duke forgives Valentine and the outlaws; his daughter Silvia marries the man she has always loved. Proteus recognizes Julia in his page and is touched by her deep love to him.

Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

Among the Shakespeare’s Tragedies we must distinguish the five great tragedies:

Romeo and Juliet” (1594-1595)

Hamlet” (1600-1601)

Othello” (1604-1605)

Macbeth” (1605-1606)

King Lear” (1606)

and the three Roman tragedies:

Julius Caesar” (1599)

Antony and Cleopatra” (1606-1607)

Coriolanus” (1607)

We know Shakespeare to be an “expert” of the human souls and feelings. That’s why each of his plays, especially tragedies, is the evidence of his love of Man. He creates characters of great depth and unusual intellect. We see a philosopher in Hamlet. But Hamlet’s weakness is hesitation, inability to act. He is only a thinker. Othello’s weak point is his crazy jealousy. Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, are too greedy and unfair. The King Lear’s weakness is his openness to flattery. The story of pure and tragic love of Romeo and Juliet is known all over the world. In each of the Roman tragedies the fatal weakness of characters and the tragic events are closely connected. Brutus in “Julius Caesar” is not a practical man, Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” is ruined because of his love of comfort, Coriolanus wrecks his own life because of his terrible pride.


Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, studies at the University of Wittenberg. But he learns of his father’s sudden death and hurries home to Elsinore. On his arrival Hamlet suspects that his dead father, King of Denmark, has been murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, who has become King and has married Hamlet’s mother. The new king fears his subjects, and the queen now takes on the manner of her new husband.

The Ghost of Hamlet’s dead father appears to him in the castle of Elsinore and tells him about the murder. Hamlet decides on revenge. But he doesn’t want to take the easiest way and kills Claudius. He wants to see all evil abolished. But then he begins to think too much and to hesitate. Was the Ghost telling the truth? Hamlet wants to find evidence of the murder. Hamlet has his proof. But still he hesitates. He is not a fighter, he is a humanist and philosopher.

Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be, or not to be”, which is the central part of the play, tells us why Hamlet puts off action.

To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? — To die, — to sleep, —

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, — ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, — to sleep; —

To sleep! perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death, —

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, — puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;

And enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard, their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. —

(Act III Scene 1. — Room in the Castle)

Hamlet pretends he has gone mad. Polonius, Lord Chamberlain, thinks that the only reason for Hamlet’s madness is his love to Ophelia, his daughter. Seeing the change in Hamlet, her heart breaks with sorrow.

During the performance when the actors act out a scene of murder, Hamlet makes sure of the King’s guilt. Claudius understands that Hamlet knows the secret. He sends Polonius, Ophelia’s father, to play the spy on Hamlet.

Hamlet has a discussion with his mother and tells her what he thinks of her. During their talk Hamlet notices somebody behind a screen. He thinks it is Claudius and stabs him. It is old Polonius. He dies. The father’s death is a hard blow to Ophelia. She becomes insane and drowns herself.

The end is certain and unavoidable. Finally, Hamlet carries out his useless revenge, he kills the King and seems to have won the contest.

Hamlet keeps our sympathy. He is limited by his opportunities to fight against troubles. This is what makes him pessimistic and causes him to think of death.

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