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The Development of Shakespeare
“The theater was clearly his chosen environment, and when we direct our attention to Shakespeare the playwright, we have come to the essential man” (Bentley 121). In the United States, Shakespeare is the most well known author of the Elizabethan era, but how did he achieve this magnificent status? Where did he get the ideas for the masterpieces that he produced? What went through his mind when he wrote characters like Hamlet, Julius Caesar, or even Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? There were many factors that contributed to the works of art he produced, but a few do stand out above the rest: his use of words, his audience, cast, and the literary sources of his ideas. Through these, we can see how Shakespeare developed his personal style of writing and how he constructed his dramatic works.
The first of these factors, Shakespeare’s use of words, shows a definite progression of skill as he wrote each play. In his early plays, he focused much on the sound and the “color” (Harrison 118) of his wording. His best writings were his comedies because the emotional involvement of this genre was low and so the flowery language fit in quite well. However, in his early tragedies, there are many drawn out speeches in which he tries to portray some deep passion of his character. Disappointingly though, these hyped up speeches turn out to be just a load of pretty words used to sway the audience’s feelings one way or another rather than actually portraying the message that Shakespeare had intended (Harrison 121). The end result of this was that his characters did not have deep passions or even likes and dislikes; they did not have personalities.
He used other techniques of wording poorly also. The rhymes were quite common, being every line or every other line. In addition, the rhythms of the speech were regular and forced a singsong flow (Harrison 121). The use of imagery was likewise weak. Imagery is a great touch in writing (and quite vivid and well written by Shakespeare) if it has a purpose. But the only purpose in these early plays, though, was for the sake of adding imagery rather than to clarify an idea or to help the audience visualize certain subjects. “Shakespeare was still more interested in fine writing than in drama” (Harrison 121).
Shakespeare was an intelligent man, though, and he did realize that beautiful use of words does not produce great dramatics works. This progression of his style can be seen in The Merchant of Venice, written in 1595, and even more so in Henry IV, written in 1597. By this time he had learned to use his powerful writing ability for something different. He now developed his characters through their speeches rather than using the speeches to toy with the emotions of his audience (Harrison 124). As a result, Shakespeare’s specialty moves from the shallower comedies to the deeply involved tragedies. Another great example of this development of his style is Hamlet in which the play’s namesake character gives his most intimate feelings and desires in numerous speeches.
Later on, around 1606, Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth. These both show the epitome of his growth as a playwright. In these two plays, it was his goal to express abstract ideas, which is much more difficult to do than expressing feelings that everyone can identify with. The imagery was much more complex and harder to comprehend. Before, Shakespeare had written his speeches line by line, picking which words and phrases would spruce up the dialogue, but in these plays it looks as though he wrote entire speeches at once (Harrison 136). The strength in this is that it gets across an entire idea at once instead of being broken up into a bunch of mini poems that sound good to the ear. In King Lear, he uses the words ‘nature’, ‘natural’, and ‘naturally’ forty-seven times which becomes a “sinister echo” throughout the play portraying a well-produced message (Harrison 139).
So Shakespeare still loved to play with words after all this learning and development of his style, but now he did it in different ways and in a much more effective manner for play writing. According to G.B. Harrison, former professor at University of Michigan and author of Introducing Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s use of words came to a heightened climax with The Tempest. In his book he states, “In The Tempest he achieved what some competent critics regard as his final and greatest play. In its poetry Shakespeare reached the farthest limits possible to the English language in expression and solemn music. The thought is still packed, but no longer obscure, the verse free but perfectly controlled” (145). Shakespeare has come to a point where he uses all his common literary techniques (lyric poetry, rhyme, blank verse, and prose) with greatest efficiency. In fact, he did not use rhyme in his latest plays unless it had a clear definite purpose. He sets the atmospheres of his scenes with the lyric verse and changes that atmosphere by using different verse, tones and patterns in the speeches of his characters (Harrison 143).
This is the first factor in the development of Shakespeare’s writing. He went from writing like an average poet to the powerful dramatist that we know him as. The next factor in the development of Shakespeare’s style of writing is his audience. This is an important aspect to keep in mind when writing a play because the audience is the reason behind writing the play itself. The audience will be the author’s judge and critic and so he must please them as best as he can.
Shakespeare knew this better than any other dramatist of his time for one simple reason: he was the only playwright who owned a theater. As a result, he had to concern himself with whether or not his plays would bring in money because if they did not then his theater would have to be shut down. This made him more completely a “man of the theater” (Bentley 121) and put him a step ahead of all the other playwrights. In addition, one aspect about theater during that time was that the same author wrote for one specific company of actors and one specific theater where that company performed.
Shakespeare’s company performed in a huge public theater for the greater part of his career. A public theater of that era had a capacity usually around 3,000 people so it allowed for a vastly diverse crowd. In fact, the crowd ranged from prostitutes in the cheapest standing area to members of parliament occupying the most expensive seats (Bentley 131). This had tremendous implications on how Shakespeare should develop his plays. He had to appeal to the high-class taste of the richest members of society while also keeping the play interesting to non-educated thieves and working class. In effect, he wrote plays that everyone could understand and enjoy (plays that deal with human relations rather than politics for example).
Another aspect of the theater that helped to develop Shakespeare’s style was the fact that he knew the members of the cast that would be performing the play as he was writing it. He also knew what it was like to have to act out the parts since he was also an actor, and so he would furthermore be one of the people trying out the effects on stage that he was writing on paper (Bentley 121). The fact that he was also an actor gave him the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with each of the other actors, and consequently knew each person’s strengths and weaknesses all that much better. He knew them so well that when he was writing a character he knew exactly who was going to play that part (Bentley 122). In addition, extras were never hired so who he had was all he had with no extra abilities to toy with. Since this was the case, he never wrote a part that the actors in his company could not portray.
Also, since Shakespeare had such a close working relationship with all his actors he was able to exploit their talents in the roles he created. One example of this is the humor aspect throughout his plays. Through the earlier part of his writing career, he had a man in his acting company by the name of William Kemp who was a distinguished dancer and also great at playing the light-hearted humor roles. So as a result, we have characters such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But then when Kemp left the company and was replaced by another actor named Robert Armin, the comedic roles in Shakespeare’s plays took a new form. Armin was better at the calmer melancholy type of humor and so there are characters like the First Gravedigger in Hamlet and the Fool in King Lear (Bentley 129).
Another aspect of the cast that had a distinct effect on Shakespeare’s style was the fact that women could not be actors in that time period. Instead, female roles had to be played by younger boys whose voices had not yet deepened. This severely limited the importance that Shakespeare could place on a female role because the young boys did not have the necessary experience to play a major role (Bentley 126). The results are quite noticeable. In most of Shakespeare’s plays there are usually about two to four women roles with names while there are from ten to twenty male parts with names. Out of the thirty-eight plays that he wrote or helped to write only four have a woman as the largest role: As You Like It, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, and All’s Well That Ends Well (Bentley 126). It is clear that the cast Shakespeare had to work with was a definite influence on the development of his style.
Another definite influence was the sources from which he acquired the ideas for his plays. He did not take entire plays and pass them as his own, but instead he took bits and pieces of different works to spark his thoughts and get the creativity moving. He developed characters from just small references or tiny characters in other plays. When he used a central idea or plot he left out the undramatic scenes and rearranged it for more emotional climaxes and more thought-provoking conclusions. Plus, since he had such a fascination with the use of words and language, his dialog was much more intensive and highly more imaginative (”Shakespeare’s “).
Shakespeare obviously used the libraries that were available to him because reflections of other authors can be found in his plays. The earlier author Ovid is said to be one that Shakespeare read and used as a model for his early productions. “Ovid was the prime classical influence on Shakespeare as a poet” (Rowse 95). Another author that is said to have had an impact on his writing was an author of Shakespeare’s own time: Marlowe. One character in particular, Tamburlaine, echoes in some of Shakespeare’s earlier plays not necessarily in what is said in dialogue, but rather in the structure and style of those characters (Charney 213).
These were two of the major sources where Shakespeare obtained ideas. He sometimes even took entire sections of dialogue, whole characters, or even the central plot and put them into his own play. Some people look down on him for using his sources like that, but is it really all that bad? Julius Anthony, author of an article on this subject, argues that Shakespeare is extremely talented for doing so (40). If no one ever looked back on where we have come from then how can we progress and improve on what we have? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay on Shakespeare that genius is not necessarily totally original, but that it is measured by range and extent in being receptive and perceptive (Julius 40).
This was one of the most important aspects of Shakespeare developing his style of writing. His style was partly to take from other authors, but his greatness lies in how he blended what he took into the ball of clay that included all the other aforementioned factors. When he took parts of Marlowe’s or Ovid’s plays, he only took parts that he was sure his actors could portray. Revisions were made so that audiences of all varieties could enjoy the show performed before them. He used his intellectual ability to build masterpieces with the words of the English language that were only there in basic form from other authors. These were all factors that helped to develop the style of the brilliant playwright known as William Shakespeare.
Bentley, Gerald. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
Charney, Maurice. “The Voice of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in Early Shakespeare.” Comparative Drama 31 (1997): 134.
Harrison, G.B. Introducing Shakespeare. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964.
Julius, Anthony. “William Shakespeare, You Stand Accused of Being a Crow, an
Ape and a Thief. How Do You Plead?” New Statesman 127 (1998): 40+.
Rowse, A.L. “Shakespeare’s Supposed ‘Lost’ Years.” Contemporary Review 264 (1994): 94-98.
“Shakespeare’s Reading.” Britannica Online. [http://ww.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=macro/5005/75/12.html].
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