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William Shakespeare Essay, Research Paper

William Shakespeare

The English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare was the author of the most widely

admired and influential body of literature by any individual in the history of Western

civilization. His work includes 36 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems. Knowledge

of Shakespeare is derived from two sources: his works and those remains of legal and

church records and contemporary allusions through which scholars can trace the external

facts of his life.

The poetry of the English Renaissance between 1580 and 1660 was the result of

a remarkable burst of energy. It is, however, the drama of the same period that stands

highest in popular estimation. The works of its greatest author, William Shakespeare,

have achieved worldwide renown. In the earlier Middle English period there had been,

within the church, a gradual spread of dramatic representation of such important events

as the angel’s announcement of the resurrection to the women at the tomb of Christ.The

Renaissance drama proper rose from this late medieval base by a number of different

stages ending about 1580. A large number of comedies, tragedies, and examples of

intermediate types were produced for London theaters between that year and 1642,

when the London theaters were closed by order of the Puritan Parliament. Like so much

nondramatic literature of the Renaissance, most of these plays were written in an

elaborate verse style and under the influence of classical examples, but the popular taste,

to which drama was especially susceptible, required a flamboyance and sensationalism

largely alien to the spirit of Greek and Roman literature. Only the Roman tragedian

Lucius Annaeus Seneca could provide a model for the earliest popular tragedy of blood

and revenge, The Spanish Tragedy (1594) of Thomas Kyd. Kyd’s skillfully managed,

complicated, but sensational plot influenced in turn later, psychologically more

sophisticated revenge tragedies, among them Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A few years later

Christopher Marlowe, in the tragedies Tamburlaine, Part I (1590), and Edward II

(1594), began the tradition of the chronicle play of the fatal deeds of kings and

potentates. Marlowe’s plays, such as Dr. Faustus (1604) and The Jew of Malta (1633),

are remarkable primarily for their daring depictions of world-shattering characters who

strive to go beyond the normal human limitations as the Christian medieval ethos had

conceived them; these works are written in a poetic style worthy in many ways of

comparison to Shakespeare’s.

Elizabethan tragedy and comedy alike reached their true flowering in

Shakespeare’s works. Beyond his art, his rich style, and his complex plots, all of which

surpass by far the work of other Elizabethan dramatists in the same field, and beyond his

unrivaled projection of character, Shakespeare’s compassionate understanding of the

human lot has perpetuated his greatness and made him the representative figure of

English literature for the whole world. His comedies, of which perhaps the best are As

You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), depict the endearing as well as the

ridiculous sides of human nature. His great tragedies Hamlet (1601?), Othello

(1604?), King Lear (1605?), Macbeth (1606?), and Antony and Cleopatra

(1606?) look deeply into the springs of action in the human soul. His earlier dark

tragedies were imitated in style and feeling by the tragedy author John Webster in The

White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-1614). In Shakespeare’s last plays,

the so-called dramatic romances, including The Tempest (1611?), he sets a mood of

quiet acceptance and ultimate reconciliation that was a fitting close for his literary

career. These plays, by virtue of their mysterious, exotic atmosphere and their quick,

surprising alternations of bad and good fortune, come close also to the tone of the

drama of the succeeding age.

The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus

and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609,

but circulated previously in manuscript form) established his reputation as a gifted and

popular poet of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century). The Sonnets describe

the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose

beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the

poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the

poet’s friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological

insight. Shakespeare’s modern reputation, however, is based primarily on the 38 plays

that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his

time, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who

considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.

Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially

advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting

company, the Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men, and its two theaters, the

Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the

courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other

contemporary dramatist. It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599,

when his company performed the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II

at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry,

Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy.

After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems that he

spent more time in Stratford, where he had established his family in an imposing house

called New Place and had become a leading local citizen. He died in 1616, and was buried

in the Stratford church.

Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s plays and the lack of conclusive

facts about his writings, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a

convenient framework in which to discuss his development. In all periods, the plots of

his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the

plays of other contemporary dramatists.

First Period

Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his

more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious

construction and by stylized verse.

Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays

dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest

dramatic works (see England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings). These plays, Henry

VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1593?), deal with evil resulting

from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The four-play

cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the

founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these

plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan

dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly (through such dramatists)

or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the

organization of these four plays, especially in the bloodiness of many of their scenes and

in their highly colored, bombastic language. The influence of Seneca, exerted by way of

the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus

(1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in

sensational detail.

Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy

of Errors (1592?), a farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal

on mistaken identities in two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not as

strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?), a comedy of character. The

Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) concerns romantic love. Love’s Labour’s Lost

(1594?) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion

to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and

worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their

pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of English

novelist and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the

scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his colleagues.

Second Period

Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays concerned with

English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two of his major tragedies. In this

period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period

historical plays include Richard II (1595?), Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?), and Henry

V (1598?). They encompass the years immediately before those portrayed in the Henry

VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing but sympathetic

monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of

Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V,

prove unfounded, as the young prince displays a responsible attitude toward the duties

of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight

Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince

finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad

range of humanity subsequently became one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices.

Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night’s

Dream (1595?), which interweaves several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a

group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members of the fairy

realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation of atmosphere,

of the sort that characterizes this play, is also found in the tragicomedy The Merchant of

Venice (1596?). In this play, the Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and

romantic love are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named

Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and

sympathy. The character of the quick-witted, warm, and responsive young woman,

exemplified in this play by Portia, reappears in the joyous comedies of the second period.

The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599?) is marred, in the opinion of

some critics, by an insensitive treatment of its female characters. However,

Shakespeare’s most mature comedies, As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?),

are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and beautiful, charming, and strong-minded

heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the

Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a rich and

varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex orchestration between different

characters and between appearance and reality and used this pattern to comment on a

variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in

which the comical side of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of

romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the

subplot. Another comedy of the second period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?),

a farce about middle-class life in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim.

Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and

the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (1595?), famous for its poetic treatment

of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds

and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Julius

Caesar (1599?), on the other hand, is a serious tragedy of political rivalries, but is less

intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed it.

Third Period

Shakespeare’s third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called dark

or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are considered the most profound of his

works. In them he used his poetic idiom as an extremely supple dramatic instrument,

capable of recording human thought and the many dimensions of given dramatic

situations. Hamlet (1601?), perhaps his most famous play, exceeds by far most other

tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human

condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror. Confirmed in this feeling by

the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he exhibits tendencies toward

both crippling indecision and precipitous action. Interpretation of his motivation and

ambivalence continues to be a subject of considerable controversy.

Othello (1604?) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist,

Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his

jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello’s evil lieutenant Iago draws him

into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King Lear (1605?), conceived on a more

epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear,

a ruler of early Britain, and of his councilor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic

outcome is a result of their giving power to their evil children, rather than to their good

children. Lear’s daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic

conclusion a vindication of goodness. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal of

evil as self-defeating, as exemplified by the fates of Cordelia’s sisters and of Gloucester’s

opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra (1606?) is concerned with a different type of

love, namely the middle-aged passion of Roman general Mark Antony for Egyptian

queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of Shakespeare’s most sensuous poetry.

In Macbeth (1606?), Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man who, led on by others

and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In securing the

Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of

any amoral act.

Unlike these tragedies, three other plays of this period suggest a bitterness

stemming from the protagonists’ apparent lack of greatness or tragic stature. In Troilus

and Cressida (1602?), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare’s plays, the gulf

between the ideal and the real, both individual and political, is skillfully evoked. In

Coriolanus (1608?), another tragedy set in antiquity, the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus

Marcius Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to bring himself either to woo the Roman

masses or to crush them by force. Timon of Athens (1608?) is a similarly bitter play

about a character reduced to misanthropy by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because

of the uneven quality of the writing, this tragedy is considered a collaboration, quite

possibly with English dramatist Thomas Middleton.

The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood and are sometimes called

problem plays because they do not fit into clear categories or present easy resolution.

All’s Well That Ends Well (1602?) and Measure for Measure (1604?) both question

accepted patterns of morality without offering solutions.

Fourth Period

The fourth period of Shakespeare’s work includes his principal romantic

tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that,

through the power of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest hope for the

human condition. These plays are written with a grave quality differing considerably

from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but they end happily with reunions or final

reconciliations. The tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of a

distant time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of Shakespeare’s

earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare’s

own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in

fashion in the drama of the period.

The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608?) concerns the painful

loss of the title character’s wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic

adventures, Pericles is rreunited with his loved ones.In Cymbeline (1610?) and The

Winter’s Tale (1610?), characters suffer great loss and pain but are reunited. Perhaps the

most successful product of this particular vein of creativity, however, is what may be

Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest (1611?), in which the resolution suggests

the beneficial effects of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of

his dukedom and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by employing

magical powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper’s son.

Shakespeare’s poetic power reached great heights in this beautiful, lyrical play.

Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the

products of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (1613?) was probably written

with English dramatist John Fletcher (see Beaumont and Fletcher), as was The Two

Noble Kinsmen (1613?; published 1634), a story of the love of two friends for one


Until the 18th century, Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more

than a rough and untutored genius. Theories were advanced that his plays had actually

been written by someone more educated, perhaps statesman and philosopher Sir Francis

Bacon or the Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron. However, he was

celebrated in his own time by English writer Ben Jonson and others who saw in him a

brilliance that would endure. Since the 19th century, Shakespeare’s achievements have

been more consistently recognized, and throughout the Western world he has come to

be regarded as the greatest dramatist ever.

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