Yet the plays also explore and extend the very nature of tragedy itself by discovering within it a structure that derives meaning precisely from its refusal to offer consolation or compensation for the suffering it traces. Shakespeare wrote his first tragedies in 1594 and 1595. But he left the field of tragedy untouched for at least five years after finishing Romeo and Juliet, probably in 1595, and turned to comedy and history plays. Julius Caesar, written about 1599, served as a link between the history plays and the mature tragedies that followed.
His major tragedies
The tragedies Shakespeare wrote after 1600 are considered the most profound of his works and constitute the pillars upon which his literary reputation rests. Some scholars have tied the darkening of his dramatic imagination in this period to the death of his son in 1601. But in the absence of any compelling biographical information to support this theory, it remains only a speculation. For whatever reason, sometime around 1600 Shakespeare began work on a series of plays that in their power and profundity are arguably unmatched in the achievement of any other writer.
Hamlet, written about 1601 and first printed in 1603, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play. It exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in the power of its ethical and psychological imagining. The play is based on the story of Amleth, a 9th-century Danish prince, which Shakespeare encountered in a 16th-century French account by François Belleforest. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells the story of the prince’s effort to revenge the murder of his father, who has been poisoned by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the man who then becomes Hamlet’s stepfather and the king. The prince alternates between rash action and delay that disgusts him, as he tries to enact the revenge his father’s ghost has asked from him. The play ends in a spectacular scene of death: As Hamlet, his mother, his uncle, and Laertes (the lord chamberlain’s son) all lie dead, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras marches in to claim the Danish throne. Hamlet is certainly Shakespeare’s most intellectually engaging and elusive play. Literary critics and actors turn to it again and again, possibly succeeding only in confirming the play’s inexhaustible richness and the inadequacy of any single attempt finally or fully to capture it.
Othello was written about 1604, though it was not published until 1622. It portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the noble protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this domestic tragedy, Othello’s evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. Othello is destroyed partly through his gullibility and willingness to trust Iago and partly through the manipulations of this villain, who clearly enjoys the exercise of evildoing just as he hates the spectacle of goodness and happiness around him. At the end of the play, Othello comes to understand his terrible error; but as always in tragedy, that knowledge comes too late and he dies by his own hand in atonement for his error. In his final act of self-destruction, he becomes again and for a final time the defender of Venice and Venetian values.
King Lear was written about 1605 and first published in 1608. Conceived on a grander emotional and philosophic scale than Othello, it deals with the consequences of the arrogance and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and the parallel behavior of his councilor, the Duke of Gloucester. Each of these fathers tragically banishes the child who most has his interests at heart and places himself in the power of the wicked child or children. Each is finally restored to the loving child, but only after a rending journey of suffering, and each finally dies, having learned the truth about himself and the world, but too late to avert disaster. King Lear is arguably Shakespeare’s most shocking play; the scenes of Lear with his dead child and of Gloucester having his eyes struck out are horrible images of the world’s cruelty. But the play offers moving if ineffective examples of love and compassion: Even if these emotions are incapable of redeeming this world, they are discovered as infinitely precious in their very defeat.
Macbeth was written about 1606 and first published in 1623. In the play Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man torn between an amoral will and a powerfully moral intellect. Macbeth knows his actions are wrong but enacts his fearful deeds anyway, led on in part by the excitement of his own wrongdoing. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth deadens his moral intelligence to the point where he becomes capable of increasingly murderous (and pointless) behavior, although he never becomes the monster the moral world sees. At all times he feels the pull of his humanity. Yet for Macbeth there is no redemption, only the sharp descent into a bleak pessimism. Human existence, as he sees it (or as he has made it, at least for himself), amounts to nothing:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Act V, scene 4)
Literary qualities of his plays
Everyone loves a good story, and Shakespeare was one of the very best storytellers. Most of Shakespeare’s stories have an almost universal appeal, an appeal often lacking in the plays of his contemporaries, who clung more closely to the tastes and interests of their own day. An even greater achievement is Shakespeare’s creation of believable characters. His people are not the exaggerated types or allegorical abstractions found in many other Elizabethan plays. They are instead men and women with the mingled qualities and many of the inconsistencies of life itself. The very richness of Shakespeare’s language continues to delight, and it is always amazing to be reminded how many common words and phrases have their origin in Shakespeare’s art. His poetic and theatrical artistry has created plays that continue to attract readers and theatergoers, and he properly remains one of our own age’s most popular playwrights.
Shakespeare’s characters emerge in his plays as distinctive human beings. Although some of the characters display elements of conventional dramatic types such as the melancholy man, the braggart soldier, the pedant, and the young lover, they are nevertheless usually individualized rather than caricatures or exaggerated types. Falstaff, for example, bears some resemblance to the braggart soldiers of 16th-century Italian comedy and to representations of the character Vice in medieval morality plays, but his vitality and inexhaustible wit make him unique. Hamlet, one of the most complex characters in all literature, is partly a picture of the ideal Renaissance man, and he also exhibits traits of the conventional melancholic character. However, his personality as a whole transcends these types, and he is so real that commentators have continued for centuries to explore his fascinating mind.
The women in Shakespeare’s plays are vivid creations, each differing from the others. It is important to remember that in Shakespeare’s time boy actors played the female parts. Actresses did not appear in a Shakespeare play until after the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 and the introduction of French practices such as women actors. It says much about the talent of the boy actors of his own day that Shakespeare could create such a rich array of fascinating women characters. Shakespeare was fond of portraying aggressive, witty heroines, such as Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. However, he was equally adept at creating gentle and innocent women, such as Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, and Cordelia in King Lear. His female characters also include the treacherous Goneril and Regan in King Lear, the iron-willed Lady Macbeth, the witty and resourceful Portia in Merchant of Venice, the tender and loyal Juliet, and the alluring Cleopatra.
Shakespeare’s comic figures are also highly varied. They include bumbling rustics such as Dogberry and Verges in Much Ado About Nothing, tireless punsters like the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors, pompous grotesques like Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, elegant wits like Feste in Twelfth Night, cynical realists like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and fools who utter nonsense that often conceals wisdom, such as Touchstone in As You Like It and the Fool in King Lear.
Shakespeare drew his characters with remarkable insight into human character. Even the most wicked characters, such as Iago in Othello, have human traits that can elicit understanding if not compassion. Thus, Macbeth’s violent end arouses pity and awe rather than scornful triumph at a criminal’s just punishment for his deeds. The characters achieve uniqueness through their brilliantly individualized styles of speech. Shakespeare’s understanding of the human soul and his mastery of language enabled him to write dialogue that makes the characters in his plays always intelligible, vital, and memorable.
Shakespeare’s philosophy of life can only be deduced from the ideas and attitudes that appear frequently in his writings, and he remained always a dramatist, not a writer of philosophical or ethical tracts. Nonetheless, the tolerance of human weakness evident in the plays tends to indicate that Shakespeare was a broad-minded person with generous and balanced views. Although he never lectured his audience, sound morality is implicit in his themes and in the way he handled his material. He attached less importance to noble birth than to an individual’s noble relations with other people. Despite the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s language, which is characteristic of his period, he did not condone sexual license. He accepted people as they are, without condemning them, but he did not allow wickedness to triumph. The comments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries suggest that he himself possessed both integrity and gentle manners.
It should be remembered that even though Shakespeare was a poet “for all time,” as his friend Ben Jonson said, he nevertheless was necessarily a product of his own era and shared many beliefs of the time. These beliefs are different from our own, and some of them may now seem strange and even unenlightened. Although Shakespeare anticipated many modern ideas and values, in other ways he does not rise above the ideas and values of his own time. As the history plays indicate, he accepted the idea of monarchy and had little interest in, or even concept of, participatory democracy. Although many of his women characters are assertive and independent, the plays still have them subordinate their energy to the logic of the male-dominated household. It is also likely that Shakespeare believed in ghosts and witches, as did many people of his time, including King James I.
Shakespeare brilliantly exploited the resources of the theaters he worked in. The Globe Theatre held an audience of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Like other outdoor theaters, it had a covered, raised stage thrusting out into the audience. The audience stood around the three sides of the stage in an unroofed area called the pit. Covered galleries, where people paid more money to sit, rose beyond the pit. Performances took place only during daylight hours, and there was little use of lighting. Few props were used, and little scenery. Costumes, however, were elaborate. Language created the scene, as in this passage from The Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
Act V, scene 1
In Shakespeare’s time English was a more flexible language than it is today. Grammar and spelling were not yet completely formalized, although scholars were beginning to urge rules to regulate them. English had begun to emerge as a significant literary language, having recently replaced Latin as the language of serious intellectual and artistic activity in England. Freed of many of the conventions and rules of modern English, Shakespeare could shape vocabulary and syntax to the demands of style. For example, he could interchange the various parts of speech, using nouns as adjectives or verbs, adjectives as adverbs, and pronouns as nouns. Such freedom gave his language an extraordinary plasticity, which enabled him to create the large number of unique and memorable characters he has left us. Shakespeare made each character singular by a distinctive and characteristic set of speech habits.
Just as important to Shakespeare’s success as the suppleness of the English language was the rapid expansion of the language. New words were being coined and borrowed at an unprecedented rate in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare himself had an unusually large vocabulary: about 23,000 different words appear in his plays and poetry, many of these words first appearing in print through his usage. During the Renaissance many new words enriched the English language, borrowed from Latin and from other European languages, and Shakespeare made full use of the new resources available to English. He also took advantage of the possibilities of his native tongue, especially the crispness and energy of the sounds of English that derives in large measure from the language’s rich store of monosyllabic (one-syllable) words.
The main influences on Shakespeare’s style were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the homilies (sermons) that were prescribed for reading in church, the rhetorical treatises that were studied in grammar school, and the proverbial lore of common speech. The result was that Shakespeare could draw on a stock of images and ideas that were familiar to most members of his audience. His knowledge of figures of speech and other devices enabled him to phrase his original thoughts concisely and forcefully. Clarity of expression and the use of ordinary diction partly account for the fact that many of Shakespeare’s phrases have become proverbial in everyday speech, even among people who have never read the plays. It is also significant that the passages most often quoted are usually from plays written around 1600 and after, when his language became more subtle and complex. The phrases “my mind’s eye,” “the primrose path,” and “sweets to the sweet” derive from Hamlet. Macbeth is the source of “the milk of human kindness” and “at one fell swoop.” From Julius Caesar come the expressions “it was Greek to me,” “ambition should be made of sterner stuff,” and “the most unkindest cut of all.”
Shakespeare wrote many of his plays in blank verse—unrhymed poetry in iambic pentameter, a verse form in which unaccented and accented syllables alternate in lines of ten syllables. In Shakespeare’s hand the verse form never becomes mechanical but is always subject to shifts of emphasis to clarify the meaning of a line and avoid the monotony of unbroken metrical regularity. Yet the five-beat pentameter line provides the norm against which the modifications are heard. Shakespeare sometimes used rhymed verse, particularly in his early plays. Rhymed couplets occur frequently at the end of a scene, punctuating the dramatic rhythm and perhaps serving as a cue to the offstage actors to enter for the next scene. As Shakespeare’s dramatic skill developed, he began to make greater use of prose, which became as subtle a medium in his hands as verse. Although prose lacks the regular rhythms of verse, it is not without its own rhythmical aspect, and Shakespeare came to use the possibilities of prose to achieve effects of characterization as subtle as those he accomplished in verse. In the early plays, prose is almost always reserved for characters from the lower classes. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the weaver Bottom speaks in prose to the fairy queen Titania, but she always responds in the verse appropriate to her position. Shakespeare, however, soon abandoned this rigid assignment of prose or verse on the basis of social rank. Although The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play written almost entirely in prose, many plays use prose for important effects. Examples include Ophelia’s mad scenes in Hamlet, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Macbeth, and Falstaff’s wonderful comedy in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
The poetic tragedies of William Shakespeare, notably Hamlet (1601), Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1606), also ignored classical Greek conventions. The episodic and multiple unfolding of time, place, and action enhanced Shakespeare's epic storytelling ability. The grandeur and magnitude of his dense language became the expressive means of focusing on tragic character and complex motivation. For actors and spectators alike, identification with the tragic fate of Shakespeare's protagonists allowed for a compelling feeling of cathartic release. His tragedies are the most widely performed serious plays in the world repertoire.