William Shakespeare's life is known only in outline, and some have thought the plays were written by others, though William Shakespeare (1564-1616) can certainly be documented as a real person. Born the son of a prominent businessman in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare received the usual grammar school education, which included Latin and a little Greek. At 18 he married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, had three children and then took himself off to London, where he largely stayed, becoming actor, successful playwright and part theatre-owner. The plays were written between 1590 and 1614. Within two years of retirement at Stratford, Shakespeare was dead, and his will does not mention the plays, most of which of which were collected in the 1623 First Folio, a decisive step in his slow rise to deification.

Shakespeare was preeminent in three areas: his exuberance in and command of the English language, his stagecraft, and his rich gallery of characters. He is the most quoted of English writers, and theatre productions continue to reinterpret his themes, sometimes in ways that would astound their author. Shakespeare's plays transcend their period, but gain immeasurably by being also seen in their social, intellectual and political contexts. Shakespeare's language constantly evolves from the Italianate Venus and Adonis, through the sugared Sonnets, the felicitous phrasing of Midsummer Night's Dream, supple blank verse of Hamlet, the tangled darkness of Lear, and the free rhythmic verse of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, to the supreme accomplishment of The Tempest. F.E. Halliday's The Poetry of Shakespeare's Plays (1954) and G.T. Wright's Shakespeare's Metrical Art (1988) are two of many detailed examinations of Shakespeare's art that repay study by anyone using verse dramatically.

No one can encompass all that's to be read about (or into) Shakespeare, even on the Internet. Shakespeare can be seen as the world's most discussed writer, the spokesman of his age, an exemplar of Tudor law or the moral law, a supreme creator of character, a plagiarist, a creature of the literary establishment, a perceptive student of human nature, a social commentator, a humanist, a male chauvinist, an idealist or supporter of political reality, a believer or not in Catholicism, freemasonry and the occult. His work has been praised and condemned by dramatists, critics, teachers, actors, directors, and by social commentators. Some plays are lauded for their humanity, but Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew have been hard to take for feminists. Shakespeare the man, his true beliefs and opinions, remains an enigma, though one which each age seems obliged to penetrate.

Shakespeare demands to be seen and heard, perhaps with contemporary music. Attend productions and films of his plays, therefore, or put on your own. Books on Shakespeare can be found in any decent library, but these are popular introductions: G.B. Harrison's Introducing Shakespeare (1991), F.E. Halliday's A Shakespeare Companion (1964) and M.C. Bradbrook's Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (1951). E. Pearson's Elizabethans at Home (1957) puts the plays in their social setting, and Dobson and Wells's The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (2001) is/was the latest of comprehensive surveys.

Suggestion: The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Michael Dobson. O.U.P. 2005. $23. 26

Many such companions exist, but this volume is up-to-date, freshly-written and attractively-priced. The reviews will tell you more.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.