The figure that thou here seest put, / It was for gentle Shakespeare cut, / Wherein the graver had the strife / With nature to outdo the life. / O, could he but have drawn his wit / As well in brass as he hath hit / His face, the print would then surpass / All that was ever writ in brass! / But since he cannot, reader, look / Not on his picture, but his book. —Ben Jonson
"William Shakespeare takes credit for being the only playwright to have no less than five of his plays simultaneously appearing on Broadway."
—The New York Times
The Bard of Avon. England's national poet. Often considered one of the greatest writers in the English language. But who was he, really?William Shakespeare (baptized 26 April 1564 - died 23 April 1616), the only playwright most people can name, has been a major influence on English language fiction for 400 years. While most only know his plays through Popcultural Osmosis, the tropes he invented or popularized (to say nothing of a significant portion of the English language) are still with us today.Many of his plays and plots are traceable back to older sources, but he made them his own. Trace back most of The Oldest Ones in the Book and you will find Shakespeare, and before him no one anyone much has heard of.Many series have parodied Shakespeare's plays, or staged them, and there have been innumerable film adaptations. Indeed, one contestant on the first series of Big Brother in Germany was lampooned for believing Shakespeare to be a film director like Quentin Tarantino, based on the sheer number of films around with his name in the title. Whole Plot References to Shakespeare's plays are a trope of their own.Shakespeare's late tragedies, Hamlet, and King Lear, are widely considered to be among the greatest plays ever written, while such other works as Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello have profoundly influenced Anglophone culture. Shakespeare holds the record of having five of his plays running on Broadway simultaneously.Incidentally, he left his wife Anne his "second-best bed" in his will, which has had historians scratching their heads for centuries. The most normal sounding explanation was that the second-best bed was the one he and his wife slept in, the best bed was reserved for guests. Unfortunately, muddying up the water is the fact that Shakespeare was quite cool with his much older wife, spending most of his life away from home. He only married her in the first place because he got her pregnant. Maybe. We don't know much about the man's personal history, and the gaps have been filled with a lot of patchwork speculation over the decades. (See Authorship Question below.)Due to Shakespeare's wide-ranging influence and extremely high renown, any time you want to establish a character as smart and classy, just have him quote a couple of apropos lines from a Shakespeare play. It works every time, hero or villain. This is quite the irony considering his plays were not exactly high-brow entertainment in their day.Every generation seems to see Shakespeare as one of theirs, and attribute to him whatever attitudes or beliefs are considered "proper", "cool", or "intelligent" at the time. The Georgians saw him as a natural man whose brilliance was completely innate, while the Victorians and Edwardians saw him as a proper Whig gentleman with proper Whig opinions on women, foreigners, war, etc. Most notably, in the past thirty years he's been turned into a rebel who was 'forced' to work for those nasty royals and aristocrats because he had no other choice. Even on this very wiki, Shakespeare is said to have "had" to write his plays in a certain way for James or Elizabeth or Essex, with the unspoken assumption that he would have done things very differently had those evil meddling Kings, Queens, and Dukes not been controlling and censoring him. Admittedly, the nobility did have the power to do just that to anyone less in rank than they were note (especially to a commoner; even the Authorship Question doesn't help here, none of the nobles on the list outranked Queen Elizabeth/King James), such as Queen Elizabeth I chopping off the right hands of a writer, John Stubbsnote (he kept writing, though never anything seditious again), his printer, and his publisher, William Page, for writings she found offensive to her. Shakespeare's plays were staged frequently for the upper crust, so they were a crowd he desired to impress.He's also become a popular fictional character in his own right. Perhaps you want to emulate this esteemed fellow?
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The Authorship Question
Since the early 18th century some have speculated that "William Shakespeare" was just a pen name for one or more other individuals. People who believe this hypothesis are generally called anti-stratfordians; those who hold to the view of Shakespearian authorship that William Shakespeare, of Stratford-on-Avon, did in fact write the works attributed to him are dubbed stratfordians. With entire books and websites dedicated to arguing one way or the other, this is clearly Serious Business to some.Most of the anti-Stratfordians come from the position that, since there are no records of William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon having received any education at allnote As a British Citizen, Shakespeare would have been entitled to a free place at the King's New School in Stratford, though there are no records of this (then again, no school records from that era has survived). and as Shakespeare's only handwriting samples include six signaturesnote Shakespeare dictated his will, as was common at the time; and spelled his name several different ways, though spelling was still in a state of flux at the time; therefore the successful Stratford businessmannote At a time when literacy was not a requirement to be a successful businessman. was not well versed with poetry, history, mythology, law, medicine, geography, sailing, and the upper echelons of politics to write so well about these subjects. Hence the alternative authors proposed by anti-Stratfordians are generally highly connected members of the government, lifelong academics, or commoners with documented ties to noblemen, such as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Edward De Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford), or William Stanley (the Earl of Derby). (Some Stratfordians suggest that the discrepancy between Shakespeare the artist and Shakespeare the business man could be explained by the possibility that Anne Hathaway, his wife back in Stratford, was the real business head of the family, and conducted Will's financial affairs in his name.)Notably, the theory has attracted many high profile supporters, including such luminaries like Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Derek Jacobi, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, etc. The Authorship question has a few adherents from Shakespeare scholarship, such as Roger Stritmatter and Oxfordian Shakespeare scholar Felicia Londre. Shakespeare scholars who adhere to the Stratfordian perspective completely reject the authorship question, and there are far more Stratfordian scholars than anti-Stratfordian scholars. Writers such as Bill Bryson have noted that there appears to be a strain of snobbery in the anti-Stratfordians, motivated by their disbelief that a commoner from the countryside could show such genius as a playwright. Most of the alternate candidates proposed for authorship are earls and noblemen, as opposed to Shakespeare the nobody from Warwickshire. Of course, Christopher Marlowe, another Authorship candidate, was a commoner as well. (The fact that Marlowe died in 1593, before most of Shakespeare's plays were written, presents its own separate problem.)
Widespread Shakespearean tropes include:
Aerith and Bob: It was a common convention in Elizabethan/Jacobean theater to give comical characters, especially working-class ones, common English names regardless of where the play was set. Shakespeare often does this, but he also peppers his plays with non-comical characters whose names are incongruous with the plays' settings. Hamlet has Laertes and Ophelia (Greek), Fortinbras (phonetic French), and Marcellus, Polonius, and Claudius (Roman); Romeo and Juliet has Tybalt (a variant of the English Theobald); and The Merchant of Venice has Shylock (English).
Anachronism Stew: Shakespeare rarely did the research, though sometimes he did do the research and modern critics assume he did not (such as the canal system in Italy, linking many "landlocked" Italian cities by boat to each other and to the Mediterranean Sea). But no one watches his plays for the historical content, even the ones that are supposedly about historical events. Most of his contemporary audience knew very little about Italy or any other country outside of England, and wanted a good story without caring about the geography.
Artistic License - Geography: Considering that John Dee was considered an expert of geography because he had travelled Europe, and his audience didn't really care about accuracy on this topic anyway this is hardly a surprise. Of course, sometimes an odd quirk of history made his geography accurate, such as the canal system in Italy, linking many "landlocked" Italian cities by boat to each other and to the Mediterranean Sea; or the Bohemian Empire once extending to the ocean (under King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, from 1575–1608, the period of Shakespeare), even though Bohemia itself has no coastline.
Artistic License - History: Mostly due to him not doing the research, but sometimes due to his wish to please whomever was on the throne. For example, even if Shakespeare had had access to a more accurate and sympathetic source on Richard III, he probably wouldn't have used it anyway since Richard was overthrown by Henry Tudor aka Queen Elizabeth's grandfather and King James I/VI's great-great-grandfather.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: On the one hand, some of the more famous lines he put in the mouths of famous men have actually been attributed to them in later years. On the other, some of the Popcultural Osmosis quotations of his work mangle them somewhat. For example, "Double, double, toil and trouble" is sometimes quoted as "Hubble, bubble..." or similar.
Black Comedy: OK, not all of his comedy translates particularly well these days. But, the darkest stuff seems to have survived fairly intact for the most part. Oh, boy: and, could he be a snarky bugger, or what? Be it a straight up Comedy or one of his Tragedies (or one of the ones you're not sure which it's meant to be), Shakespeare knew how to get you to laugh to relive tensions. Or, just to creep you out more.
Fairy Tale Motifs: Many of his plays, especially festive comedies and romances, are set in fairy tale settings like royal courts, pastoral idylls or magical forests. His characters include fairies and magical creatures, as well as people of royal breeding.
Get Thee to a Nunnery: Hamlet is the Trope Namer. (Many of his plays are absolutely bawdy, but language has changed so much that modern audiences will not understand this; can seriously impact the comedies, in particular, which lose a lot of their humour) There is at least one version of the script meant for reading that directly points out the particularly obscure double meanings to aid modern readers, along with showing stage actions. Of course, most Shakespeare scholars are snickering at nothing.
Grokking The Horrorshow: Often credited with inventing a large number of words and using existing words in new ways. It is more accurate to say that his works are the earliest written use of these words. He might not have actually coined them.
Missing Episode: Records indicate that Shakespeare wrote plays entitled The History of Cardenio and Love Labour's Won. Unfortunately, no copies of them are known to exist. An 18th-century play called Double Falsehood is thought to be a rewrite of Cardenio and was included in the Arden Shakespeare series in 2010. Arden credited the work to Shakespeare, John Fletcher (who appears to have collaborated with Shakespeare on the play or rewrote the play from Shakespeare's original script), and Lewis Theobald (a Restoration dramatist who claim to have "discovered" the play, and probably also rewrote the play to be closer to contemporary tastes).
Reality Subtext: Some scholars have theorized about the dynamic of Shakespeare's company via reading the plays to explain some of some of plays' quirks. For example, Shakespeare is assumed to have fallen out with Will Kempe, the company clown, for his constant improvisations and audience-mugging, due to Falstaff (one of his most famous roles) dying offstage in Henry V and due to the diatribe against ad-libbing clowns in Hamletnote (though in this scene Hamlet wants the players to understand how dangerous it would be to ad-lib during Hamlet's rewrite of the play) Shakespeare's bad experiences with Kempe probably explains why he hired Robert Armin, who plays a more subdued and intelligent Sad Clown-type character (his most famous role probably being Feste from Twelfth Night). Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with Richard Burbage in mind, which would explain why the character is middle aged when the original character was a teenager. The difficulty in procuring boy actors who can carry a leading lady's role and how short their careers are could probably explain why all the plays with more than one major female role seem to be written back-to-back, to squeeze as much work as he can out of them: The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Merchant of Venice were all written in the same three years.
Recursive Crossdressing: Companies of actors in Shakespeare's day were entirely composed of men. So any women, such as Portia, Viola, Rosalind, or Julia, who dress up as boys for a disguise, would have been men dressed up as women dressed up as men.
Royal Blood: Frequently, but perhaps most notably in The Winter's Tale, where royal-in-disguise Polixenes identifies lowly shepherdess Perdita as a princess because:
Nothing she does, or seems, But smacks of something greater than herself, Too noble for this place.
Sweet Polly Oliver: Shakespeare really liked this trope and used it in a number of his comedies. In his day, the practice of men dressing as women for female parts added an additional meta-level to the comedy.
A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: A major theme in several of his plays, wherein any of the characters who has impulsiveness as their flaw tends to have their problems ending badly for them. None of the situation they're in would have happened to them in the first place if they had any sort of self-control.
Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: A notable example is Othello, who opens an early speech with this phrase, only to deliver an eloquent and complexly crafted history of his life. In fact, Othello's speech patterns are so distinct that critics refer to his dialogue as "The Othello Music."
We All Live in America: He might have been writing a play set in Celtic Britain, or ancient Rome, or ancient Greece, or Italy, but the themes and ideas in the plays pretty consistently evoked Elizabethan/Jacobean England.
Weddings for Everyone: Most of the comedies end with a wedding.note At the time, this was pretty much the definition of "comedy."Titus Andronicus, however, begins with two consecutive and high-profile weddings, then quickly goes downhill. Love's Labour's Lost subverts this trope.
Wild Mass Guessing: According to Bill Bryson, any claim about Shakespeare's personal life beyond what's on official records is this given how staggeringly little is actually known about Shakespeare's home life: we don't know if, let alone where, he went to school, how he could have read any books at all, and despite the best efforts of debt collectors in London, what times he was in London. Ben Jonson, a brilliant writer in his own right, and a contemporary of William Shakespeare, appears to have known both an author named William Shakespeare (whom Jonson liked) and an actor named William Shakespeare (whom Jonson hated). According to Jonson, William Shakespeare the actor never wrote anything.
Writers Cannot Do Math. Which is odd, because one of the things we do know about William Shakespeare, from the records of him that do exist, is that he was very good with business and with money: bringing the family business back from ruin; buying the most expensive house in Stratford; and purchasing enough land in Stratford to gain him a kingly 60 British pounds a year in landlord income. Now, he did all of this without a single letter written home from London, so his wife Anne Hathaway may have been the business genius.
The plays, their individual tropes, and well-known adaptations include:
The Beautiful Elite: The Sonnets. Shakespeare's sonnets were meant to be read only by a close circle of friends at court. They are intimately addressed to a Fair Youth, a handsome young man of Blue Blood, and to a woman known as a Dark Lady who is beautiful and of a high standing as well.
Crapsack World: In Sonnet 66, the world is presented as utterly corrupt and with no redeeming qualities. The poet feels Driven to Suicide and offers one reason after another for it. However, they are all refuted by the strongest reason against suicide: his love would be left alone in this heinous world.
Homoerotic Subtext: Some of the sonnets (read: Sonnets 1-126) are addressed to a Fair Youth. The way his friend is addressed sometimes... Some critics tried really hard not to see it or un-see it, but boy, did they have to twist the sonnets. "Lord of my love", huh?
The famous "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (Sonnet 18) is actually also addressed to the Fair Youth. Critics must really be trying to blind themselves, huh.
The Insomniac: Sonnets 27 and 28 make a pair of nocturnes. The topic of a lover who suffers from insomnia and sees his beloved being in his heated dreams is a staple of sonnet form.
I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Sonnets 40 and 41 reveals a situation where the poet was doubly betrayed. His friend sleeps with his lover, no less. In Sonnet 42, he tries to justify this morally unjustifiable act by a clever sophistic. They both love each other only because they also both love him, the poet, and he wishes them all the best.