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 Bard of Avon
—The New York Times
. 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
or English class
, 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.) Shakespeare had three children, Susanna, Judith and his only son, Hamnet. Hamnet Shakespeare died at the age of 11 at 1596 and the coincidence of the name of the child with that of the protagonist of the famous play has similarly been a source of speculation for the likes of James Joyce
and Neil Gaiman
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 ironic, considering that 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, though not brought into line with proper rules of Aristotelian drama, 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
, such as Queen Elizabeth I chopping off the right hands of a writer, John Stubbsnote
, 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
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
and as Shakespeare's only handwriting samples include six signaturesnote
; therefore the successful Stratford businessmannote
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
, at least two recent members of the US Supreme Court
(John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, to be exact, and possibly the only thing they have ever agreed on), and others. 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
In either case, the "evidence" cited by anti-Stratfordians that Shakespeare's works needed specialized knowledge in "history, mythology, law, medicine, geography, sailing, and the upper echelons of politics"
to write so well about these subjects is not borne out by textual studies of the play. The plays are filled with anachronism, historical inaccuracies, propaganda and rumor, as well as quite a few errors in scientific and geographic facts. Moreover, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary and friend who wrote the Essay of Dedication for the First Folio, lamented that Shakespeare knew very little Latin and Greek, in other words not someone who was a Cunning Linguist
by any means, perfectly matching the biographical record. The list of books that Shakespeare mentions in his will align well with the source material for his plays and they were chapbooks written in vernacular. Moreover, Shakespeare borrowed all his plots (as was tradition at the time) and government censorship meant he could not depict contemporary life anyway. Shakespeare's plays are works of artistic genius which means that conventional notions of skill from later eras do not apply.
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).
- Affably Evil: All his best villains.
- Ambiguously Gay: A fair few characters.
- 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 (your average 16th-century Londoner could barely tell you anything about Lancashire or Lanarkshire, never mind Lombardy), and wanted a good story without caring about the geography.
- Antagonist in Mourning: Marc Antony for Brutus in Julius Caesar, Octavius in turn for Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Fortinbras for Hamlet in Hamlet, and Bolingbroke for Richard in Richard II.
- Antiquated Linguistics: While his wording was modern at the time, modern use of it falls under such.
- Anyone Can Die: In his tragedies, and how.
- Artistic License - Geography: Considering that John Dee was considered an expert of geography because he had traveled 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, since Richard was overthrown by Henry Tudor, aka Queen Elizabeth's grandfather and King James I/VI's great-great-grandfather. Then there's the fact regarding what happened to his fellow playwrights Kyd and Marlowe
- Aside Comment: Entire soliloquies can be this.
- 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.
- Beta Couple: Including Benedick and Beatrice, eclipsing the Official Couple in Much Ado About Nothing', Claudio and Hero.
- Black Comedy: Okay, not all of his comedy translates particularly well these days. But the darkest stuff seems to have survived fairly intact for the most part. 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 tension. Or just to creep you out more.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Iago, Don John, Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Edmund...
- The Chains of Commanding: Many of the kings in the histories complain about this in some form.
- Character Title: His histories and tragedies always have one. In the case of the tragedies, the titular character almost nevet makes it.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: In non-Christian settings, the names may be pagan, but the doctrines and practices are Christian.
- Come to Gawk
- Crosscast Role: Any woman in a Shakespeare play as it was originally conceived, since, at the time, all actors were male. This adds an extra layer to a play like Much Ado About Nothing, where a lot of the humor already comes from crossdressing.
- Deadpan Snarker: Hamlet, Benedick and Beatrice, Feste, Mercutio...
- Double Entendre: Lots and lots and lots. Your high school teachers did not mention half of them, probably on purpose.
- Duel to the Death
- 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 don't catch this; which can seriously impact the comedies, in particular, which lose a lot of their humor. There are several versions of the script meant for reading that directly point out the particularly-obscure double meanings to aid modern readers, along with showing stage actions. Of course, most Shakespeare scholars are snickering at nothing.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Shakespeare's plays are full of adult humor. Most of its contemporary significance has since been forgotten in everyday life. He had a lot of references to popular culture at the time, which is no longer popular culture. This is part of why modern audiences miss a lot of it—our radar's tuned for different events.
- 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.
- Hilarity Ensues
- Home Sweet Home
- Hurricane of Puns
- Kill 'em All: Mostly in the tragedies, though the histories can be fairly bloody as well.
- Local Reference: Quite a few of his plays have references to England even when there's no apparent reason to do so.
- Love Hurts
- Love Triangle
- Mandatory Motherhood: In the most general sense: motherhood and fatherhood are a duty, to perpetuate the human race.
- Meaningless Villain Victory: The Merchant of Venice was the former Trope Namer (formerly Pound of Flesh Twist).
- Missing Episode: Records indicate that Shakespeare wrote plays entitled The History of Cardenio and Love Labour's Won (which is probably a sequel or something along those lines to Love's Labour's Lost). 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).
- Mistaken for Cheating: Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and Much Ado About Nothing.
- Neologism: Coined lots of words, mainly compound words such as "eyeball" or Anglicized loanwords like "alligator" (from Spanish "el lagarte", "the lizard").
- Oracular Urchin/Waif Prophet: Child, jester, and/or crazy person? Count on them to speak God's own truth.
- Poor Communication Kills: Perhaps the most famous example is Romeo and Juliet.
- Propaganda Machine: Shakespeare was a popular playwright in the Tudor era and used government chapbooks as source material, which means his plays by and large toe the party line of the time. Most famously his Richard III, the poster-boy for Historical Villain Upgrade.
- Available facts indicate that Shakespeare avoided politics unlike his fellow playwrights and University wits for fairly pragmatic and logical reasons. Among his contemporaries, Thomas Kyd was tortured by the government (they used a hammer to smash his writing hand), Ben Jonson was briefly imprisoned for a controversial play and Marlowe, according to rumors, was murdered by government secret service.
- That said, many people believe there is a subversive element in some of his history plays. For instance, in the Henry plays (Part I and II), the character with the most lines is not the King and Prince, but the fat Knight Falstaff who became a major Ensemble Darkhorse in that period. Orson Welles hung a Lampshade to this with his Chimes At Midnight.
- Prophecy Twist / No Man of Woman Born
- Rags to Royalty
- 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 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, Loves Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Merchant of Venice were all written in the same three years.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Talbot, Exeter, Duke Humphrey, Prince Escalus - Shakespeare was fond of this trope.
- 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.
- Roaring Rampageof Revenge: very common in the tragedies. Most noteworthy in Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio's death and Titus Andronicus.
- 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."
- Slap-Slap-Kiss/"Shut Up" Kiss: Beatrice and Benedick.
- The Smurfette Principle: But when women aren't allowed to perform on-stage, what're ya gonna do?
- Story Arc: Some of his histories have many recurring characters.
- Sweet on Polly Oliver: Common in cross-dressing scenarios.
- 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.
- They Do
- 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.
- Two Lines, No Waiting
- 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".
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The histories.
- 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 weddingnote .
- Titus Andronicus begins with two consecutive high-profile weddings, then quickly goes downhill.
- Loves Labours Lost subverts this trope. There are theories that it would have been played straight in Love's Labour's Won, the missing possible sequel.
- 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.
- World of Pun: He absolutely loved puns. Wait, you mean they weren't actually talking about how small a bee's stinger was?
- Writers Cannot Do Math. Which is odd, because one of the things we do know about William Shakespeare (from the scant records of him that do exist) is that he was very good with business and 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:
Tropes found in Shakespeare's sonnets and poems include:
Sonnets and Poems