"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 TimesThe Bard of Avon
. England's national poet. Greatest writer in the history of his language. Well, that last one is subjective.
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 popularised (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 Tarantino, based on the sheer number of films around with his name in the title...
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 *
, such as Queen Elizabeth I chopping off the right hands of a writer, John Stubbs*
, 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.
Worse are the people who think he was a secret republican
because he might have been a Catholic, and in modern times Catholics are sometimes republicans. This astonishing leap of logic ignores the fact that Catholics in Shakespeare's day wanted a strict monarchy as much as the Protestants did, only one headed by a Catholic king; the few republicans actually around
were staunchly Protestant.
He's also become a popular fictional character in his own right
. Perhaps you want to emulate this esteemed fellow?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 all*
and as Shakespeare's only handwriting samples include six signatures*
; therefore the successful Stratford 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-Stradfordians are generally highly connected members of the government or lifelong academics such as Francis Bacon, Edward De Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford), or William Stanley (the Earl of Derby).
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. As university level humanities departments are generally Stratfordian, it is difficult to get an advanced degree in Shakespeare/Humanities or Shakespearean Theater while expounding upon alternative authorship concepts, but some have done so anyway, such as Roger Stritmatter
, associate professor of Humanities at Coppin State University.
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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
- 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, 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.
- Antagonist In Mourning: Marc Antony for Brutus in Julius Caesar, Octavius in turn for Marc Antony in Antony And Cleopatra, and Fortinbras for Hamlet in Hamlet.
- 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.
- Aside Comment
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!: One 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Deadpan Snarker: Hamlet, Benedick & 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Love Hurts
- Love Triangle
- 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. 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).
- 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.
- 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 Hamlet* 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
- Slap-Slap-Kiss / "Shut Up" Kiss
- 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
- 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 wedding.* Titus Andronicus, however, begins with two consecutive and high-profile weddings, then quickly goes downhill.
- 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.*
The plays, their individual tropes, and well-known adaptations include:
Tropes found in Shakespeare's sonnets and poems include:
Sonnets and Poems
- 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.
- Chaste Hero: Adonis, in "Venus and Adonis".
- 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.
- Deadly Decadent Court (Sonnet 25)
- Due to the Dead
- In "The Phoenix and the Turtle" — where "turtle" means "turtledove".
- Sonnet 68
- Famed in Story (Sonnet 25)
- Good Angel, Bad Angel (Sonnet 144)
- Good Old Ways (Sonnet 68)
- Homoerotic Subtext: Some of the sonnets 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 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.
- Love Makes You Evil (Sonnet 129 — and how)
- Make Up Is Evil (Sonnet 67)
- Mandatory Motherhood (In the sonnets)
- Meaningful Funeral (In "The Phoenix and the Turtle")
- No Title: The sonnets are generally referred to by number or first line.
- Ravens and Crows (In "The Phoenix and the Turtle")
- Someone to Remember Him By: In Sonnet 9, the reason why he should not fear to leave a widow — she'll have a child of his. That's why we should propagate.
- Tears of Remorse (Sonnet 34)
- Textile Work Is Feminine ("The Rape of Lucrece")
- The Vamp: The "Dark Lady" in the Sonnets.