The Bard of Avon. England's national poet. Often considered the greatest writer 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.
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 cold 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 in 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, and judging by their content and timing, he was a highly accomplished political weathervane.
For a list of the many, many adaptations of Shakespeare's works, see The Bard on Board.
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 and as Shakespeare's only unquestionednote handwriting samples include six signaturesnote ; therefore the successful Stratford businessmannote could not have been 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), Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, 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, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Chaplin, John Byrne, 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 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, but they are very rare.
Shakespeare scholars who adhere to the Stratfordian perspective completely reject the authorship question, and there are far more Stratfordian scholars than anti-Stratfordian scholars. Traditionally, most Shakespeare scholars haven't wanted to dignify the issue with a response, which is why there is less material available arguing the case for Shakespeare's authorship — although the release of Anonymous in 2011 has changed that somewhat. As a result, it is more common these days to see denial of Shakespeare's authorship as a crackpot theory, rather than a legitimate debate. Prominent artists such as James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have also rejected the Anti-Stratfordian view. 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 but unlike Shakespeare, he is known to have attended university and even earned a graduate degreenote , which satisfies intellectual snobbery if not classist snobbery. (The fact that Marlowe died in 1593, before most of Shakespeare's plays were written, presents its own separate problem, as does the fact that his surviving plays are stylistically very different from Shakespeare's.)
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 plays. The plays are filled with anachronism, historical inaccuracies, propaganda and rumour, as well as quite a few errors in scientific and geographic facts (he infamously gives Bohemia, located in the landlocked Czech Republic, a coastline, and isn't aware that you can't sail anywhere from Milan, which is also landlocked). 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.note 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. It should also be noted that the authorship debate stems from the fact that there is very little known about Shakespeare's personality, his attitudes and the like. There are no letters or diaries attributed to Shakespeare, and unlike, say, Ben Jonson, he tended to keep his personal opinions to himself. However, this attitude stems from the notion of an artist's "personality" which is anachronistic since it was only with Romanticism that the idea of the artist as celebrity came into being.
For most contemporary scholars, this problem has become a quest to find the Word of God version of Shakespeare's plays when it seems likely all we really have is the Word of St. Paul at best and the Word of Dante at worst. A lot of the Bookworm types in their Great Big Library of Everything have been less worried about who The Bard was, and more worried about what was actually written in his own words. While old Bill was alive its hard to tell what publications he might have officially sanctioned: some versions printed during his lifetime are substantially different from the versions of the plays we know today. Traditionally, these editions have been referred to as the "Bad Quartos" and dismissed as ripoff versions printed to capitalize on the popularity of certain plays, but that term has fallen out of favor as early modern drama scholarship marches on; some of the plays formerly considered "bad quartos" have been re-evaluated as early versions that were later revised, or texts prepared for a touring company. Contemporary versions of the Swan of Avon's plays rely heavily on the Word of St. Paul via what's called the First Folio, a collection of his plays put together in 1623 by some actor pals from The King's Men. The title page of the First Folio proclaimed the plays in it to be "Published according to the True Originall Copies," implying that the Folio text was based not on the quartos but on Shakespeare's manuscripts (which, like most dramatic manuscripts from this period, are now lost). Around the 1700s, editors decided that some of the bootleg printed copies were good or complete enough to be Word of God, and they started mixing them with the First Folio. For example, the Hamlet we know and love is actually a patchwork of the 1605 Quarto and the 1623 Folio; the standard text of King Lear likewise includes some passages unique to the 1608 Quarto and others that only appear in the 1623 Folio. In both cases, scholars agree that the passages unique to each version are all Shakespearean, but that the composite versions most modern readers are familiar with were almost certainly never staged in that form by Shakespeare's company. Today some editions of Hamlet and King Lear have include multiple versions of each play in one book, leaving readers to decide their own Word of Dante version to use. To make things even more complicated, almost all publications today have spelling and grammar changes to help modernise the text in order to avoid misunderstandings. And professional Shakespeare scholarship since the 2010s has been very interested in instances where Shakespeare did collaborate with other dramatists, a practice that was extremely common in the early modern theater (Shakespeare, who had a secure position as a shareholder, did it less than others; at the most generous estimate, the plays in question are maybe ten of the traditional 37). Today a few of his earliest plays (Henry VI and Titus Andronicus) and a few of his later plays (Timon of Athens, Henry VIII, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre) are largely acknowledged to have been collaborations. A few others (most notably Macbeth) were probably revised for performance after his death. In addition, Shakespeare is thought by some scholars to have had a hand in some early modern plays that aren't part of the traditional "Shakespeare" canon. And the theater itself is an essentially collaborative enterprise, meaning that actors, shareholders, censors, and so forth had input into playtexts on one level or another. With all these changes in mind it becomes increasingly difficult to decide what counts as Shakespeare and what doesn't. Yet, for all these inconsistencies, the genius of the Immortal Bard is hard to deny; "confusion now hathe made his masterpiece."
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). Some names have endured over the years, resulting in this compared with some of the ones that aren't used - Portia, Jessica, Helena, Edgar, Olivia, Sebastian, Antonio, Maria etc.
- 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, Bolingbroke for Richard in Richard II and Aufidius for Coriolanus in Coriolanus.
- Antiquated Linguistics: While much of his wording was modern at the time, Shakespeare does engage in a few instances of this. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Paris' "on Thursday early will I rouse ye" would already have been archaic. Of course today, almost all of what Shakespeare wrote falls under this.
- Anyone Can Die: No one is safe in his tragedies. Notable is King Lear, which kills off half the cast in the final scene alone (albeit one of them is just said to have died between scenes) and one of the three survivors implies he'll kill himself too.
- 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 15751608, 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.
- Bastard Angst: Comes up often in his works. Edmund from King Lear, John from Much Ado About Nothing and Philip from King John are often freely labeled "the Bastard" and it causes them much angst.
- 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 relieve 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 never makes it.
- Commedia dell'Arte:
- Playfully mocked in Much Ado About Nothing. The aptly-named Hero and Claudio are the innamorati, Antonio is the tartaglia, Margaret is the colombina, etc. It's mockery because Beatrice and Benedick are the real main characters, and they are probably the only ones who don't fit any stock models. Also, the Zany Scheme is cooked up by Don Pedro, probably the highest-ranking person in the play, and his chief compatriot, Hero's father Leonato, really should be a Pantalone figure.
- Romeo and Juliet is a Genre Deconstruction. Many of the stock characters are obviously there. However, the play is a tragedy rather than a comedy. So the Zany Scheme doesn't really work out, and several of the characters end up dying.
- Romeo and Juliet themselves are the Innamorati, who fall in love with each other at first sight.
- Friar Lawrence is the Tartaglia, who performs a secret wedding ceremony for Romeo and Juliet.
- Lord Capulet is the Pantalone, who wants Juliet to marry Paris to further his own ambitions.
- Lady Capulet is the Signora, who wants her daughter to be a proper upper class woman just like her.
- Tybalt is the Capitano, who seems to always want to start a fight.
- Nurse is the Columbina, who does her best to help Juliet.
- Mercutio is the wise-cracking Arlecchino (but he's a cousin of the local prince, so unlike most other classical Arlecchinos, he's not a servant, but a fellow aristocrat and a friend of Romeo's).
- Benvolio is the more sombre Pedrolino (but he's a cousin of Romeo's, so unlike most of the other classical Pedrolinos, he's a not a servant, but a fellow aristocrat and a friend of Romeo's).
- The Merchant of Venice has Portia and Bassanio the innamorati, as well as Shylock as the Pantalone. And of course, Touchstone, Bottom, Gratiano, and many others are perfect arlecchini.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor has Fenton and Anne as the innamorati, the foolish doctor Caius, Evans as the priest with a "speech impediment" (actually an outrageous Welsh accent), and Falstaff of all people as a sleazy Pantalone-type.
- Twelfth Night has Andrew Aguecheek as a Miles Gloriosus Scaramouche, Malvolio the Pierrot, Feste the Arlecchino, Maria is the Colombina to Sir Toby Belch's Capitano, with Duke Orsino as the hopeful Innamorato to Olivia, ending up with Viola after she reveals her disguise as Cesario, and Olivia falls for Sebastian, mistaking him for Cesario, who is really Viola, his fraternal twin sister.
- At least one version of The Taming of the Shrew, produced for television in the '70s by WNET New York, is explicitly Commedia, down to the costumes and presentation style.
- Coupled Couples: Various comedies including A Midsummer Night's Dream (Hermia/Lysander and Demetrius/Helena), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Proteus/Julia and Valentine/Silvia), Much Ado About Nothing (Claudio/Hero and Benedick/Beatrice), As You Like It (Rosalind/Orlando and Celia/Oliver), The Comedy of Errors (Syracusian Antipholus/Luciana and Ephesian Antipholus/Adriana), Twelfth Night (Viola/Orsino and Sebastian/Olivia).
- Creator Cameo: He most likely played Adam in As You Like It and The Ghost in Hamlet
- 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 As You Like It, where a lot of the humor already comes from crossdressing.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: In non-Christian settings, the names may be pagan, but the doctrines and practices are Christian.
- 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: He likes to use this as a plot device.
- 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.
- Fisher King: Many of his later tragedies, such as Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear, have conceits* referring to how much the weather sucks and/or the soil is going barren during a Succession Crisis. Notably, MacBeth is so bad at ruling that even the forest wants to kill him.
- Genre-Busting: Shakespeare scholars have a specific term ("problem plays") just to describe the plays he wrote that don't fit comfortably alongside either his comedies or his tragedies.
- Genre Shift: Romeo and Juliet starts out as a romantic comedy, but becomes a tragedy halfway through.
- 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.
- Many modern readers are often shocked to hear that theatre was as low-brow a form of entertainment as it was in its day. When you consider that watching a Shakespeare play was basically the equivalent to watching The Hangover at its time it makes more sense.
- 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.
- Hurricane of Puns: Frequently of the dirty variety, designed for humour of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind, and possibly Getting Crap Past the Radar.
- The Jester: A recurring character type in many plays, so much so that scholars has coined the term "Shakespearean fool".
- Kill 'em All: Mostly in the tragedies, though the histories can be fairly bloody as well.
- Later Installment Weirdness: Towards the end of his career, he began to push against the rigid genre tropes of his day, blending comedy and tragedy to such a degree that many modern scholars have started using new terms like "tragicomedy" or "romance" to describe so-called "problem plays" such as The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. Several later plays also incorporate supernatural elements in a way that's almost closer to Magical Realism than the straightforward fantasy of earlier works, and it was during this period that he wrote one of only three of his plays—The Tempest—without any known pre-existing source material. (The others are Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream.) Finally, many of Shakespeare's late works are collaborative efforts—though this was also something he did a lot early in his career, and was a common practice for playwrights at the time.
- Local Reference: Quite a few of his plays have references to England even when there's no apparent reason to do so.
- 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).
- 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.
- Ensemble Dark Horse in that period. Orson Welles hung a Lampshade to this with his Chimes at Midnight. Even in Henry V, an openly propagandistic play about Henry V, many commentators note the King's rather manipulative and shrewd behaviour. 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
- Prophecy Twist: Macbeth is one of the most famous. Macbeth is told by the witches that No Man of Woman Born will harm him. Turns out his nemesis Macduff was born via c-section.
- Proverbial Wisdom: His works are full of proverbs and aphorisms, reflecting the Elizabethan-era belief that the usage of proverbs in speech is a sign of wisdom and sharp wit. The most obvious example is Portia from The Merchant of Venice, a smart and wise young woman who was allegedly based on none other as Queen Elizabeth I (the Queen was very fond of proverbs herself).
- Rags to Royalty:
- As You Like It - the Duke was forced into exile in the backstory, and at the end he and his daughter Rosalind are restored to wealth.
- King Lear has a rather quick example. Cordelia gets disinherited by her father, leaving her with no title and no dowry. The King of France falls in love with her for her kindness and courage, and proposes to her right there.
- Twelfth Night - Viola marries the Duke at the end.
- The Merchant of Venice - Bassanio has to borrow money from Antonio at the start, but marries the wealthy Portia by the end.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Talbot, Exeter, Duke Humphrey, Prince Escalus - Shakespeare was fond of this trope. He also enjoyed parodying it with Polonius, who is reasonable and has authority but is kind of a comic fool.
- Recursive Crossdressing: Companies of actors in Shakespeare's day were entirely composed of men. So any women, such as Portia, Viola, Rosalind, Imogen 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."
- 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? Still he's not as bad about this as a lot of other writers - works usually featuring at least three prominent female parts. Still it's not uncommon for modern productions to Gender Flip a few characters to add more female presences (or else have women play some of the men.)
- Stock Character: Frequently used well-known character types (some of which are less well-known today), roles that were probably played by the same type-cast actors time after time. Part of his genius was finding Hidden Depths in the most tired archetypes - sorrow in Feste the Jester, wisdom in Falstaff the Fat Drunk, clarity in Constance the Madwoman.
- Story Arc: Some of his histories have many recurring characters. The most famous is Falstaff in the Henriad plays, he has the most lines of dialogue in any Shakespeare play after Hamlet.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Most of the songs sung by musician characters, though usually presented merely as pop songs that these characters just happen to be singing, end up commenting fairly pointedly on one important theme or another in the play.
- In Much Ado About Nothing, Balthazar has a song with the line "Men were deceivers ever." Coincidence? In a scene about pulling an elaborate practical joke? In a play full of deception and distrust of every kind? Not ruddy likely!
- In Twelfth Night, Feste sings a lot about the passing of time and the complexity of romantic love. No prizes for guessing whether those are notable motifs in the play as a whole
- Sweet on Polly Oliver: Common in cross-dressing scenarios.
- 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: A few of his plays have notable A-plots and B-plots.
- King Lear's A-plot is Lear's daughters plotting against him, the B-plot is Edmund manipulating his father and brother.
- The Merchant of Venice's A-plot is Shylock lending money to Antonio and Bassanio. The B-plot is Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream's A-plot is the bewitched lovers in the woods. The B-plot is the game between Oberon and Titania.
- 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 .
- 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:
- All's Well That Ends Well
- Antony and Cleopatra
- As You Like It
- The Comedy of Errors
- Double Falsehood (Believed to be a rewrite of The History of Cardenio, later rewritten by Lewis Theobald)
- Edward III
- Henry IV
- Henry V
- Henry VI
- Henry VIII
- The History of Cardenio (missing)
- Julius Caesar
- King John
- King Lear
- Love's Labour's Lost
- Love's Labour's Won (missing)
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- Richard II
- Richard III
- Romeo and Juliet
- Sir Thomas More (a fragment survives)
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Tempest
- Timon of Athens
- Titus Andronicus
- Troilus and Cressida
- Twelfth Night
- Two Gentlemen of Verona
- The Two Noble Kinsmen
- The Winter's Tale
- A Midsummer Night's Dream:
- Much Ado About Nothing:
- Richard III:
- Romeo and Juliet:
- The Taming of the Shrew:
- The Tempest:
- Titus Andronicus:
- Twelfth Night:
- Multiple or crossover:
Tropes found in Shakespeare's sonnets and poems include:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: The first two lines of Sonnet 116 are an example:"Let me not to the marriage of true minds""Admit impediments..."
- 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 the 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.
- Driven to Suicide: Lucrece in "The Rape of Lucrece".
- 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 (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 to 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 reveal 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—though it's really lust makes you evil.
- Make-Up Is Evil: Sonnet 67.
- Mandatory Motherhood: The first seventeen sonnets, known as the "Procreation Cycle," center on the poet attempting to convince a fair young man to reproduce and thereby preserve his beauty.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: Sonnet 6 lightly mentions that his having one child would be good—but ten would be better.
- Meaningful Funeral: In "The Phoenix and the Turtle".
- No Title: The sonnets are generally referred to by number or first line.
- Purple Prose: Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") satirizes the tendency of other poets to make overwrought, faux-profound similes.
- 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".