William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in the village of Stratford-on-Avon in the county of Warwickshire. His father John Shakespeare was a farmer’s son who came to Stratford about 1531, and began to prosper as a trader in corn, wheat, leather, and agricultural products. His mother Mary Arden was the daughter of a prosperous farmer, descended from an old family of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood. It is generally believed that neither the poet’s mother nor his father could read or write.
Mysterious Origins Known throughout the world, the works of William Shakespeare have been performed in countless hamlets, villages, cities and metropolises for more than 400 years. And yet, the personal history of William Shakespeare is somewhat a mystery. There are two primary sources that provide historians with a basic outline of his life. One source is his work–the plays, poems and sonnets–and the other is official documentation such as church and court records. However, these only provide brief sketches of specific events in his life and provide little on the person who experienced those events.
Though no birth records exist, church records indicate that a William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. From this, it is believed he was born on or near April 23, 1564, and this is the date scholars acknowledge as William Shakespeare’s birthday.
Located 103 miles west of London, during Shakespeare’s time Stratford-upon-Avon was a market town bisected with a country road and the River Avon. William was the third child of John Shakespeare, a leather merchant, and Mary Arden, a local landed heiress. William had two older sisters, Joan and Judith, and three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund. Before William’s birth, his father became a successful merchant and held official positions as alderman and bailiff, an office resembling a mayor. However, records indicate John’s fortunes declined sometime in the late 1570s.
Scant records exist of William’s childhood, and virtually none regarding his education. Scholars have surmised that he most likely attended the King’s New School, in Stratford, which taught reading, writing and the classics. Being a public official’s child, William would have undoubtedly qualified for free tuition. But this uncertainty regarding his education has led some to raise questions about the authorship of his work and even about whether or not William Shakespeare ever existed.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway on November 28, 1582, in Worcester, in Canterbury Province. Hathaway was from Shottery, a small village a mile west of Stratford. William was 18 and Anne was 26, and, as it turns out, pregnant. Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583. Two years later, on February 2, 1585, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Hamnet later died of unknown causes at age 11.
After the birth of the twins, there are seven years of William Shakespeare’s life where no records exist. Scholars call this period the “lost years,” and there is wide speculation on what he was doing during this period. One theory is that he might have gone into hiding for poaching game from the local landlord, Sir Thomas Lucy. Another possibility is that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire. It is generally believed he arrived in London in the mid- to late 1580s and may have found work as a horse attendant at some of London’s finer theaters, a scenario updated centuries later by the countless aspiring actors and playwrights in Hollywood and Broadway.
Theatrical Beginnings in London
By 1592, there is evidence William Shakespeare earned a living as an actor and a playwright in London and possibly had several plays produced. In the September 20, 1592 edition of the Stationers’ Register (a guild publication), there is an article by London playwright Robert Greene that takes a few jabs at William Shakespeare:
“…there [William Shakespeare] is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
Scholars differ on the interpretation of this criticism, but most agree that it was Greene’s way of saying Shakespeare was reaching above his rank, trying to match better known and educated playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe or Greene himself.
By the early 1590s, documents show William Shakespeare was a managing partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting company in London. After the crowning of King James I, in 1603, the company changed its name to the King’s Men. From all accounts, the King’s Men company was very popular, and records show that Shakespeare had works published and sold as popular literature. The theater culture in 16th-century England was not highly admired by people of high rank. However, many of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first published poems “Venus and Adonis” (1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594).
By 1597, William Shakespeare had published 15 of the 37 plays attributed to him. Civil records show that at this time he purchased the second largest house in Stratford, called New House, for his family. It was a four-day ride by horse from Stratford to London, so it is believed that Shakespeare spent most of his time in the city writing and acting and came home once a year during the 40-day Lenten period, when the theaters were closed.
By 1599, William Shakespeare and his business partners built their own theater on the south bank of the Thames River, which they called the Globe. In 1605, Shakespeare purchased leases of real estate near Stratford for 440 pounds, which doubled in value and earned him 60 pounds a year. This made him an entrepreneur as well as an artist, and scholars believe these investments gave him the time to write his plays uninterrupted.
William Shakespeare’s early plays were written in the conventional style of the day, with elaborate metaphors and rhetorical phrases that didn’t always align naturally with the story’s plot or characters. However, Shakespeare was very innovative, adapting the traditional style to his own purposes and creating a freer flow of words. With only small degrees of variation, Shakespeare primarily used a metrical pattern consisting of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, to compose his plays. At the same time, there are passages in all the plays that deviate from this and use forms of poetry or simple prose.
Early Works: Histories and Comedies
With the exception of “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s first plays were mostly histories written in the early 1590s. “Richard II” and “Henry VI,” parts 1, 2, and 3 and “Henry V” dramatize the destructive results of weak or corrupt rulers and have been interpreted by drama historians as Shakespeare’s way of justifying the origins of the Tudor dynasty.
Shakespeare also wrote several comedies during his early period: the witty romance “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the romantic “Merchant of Venice,” the wit and wordplay of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the charming “As You Like It,” and Twelfth Night. Other plays, possibly written before 1600, were “Titus Andronicus,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
Later Works: Tragedies and Tragicomedies
It was in William Shakespeare’s later period, after 1600, that he wrote the tragedies “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Othello” and “Macbeth.” In these, Shakespeare’s characters present vivid impressions of human temperament that are timeless and universal. Possibly the best known of these plays is “Hamlet,” with its exploration of betrayal, retribution, incest and moral failure. These moral failures often drive the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s plots, destroying the hero and those he loves.
In William Shakespeare’s final period, he wrote tragicomedies. Among these are “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Tempest.” Though graver in tone than the comedies, they are not the dark tragedies of “King Lear” or “Macbeth” because they end with reconciliation and forgiveness.
Tradition has it that William Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616, though many scholars believe this is a myth. Church records show he was interned at Trinity Church on April 5, 1616.
In his will, he left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna. Though entitled to a third of his estate, little seems to have gone to his wife, Anne, whom he bequeathed his “second-best bed.” This has drawn speculation that she had fallen out of favor, or that the couple was not close. However, there is very little evidence the two had a difficult marriage. Other scholars note that the term “second-best bed” often refers to the bed belonging to the household’s master and mistress–the marital bed–and the “first-best bed” was reserved for guests.
Comedy is a dramatic work that is light and often humorous or satirical in tone and that usually contains a happy resolution of the thematic.
List of Shakespeare’s comedies
|All’s Well That Ends Well|
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Two Gentlemen of Verona
|Some Comic characters of Shakespeare’s comedy|
Shakespeare’s comedies (and some of his tragedies) feature an array of clowns and fools. Indeed, in some of the thinly plotted comedies, As You Like It for example, comic characters like Touchstone and the over-melancholy Jaques carry the show as producers of and targets of the audience’s amusement. Bottom (who is magically given the head of a donkey) and his crew of crude tradesmen in a Midsummer Night’s Dream deserve a collective mention for their “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play. For Shakespeare’s audiences, it was probably the figure of Sir John Falstaff who got the biggest laughs as the braggart but cowardly soldier and drunken, scheming companion of Hal’s tavern world in Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2. The speculation here is that Falstaff was so appealing to Elizabethan theater-goers that although he dies at the end of Henry IV: Part 2 Shakespeare resurrected him in his next play, The Merry Wives of Windsor owing to Falstaff’s popularity.
Sir Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the two Henry IV plays, he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is ultimatelyrepudiated after Hal becomes king. Falstaff also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Though primarily a comic figure, Falstaff still embodies a kind of depth common to Shakespeare’s tricky comedy. In Act II, Scene III of Henry V, his death is described by the character “Hostess”, possibly the Mistress Quickly of Henry IV, who describes his body in terms that parody Plato’s description of the death of Socrates
He [Falstaff] is a man at once young and old, enterprising and fat, a dupe and a wit, harmless and wicked, weak in principle and resolute by constitution, cowardly in appearance and brave in reality, a knave without malice, a liar without deceit, and a knight, a gentleman, and a soldier without either dignity, decency, or honour. This is a character which, though it may be decompounded, could not, I believe, have been formed, nor the ingredients of it duly mingled, upon any receipt whatever. It required the hand of Shakespeare himself to give to every particular part a relish of the whole, and of the whole to every particular part.
Morgann: The Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff is perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented. Sir John carries a most portly presence in the mind’s eye; and in him, not to speak it profanely, “we behold the fullness of the spirit of wit and humour bodily.” We are as well acquainted with his person as his mind, and his jokes come upon us with double force and relish from the quantity of flesh through which they make their way, as he shakes his fat sides with laughter or “lards the lean earth as he walks along.” Other comic characters seem, if we approach and handle them, to resolve themselves into air, “into thin air”; but this is embodied and palpable to the grossest apprehension: it lies “three fingers deep upon the ribs,” it plays about the lungs and diaphragm with all the force of animal enjoyment. His body is like a good estate to his mind, from which he receives rents and revenues of profit and pleasure in kind, according to its extent and the richness of the soil. . . . He is represented as a liar, a braggart, a coward, a glutton, etc., and yet we are not offended, but delighted with him; for he is all these as much to amuse others as to gratify himself. He openly assumes all these characters to show the humorous part of them.
The unrestrained indulgence of his own ease, appetites, and convenience has neither malice nor hypocrisy in it. In a word, he is an actor in himself almost as much as upon the stage, and we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices. We only consider the number of pleasant fights in which he puts certain foibles (the more pleasant as they are opposed to the received rules and necessary restraints of society), and do not trouble ourselves about the consequences resulting from, them, for no mischievous consequences do result. Sir John is old as well as fat, which gives a melancholy retrospective tinge to his character; and by the disparity between his inclinations and his capacity for enjoy The character of Vicentio, the Duke in Measure For Measure The Duke is fully concious of the laxity of which he had been guilty in governing his country. He had allowed the strict statutes and the rigorous lows to become a dead letter, with the result that people had been taking more and more liberties, and been committing all kinds of offences and crimes. The Duke has a picturesque manner of speaking. He compares himself to an over-grown lion living in a cave, and not moving out to hunt his prey but inviting animals to visit him in his den so that he might feed upon them without having to take the trouble of going out. Then he compares himself to those foolish fathers who spare the rod and thus spoil the children. The Duke frankly admits that the conditions in the country have become so bad that his laws and decrees are now dead. The Duke ‘s simiies and his sententious manner of speaking lend special interest to his speeches. The Duke assures Friar Thomas that he has not come to lead a secluded life because of any disappointment in love which he may have suffered. He says that “the dribbling dart of love” cannot pierce a strong heart like his. However, as subsequent events will show, the Duke is certainly not proof against the arrows of Cupid.
The Tempest like many of Shakespeare’s plays contains characters who’s main purpose is surely comic relief. Trinculo a court jester, afraid of thunder hides under Caliban’s cloak despite the fact that the smelly Caliban is already wearing it. Stephano a comic drunk, who upon discovering Trinculo and Caliban under the cloak mistakes them for a four legged animal which talks out of its tail as well as its head. As he says “Its forward voice is now to speak well of his friend; his backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract.” The slightly silly playground humour with its implied fart joke is self consciously funny but the play contains many more humorous moments which though perhaps more subtle can work very well on stage.
There is the gentle humour of the kind but naïve Gonzlao who tries his best to make the best of his situation by imagining what he would do were he king of this island. Quoting Montaigne’s essay “of the caniballes” almost verbatim he claims he would have ‘no sovereignty’ (forgetting of course that he has already placed himself as head of state). Which prompts Antonio to comment that “The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning”. A gentle ironic joke at Gonzalo’s expense which lightly echoes Stephano’s later cruder topsy turvy joke.
Then there is the kind of line which can be made funny by extra textual choices made by the actors on stage. For instance Prospero granting Ferdinand and Miranda his blessing leaves them sitting talking, only to have to remind them a few lines later “Do not give dalliance too much the rein … be more abstemious”. This can be hilarious on the stage with the eager young lovers taking a moment behind Prospero’s back for a stealthy kiss.
And then there is the kind of ironic low key humour that grows on you as you think about the play. The irony for instance which sees Caliban so eagerly accepting Stephano as his new master and his desire to ingratiate himself with a useless drunk. “How does your honour?” asks Caliban him, “let me lick thy shoe”. Like must of the best Shakespearian humour this is undercut with sadness. For we can see the folly of Caliban’s belief that he has found a better master in drink and a drunkard.
The Tempest when published in the First Folio was grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies. Renaissance comedies typically contained a romantic plot in which two young people overcome odds to get married and a comic sub-plot. On the surface of it The Tempest fits this description but is also a very dark play and later generations have classified it as a Tragi-Comedy or a Romance. The Tempest on stage can be made into many things: A touching romance, a politically edgy parable of colonialism, a psychological drama… but there is no doubt that with a director who wanted to give it a comic touch The Tempest contains the material to be highly amusing on a number of levels.
The Character of Ariel in The Tempest
A development of the beneficent spirit-type in the Italian pastoral ,he is of the air ,not human, yet a personality and an intelligence. His presence adds an ethereal quality to the play.” A spirit too delicate” to do the evil bidding of Sycorax, he has become the agent of the beneficent Prospero. The Character of Touchstone in As You Like It
As You Like It features, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, a professional clown, Touchstone, and it’s worth paying some attention to his role for what it contributes towards establishing and maintaining the upbeat comic spirit of the play. For the jester is the constant commentator on what is going on. His humour, pointed or otherwise, thus inevitably contributes to the audience’s awareness of what is happening, and the way in whichother characters treat him is often a key indicator of their sensibilities.
Touchstone is one of the gentlest and happiest clowns in all of Shakespeare. He comments on the action, makes jokes at other people’s expense, and offers ironic insights about their situation. But throughout As You Like It, such traditional roles of the fool are offered and taken with a generosity of spirit so that his remarks never shake the firm comic energies of the play. When he ridicules Orlando’s verses, Rosalind laughs along with him. When he points out to Corin (in 3.2) that the shepherd must be damned for never having lived at court, Corin takes it as good natured jesting (which it is). When Touchstone takes Audrey away from her rural swain, William, there are apparently no hard feelings (although much here depends on the staging). In this play, the professional jester participates in and contributes to a style of social interaction which is unqualified by any more sober and serious reflections. This makes Touchstone very different from the bitter fool of King Lear or from the most complex fool of all, the sad Feste of Twelfth Night, both of whom offer comments that cast either a shrewd, melancholy, or bitter irony on the proceedings.
Touchstone himself becomes the target of much humour by his immediate attraction to Audrey, the “foul” country lass. There is something richly comic here, seeing the staunch apologist for the sophisticated life of the court fall so quickly to his animal lust. But the satire here is very good humoured. Touchstone himself acknowledges the frailty of his vows and does not attempt to deceive anyone about his intentions. He knows he is serving his lusts and that that is no good basis for a lasting and significant marriage. But the play builds up no severe indictment against what he is doing, and Audrey herself makes no protest. So this most unlikely of unions becomes part of the celebration of love at the end of the play, an expression of the comic variety of the experience, rather than offering any ironic commentary.
Character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice
Although Shylock only appears in five scenes, he dominates The Merchant of Venice. In fact, many critics say that although Shylock was first intended to be a stock comic character, he “outgrew” Shakespeare’s play.
A Shakespearean comedy often involves complex twists of plot and usually ends in marriage. A Shakespearean tragedy involves a hero whose downfall is the focus of the play. British actor Peter Ustinov said once in an interview, “A comedy is just a tragedy gone wrong, and a tragedy is just a comedy gone wrong.”
The character of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream
Oberon’s jester and lieutenant, Puck is a powerful supernatural creature, capable of circling the globe in 40 minutes or of enshrouding unsuspecting mortals in a deep fog. Also known as Robin Goodfellow, Puck would have been familiar to a sixteenth-century English audience, who would have recognized him as a common household spirit also often associated with travelers. But he’s also a “puck,” an elf or goblin that enjoys playing practical jokes on mortals. Although he is more mischievous than malevolent, Puck reminds us that the fairy world is not all goodness and generosity.
Another definition of his name aligns him with a Norse demon, sometimes associated with the devil. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that he brings a somewhat more dangerous element to Titania and Oberon’s seemingly benevolent fairy realm. He invokes the “damned spirits” that wander home to graveyards after a night of evil doing, while Oberon reminds him that his band of fairies are aligned with the morning dew, with sunlight and joy. Unlike Oberon who genuinely tries to create human happiness, Puck seems indifferent to human suffering. When he has accidentally caused both Lysander and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, Puck enjoys the pleasure their folly brings him. Although he restores the proper lovers to each other, he does so only at Oberon’s request, not out of any feelings of remorse. Similarly, Oberon feels repentance for Titania’s idiotic love for Bottom, but Puck doesn’t. While Oberon and Titania bless the newlyweds in Act V, Puck reminds the audience of the dangers of the night, graves gaping open and wolves howling at the moon. As a traditional Shakespearean fool, Puck makes us aware of the darker side of life, the underworld realm of shadows and magic and, ultimately, death.
The character of Viola in Twelfth Night
For most critics, Viola is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful and beloved feminine creations from his comedies. Surrounded by characters who express the extremes of emotionalism and melancholy — that is, Viola is caught between Duke Orsino’s extreme melancholy and Lady Olivia’s aggressive emotionalism — yet she represents the norm of behavior in this strange world of Illyria.
Due to her circumstances, she is, first of all, a very practical and resourceful person. As a shipwrecked orphan who has no one to protect her, she must resort to some means whereby her safety is assured. She knows that a single woman unattended in a foreign land would be in an extremely dangerous position. Consequently, she evaluates the sea captain’s character, finds it suitable, and wisely places her trust in him; then she disguises herself as a boy so that she will be safe and have a man’s freedom to move about without protection. Consequently, Viola is immediately seen to be quick-witted enough to evaluate her situation, of sound enough judgment to recognize the captain’s integrity, resourceful enough to conceive of the disguise, and practical enough to carry out this design.
Viola also has a native intelligence, an engaging wit, and an immense amount of charm. These qualities will help her obtain her position with Duke Orsino, and they are also the same qualities which cause Lady Olivia to immediately fall in love with her. It was her charming personality, we should remember, which won her the sea captain’s loyalty, without whose help her disguise would have never succeeded. And within a short three days’ time, her wit, charm, loyalty, and her skill in music and conversation won for her the complete trust of Duke Orsino. We should also remember that even though she is in love with the duke, she is loyal in her missions when she tries to win Lady Olivia’s love for him.
For the modern audience, Viola’s charm lies in her simple, straightforward, good-humored personality. She could have used her disguise for all sorts of connivings, yet she is forthright and honest in all of her dealings with Lady Olivia and with Duke Orsino, albeit she does use her disguise to entertain the audience with delightful verbal puns. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Viola is that a young lady in possession of so many attributes falls in love with someone who is as moody and changeable as the duke.
The character of Vicentio, the Duke in Measure for Measure
The Duke is fully conscious of the laxity of which he had been guilty in governing his country. He had allowed the strict statutes and the rigorous lows to become a dead letter, with the result that people had been taking more and more liberties, and been committing all kinds of offences and crimes. The Duke has a picturesque manner of speaking. He compares himself to an over-grown lion living in a cave, and not moving out to hunt his prey but inviting animals to visit him in his den so that he might feed upon them without having to take the trouble of going out. Then he compares himself to those foolish fathers who spare the rod and thus spoil the children. The Duke frankly admits that the conditions in the country have become so bad that his laws and decrees are now dead. The Duke ‘s simiies and his sententious manner of speaking lend special interest to his speeches. The Duke assures Friar Thomas that he has not come to lead a secluded life because of any disappointment in love which he may have suffered. He says that “the dribbling dart of love” cannot pierce a strong heart like his. However, as subsequent events will show, the Duke is certainly not proof against the arrows of Cupid.
Shakespeare’s art of work is remarkable to all the day to come. In Shakespeare’s comedy he has portraits all the individual character full of humour, which has much acceptable to audience.
- Shakespeare’s comic characters – D. J. Palmer
- William Shakespeare – By Edmund Chambers
- Shakespeare’s Comedies – Bertrand Evans
- Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays–By R. A Foakes
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