Shakespeare the man
Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is
surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little
disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official
character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills,
conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court—these are the
dusty details. There are, however, a fair number of contemporary allusions
to him as a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh and blood to
the biographical skeleton.
Early life in Stratford.
The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire, shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his
birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John
Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an
alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before
the grant of a further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in
various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in
prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an
ancient family and was the heiress to some land. (Given the somewhat rigid
social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have been a
step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)
Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there
was free, the schoolmaster's salary being paid by the borough. No lists of
the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have survived, but it
would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did not send his son
there. The boy's education would consist mostly of Latin studies—learning
to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the
classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to
the university, and indeed it is unlikely that the tedious round of logic,
rhetoric, and other studies then followed there would have interested him.
Instead, at the age of 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known,
but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November 28,
1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and
Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a license for the
marriage of William Shakespeare and «Anne Hathaway of Stratford,» upon the
consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. (Anne died in
1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good evidence to associate
her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a beautiful farmhouse, now
much visited, two miles from Stratford.) The next date of interest is found
in the records of the Stratford church, where a daughter, named Susanna,
born to William Shakespeare, was baptized on May 26, 1583. On February 2,
1585, twins were baptized, Hamnet and Judith. (The boy Hamnet,
Shakespeare's only son, died 11 years later.)
How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins to
appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are stories—given
currency long after his death—of stealing deer and getting into trouble
with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford; of
earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of going to London and
gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the horses of
theatregoers; it has also been conjectured that Shakespeare spent some time
as a member of a great household and that he was a soldier, perhaps in the
Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence, such extrapolations about
Shakespeare's life have often been made from the internal «evidence» of his
writings. But this method is unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for
example, from his allusions to the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer; for
he was clearly a writer, who without difficulty could get whatever
knowledge he needed for the composition of his plays.
Career in the theatre.
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes in
1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet
written on his deathbed:
There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his
Tygers heart wrapt in a Players 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
It is difficult to be certain what these words mean; but it is clear that
they are insulting and that Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms. When
the book in which they appear (Greenes groats-worth of witte, bought with a
million of repentance, 1592) was published after Greene's death, a mutual
acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to Shakespeare and
testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that Shakespeare was
by then making important friends. For, although the puritanical city of
London was generally hostile to the theatre, many of the nobility were good
patrons of the drama and friends of actors. Shakespeare seems to have
attracted the attention of the young Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of
Southampton; and to this nobleman were dedicated his first published poems,
Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early and
tried to retrieve the family fortunes and establish its gentility is the
fact that a coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare in 1596. Rough
drafts of this grant have been preserved in the College of Arms, London,
though the final document, which must have been handed to the Shakespeares,
has not survived. It can scarcely be doubted that it was William who took
the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms appears on Shakespeare's
monument (constructed before 1623) in the Stratford church. Equally
interesting as evidence of Shakespeare's worldly success was his purchase
in 1597 of New Place, a large house in Stratford, which as a boy he must
have passed every day in walking to school.
It is not clear how his career in the theatre began; but from about 1594
onward he was an important member of the company of players known as the
Lord Chamberlain's Men (called the King's Men after the accession of James
I in 1603). They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they had the best
theatre, the Globe; they had the best dramatist, Shakespeare. It is no
wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare became a full-time
professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a cooperative enterprise
and intimately concerned with the financial success of the plays he wrote.
Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which
Shakespeare's professional life molded his marvellous artistry. All that
can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously
to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama of the
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking—
dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King's Men—at the
coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his
financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In
1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes—a fact
that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its parish
church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family called
Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave's Church, Cripplegate, London. The
records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy family quarrel, show
Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to remember
certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as
interesting himself generally in the family's affairs.
No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to
him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the town
of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It was
written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn in
Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford upon business. On
one side of the paper is inscribed: «To my loving good friend and
countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these.» Apparently Quiney thought
his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply for the loan of 30—
a large sum in Elizabethan money. Nothing further is known about the
transaction, but, because so few opportunities of seeing into Shakespeare's
private life present themselves, this begging letter becomes a touching
document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18 years later Quiney's
son Thomas became the husband of Judith, Shakespeare's second daughter.
Shakespeare's will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed
document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his
elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to the
aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected
physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his «second-best
bed» to his wife; but no one can be certain what this notorious legacy
means. The testator's signatures to the will are apparently in a shaky
hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23, 1616. No
name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of
Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his own, appeared:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
EARLY POSTHUMOUS DOCUMENTATION
Shakespeare's family or friends, however, were not content with a simple
gravestone, and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the chancel
wall. It seems to have existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in Latin and
inscribed immediately below the bust, attributes to Shakespeare the worldly
wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and the poetic art of Virgil.
This apparently was how his contemporaries in Stratford-upon-Avon wished
their fellow citizen to be remembered.
CHRONOLOGY OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS
Despite much scholarly argument, it is often impossible to date a given
play precisely. But there is a general consensus, especially for plays
written 1585-1601, 1605-07, and 1609 onward. The following list of first
performances is based on external and internal evidence, on general
stylistic and thematic considerations, and on the observation that an
output of no more than two plays a year seems to have been established in
those periods when dating is rather clearer than others.
1589-92 Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3
1592-93 Richard III, The Comedy of Errors
1593-94 Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew
1594-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet
1595-96 Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream
1596-97 King John, The Merchant of Venice
1597-98 Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2
1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing
c. 1599 Henry V
1599-1600 Julius Caesar, As You Like It
1600-01 Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor
1601-02 Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida
1602-03 All's Well That Ends Well
1604-05 Measure For Measure, Othello
1605-06 King Lear, Macbeth
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
1607-08 Coriolanus, Timon of Athens
1610-11 The Winter's Tale
c. 1611 The Tempest
1612-13 Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen
Shakespeare's two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
Lucrece, can be dated with certainty to the years when the Plague stopped
dramatic performances in London, in 1592 and 1593-94, respectively, just
before their publication. But the sonnets offer many and various problems;
they cannot have been written all at one time, and most scholars set them
within the period 1593-1600. «The Phoenix and the Turtle» can be dated 1600-
During Shakespeare's early career, dramatists invariably sold their plays
to an actor's company, who then took charge of them, prepared working
promptbooks, and did their best to prevent another company or a publisher
from getting copies; in this way they could exploit the plays themselves
for as long as they drew an audience. But some plays did get published,
usually in small books called quartos. Occasionally plays were «pirated,»
the text being dictated by one or two disaffected actors from the company
that had performed it or else made up from shorthand notes taken
surreptitiously during performance and subsequently corrected during other
performances; parts 2 and 3 of the Henry VI (1594 and 1595) and Hamlet
(1603) quartos are examples of pirated, or «bad,» texts. Sometimes an
author's «foul papers» (his first complete draft) or his «fair» copy—or a
transcript of either of these—got into a publisher's hands, and «good
quartos» were printed from them, such as those of Titus Andronicus (1594),
Love's Labour's Lost (1598), and Richard II (1597). After the publication
of «bad» quartos of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (1597), the Chamberlain's
Men probably arranged for the release of the «foul papers» so that second—
«good»—quartos could supersede the garbled versions already on the market.
This company had powerful friends at court, and in 1600 a special order was
entered in the Stationers' Register to «stay» the publication of As You
Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V, possibly in order to assure
that good texts were available. Subsequently Henry V (1600) was pirated,
and Much Ado About Nothing was printed from «foul papers»; As You Like It
did not appear in print until it was included in Mr. William Shakespeares
Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, published in folio (the reference is to
the size of page) by a syndicate in 1623 (later editions appearing in 1632
The only precedent for such a collected edition of public theatre plays in
a handsome folio volume was Ben Jonson's collected plays of 1616.
Shakespeare's folio included 36 plays, 22 of them appearing for the first
time in a good text. (For the Third Folio reissue of 1664, Pericles was
added from a quarto text of 1609, together with six apocryphal plays.) The
First Folio texts were prepared by John Heminge and Henry Condell (two of
Shakespeare's fellow sharers in the Chamberlain's, now the King's, Men),
who made every effort to present the volume worthily. Only about 230 copies
of the First Folio are known to have survived.
The following list gives details of plays first published individually and
indicates the authority for each substantive edition. Q stands for Quarto:
Q2, Q3, Q4, etc., stand for reprints of an original quarto. F stands for
the First Folio edition of 1623.
Henry VI, Part 2 Q 1594: a reported text. F from revised fair copies,
edited with reference to Q.
Titus Andronicus Q 1594: from foul papers. F from a copy of Q, with
additions from a manuscript that had been used as a promptbook.
Henry VI, Part 3 Q 1595: a reported text. F as for Henry VI, Part 2.
Richard III Q 1597: a reconstructed text prepared for use as a promptbook.
F from reprints of Q, edited with reference to foul papers and containing
some 200 additional lines.
Love's Labour's Lost Q is lost. Q2 1598: from foul papers, and badly
printed. F from Q2.
Romeo and Juliet Q 1597: a reported text. Q2 from foul papers, with some
reference to Q. F from a reprint of Q2.
Richard II Q 1597: from foul papers and missing the abdication scene. Q4
1608, with reported version of missing scene. F from reprints of Q, but the
abdication scene from an authoritative manuscript, probably the promptbook
(of which traces appear elsewhere in F).
Henry IV, Part 1 Q 1598: from foul papers. F from Q5, with some literary
A Midsummer Night's Dream Q 1600: from the author's fair copy. F from Q2,
with some reference to a promptbook.
The Merchant of Venice Q 1600: from foul papers. F from Q, with some
reference to a promptbook.
Henry IV, Part 2 Q 1600: from foul papers. F from Q, with reference to a
Much Ado About Nothing Q 1600: from the author's fair papers. F from Q,
with reference to a promptbook.
Henry V Q 1600: a reported text. F from foul papers (possibly of a second
version of the play).
The Merry Wives of Windsor Q 1602: a reported (and abbreviated) text. F
from a transcript, by Ralph Crane (scrivener of the King's Men), of a
Hamlet Q 1603: a reported text, with reference to an earlier play. Q2 from
foul papers, with reference to Q. F from Q2, with reference to a
promptbook, with theatrical and authorial additions.
King Lear Q 1608: from an inadequate transcript of foul papers, with use
made of a reported version. F from Q, collated with a promptbook of a
Troilus and Cressida Q 1609: from a fair copy, possibly the author's. F
from Q, with reference to foul papers, adding 45 lines and the Prologue.
Pericles Q 1609: a poor text, badly printed with both auditory and graphic
Othello Q 1622: from a transcript of foul papers. F from Q, with
corrections from another authorial version of the play.
The plays published for the first time in the First Folio of 1623 are:
All's Well That Ends Well From the author's fair papers, or a transcript of
Antony and Cleopatra From an authorial fair copy.
Henry VI, Part 1
As You Like It From a promptbook, or a transcript of it.
The Comedy of Errors From foul papers.
Coriolanus From an authorial fair copy, edited for the printer.
Cymbeline From an authorial copy, or a transcript of such, imperfectly
prepared as a promptbook.
Henry VIII From a transcript of a fair copy, made by the author, prepared
Julius Caesar From a transcript of a promptbook.
King John From an authorial fair copy.
Macbeth From a promptbook of a version prepared for court performance.
Measure for Measure From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of very imperfect
The Taming of the Shrew From foul papers.
The Tempest From an edited transcript, by Ralph Crane, of the author's
Timon of Athens From foul papers, probably unfinished.
Twelfth Night From a promptbook, or a transcript of it.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of a
promptbook, probably of a shortened version.
The Winter's Tale From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, probably from the
author's fair copy.
The texts of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are
remarkably free from errors. Shakespeare presumably furnished a fair copy
of each for the printer. He also seems to have read the proofs. The sonnets
were published in 1609, but there is no evidence that Shakespeare oversaw
POETIC AND DRAMATIC POWERS
The early poems.
Shakespeare dedicated the poem Venus and Adonis to his patron, Henry
Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, whom he further promised to honour
with «some graver labour»—perhaps The Rape of Lucrece, which appeared a
year later and was also dedicated to Southampton. As these two poems were
something on which Shakespeare was intending to base his reputation with
the public and to establish himself with his patron, they were displays of
his virtuosity—diploma pieces. They were certainly the most popular of his
writings with the reading public and impressed them with his poetic genius.
Seven editions of Venus and Adonis had appeared by 1602 and 16 by 1640;
Lucrece, a more serious poem, went through eight editions by 1640; and
there are numerous allusions to them in the literature of the time. But
after that, until the 19th century, they were little regarded. Even then
the critics did not know what to make of them: on the one hand, Venus and
Adonis is licentiously erotic (though its sensuality is often rather
comic); while Lucrece may seem to be tragic enough, the treatment of the
poem is yet somewhat cold and distant. In both cases the poet seems to be
displaying dexterity rather than being «sincere.» But Shakespeare's
detachment from his subjects has come to be admired in more recent
Above all, the poems give evidence for the growth of Shakespeare's
imagination. Venus and Adonis is full of vivid imagery of the countryside;
birds, beasts, the hunt, the sky, and the weather, the overflowing Avon—
these give freshness to the poem and contrast strangely with the sensuous
love scenes. Lucrece is more rhetorical and elaborate than Venus and Adonis
and also aims higher. Its disquisitions (upon night, time, opportunity, and
lust, for example) anticipate brilliant speeches on general themes in the
plays—on mercy in The Merchant of Venice, suicide in Hamlet, and «degree»
in Troilus and Cressida.
There are a few other poems attributed to Shakespeare. When the Sonnets
were printed in 1609, a 329-line poem, «A Lovers complaint,» was added at
the end of the volume, plainly ascribed by the publisher to Shakespeare.
There has been a good deal of discussion about the authorship of this poem.
Only the evidence of style, however, could call into question the
publisher's ascription, and this is conflicting. Parts of the poem and some
lines are brilliant, but other parts seem poor in a way that is not like
Shakespeare's careless writing. Its narrative structure is remarkable,
however, and the poem deserves more attention than it usually receives. It
is now generally thought to be from Shakespeare's pen, possibly an early
poem revised by him at a more mature stage of his poetical style. Whether
the poem in its extant form is later or earlier than Venus and Adonis and
Lucrece cannot be decided. No one could doubt the authenticity of «The
Phoenix and the Turtle,» a 67-line poem that appeared with other «poetical
essays» (by John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson) appended to
Robert Chester's poem Loves Martyr in 1601. The poem is attractive and
memorable, but very obscure, partly because of its style and partly because
it contains allusions to real persons and situations whose identity can now
only be guessed at.
In 1609 appeared SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. At this
date Shakespeare was already a successful author, a country gentleman, and
an affluent member of the most important theatrical enterprise in London.
How long before 1609 the sonnets were written is unknown. The phrase «never
before imprinted» may imply that they had existed for some time but were
now at last printed. Two of them (nos. 138 and 144) had in fact already
appeared (in a slightly different form) in an anthology, The Passionate
Pilgrime (1599). Shakespeare had certainly written some sonnets by 1598,
for in that year Francis Meres, in a «survey» of literature, made reference
to «his sugared sonnets among his private friends,» but whether these
«sugared sonnets» were those eventually published in 1609 cannot be
ascertained—Shakespeare may have written other sets of sonnets, now lost.
Nevertheless, the sonnets included in The Passionate Pilgrime are among his
most striking and mature, so it is likely that most of the 154 sonnets that
appeared in the 1609 printing belong to Shakespeare's early 30s rather than
to his 40s—to the time when he was writing Richard II and Romeo and Juliet
rather than when he was writing King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. But, of
course, some of them may belong to any year of Shakespeare's life as a poet
The early plays.
Although the record of Shakespeare's early theatrical success is obscure,
clearly the newcomer soon made himself felt. His brilliant two-part play on
the Wars of the Roses, The Whole Contention between the two Famous Houses,
Lancaster and Yorke, was among his earliest achievements. He showed, in The
Comedy of Errors, how hilariously comic situations could be shot through
with wonder and sentiment. In Titus Andronicus he scored a popular success
with tragedy in the high Roman fashion. The Two Gentlemen of Verona was a
new kind of romantic comedy. The world has never ceased to enjoy The Taming
of the Shrew. Love's Labour's Lost is an experiment in witty and satirical
observation of society. Romeo and Juliet combines and interconnects a
tragic situation with comedy and gaiety. All this represents the probable
achievement of Shakespeare's first half-dozen years as a writer for the
London stage, perhaps by the time he had reached 30. It shows astonishing
versatility and originality.
For his plays on subjects from English history, Shakespeare primarily drew
upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, which appeared in 1587, and on Edward
Hall's earlier account of The union of the two noble and illustre famelies
of Lancastre and York (1548). From these and numerous secondary sources he
inherited traditional themes: the divine right of royal succession, the
need for unity and order in the realm, the evil of dissension and treason,
the cruelty and hardship of war, the power of money to corrupt, the
strength of family ties, the need for human understanding and careful
calculation, and the power of God's providence, which protected his
followers, punished evil, and led England toward the stability of Tudor
The Roman plays.
After the last group of English history plays, Shakespeare chose to write
about Julius Caesar, who held particular fascination for the Elizabethans.
Then, for six or seven years Shakespeare did not return to a Roman theme,
but, after completing Macbeth and King Lear, he again used Thomas North's
translation of Plutarch as a source for two more Roman plays, Antony and
Cleopatra and Coriolanus, both tragedies that seem as much concerned to
depict the broad context of history as to present tragic heroes.
The «great,» or «middle,» comedies.
The comedies written between 1596 and 1602 have much in common and are as
well considered together as individually. With the exception of The Merry
Wives of Windsor, all are set in some «imaginary» country. Whether called
Illyria, Messina, Venice and Belmont, Athens, or the Forest of Arden, the
sun shines as the dramatist wills. A lioness, snakes, magic caskets, fairy
spells, identical twins, disguise of sex, the sudden conversion of a
tyrannous duke or the defeat offstage of a treacherous brother can all
change the course of the plot and bring the characters to a conclusion in
which almost all are happy and just deserts are found. Lovers are young and
witty and almost always rich. The action concerns wooing; and its
conclusion is marriage, beyond which the audience is scarcely concerned.
Whether Shakespeare's source was an Italian novel (The Merchant of Venice
and Much Ado About Nothing), an English pastoral tale ( As You Like It), an
Italian comedy (the Malvolio story in Twelfth Night), or something of his
own invention (probably A Midsummer Night's Dream, and parts of each),
always in his hands story and sentiments are instinct with idealism and
capable of magic transformations.
In some ways these are intellectual plays. Each comedy has a multiple plot
and moves from one set of characters to another, between whom Shakespeare
invites his audience to seek connections and explanations. Despite very
different classes of people (or immortals) in different strands of the
narrative, the plays are unified by Shakespeare's idealistic vision and by
an implicit judgment of human relationships, and all their characters are
brought together—with certain significant exceptions—at, or near, the
The great tragedies.
It is a usual and reasonable opinion that Shakespeare's greatness is
nowhere more visible than in the series of tragedies— Hamlet, Othello,
King Lear, and Macbeth. Julius Caesar, which was written before these, and
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, which were written after, have many
links with the four. But, because of their rather strict relationship with
the historical materials, they are best dealt with in a group by
themselves. Timon of Athens, probably written after the above-named seven
plays, shows signs of having been unfinished or abandoned by Shakespeare.
It has its own splendours but has rarely been considered equal in
achievement to the other tragedies of Shakespeare's maturity.
The «dark» comedies.
Before the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 the country was ill at ease:
the House of Commons became more outspoken about monopolies and royal
prerogative, and uncertainty about the succession to the throne made the
future of the realm unsettled. In 1603 the Plague again struck London,
closing the theatres. In 1601 Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of
Southampton, was arrested on charges of treason; he was subsequently
released, but such scares did not betoken confidence in the new reign.
About Shakespeare's private reaction to these events there can be only
speculation, but three of the five plays usually assigned to these years—
Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure—have
become known as «dark» comedies for their distempered vision of the world.
Only during the 20th century have these plays been frequently performed in
anything like Shakespeare's texts, an indication that their questioning,
satiric, intense, and shifting comedy could not please earlier audiences.
The late plays.
Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII,
written between 1608 and 1612, are commonly known as Shakespeare's «late
plays,» or his «last plays,» and sometimes, with reference to their
tragicomic form, they are called his «romances.» Works written by an author
in his 40s hardly deserve to be classified as «late» in any critical sense,
yet these plays are often discussed as if they had been written by a
venerable old author, tottering on the edge of a well-earned grave. On the
contrary, Shakespeare must have believed that plenty of writing years lay
before him, and indeed the theatrical effectiveness and experimental nature
of Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in particular make them
very unlike the fatigued work of a writer about to break his staff and
drown his book.
The contribution of textual criticism.
The early editors of Shakespeare saw their task chiefly as one of
correction and regularization of the faulty printing and imperfect texts of
the original editions or their reprints. Many changes in the text of the
quartos and folios that are now accepted derive from Nicholas Rowe (1709)
and Alexander Pope (1723-25), but these editors also introduced many
thousands of small changes that have since been rejected. Later in the 18th
century, editors compiled collations of alternative and rejected readings.
Samuel Johnson (1765), Edward Capell (1767-68), and Edmund Malone (1790)
were notable pioneers. Their work reached its most comprehensive form in
the Cambridge edition in nine volumes by W.G. Clark, J. Glover, and W.A.
Wright, published in 1863-66. A famous one-volume Globe edition of 1864 was
based on this Cambridge text.
Romeo and Juliet,
play by William Shakespeare, performed about 1594-95 and first published in
a «bad» quarto in 1597. The characters of Romeo and Juliet have been
depicted in literature, music, dance, and theatre. The appeal of the young
hero and heroine—whose families, the Montagues and Capulets, respectively,
are implacable enemies—is such that they have become, in the popular
imagination, the representative type of star-crossed lovers.
Shakespeare's principal source for the plot was The Tragicall Historye of
Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem by the English poet Arthur
Broke (d. 1563). Broke had based his poem on a French translation of a tale
by the Italian Matteo Bandello (1485-1561).
Shakespeare set the scene in Verona, Italy, during July. Juliet and Romeo
meet and fall instantly in love at a masked ball of the Capulets and
profess their love when Romeo later visits her at her private balcony in
her family's home. Because the two noble families are enemies, the couple
is married secretly by Friar Laurence. When Tybalt, a Capulet, kills
Romeo's friend Mercutio in a quarrel, Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished to
Mantua. Juliet's father insists on her marrying Count Paris, and Juliet
goes to consult the friar. He gives her a potion that will make her appear
to be dead and proposes that she take it and that Romeo rescue her; she
complies. Unaware of the friar's scheme, Romeo returns to Verona on hearing
of Juliet's apparent death. He encounters Paris, kills him, and finds
Juliet in the burial vault. There he gives her a last kiss and kills
himself with poison. Juliet awakens, sees the dead Romeo, and kills
herself. The families learn what has happened and end their feud.
The most complex of Shakespeare's early plays, Romeo and Juliet is far more
than «a play of young love» or «the world's typical love-tragedy.» Weaving
together a large number of related impressions and judgments, it is as much
about hate as love. It tells of a family and its home as well as a feud and
a tragic marriage. The public life of Verona and the private lives of the
Veronese make up the setting for the love of Juliet and Romeo and provide
the background against which their love can be assessed. It is not the
deaths of the lovers that conclude the play but the public revelation of
what has happened, with the admonitions of the Prince and the
reconciliation of the two families.
Shakespeare enriched an already old story by surrounding the guileless
mutual passion of Romeo and Juliet with the mature bawdry of the other
characters—the Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory open the play with
their fantasies of exploits with the Montague women; the tongues of the
Nurse and Mercutio are seldom free from sexual matters—but the innocence
of the lovers is unimpaired.
Romeo and Juliet made a strong impression on contemporary audiences. It was
also one of Shakespeare's first plays to be pirated; a very bad text
appeared in 1597. Detestable though it is, this version does derive from a
performance of the play, and a good deal of what was seen on stage was
recorded. Two years later another version of the play appeared, issued by a
different, more respectable publisher, and this is essentially the play
known today, for the printer was working from a manuscript fairly close to
Shakespeare's own. Yet in neither edition did Shakespeare's name appear on
the title page, and it was only with the publication of Love's Labour's
Lost in 1598 that publishers had come to feel that the name of Shakespeare
as a dramatist, as well as the public esteem of the company of actors to
which he belonged, could make an impression on potential purchasers of
WALTER EBISCH and LEVIN L. SCHЬCKING, A Shakespeare Bibliography (1931,
reprinted 1968), and a supplement for the years 1930-35 (1937, reissued
1968), are comprehensive. They are updated by GORDON ROSS SMITH, A
Classified Shakespeare Bibliography, 1936-1958 (1963). JAMES G. McMANAWAY,
A Selective Bibliography of Shakespeare: Editions, Textual Studies,
Commentary (1975), covers more than 4,500 items published between 1930 and
1970, mainly in English. LARRY S. CHAMPION, The Essential Shakespeare: An
Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies, 2nd ed. (1993), includes
works in English published from 1900 through 1984. STANLEY WELLS (ed.),
Shakespeare, new ed. (1990), provides bibliographies on topics ranging from
the poet to the text to the performances. Shakespeare Quarterly publishes
an annual classified bibliography. Shakespeare Survey (quarterly) publishes
annual accounts of «Contributions to Shakespearian Study,» as well as
retrospective articles on work done on particular aspects. A selection of
important scholarly essays published during the previous year is collected
in Shakespearean Criticism (annual).