If drama is the climax of the Elizabethan Age, in William Shakespeare's works we can find the compendium of all the problems and the creative potentialities of the whole English Renaissance.
The life of the maximum English playwright and poet is scarcely documented: he was born in Straford-on-Avon in 1564 and he was the son of a craftsman who had filled local public posts. He studied at the Grammar School of his town, where he received a good basic instruction, for example only a little of Latin and Greek, fact that his learned contemporary Ben Johnson grudged to him in a well known poem, dedicated to his memory. Therefore, his scholastic instruction was quite incomplete, but William's spirit of observation and his intellectual curiosity opened to his works the horizons of a cognitive and creative process typical of a great artist. In 1582, when he was eighteen years old, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman who was eight years older than him, but, in spite of the birth of three children, the marriage, according to the allusions leaking out from his plays, was not a happy one. For this reason in 1592 we find Shakespeare in London, working both as an actor and as a writer.
We do not know exactly when or why Shakespeare moved to London and started his theatrical career, but we have a first testimony in a polemic pamphlet by Robert Greene (Greene's Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, 1592): the author describes the young Shakespeare as «a villain boasting about someone else's works, who thinks to be the only “shakescene” of the country», so we can affirm that he had already written some of his plays. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's first printed work was not a play, but the erotic-mythological poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593; after this, another similar poem was published, with the title The Rape of Lucrece (1594). With these two compositions, it seems that the writer meant to ensure the protection of an influent personality like the Earl of Southampton, to whom both of the poems are dedicated; Shakespeare also wanted to demonstrate his qualities as a learned literate, measuring himself with a genre that was very popular in those years. Probably, at that time he had already started to write the first of his Sonnets (published in 1609), but since 1594 his production has been essentially dramatic.
In 1593 all London theatres had been closed because of an epidemic of plague, but the following year they opened again, the theatrical companies reorganized themselves and Shakespeare entered in the company of the Lord Chamberlain's Men as actor, playwright and sharer of the costs and earnings. At first, the Chamberlain's Men performed in the playhouse called Theatre, but in 1599 they had another theatre built specially for them. It remained their permanent performing center until a fire destroyed it in 1613, during a representation of Henry VIII, composed by the same Shakespeare. As the company began to flourish again, Shakespeare's economic conditions got better, too, so he invested in landed properties in Stratford, where he bought the house where he spent his last years of his life.
We do not have any information about Shakespeare's qualities as an actor: usually the main roles in his dramas were played by Richard Burbage, while he used to keep aside for himself the parts of authoritative characters, like kings and others with a solemn and studied way of speaking.
In 1594 was send to press for the first time one of his plays, Titus Andronicus, which was published anonymously. From then on, others of his works were published, but when Shakespeare died, a little number of his plays had been printed in the shape of book and he had taken care of the edition of none of them. For this reason, it is impossible to establish with certainty an order in the composition of the plays, also because the related documentation is full of gaps; we only have the certainty about a group of plays composed before 1598, that is to say, the youthful period of the Shakespearean activity, because they were enumerated in Palladis Tamia by Francis Meres, published in this same year. We are talking about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, a mysterious Love's Labour's Won, a lost play, unless, as some critics say, it has to be identified with con The Taming of the Shrew or with All's Well That Ends Well; The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. This list witnesses the extraordinary versatility of the young Shakespeare, who had already experimented all the popular dramatic genres of his age: from the senechian “horror” drama (Titus Andronicus) to the romantic tragedy (Romeo and Juliet); from the historic play (King John) to the most in-depth investigation of a character handed down through history (Richard II); from the comedy according to the Plautus's model (The Comedy of Errors) to the adventurous sentimental one (The Two Gentlemen of Verona); from the Arcadian-euphuistic comedy (Love's Labour's Lost) to the fabulous one (A Midsummer Night's Dream), till the tragic comedy as The Merchant of Venice. This variety reveals the author's commercial and experimental purposes, but it is also indicative of the nature of his genius, capable to draw on every kind of source and to transform the inspiring models while preserving the stylistic distinctions. The research for sources and for formative influences became for him very important, as everything could be an inspiration for the dramatic expression, from the classical myths to the Renaissance novelistic, through the English history and the Nordic legends. On the stylistic level, there are many echoes of his contemporaries and predecessors: it has been proved that the popular Elizabethan theatre often was the result of collaborations, so it is possible that some works signed with the name of William Shakespeare had been written by more than only one author. For example, here and there appear the sonority and the sensuality of the verses written by Christopher Marlowe, or the elegant use of the concept of the University Wits, or Kyd's taste for horror, or the farcical vulgarity of the popular entertainments. Anyway, the touch of this genial writer lays in the constant dramatic vitality of his plays: Shakespeare demonstrates his genius in putting in the mouth of the characters the significant and enlightening cue, besides his capability in the contamination of the genres, a technique which enriches their human meaning and brings to very original results. We can find an example of this characteristics in A Midsummer Night's Dream: in this play there are elements which were deliberately taken from the popular magic folklore and which insert themselves in an elegant plot, typical of the court comedy, while, at the same time, it is to be noted an influence of the popular farce. In others of Shakespeare's first works we meet some characters who have a human consistence which goes even beyond the gigantic characters described in Marlowe's plays: even if Richard III is still related with the conventional, monstrous wicked man; even if Romeo and Juliet forms part of the conventional amorous novelistic, we cannot deny that Shakespeare reaches new levels in the dramatic art when he creates the unrestrained character of Falstaff (in both parts of Henry IV) or draws up the subtle psychological problem through Richard II in the play with the same name.
After 1598 Shakespeare kept on deepening the human and moral complexity of his characters: in Julius Caesar he offered a complex problem which demonstrates his deep intuition for the human being and proves his will of not imposing himself as a judge of the action of men. And even if in the following years he wrote other romantic and poetic comedies, he put in them a melancholic tone, while even their titles, for example As you like it, or what you will, seem to indicate that Shakespeare's interest in this kind of plots had diminished. The poet, in fact, was much more interested in exploring the most obscure recesses of the human soul: in this period he was about to write Hamlet, followed by those plays which are known as the “problematic plays” or “black comedies”, as Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, in which the happy endings leaves a bitter taste and the humour becomes a cruel irony about the corruptions of human feelings. It is said that this melancholic and then pessimistic attitude was caused by some kind of personal event: a possibility could be an illness or a political reason, but it is more logical to think that Shakespeare, thanks to his artistic sensibility, was receiving the influence of that general conscience anxiety characterizing the first years of the 17th century, when it became clear that all the traditional values handed on from the Middle Ages had collapsed and that a necessity to discover again the human nature had born. The ironic bitterness was then ransomed by the tragic plays: Othello, Macbeth, King Lear (written between 1604 and 1606) are no longer tragedies caused by fate, like Romeo and Juliet, or by a will of revenge, as it happens in Titus Andronicus or in Hamlet; they are more likely explorations of the original faults of the human nature and of the experiences that these faults can redeem. A bitter background remained in the style of Shakespeare, evident above all in the misanthropy of that Timon of Athens that he left incomplete, maybe because of the negative attitude reflected in it. The other “roman plays” composed during those years, that is to say, Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, limited the range of the themes, as the first one was an inquiry about love and the second about the concept of nobility.
In 1608 a new plague provoked the closing of the theatres and when they opened again, the company of the King's Men, in which Shakespeare was shareholder, occupied, besides the glorious Globe, which was a popular opened theatre, another playhouse, which was private, closed and intended for a more sophisticated and aristocratic audience.
The last plays by Shakespeare, written after 1608, that is to say, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, present different characteristics with regards to the previous ones: they have incredible, adventurous and fantastic plots; they use more elegant and sophisticated ways of expression; in them the author did not care of hiding the literary artifice and employed more stage effects, which could not be used in an opened theatre because of the daylight. There's a constant theme which consists in the finding of a loved person, for example a daughter or a wife, after a long separation caused by a protagonist's fault or thoughtlessness; and as the lost of this person occurs during a tempest, so the finding is accompanied by music, apparitions, divine interventions; this fault of the protagonist is followed by redemption, personified generally in figures like girls, young women, innocent couples of lovers from which a new life will born. After writing The Tempest, Shakespeare gave up composing plays and limited himself collaborating with other authors; it is said that in Prospero, one of the main characters of this last work, we must see a reflection of the same author and his will of retire from the theatrical world in London.
Shakespeare died on the 23rd of April 1616 and was buried in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon. He did not edit any of his works and before his death only 16 were published, separated and in different versions, in little volumes “in-quarto”, that is to say, a printing sheet folded 4 times, so to obtain 16 pages; many of these volumes, if not all, were published without the author's consent, because they had been illegally copied during the performances. In 1623 two of the actors of the former Shakespeare's company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gathered all his works known to them, published and unpublished, and edited them in an “in-folio” volume, which is a printing sheet of paper folded in half, so to have 4 pages generally written in two columns. This first “in-folio” contained 36 works: 16 plays had been already published in the previous “in-quarto” (but Pericles does not appear here, while in the “in-quarto” it did); to these the two editors add 20 unpublished plays: The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well that Ends Well, The Twelfth Night, A Winter's Tale, King John, the three parts of Henry VI, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline. Heminge and Condell declared they had based their edition on Shakespeare's manuscripts, but their statement is manifestly false, because in many cases they reproduced the “in-quarto” versions, elsewhere they avail themselves of the stage scripts. The printing of the “in-folio” was subjected to various interruptions and its revision was not very precise: there are many corrupt passages, repetitions, typographic misprints, incorrect stage directions; some plays present the division in scenes while others don't; some are abounding in stage directions and some lack totally of them; the same punctuation and the orthographic peculiarities vary a lot from play to play. For all these reasons, it is very difficult to order all Shakespeare's plays according to the date of their composition, all the more because the documentation referring to the performances is really incomplete. Nevertheless, in the absolute lacking of manuscripts, the “in-folio” published in 1623 is the most authoritative text we have about William Shakespeare's works.
Shakespeare's plays can be divided in four periods, according to the topic and to the chronological order:
1st period: 1590-95, which comprehends the historical plays Henry VI and Richard III;
2nd period: 1596-1599, during which he wrote Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V;
3rd period: 1600-1608, when Shakespeare wrote all the tragedies and the roman plays;
4th period: 1608-11, which comprehends the last plays.
Shakespeare made his theatrical debut as a playwright with three historical plays and apart from King John, which surely is a youth work, and Henry VIII, which probably is the last play he began to write, maybe with a collaborator, his historical works can be divided in two tetralogies:
The first tetralogy composed belongs to Shakespeare's first period and comprehends the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III; so it deals with that turbulent period of the English history which saw the fight between the House of York and the House of Lancaster (the War of the Roses, 1455-85);
In the second tetralogy are grouped together Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V; these plays deal with the years between 1398 and 1420, the deposition of Richard II, the internal fight which followed and the war against France which ends with the victory in Azincourt and the matrimonial alliance between the sovereigns of the two countries. All the three plays were written during the second period.
The source of all the historical plays is the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577) by R. Holinshed, but Shakespeare interpreted the facts from his personal point of view, as he wanted to express, through the plays, the idea that the State could survive only thanks to the loyalty and fidelity of its subjects and that these two virtues should belong first of all to the king.
THE FIRST PERIOD (1590-1595)
During the first period Shakespeare tended to the reaching of a kind of artistic perfection, as his main purpose was the complete mastery of the literary instrument. The forms approved by the audience are explored and experimented, while the style continues to improve. In the tragedies the Marlowian rhetoric predominates, but in the comedies Shakespeare draws on the euphuism and on the court conventions; he follows so closely the other authors' steps, that his first works has been often considered simple remakes of other plays. To this first period belong:
Henry VI (1590-92)
Richard II (1592-93)
The Comedy of Errors (1592-93)
Titus Andronicus (1593-94)
The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594-95)
Romeo and Juliet (1594-95)
Love's Labour's Lost (1594-95)
Richard III: the play was published in 1597, but probably it had been written some years before. The whole plot hinges on the protagonist, an enormous and deformed man, typical incarnation of the Machiavellian character drawn in Marlowe's plays. Marlowe's influence is clear also in the style, characterized by long measured soliloquies written in verses and by the taste for all that's macabre, brought to erotic proportions. The play deals with Richard's machinations to take possession of the power, realistically depicted in sensational scenes, like Richard's courting of the widow of the prince of Wales, whom he murdered; others examples are the night visions of Clarence, the protagonist's older brother, just before being killed by that one, or the murder of Edward IV's young sons.
The Comedy of Errors: it dates back to 1592-93, but the first information about its representation dates 1594. The plot is based on Menaechmi by Plautus with some scenes inspired by Amphitruo, and hinges on the misunderstanding caused by continuous cases of mistaken identity between the twins Antipholus from Ephesus and Antipholus from Syracuse and their servants, who are twins, too. The play is written in verses and reaches a kind of classical measure and elegance in the precision of its course, in which the humour springs from the predictability of every single misunderstanding.
The Taming of the Shrew: it is the only one play written in this period which Meres did not mention in his list: this is the reason why some identify this work with the one Meres called Love's Labour's Won, but a recently found document demonstrates that the two were know at the beginning of the 18th century as two different plays, fact that excludes that they were a unique one. The problem grows bigger thanks to the existence of an anonymous comedy published in 1594 and titled The Taming of a Shrew, whose plot and framework are analogue to Shakespeare's play, but whose setting is different; it presents also different names for the characters and is written in verses, which can be recognized as Shakespearean.
Even if its rough style could date it back to a previous period, this play could be the source for Shakespeare's work, which was written around 1594. It contains a singular application of the technique of the “theatre in theatre”: it is preceded by a prologue in which a tinsmith, Christopher Sly, is found in front of a country tavern asleep and completely drunk by a lord and his retinue while returning from a hunting. To play a trick on him, the lord orders to take him to his castle where, when the poor man will awake, everyone will have to treat him as he were a gentlemen who has been a mental patient during fifteen years; a company of roaming actors has the task to make him recover with the representation of a comedy, which precisely is The Taming of the Shrew. In the anonymous comedy Sly appeared again at the end of the play, but in Shakespeare's version the attempt to draw this framework is abandoned after the first scene: in fact, Sly and the other characters who are presented in the prologue appear briefly once in the first act and then disappear completely. In the comedy represented for the tinsmith, two different plot distinguish themselves: in the first one, the noble Petruchio decides to marry the “shrew” Catherine, the older daughter of Baptista, a rich lord from Padua; he courts the girl without caring of her bad character and of her rows, on the contrary, he pretends to find her as the most submissive and gentle woman in the world. On their marriage day, he begins to “tame” her, subjecting her to every kind of humiliation and ill-treatment: he arrives late to the church and dressed in rags; he refuses to go to the nuptial party and drags his wife away on a hack; when they arrive home, he prevents her from eating, from sleeping, from dressing, asserting that nothing is fit for her and exhausts her until she accepts every absurdity, for example that the sun is the moon or that the morning is the afternoon. Finally, he leads her again to her father's house, completely subjected. The second plot, parallel to this one, does not derive from the anonymous work, but is based on The Supposes, an English adaptation in prose of Ludovico Ariosto's Suppositi (1509), by Gascoigne (1530-1577). It's very elaborate but much less lively than the rest of the play, so that some critics saw in it the style of an unknown collaborator of the author. This plot hinges on the courting of Bianca, Catherine's sister, by Gremio, Hortensio and Lucentio. These two suitors disguise themselves as teachers and succeed in being admitted in Baptista's house; after various disguises and farcical misunderstandings, Bianca accepts to marry Lucentio, while Hortensio, rejected, will get married with a rich widow. The comedy ends with a banquet, during which Petruchio makes a bet: who is the most docile wife. He wins thanks to the “education” he gave to Catherine, who finally delivers a speech about the obedience every wife must owe to her husband.
Romeo and Juliet: it was published in 1597, but it is datable to some years before. The story of the troubled love between the two young protagonists, belonging to adverse families, was taken from a narration in verses by Arthur Brooke, titled The tragic history of Romeo and Juliet, and this derived from a “novella” by Matteo Bandello (who, in his turn, had his precedents in Luigi da Porto and Masuccio Salernitano). It is a “fate-tragedy” and its best and more effective parts are those that celebrate with refined and passionate lyrical accents the love of the protagonists. Romeo is the only son of the Montagues, a family that has its most bitter enemy in the family of the Capulets. During a party in the house of the Capulets, to which he takes part, masked, with some friends, he sees Juliet, the daughter of Capulet, and falls in love with her; after the party, Romeo, who stands under Juliet's window, hears her declaring her love for him: he reveals himself and obtains her consent to a secret marriage, which is celebrated the day after with the help of friar Lawrence, friend to Romeo. But during a fight that Romeo tries to avert, Tybalt, nephew to lady Capulet, kills Mercutio, Romeo's best friend and kinsman to the Prince of Verona. To revenge the death of his friend, Romeo kills Tybalt and the Prince condemns him to be banned from Verona and to escape to Mantua. Meanwhile, Juliet's father obliges her to marry count Paris, but the night before the marriage, following a plan projected by friar Lawrence, she drinks a powerful narcotic that will make her seem to be dead during forty hours; in the meantime, the friar will inform Romeo, who will wake her from her “dead sleep” and bring her to Mantua. But the messenger sent by the friar does not complete his mission because a suspect of plague that prevents him from entering in Mantua and Balthasar, servant to Romeo, let his master know that Juliet is dead. Romeo rushes to Verona and enters in the sepulchre where his lover lays; here he finds Paris and kills him in a fight, then drink a poison he had taken with him and dies next to his love. Juliet, waking up from her sleep, finds the corpse of her husband, takes his dagger and stabs herself. Realizing what their enmity has caused, the heads of Capulets and Montagues make it up. The style follows the euphuistic line: it appears refined and elaborate and reaches really high tones in the scenes where the love between the young lovers is described; here and there the sensibility of the theme finds its balance thanks to the introduction of lively witticisms, of often vulgar and coarse allusions, which have the merit of giving real consistence to the characters. Among them, two characters stand out for their naturalness and expressive efficacy: they are Juliet's nurse and Mercutio, Romeo's sceptic and ironic friend, two “living and earthly creatures” that colour and make more likely the whole plot.
Love's Labour's Lost: we do not know a precise source for this comedy, but it is to suspect that Shakespeare, when he wrote it, was aware of the visit Margot of Valois and her ladies made in 1578 to her husband Henry IV of Navarre, from whom she was living separated. The plot is typical for its construction in symmetrical parts: the setting is the court of Navarre, where king Ferdinand and his three gentlemen found an academy and make the vow not to talk to any woman during three years; when the princess of France and her retinue arrive to the court for a diplomatic mission, the vow turns to be ephemeral, as the king and his friends send secret love letters to the ladies. The trick is easily discovered and the princess and her ladies accept the courting of Ferdinand and his gentlemen; the announcement of the death of the king of France provokes the decision of the princess to leave Navarre, but she and her ladies ask their lovers to wait during one year and one day to marry them. So the comedy ends with a refined melancholic tone, because, as the title says, the troubles and the worries caused by love appear to be vain and only a faithful waiting will redeem them. Near to the courtesans, we find the comical characters: the ridiculous Spanish gentleman, the abstruse pedant man, a good parish priest, a couple of country people, whose humour contrasts with the constant elaboration of the protagonists' language. It is also to suspect that in the “night school” to which he refers in the play, Shakespeare was making a satire on the group of literates and intellectuals that in 1594 was meeting around the figure of sir Walter Raleigh. This is the most elegant of Shakespeare's comedies and reveals clearly the influence of Lily's style, so elaborated and artificial. This characteristic, the lack of a more earthly humour appearing in the other comedies and the insertion of many lyrical poems following the courtesan style, make us intuit an aristocratic destination for this work in comparison to the heterogeneous audience to which the Elizabethan theatre was used to. Concerning to the structure, the comedy is a little defective and the characters sometimes are drawn with superficiality; the themes (in general, the absurdity in understanding the human existence in an abstract way), too, reveal a still experimental phase in Shakespeare's attitude, but also an inclination to search for more original proposals.
THE SECOND PERIOD (1596-1599)
At the end of the century the Shakespearean works show a larger variety and a greater artistic ability, but they also show the effects of a temporal deviation from the principle development line of the author. Both tendencies can be observed in a series of plays inspired by the courtesan style, which reflect an aristocratic idea of the theatre. To this period belong:
Richard II (1595-96), which represent the passage to this period;
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96)
The life and death of King John (1596-97)
The Merchant of Venice (1596-97)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99)
Twelfth Night (1596-1600)
As you like it (1596-1600)
Julius Caesar (1599-1600)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: in this case Shakespeare did not take the inspiration from only one source, but he drew on the popular legends for the character of Puck, know as Robin Goodfellow; on stories on the model of Apuleius for the transformation of a man in a donkey; on the Metamorphoses by Ovid for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, represented in the play by a group of craftsmen; on classical reminiscences to invent the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta; and so on. The comedy finds its originality in its composite nature and in the learning with which Shakespeare could merge in it three different worlds: the fantastic world of the fairies, the world of the humble craftsmen and the world of the courtesan tradition. The plot sets in an imaginary Athens, during the preparation of the celebration of duke Theseus's marriage with Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Egeus, a noble of the court, wants her daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, but she leaves Athens with her lover Lysander and they hide themselves together in the wood near to the city. Hermia reveals the plan to her friend Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and jealous of his love for Hermia; to make him appreciate her, Helena tells the project to Demetrius, who goes to the forest to search for the fugitives, followed by her. Meanwhile, in the wood Oberon, king of the Fairies, quarrels with his wife Titania for a young servant contested between them and entrusts Puck with the search of a magic flower, whose juice, poured on Titania's eyes while she's sleeping, will make her fall in love with the first person she will see awakening. When Oberon notices that in the wood there are Demetrius and Helena and realizes that they have quarrelled, he orders to Puck to pour the philtre on sleeping Demetrius's eyes so to make him fall in love with her. Everything complicates because Puck gets confused and pours the juice on Lysander's eyes, causing his falling in love with Helena and his abandoning of Hermia. The two men, rivals, challenge to a duel, while the girls argue and accuse each other. But in the magic forest there is also a company of rough craftsmen, leaded by Bottom the weaver, that went there to stage a comedy to represent at court; Puck, maliciously, converts Bottom's head in a donkey's head when Titania is awakening, so that she sees him and falls in love with this “monster”. The bizarre confusion reaches in this moment its maximum point, but Oberon intervenes and breaks all the spells, making up with Titania. The human lovers, back to Athens, can unite following their desires, while the artisans represent for Theseus and Hippolyta the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which becomes, thanks to their incompetence, in an irresistible farce. In this comedy Shakespeare lets more freedom to his imagination and in a discourse put in Theseus's mouth, he claims this freedom for the poet.
The Merchant of Venice: this work is datable between 1594 and 1596. The principle plot derives from the collection of “novellas” titled Il Pecorone, by Giovanni Fiorentino; the detail of the caskets is taken by a sixteenth-century English version of Gesta Romanorum, a collection of anecdotes written in Latin and going back up to the late medieval period. We can detect also some echoes from Marlowe's Barabbas, the Hebrew of Malta and from a tragic event occurred in 1594: Elizabeth's doctor, the Hebrew Portuguese Roderigo Lopez, was condemned to death because he had been accused of wanting to poison the queen. The play takes place in Venice, where the noble Bassanio asks his friend Antonio (the merchant of the title) to lend him some money so to have the possibility to court the rich and beautiful Portia. Antonio must apply to the Hebrew Shylock because he does not have the sum his friend asked him, even if he had reproached to the Hebrew his practice of usury. Shylock offers the loan with the clause that, in case of lack of restitution, he will be free to take a pound of flesh by any part of Antonio's body. Antonio consents because he is waiting the ships in which he has invested most of his goods. Meanwhile, Bassanio obtains Portia's hand in marriage, but at the expiration of the loan, Antonio cannot return the money to Shylock, as the ships have wrecked. Shylock requires his pound of flesh and the case arrives to the Doge's tribunal; Portia, disguised as a lawyer, makes the judges observe that the Hebrew should be sentenced to death if, cutting the Antonio's flesh, he take away more or less than a pound or let only a drop of blood fall. Shylock renounce, but he is condemned, in any case, to the loss of all his goods: a part of them will be given back to him if he converts to the Christianity and when he shall die, he will leave everything to his daughter Jessica, whom he had disinherited because of her escape with the Christian Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio. Sketching out the figure of Shylock, Shakespeare keeps his distance from the contemporary stereotypes, specially from Marlowe's grotesque and tragic Barabbas, and invents a complex character, sadly conscious of the diversity to which he is continually subjected and compelled to act like does by the discriminations and the insults he feels as deeply unjust.
Henry IV: was composed in 1597-98 and tells the story of this king from the rebellion of Scotland to his death. The historic events become less important because the standing out of a secondary character, sir John Oldcastle, later renamed sir John Falstaff to respect the descendants of that honourable family. He is the fearful and foppish “wasting mate” of the young prince Hal, the king-to-be Henry V. Falstaff was conceived as a comic and ridiculous character, as his friends Pistol, Poins, Bardolph, Madame Quickly and Dolly Tearsheet, but he likes to the audience because he also represents some human weaknesses; besides, he becomes extremely pathetic in the final scenes, when prince Henry, ascending to the throne and recovering the sense of responsibility apt to a sovereign, disowns him. In the first part of Henry IV another character catches the attention of the audience: he is the impetuous Percy Hotspur, the typical rough young man, frank and belligerent, who later dies in the battle; in the second part it is to note prince Henry's passage from the youthful irresponsibility to the consciousness of the almost sacred sense of his mission as a king.
Henry V: with this work Shakespeare intended to celebrate this king's victories on France, because he was considered the “mirror of all Christian kings”. We can deduce the date of the composition (1599) from some allusions included in the same play. Obviously, the author conceived it as a continuation of Henry IV, so that in this one he describes the death of Falstaff, and he gave it a specific patriotic tone. The fortunate ventures of the English army in France and Henry's concern about the subjects and his country are celebrated through a noble and resonant rhetoric; Shakespeare reduced the comic parts, but he uses an ironic grace in the scenes of Henry's courting of the French king's daughter.
Julius Caesar: Shakespeare based this tragedy on the English translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives made by Thomas North. What seems to interest the author in the play is not the development of the events (the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius, the murder of Caesar, the forming of the second triumvirate, the death of the conspirators), but the moral problems implied in the plot: the concept of freedom, that of honesty and that of honour, the human relations (explored in the relationships of Brutus and Cassius, Brutus and Caesar and, above all, between Brutus and Portia). This inquiry gives a particular depth and ambiguity to the protagonists and a universal meaning to the plot; besides, the furious, pathetic and desperate dialogue between Brutus and Cassius before the battle in Filippi reveals Shakespeare's maturity on the level of the individual psychological investigation.
THE THIRD PERIOD (1600-1608)
To this third period belong:
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602)
All's Well that Ends Well (1604-1605)
Measure for Measure (1604-1605)
King Lear (1604-1605)
Antonio and Cleopatra (1604-1605)
Timon of Athens (1607-1608)
Hamlet: the young of Denmark Hamlet feels deeply upset because of his mother's marriage with his uncle Claudius, her former brother-in-law, after only two months from the death of his father. His friend Horatio tells him that, during two consequent nights, the castle's guards saw the ghost of the dead king; so Hamlet goes that same night to wait for the apparition on the terraces of the castle. The ghost of the king reveals him that he is condemned to roam every night for expiating his sin, but he also tells his son that he must revenge him: in fact, his brother Claudius, actually queen Gertrude's husband and so king of Denmark, killed him by pouring a powerful poison in a hear, while he was sleeping. Anyway, he imposes Hamlet not to talk with his mother, nor make her take any part in the plan. The prince puts all his energies in this revenge, he breaks every bond of friendship and the love affair with Ophelia, the daughter of the court chamberlain, Polonius, and, to be sure that his uncle is guilty of the king's murder, he organizes a theatrical representation of a drama that evokes the same circumstances in which he committed that crime. This prove has a positive outcome, but Hamlet is still doubtful about killing his uncle, so he goes to his mother's room to convince her that she must break the relation with her husband, but there he notices the presence of another person spying them: believing this person to be Claudius, he stabs him, killing Polonius instead. In consequence to this, he is compelled to leave Denmark escorted by two false friends (the famous Rosencrantz and Guildernstern), who should lead him to England, where the king, Claudius's friend, is about to receive the order to kill him. Hamlet succeeds in escaping and going back to his country, but when he arrives there, he discovers that Ophelia has died, completely mad, drowning in the river; her brother Laertes, who wants to revenge her death, plots with Claudius to murder Hamlet, so he challenges him to fight with him in a duel in which he is going to use a poisoned sword. During the duel, Hamlet realizes the plan and kills both Claudius and Laertes, but this has already injured him to death; meanwhile, Gertrude drinks a glass of poisoned wine that had been prepared for her son and dies. After the slaughter, Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, comes to the castle to restore the order and to pick up the succession.
Othello: this play narrates the mad jealousy provoked in the valorous Moor general Othello by his ensign Iago, who tells him that his wife Desdemona has a love affair with his lieutenant Cassio. With the unaware help of his wife Emilia, maid to Desdemona, Iago gets a handkerchief of her and makes it end up in Cassio's hand. Othello considers this as a definitive prove of their treachery and infidelity and murders his wife by smothering her with a pillow. Owing to Emilia's testimonies, Othello realizes his mistake and kills himself, overcome by remorse. Iago, trying to hiss his wife, kills her, but it is already too late and gets imprisoned.
King Lear: Lear, king of Britain, decides to divide his reign among his three daughters, basing himself on their answers to his question about how much they love him. Goneril and Regan declare their love effusively, but Cordelia, his younger and more sincere daughter, disgusted by her sisters' mawkishness, affirms that she loves him as a good daughter should do, but that, when she will be married, she will have to divide her love and her heart between her father and her husband. Lear gets really angry and disinherits Cordelia, dividing her dowry between his other two daughters. The king of France, appreciating Cordelia's sincerity, marries her even without a dowry and brings her to his country. When he shares his reign, Lear reserves the right to live during a month by Goneril and a month by Regan, alternating the months until his death and moving with a retinue of a hundred knights. The sisters try to induct the old king to renounce to his retinue, but so he would see his regal majesty diminish and, offended by this lack of affection and respect, he departs, mad with grief because of his daughters' ingratitude. They let him go even if a terrible tempest approaches, but the king of France intervenes, moved by the behaviour of his sisters-in-law, and he lands in Britain. Cordelia and Lear meet in Dover, but the French army is defeated; Cordelia is hanged and Lear, who has already realized his foolish and blind behaviour, dies of a broken heart. In this work Shakespeare exposed some universal values like the sense of human life, the meaning of nature and its laws, man's freedom, the relations among the human generations, the importance of experience, grief and madness; everyone of these values has been explored and represented through titanic images, transfigured in a poetry that has a constant earthly concreteness but an inadequate expressive potency. So King Lear can be defined as a tormented and powerful play that tries to hold in itself the chaos of human life to find a sense in it.
Macbeth: some allusions within the play help us to date it back to 1605-1606, but it appeared for the first time in the “in-folio” published in 1623. The text presents many traces of corruption and reshaping and is one of the shorter Shakespeare's works. The main source is the chronicle by Holinshed, but the author based himself also in other sources, for example in the details of the murder of a Scottish king (king Duff, killed by Donwald) to describe the murder of Duncan in this drama. Macbeth and Banquo, generals in the army of the king of Scotland Duncan, meet three witches while they are returning from a battle. The three old women predict that Macbeth will be thane of Cawdor and then king of Scotland, while Banquo will be progenitor of kings, even if he is not destined to reign. Immediately after the prophecy, Macbeth receives the news that he is nominated thane of Cawdor, so, tented by what the witches told him and by his wife, he murders king Duncan while this stays as a guest in his castle. He is overcome by remorse, but, as Duncan's sons, Malcom and Donalbain, run away, he takes the crown and becomes king. Now remains only one obstacle on his way to complete power: the witches had predicted the reign to Banquo's descendants, therefore Macbeth decides to kill his friend and his son, but this manages to escape. Persecuted by Banquo's ghost, Macbeth consults the witches again and they tell him that he must beware of Mcduff, thane of Fife; that he will not be killed by a man born of a woman; and that he will not be defeated until Birnam Wood will move against Dunsinane castle, where he lives. As he knows that Macduff has joined Malcom and that they are gathering an army in England, Macbeth orders the killing of Lady Macduff and her children. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth loses her mind, suffers from hallucinations and reveals the crime during an episode of somnambulism; lastly, she dies while the army of the avengers is approaching: crossing Birnam Wood, every man of the army cuts a branch to screen its advance; in this way, the first prophecy becomes reality, as it seems that the forest is moving towards Dunsinane. Macduff, born by caesarean section, kills Macbeth and Malcom becomes king. The tragedy contains a lot of allusions and episodes intended to pay homage to the new king of England James I, of Scottish origins and descendant of the legendary figure of Banquo; but above all it is an investigation on the feeling of guilt, represented by effective verbal contrasts that cause a continuous lightening of intense flashes in thick darkness.
THE FOURTH PERIOD (1609-1612)
The last works constitutes the most coherent group of the Shakespearean plays, because they
are bound by a fundamental unit of themes (the redemption of the committed faults through the finding of innocence, represented by girls with allusive names: Marina, Perdita, Miranda), of language (lyrical and untied, imaginative and concrete at the same time) and of plot (all are set in the “Countries of Imagination” and have an unrealistic and fantastic nature). We are talking about:
The Winter's Tale (1610-1611)
The Tempest (1611-1612)
The Tempest: this is the last comedy completely composed by Shakespeare. It was written shortly before 1611 and was represented at the end of this same year. It could be considered as the most independent from precedent sources of all Shakespeare's works, but we should not forget an influence of the Italian “commedia dell'arte” (something similar to the farces) and of the narration of the travellers who had visited mysterious and lonely islands. The theme of the tempest had already appeared in King Lear and Pericles and here it opens the play. Twelve years before the beginning of the story, Prospero, duke of Milan, is deposed by his brother Antonio; forced to escape with his daughter Miranda, he goes ashore at a desert isle where only live the evil Caliban, son of a witch, who has subjected Ariel, an airy spirit. After practising the magic arts, Prospero reduces Caliban as a slave and frees Ariel, who remains with him to help him. The comedy begins in this moment of the story: a tempest caused by Prospero makes a ship wreck on the island. On that ship were travelling his brother Antonio, his ally Alonso, king of Naples, Fredinand, Alonso's son, and the old counsellor Gonzalo. Thanks to his magic, Prospero makes his daughter and Ferdinand meet and fall in love and also makes his brother decide to give him back the usurped duchy, re-establishing the ancient order of the things. The Prospero renounces to his magic and frees Ariel from serving him, while he rejects Caliban, leaving him on the isle. In Naples, Miranda and Ferdinand get married. As regards for the structure, this is the only one of Shakespeare's plays that reflects the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action: in this new rigorous form we can see an external order that reflects an internal one, meaning the dying down of every kind of conflict in the author's soul and in nature. The language is lyrical and fabulous, the sense of miracle runs through the whole text and the characters have the consistence of a dream. In general, the play indicates the limits of a search of interior values beyond the confusion of the every-day life.
Shakespeare's greatest contribute to poetry consists in his Sonnets, published in 1609 without the author's consent. The anthology comprehends 154 sonnets, composed between 1595 and 1606 and datable according to topical references, metric, thematic and metaphorical considerations, but above all according to the identification of the protagonists of this collection of poems with this or that historical personality.
The Sonnets are accompanied by a dedication of the editor to “Mr. W. H., the only begetter” of the same sonnets, who could be the blond young man to whom the poet refers in the poems or the intermediary that got the text. He has been variously identified with Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, William Hughes, a young actor of the company of Henry Willobie, author and protagonist of the novel Willobie His Avisa (1594) and William Himself, that is to say, Shakespeare.
The disposition of the sonnets does not reflect necessarily Shakespeare's intentions, but within the great division in two blocks, the first consisting in the sonnets dedicated to the young man (1-126) and the second in those dedicated to the dark lady (127-152), we can recognize some minor groups determined by syntactic links or by logic coherence, by the repetition of some metaphors or by the insistence of a situation, but none of these criterions can be taken as absolute for a reorganization qithout breaking other vital connections.
We can distinguish these groups:
the first 17 sonnets, called “matrimonial sonnets”, are the invitation to a young man to get married for handing on his qualities to his children;
the sonnets from 18 to 126 are addressed to a young man, too, and deal with a various range of themes, among which repeatedly appears the love passion, through a dramatic and intimate tone;
the addressee of the sonnets from 127 to 152 is the “dark lady”, an ugly, unfaithful but desirable woman;
finally, sonnets 153 and 154 are elegant variations of an epigram taken from the Antologia Palatina.
As regards the metric point of view, the sonnets follow the form consecrated by Surrey and later called “Shakespearean”, which consists in three quatrain closed by a couplet; this structure imposes to the poem a dialectic and argumentative gait, then confirmed or overturned by the last two verses. Shakespeare does not handle the sonnet form with the same ease as Sidney, anyway, he deals with much more variety, dramatic power and subtlety, making it the instrument of a personal and passionate poetry.
The author had recourse to various sources, from the European and English love sonnets, the Antologia Palatina, to Ovid's Metamorphoses; from classical philosophy to the Bible and the Christian liturgy, up to the popular proverbs and the collections of sentences, taking advantage of a traditional and tested patrimony.
STYLE AND HERITAGE
Shakespeare's style is really various and multiform and so are also the themes he deals with. Beside the historical plays, in which he analyses the bursting out of violent passions, there are the comedies, characterized by varied gradations of humour, from irony to the grotesque; the tragedies, where Shakespeare represented the noblest affections and the most perverse instincts; the adventurous and fabulous plays, marked by the overcoming of pessimism.
He described perfectly the human soul, in its richness, its contradictions and facets, without pre-ordered schemes; this author was able to make humour and tragedy coexisting at the same time, both in text and in the characters, and to create, in a theatre lacking in scenic richness, a phase for imagination using only the power of language.
William Shakespeare, the greatest author of his age, did not have direct influence on the playwrights that came after him: the Age of the Restoration will be far form him, the theatre of the 18th, 19th and 20th century will follow other ways. His direct influence on the contrary consists in a general language strengthen, with the creation of new structure and a different and richer use of the vocabulary.