By Gretchen Patterson
William Shakespeare's life of drama and story-telling was a gift for humanity; he was a man of the theatre and a consummate literary artist, and his works are a world-wide source of pleasure and an instrument of education. His plays are central to theatrical repertoires, both in English and non-English speaking countries, and “form the basis of innumerable films, operas, ballets and musical scores. His poems, sonnets, and plays appealed to a more diverse, knowledgeable audience. Although he wrote for his time using the language of sixteenth century England, his plays continued to resonate long after his death. According to Shakespearean scholar, Professor Stanley Wells, “Shakespeare has had an ineradicable influence on the English language, so that we often quote him without knowing that we are doing so…[his] plays continue to form the basis of a literary education. He produced an astonishing portfolio of thirty-seven plays plus various poems and sonnets that captivated his English audiences, many of which retain their popularity today. Scholars have long wondered about the fountain of creativity that produced these dramatic master pieces which enabled generations of academia and ordinary citizens to read, study, and enjoy his published writings. By comparison with classical Greek and Roman writers such as Homer, Ovid, Apuleius, Plutarch, and Tacitus, researchers have concluded that Shakespeare used these sources as inspiration for his compositions.
Shakespeare shaped each plot to create several centers of interest and to show as many facets of a narrative as possible. These design assets ensured that a Shakespeare play could survive translation and different cultural interpretations without loss to the core plot line. He demanded the best from himself and his acting company, [Which] suggests…he relied heavily on his intimate knowledge of the acting styles and stage personalities of individual members in shaping roles for them. Fellow literary rival, Ben Jonson, once noted that the playwright was a disciplined writer, often working late into the night, using copious amounts of paper, ink and candles. These old fashioned tools and the printing press were the only methods of preserving written works for centuries. Today with the advent of the computer, digital video cameras, and high definition film production, Shakespeare's plays can be documented and delivered to world-wide audiences within a matter of months.
The BWE Video Network created the 1996 A&E documentary, Shakespeare: A Life of Drama as a visual biography of the playwright's life. The film provides background information of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s children, his financial holdings in real estate, and little known facts about his death and distribution of property. Narrators for the film included actor Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company; Professor Stanley Wells, Director of the Shakespeare Institute; Professor Park Honan, University of Texas; and Professor Ronnie Mulyere, University of Warwick. The film covered various places and events in Shakespeare"s life, interspersed with cameo performances of Hamlet, King Lear, and Prospero from The Tempest. The scenes and settings reflect the human situations present in Elizabethan England which offer a closer examination of Shakespeare and the inspirations for developing each drama. Mr. John Horisk summarizes the documentary when he states, "it is impossible to fully appreciate the individual and his efforts without a good feel for the environment in which [Shakespeare] worked. This video biography is in my view, about as good a job as can be done in fifty minutes. This video source would be an excellent starting point for either high school or college courses dealing with British literary or historical studies."
At the close of the fifteenth century, the evolution of the English language was greatly hastened when William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476. The advent of this invention increased the demand for better books and schooling. Literature flowed into the everyday life of the common people with printed and bound copies, replacing the few laboriously hand-lettered scrolls and tomes found in the monasteries, noble houses, and universities.
As a young boy, Shakespeare attended a local school in the English village of Stratford-on-Avon, and education in his time required knowledge of Latin, English grammar, rhetoric, and basic mathematics. Pupils progressed upward in learning, and texts of more difficult readings were introduced until a student either entered into a profession or advanced to a university. Any hope to continue higher education was probably dashed when Shakespeare, at age eighteen, hastily married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with their first child. Needing to provide for his family, he likely found various forms of work, the dates and details of which are buried in the past. Growing up in Stratford, he may have received his first taste of drama from the traveling players who performed throughout England. This childhood memory eventually sent him to London, sans family, to begin a path towards fame and financial stability while simultaneously seeking to provide amusing performances for the London crowds.
Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the royal acting company which produced dramas for Queen Elizabeth I, her nobles, and later, King James I. His rise to popularity and recognition can be accredited in part to the third Earl of Southampton, the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley. The Earl's patronage and friendship has long been connected with Shakespeare as one of his first patrons when the playwright came to London. "There is full and direct testimony of Southampton's regard for literature, poetry and the drama, and help to learned men." Two of his early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were dedicated to the Earl, and scholars firmly believe that Shakespeare received monetary assistance and influential benefits with other noble lords due to Southampton’s support. In the introduction of The Rape of Lucrece, his devotion to Sir Henry reads, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end…What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Besides the advantages of Shakespeare’s wit and literary qualities, Southampton valued the poet's honesty, good nature, and agreeable companionship. These features attributed to Shakespeare’s rapid advancement in the theater world and stylish, cultured Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth I.
By the mid-1590s, Shakespeare was writing more natural, less stilted poetry and tuned his writing style to the needs of the drama itself as evident in Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a playwright, Shakespeare was a skillful manipulator of language and used devices such as imagery and metaphors to keep his audiences engaged and entertained. He sampled from antiquity, sourcing from the myths, legends, and urban folklore by carefully arranging, improving and expounding each piece. His works were master crafts, comprised of those pieces best suited to his dramatic needs. “We can reconsider the source texts not merely as raw material for plot and character, but as…texts involving layers of implicit and sub-textual suggestions...[He] was neither a pure inventor nor a mere craftsman, but an especially able and talented improviser.” Other erudite contributors included Holinshed's Chronicles, by Raphael Holinshed with William Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, Edmund Campion, and John Hooker. Shakespeare used the revised second edition of the Chronicle, published in 1587, as the basis for most of his history plays, the plot of Macbeth, and for portions of King Lear and Cymbeline. Also on the list of resources is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, most notably The Knight's Tale for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Chaucer also developed the legitimate use of vernacular in early Middle English literature and was a major influence on Shakespeare as well as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and other fifteenth and sixteenth century writers.
Spectators in London during the playwright's time needed some form of relaxation and entertainment during a time period fraught with political, social and religious upheavals.The Globe Theatre InteriorChief among these was the fear of Bubonic Plague, a deadly and unrelenting disease that decimated thousands of English citizens. The religious reformation of the Anglican Church of England changed back and forth between King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I depending upon their personal affiliation as a Catholic or Protestant, and the persistent threat of war with Spain concerned the Queen, the nobility, and the general populace. The afternoon matinees in London at the Globe Theatre became very popular, thus providing a distraction to the masses and a good living for the writers, producers and actors who brought the dramas to life. Books and articles abound with scholarly treatises and theses about Shakespeare, but here was a man who wrote for the kings, queens and nobles, as well as for the common people. “…the plays and poems ascribed to [Shakespeare] [are] works that have within them an abiding capacity to engage the minds and hearts of readers and theatergoers.” With his memorable scripts and unforgettable characters, Shakespeare imparted lessons about life, which is fickle, fleeting, and not to be wasted.
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