One post on the Bard is never enough, so Dreams & Happy Things is delighted to share its first guest post ever! The lovely and knowledgeable Ms. Lilly is bringing some smarts to this happy blog. Lilly has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in English Literature from two of California's leading universities. She is fashionable, silly and the biggest Shakespeare-o-phile I know! Her post continues my rudimentary praise of the works of William Shakespeare and explores why they make so many of us... so happy.
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee”
More than 400 years after his life, ’s words still ring true today. His works are still a subject of criticism and study, only yielding to Homer in the volume of scholarship produced. It is safe to assume that any literate person has read Shakespeare or at least heard of him at some point in their lives. Shakespeare’s fame is probably at least partly due to the fortuitous circumstances. In the late 1500’s, the European Renaissance had finally arrived in England, and theater was at its prime. Despite all the work dedicated to Shakespeare, there are still many periods in the life of Shakespeare that are unknown to us, such as the time and the circumstances leading up to his marriage to , eight years his senior. It is often assumed that after his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, Shakespeare entered the theatrical scene as and actor, producer, and writer. The first records indicating his presence come from 1592; there is also evidence that he composed Henry IV as early as 1590. It was during this time that he joined ’s Men, the company that eventually turned into the King’s Men in 1603. Shakespeare stayed worked with the company for the duration of his career.
A study of Shakespeare’s work reveals an industrious individual, who produced at least 2 plays every year. One of my most favorite aspects of Shakespeare’s career is the fact that his creativity seems like an unstoppable force and must have an outlet. When the theaters were closed during 1593-1594 due to the plague, for example, Shakespeare wrote the poems Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. Shakespeare’s greatness, however, does not stem from the number of plays he produced; Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he has a way with words. There is only one play that does not have direct sources (what we would currently call plagiarism) and that is . Shakespeare often took material composed by his contemporaries, and retold these stories in his plays. The fact that we only know about the original materials because of our interest in Shakespeare is a true testament to his genius.
Shakespeare’s work garnered support and recognition even during his own time. There are accounts of performances at the Globe when the audience would stop the actor and request that they perform specific lines from specific plays; Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” appears to have been a favorite. (Telling how the same lines remain just as popular today!) The Renaissance tradition of omitting the author’s name and only using the names of other plays he produced on printed copies of texts was changed for Shakespeare. This indicates that later in his career his contemporaries knew not only the plays he had written, but recognized him by name. Finally the publication of the First Folio in 1623 through collaborated efforts of his friends and fellow authors, including Ben Jonson, shows the need to put together an authoritative text to put an end to pirated versions of the plays.
As a self-proclaimed Shakespearean scholar, I am often confronted with the issue of Shakespearean authorship. My usual response to such inquiries is mere disregard of any doubt that our society tends to bring up too frequently, but recently I have learned to interpret such questioning of Shakespeare as the highest compliment that one could give to arguably the greatest author writing in English. The reasoning behind these arguments is usually a doubt that William Shakespeare, born in 1564 to , a glovemaker, and never educated beyond grammar school, could have written some of the greatest plays that we have the honor of enjoying.
One of the things that I enjoy most about Shakespeare is his own thorough enjoyment of his work. The topics of range from the very comic to the very tragic, but throughout the whole process he never fails to enjoy the work he produces. Some of the best lines that stand out to any reader involve the ones that he must have enjoyed himself. Shakespeare is always in on the joke. One of my all time favorites is “”—a line of directions in Winter’s Tale. The bear is never seen or heard from again, and has much as much business in the Winter’s Tale as it would in, say, , but Shakespeare’s inclusion of the bear in the play makes for great comedy and allows the author to give a metaphorical nudge to his audience indicating his approach to his work. Tempest, the last play that Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator, can be best summarized as “Playwriting 101.” Tempest is often categorized as a “problem play” because it has elements of both a comedy as well as a tragedy, and incorporates plotlines or romance, usurpation, pastoral, and power struggles. Remarkably, it also shows Prospero, whose control in the play has led to arguments about his being a dramatization of Shakespeare himself, put together various performances and move the characters around like chess figures.
And finally Shakespeare's genius lies in his capacity to understand human nature and to interpret this more eloquently than most. His plays deal with issues that were pertinent during his time and are still pertinent now. King Lear is at its root an exploration of human relationships and problems of parents and children. Shakespeare’s understanding and interpretation of the human condition is best shown in , “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (v.5).
The thing I like most about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are never fully exhausted, and that each subsequent reading reveals more and more to the reader. Once the plot and the obvious issues have been imbedded in the reader’s brain, the plays keep revealing more secrets, more interesting words, and more subplots. The bard always has another trick up his sleeve.
Thank you, Lilly, for sharing with us such insight! For more of Lilly's awesomeness, please visit her fantastic blog, http://onethousandbookproject.tumblr.com/ , where she summarizes and analyses other great works of literature. You know, the ones you have read, along with the ones you've been meaning to read...