William Shakespeare lived in a time when ideas and social structures that had been established in the middle ages were being questioned. Atheism challenged the beliefs of the Elizabethans; Romes authority had been challenged by Luther, Calvin and other smaller religious sects. The Divine Authority of the Throne was being challenged in Parliament. Economic and social order were being disturbed by the rise of capitalism, the redistribution of monastic lands by Henry the VIII and the expansion of education. It was typical during this time to mix new ideas with old. There was growing skepticism and the English were afraid of Machiavellis new practical code of politics. From 1603-1606, Shakespeares plays reflected a new Jacobean distrust.
Latin comedies were familiar and English translations were performed by students; Senecas tragedies were translated and imitated. There was a strong native drama tradition derived from the medieval miracle plays that were performed until forbidden during Elizabeths reign. These were Shakespeares predecessors and were called "university wits", however, their
plays were seldom structured the way they were studied at university.
The English language was also changing during this time with contributions from France and Italy. Cheaper printed books helped the language to become standardized.
Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus, Ovid and Seneca; from morality drama; from Marlowe; from the commedia dellarte of the Italian popular tradition and made them all his own. Shakespeares plots were intricate and his characters vivid; he used the English language to paint a picture.
Shakespeares association with the Kings Men and the Globe Theatre gave him direct working knowledge of all aspects of the theatre and tradition has it that, like Alfred Hitchcock, he played small parts in all his plays. Shakespeare was able to work with his plays and know the actors and his audience. There was never any doubt his plays were written to be acted.
Since there was little time for group rehearsals, Shakespeare kept his crucial scenes between 2 or 3 characters or one that dominated a crowded stage.
Shakespeares works were influenced by prevailing contemporary conventions but were marked by vivid characterizations and a rich inventive use of the English language. His plays contained elaborate word play that lent an air of realism to his carefully structured plots. Shakespeare liked to interweave real historical events with his own subtle and complex domestic characters in his "history" plays.
The tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth) examined with psychological subtlety the personality flaws in the main characters with led almost inevitably to the tragic destruction of themselves and almost everyone around them. These plays also provided for exploration of human character, morality and spirit. Though many of his critics thought writing for a theatre company hampered his "natural gift" for writing, some believed it lent to his genius. Shakespeare was not a didactic playwright and was criticized for the lack of moral and absence of "poetical justice" in his plays.
The last plays, "The Winters Tale" and "The Tempest" appear to be experimental in their light-hearted and fanciful, yet still tragic form and were different from his earlier writings in their resolution of the conflict through penitence and forgiveness and emphasis on hope through mutual reconciliation, reunion and faith in the younger generation.
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, said the Bard "was not for an age, but for all time" though he believed Shakespeare to be undisciplined. Many late 17th Century and 18th Century critics censured Shakespeare for his carelessness and artistic faults. Shakespeare was a genius for his time and ours and is still the example many follow, though some begrudgingly.
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