William Shakespeare was born in 1564, the son of John and Mary Shakespeare. His father was a successful glove-maker, and prominent member of society in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, who served on the town council.
Shakespeare attended grammar school but had to leave at the age of 14 when his father's business collapsed.
In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, and had a daughter, followed by twins.
Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. After the death of his rival, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare became the most popular playwright in England. His success enabled him to build The Globe, an impressive theater in the heart of London.
Shakespeare began his career during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This period was characterized by religious turmoil and in response to the threats she faced, Elizabeth turned England into a Police State. People were spied upon. If they were suspected of being subversive, she imprisoned, tortured and often executed them.
After Elizabeth's death in 1603, King James I came to the throne. James was such a fan of Shakespeare that he invited him and his players to the coronation and granted them the title of The King's Men.
At the height of his success, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of 52. Many other authors, poets and playwrights hailed his works as timeless.
All in all, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. His plays can be divided into comedies, histories and tragedies. On my website, you can find notes on the following plays:
Romeo & Juliet
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established.
For more on the life and works of Shakespeare, go to:
In Shakespeare's time, people believed that the universe was ordered according to the scala naturae ("natural ladder" or "Chain of Being").
It was an permanent structure composed of a number of links, from the highest perfection down to the most basic of elements.
The chain starts from God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals (rocks).
It is generally impossible to change the position of an object in the hierarchy.
When an object does change position (e.g. Macbeth slaying Duncan to take the throne), it is wholly unnatural and punishable by eternal damnation.
Shakespearean tragedies were based on the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle who, in 4 BC, wrote 'The Poetics' in which he discussed poetry and drama. He categorized a 'tragedy' as having the following characteristics:
The subject matter deals with serious and important events.
It has a clear beginning, middle and end.
The hero passes from happiness to misfortune.
This may be as a result of a tragic flaw in the character of the hero.
It could also be because of the workings of Fate, or a combination of the two.
The tragic hero is essentially a good person.
The audience experiences pity and fear for the tragic hero as the tragedy unfolds.
If this were not the case, we would feel that the fall of the tragic hero was justice.
All Shakespeare's tragic heroes and heroines are from the ranks of royalty or the nobility, or are extraordinary in some way.
Each play is set in a particular social context, and the tragic hero has to make various moral choices about the problems that confront him. These concerns - or themes - deal with the basic issues of life, such as love, hatred, ambition, jealousy, etc. The choices and actions of the tragic hero help to determine his fate.
Shakespeare could help doctors
When studying Shakespeare's characters, bear the following in mind:
Sometimes the characters change during the course of the play.
The audience often feels differently towards them at the end of the play.
Characters reveal their deepest, darkest secrets through 'monologues'.
To understand a character, look at how they do things (cautiously / bravely / etc).
Look at what other characters say about them.
Also look at what birds or animals they are compared to.
Look out for characters that cannot or will not change.
All Shakespeare's tragedies have a similar structure.
In Acts 1 and 2 the tragic hero becomes involved in events and makes choices that have a significant impact on his life.
In Act 3 there is a moment in the plot that seals the tragic fate of the hero.
The remainder of the plot is worked out in Acts 4 and 5, leading to the death of the tragic hero in Act 5. The mood lifts at the end of the play as the conflict has been resolved and the way forward is indicated.
The following themes are found in several plays:
Contrast between appearance and reality. (The characters pretend to be one thing, but we as the audience know them to be another.)
Change: Some characters change and develop; others cannot change.
Conflict, hatred and war
Fate or fortune: The lives of characters are predetermined.
Good and evil
Loyalty, love and marriage
Order, disorder and order
Self-knowledge: Characters who are incapable of acknowledging their faults are punished or humbled.
Kingship and justice: Only a wise and just ruler would uphold the law and make society safe.
Shakespeare uses a lot of imagery for the following reasons:
To draw attention to themes and ideas
To develop characters and plots
In order to do these things he uses:
Motifs (ideas, characters, images or themes that recur within the text)
Oxymorons (contradictory phrases put next to each other for dramatic effect)