William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered by many to be one of the finest playwrights in history. The influence of his work extends to the modern day, and his stories are often reworked into modern plots. It is not that his plots were particularly unique, rather that his language and characters are fascinating. Despite our respect of what many term the “master” of English Literature, there is only sketchy biographical information regarding Shakespeare. As well, there is dispute about the authorship of several of his plays, and whether some of the plays may have been collaborative.
Most information about the life of Shakespeare is taken from church records. We know, for example, that he was born in 1564, and most date his birthday as April 23. It is certain that Shakespeare was baptized on April 26. The death of Shakespeare is often dated as April 23, 1616, but this may as well be inaccurate. He probably attended a local school, and was married to Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children.
When Shakespeare was about 20, he left his wife and children and went to London where he worked as an actor and playwright. He also wrote a number of sonnets, and several book length poems in around 1592, when the spread of plague closed down theaters for a few years. He is noted for both “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” Most of his plays were not published, but were rather written down as tracts so the actors could memorize lines. So publication of the plays today is based on collected folios, and critics differ on when each play was published.
Many of the plays of Shakespeare were performed at the Globe Theater in London, and also private plays were given for royalty, notably Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James. It is thought Shakespeare spent 25 years in London before retiring to his home in Stratford on Avon, where he lived the remaining 5 years of his life.
It would be impossible to describe the plots of every Shakespeare play, since they are complex. They do fall into several categories however, which can be described. Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare wrote histories, comedies, and tragedies. Comedies ended with marriage, tragedies with death. The last class, the romances, are neither comedy nor tragedy. This is a listing of all plays considered authored by Shakespeare:
Histories Henry VI, parts 1,2 and 3, Henry V, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry VII, Henry VIII, King John, Richard II and Richard III .
Tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, Troillus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Pericles, and Coriolanus.
Comedies Alls Well That End’s Well, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, Two Gentleman of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure.
Romances A Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Tempest.
History plays tend to refer to English and French history, thus the Roman history plays are classed as tragedies. The Romances many also be classed as either comedy or tragedy, but their key element is reconciliation of family members to each other, thus differing from the prescribed form of tragedy, though they often have tragic elements.
There is also disagreement about the order in which the plays were written, though many believe Richard III to be among the first, and The Tempest to be the last Shakespeare play. Some of the great tragedies were written between of 1600-1608. Most feel that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear before ending his writing career with his romances.
In the tragedies, Shakespeare gives us some of the most villainous characters ever, Iago the devious plotter of Othello, the horrible elder daughters of Lear, and the power-mad Lady Macbeth. His comedies are equally memorable for their wonderful funny characters, Puck from Midsummer, Kate from Shrew, and Falstaff from Wives. The romances blend comedy and tragedy representing a mature frame of mind and a wish to further the art form of the play.
Regardless of where one starts in reading Shakespeare, the rich language, the complex characters, and exciting plots can leave one breathless. Today, there are wonderful modern interpretations or traditional productions of his work, which will give one Shakespeare as he was meant to be understood, by watching the performance of his art.