Shakespeare the man
Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is
surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little
disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official
character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills,
conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court--these are the
dusty details. There are, however, a fair number of contemporary
allusions to him as a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh
and blood to the biographical skeleton.
Early life in Stratford
The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire, shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his
birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John
Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an
alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before
the grant of a further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in
various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in
prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an
ancient family and was the heiress to some land. (Given the somewhat
rigid social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have
been a step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)
Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education
there was free, the schoolmaster's salary being paid by the borough. No
lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have
survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did
not send his son there. The boy's education would consist mostly of Latin
studies--learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and
studying some of the classical historians, moralists, and poets.
Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is unlikely
that the tedious round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then
followed there would have interested him.
Instead, at the age of 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not
known, but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated
November 28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named
Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a
license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and "Anne Hathaway of
Stratford," upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the
banns. (Anne died in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good
evidence to associate her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a
beautiful farmhouse, now much visited, two miles from Stratford.) The
next date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church,
where a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was
baptized on May 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized,
Hamnet and Judith. (The boy Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died 11 years
How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins
to appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are stories--
given currency long after his death--of stealing deer and getting into
trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near
Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of
going to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the
horses of theatregoers; it has also been conjectured that Shakespeare
spent some time as a member of a great household and that he was a
soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence, such
extrapolations about Shakespeare's life have often been made from the
internal "evidence" of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory:
one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to the law that
Shakespeare was a lawyer; for he was clearly a writer, who without
difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the composition of
Career in the theatre
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes
in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet
written on his deathbed:
There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his
Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to
bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute
Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a
It is difficult to be certain what these words mean; but it is clear that
they are insulting and that Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms.
When the book in which they appear (Greenes groats-worth of witte, bought
with a million of repentance, 1592) was published after Greene's death, a
mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to Shakespeare
and testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that Shakespeare
was by then making important friends. For, although the puritanical city
of London was generally hostile to the theatre, many of the nobility were
good patrons of the drama and friends of actors. Shakespeare seems to
have attracted the attention of the young Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl
of Southampton; and to this nobleman were dedicated his first published
poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early
and tried to retrieve the family fortunes and establish its gentility is
the fact that a coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare in 1596.
Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in the College of Arms,
London, though the final document, which must have been handed to the
Shakespeares, has not survived. It can scarcely be doubted that it was
William who took the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms
appears on Shakespeare's monument (constructed before 1623) in the
Stratford church. Equally interesting as evidence of Shakespeare's
worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large house in
Stratford, which as a boy he must have passed every day in walking to
It is not clear how his career in the theatre began; but from about 1594
onward he was an important member of the company of players known as the
Lord Chamberlain’s Men (called the King's Men after the accession of
James I in 1603). They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they had the
best theatre, the Globe; they had the best dramatist, Shakespeare. It is
no wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare became a full-time
professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a cooperative enterprise
and intimately concerned with the financial success of the plays he
Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which
Shakespeare's professional life molded his marvellous artistry. All that
can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself
assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama
of the highest quality.
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking--
dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King's Men--at the
coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his
financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In
1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes--a
fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its
parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family
called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave's Church, Cripplegate, London.
The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy family quarrel,
show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to
remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as
interesting himself generally in the family's affairs.
No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to
him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the town
of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It was
written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn in
Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford upon business. On
one side of the paper is inscribed: "To my loving good friend and
countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these." Apparently Quiney
thought his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply for the
loan of 30--a large sum in Elizabethan money. Nothing further is known
about the transaction, but, because so few opportunities of seeing into
Shakespeare's private life present themselves, this begging letter
becomes a touching document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18
years later Quiney's son Thomas became the husband of Judith,
Shakespeare's second daughter.
Shakespeare's will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed
document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his
elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to
the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected
physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his "second-
best bed" to his wife; but no one can be certain what this notorious
legacy means. The testator's signatures to the will are apparently in a
shaky hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23,
1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the
parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
EARLY POSTHUMOUS DOCUMENTATION
Shakespeare's family or friends, however, were not content with a simple
gravestone, and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the
chancel wall. It seems to have existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in
Latin and inscribed immediately below the bust, attributes to Shakespeare
the worldly wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and the poetic art
of Virgil. This apparently was how his contemporaries in Stratford-upon-
Avon wished their fellow citizen to be remembered.
CHRONOLOGY OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS
Despite much scholarly argument, it is often impossible to date a given
play precisely. But there is a general consensus, especially for plays
written 1585-1601, 1605-07, and 1609 onward. The following list of first
performances is based on external and internal evidence, on general
stylistic and thematic considerations, and on the observation that an
output of no more than two plays a year seems to have been established in
those periods when dating is rather clearer than others.
1589-92 Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VI, Part III
1592-93 Richard III, The Comedy of Errors
1593-94 Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew
1594-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and
1595-96 Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1596-97 King John, The Merchant of Venice
1597-98 Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II
1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing
c. 1599 Henry V
1599-1600 Julius Caesar, As You Like It,
1600-01 Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor
1601-02 Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida
1602-03 All’s Well That Ends Well
1604-05 Measure For Measure, Othello
1605-06 King Lear, Macbeth
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
1607-08 Coriolanus, Timon of Athens
1610-11 The Winter’s Tale
c. 1611 The Tempest
1612-13 Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen
Shakespeare's two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
Lucrece, can be dated with certainty to the years when the Plague stopped
dramatic performances in London, in 1592 and 1593-94, respectively, just
before their publication. But the sonnets offer many and various
problems; they cannot have been written all at one time, and most
scholars set them within the period 1593-1600. "The Phoenix and the
Turtle" can be dated 1600-01.
During Shakespeare's early career, dramatists invariably sold their plays
to an actor's company, who then took charge of them, prepared working
promptbooks, and did their best to prevent another company or a publisher
from getting copies; in this way they could exploit the plays themselves
for as long as they drew an audience. But some plays did get published,
usually in small books called quartos. Occasionally plays were "pirated,"
the text being dictated by one or two disaffected actors from the company
that had performed it or else made up from shorthand notes taken
surreptitiously during performance and subsequently corrected during
other performances; parts 2 and 3 of the Henry VI (1594 and 1595) and
Hamlet (1603) quartos are examples of pirated, or "bad," texts. Sometimes
an author's "foul papers" (his first complete draft) or his "fair" copy--
or a transcript of either of these--got into a publisher's hands, and
"good quartos" were printed from them, such as those of Titus Andronicus
(1594), Love's Labour's Lost (1598), and Richard II (1597). After the
publication of "bad" quartos of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (1597), the
Chamberlain's Men probably arranged for the release of the "foul papers"
so that second--"good"--quartos could supersede the garbled versions
already on the market. This company had powerful friends at court, and in
1600 a special order was entered in the Stationers' Register to "stay"
the publication of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V,
possibly in order to assure that good texts were available. Subsequently
Henry V (1600) was pirated, and Much Ado About Nothing was printed from
"foul papers"; As You Like It did not appear in print until it was
included in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies,
published in folio (the reference is to the size of page) by a syndicate
in 1623 (later editions appearing in 1632 and 1663).
The only precedent for such a collected edition of public theatre plays
in a handsome folio volume was Ben Jonson's collected plays of 1616.
Shakespeare's folio included 36 plays, 22 of them appearing for the first
time in a good text. (For the Third Folio reissue of 1664, Pericles was
added from a quarto text of 1609, together with six apocryphal plays.)
The First Folio texts were prepared by John Heminge and Henry Condell
(two of Shakespeare's fellow sharers in the Chamberlain's, now the
King's, Men), who made every effort to present the volume worthily. Only
about 230 copies of the First Folio are known to have survived.
The following list gives details of plays first published individually
and indicates the authority for each substantive edition. Q stands for
Quarto: Q2, Q3, Q4, etc., stand for reprints of an original quarto. F
stands for the First Folio edition of 1623.
Henry VI, Part 2 Q 1594: a reported text. F from revised fair copies,
edited with reference to Q.
Titus Andronicus Q 1594: from foul papers. F from a copy of Q, with
additions from a manuscript that had been used as a promptbook.
Henry VI, Part 3 Q 1595: a reported text. F as for Henry VI, Part 2.
Richard III Q 1597: a reconstructed text prepared for use as a
promptbook. F from reprints of Q, edited with reference to foul papers
and containing some 200 additional lines.
Love's Labour's Lost Q is lost. Q2 1598: from foul papers, and badly
printed. F from Q2.
Romeo and Juliet Q 1597: a reported text. Q2 from foul papers, with some
reference to Q. F from a reprint of Q2.
Richard II Q 1597: from foul papers and missing the abdication scene. Q4
1608, with reported version of missing scene. F from reprints of Q, but
the abdication scene from an authoritative manuscript, probably the
promptbook (of which traces appear elsewhere in F).
Henry IV, Part 1 Q 1598: from foul papers. F from Q5, with some literary
A Midsummer Night's Dream Q 1600: from the author's fair copy. F from Q2,
with some reference to a promptbook.
The Merchant of Venice Q 1600: from foul papers. F from Q, with some
reference to a promptbook.
Henry IV, Part 2 Q 1600: from foul papers. F from Q, with reference to a
Much Ado About Nothing Q 1600: from the author's fair papers. F from Q,
with reference to a promptbook.
Henry V Q 1600: a reported text. F from foul papers (possibly of a second
version of the play).
The Merry Wives of Windsor Q 1602: a reported (and abbreviated) text. F
from a transcript, by Ralph Crane (scrivener of the King's Men), of a
Hamlet Q 1603: a reported text, with reference to an earlier play. Q2
from foul papers, with reference to Q. F from Q2, with reference to a
promptbook, with theatrical and authorial additions.
King Lear Q 1608: from an inadequate transcript of foul papers, with use
made of a reported version. F from Q, collated with a promptbook of a
Troilus and Cressida Q 1609: from a fair copy, possibly the author's. F
from Q, with reference to foul papers, adding 45 lines and the Prologue.
Pericles Q 1609: a poor text, badly printed with both auditory and
Othello Q 1622: from a transcript of foul papers. F from Q, with
corrections from another authorial version of the play.
The plays published for the first time in the First Folio of 1623 are:
All's Well That Ends Well From the author's fair papers, or a transcript
Antony and Cleopatra From an authorial fair copy.
Henry VI, Part 1
As You Like It From a promptbook, or a transcript of it.
The Comedy of Errors From foul papers.
Coriolanus From an authorial fair copy, edited for the printer.
Cymbeline From an authorial copy, or a transcript of such, imperfectly
prepared as a promptbook.
Henry VIII From a transcript of a fair copy, made by the author, prepared
Julius Caesar From a transcript of a promptbook.
King John From an authorial fair copy.
Macbeth From a promptbook of a version prepared for court performance.
Measure for Measure From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of very imperfect
The Taming of the Shrew From foul papers.
The Tempest From an edited transcript, by Ralph Crane, of the author's
Timon of Athens From foul papers, probably unfinished.
Twelfth Night From a promptbook, or a transcript of it.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of a
promptbook, probably of a shortened version.
The Winter's Tale From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, probably from the
author's fair copy.
The texts of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are
remarkably free from errors. Shakespeare presumably furnished a fair copy
of each for the printer. He also seems to have read the proofs. The
sonnets were published in 1609, but there is no evidence that Shakespeare
oversaw their publication.
POETIC AND DRAMATIC POWERS
The early poems
Shakespeare dedicated the poem Venus and Adonis to his patron, Henry
Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, whom he further promised to honour
with "some graver labour"--perhaps The Rape of Lucrece, which appeared a
year later and was also dedicated to Southampton. As these two poems were
something on which Shakespeare was intending to base his reputation with
the public and to establish himself with his patron, they were displays
of his virtuosity--diploma pieces. They were certainly the most popular
of his writings with the reading public and impressed them with his
poetic genius. Seven editions of Venus and Adonis had appeared by 1602
and 16 by 1640; Lucrece, a more serious poem, went through eight editions
by 1640; and there are numerous allusions to them in the literature of
the time. But after that, until the 19th century, they were little
regarded. Even then the critics did not know what to make of them: on the
one hand, Venus and Adonis is licentiously erotic (though its sensuality
is often rather comic); while Lucrece may seem to be tragic enough, the
treatment of the poem is yet somewhat cold and distant. In both cases the
poet seems to be displaying dexterity rather than being "sincere." But
Shakespeare's detachment from his subjects has come to be admired in more
Above all, the poems give evidence for the growth of Shakespeare's
imagination. Venus and Adonis is full of vivid imagery of the
countryside; birds, beasts, the hunt, the sky, and the weather, the
overflowing Avon--these give freshness to the poem and contrast strangely
with the sensuous love scenes. Lucrece is more rhetorical and elaborate
than Venus and Adonis and also aims higher. Its disquisitions (upon
night, time, opportunity, and lust, for example) anticipate brilliant
speeches on general themes in the plays--on mercy in The Merchant of
Venice, suicide in Hamlet, and "degree" in Troilus and Cressida.
There are a few other poems attributed to Shakespeare. When the Sonnets
were printed in 1609, a 329-line poem, "A Lovers complaint," was added at
the end of the volume, plainly ascribed by the publisher to Shakespeare.
There has been a good deal of discussion about the authorship of this
poem. Only the evidence of style, however, could call into question the
publisher's ascription, and this is conflicting. Parts of the poem and
some lines are brilliant, but other parts seem poor in a way that is not
like Shakespeare's careless writing. Its narrative structure is
remarkable, however, and the poem deserves more attention than it usually
receives. It is now generally thought to be from Shakespeare's pen,
possibly an early poem revised by him at a more mature stage of his
poetical style. Whether the poem in its extant form is later or earlier
than Venus and Adonis and Lucrece cannot be decided. No one could doubt
the authenticity of "The Phoenix and the Turtle," a 67-line poem that
appeared with other "poetical essays" (by John Marston, George Chapman,
and Ben Jonson) appended to Robert Chester's poem Loves Martyr in 1601.
The poem is attractive and memorable, but very obscure, partly because of
its style and partly because it contains allusions to real persons and
situations whose identity can now only be guessed at.
In 1609 appeared SHAKESPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. At this
date Shakespeare was already a successful author, a country gentleman,
and an affluent member of the most important theatrical enterprise in
London. How long before 1609 the sonnets were written is unknown. The
phrase "never before imprinted" may imply that they had existed for some
time but were now at last printed. Two of them (nos. 138 and 144) had in
fact already appeared (in a slightly different form) in an anthology, The
Passionate Pilgrime (1599). Shakespeare had certainly written some
sonnets by 1598, for in that year Francis Meres, in a "survey" of
literature, made reference to "his sugared sonnets among his private
friends," but whether these "sugared sonnets" were those eventually
published in 1609 cannot be ascertained--Shakespeare may have written
other sets of sonnets, now lost. Nevertheless, the sonnets included in
The Passionate Pilgrime are among his most striking and mature, so it is
likely that most of the 154 sonnets that appeared in the 1609 printing
belong to Shakespeare's early 30s rather than to his 40s--to the time
when he was writing Richard II and Romeo and Juliet rather than when he
was writing King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. But, of course, some of
them may belong to any year of Shakespeare's life as a poet before 1609.
The early plays
Although the record of Shakespeare's early theatrical success is obscure,
clearly the newcomer soon made himself felt. His brilliant two-part play
on the Wars of the Roses, The Whole Contention between the two Famous
Houses, Lancaster and Yorke, was among his earliest achievements. He
showed, in The Comedy of Errors, how hilariously comic situations could
be shot through with wonder and sentiment. In Titus Andronicus he scored
a popular success with tragedy in the high Roman fashion. The Two
Gentlemen of Verona was a new kind of romantic comedy. The world has
never ceased to enjoy The Taming of the Shrew. Love’s Labour’s Lost is an
experiment in witty and satirical observation of society. Romeo and
Juliet combines and interconnects a tragic situation with comedy and
gaiety. All this represents the probable achievement of Shakespeare's
first half-dozen years as a writer for the London stage, perhaps by the
time he had reached 30. It shows astonishing versatility and originality.
For his plays on subjects from English history, Shakespeare primarily
drew upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, which appeared in 1587, and on
Edward Hall's earlier account of The union of the two noble and illustre
famelies of Lancastre and York (1548). From these and numerous secondary
sources he inherited traditional themes: the divine right of royal
succession, the need for unity and order in the realm, the evil of
dissension and treason, the cruelty and hardship of war, the power of
money to corrupt, the strength of family ties, the need for human
understanding and careful calculation, and the power of God's providence,
which protected his followers, punished evil, and led England toward the
stability of Tudor rule.
The Roman plays
After the last group of English history plays, Shakespeare chose to write
about Julius Caesar, who held particular fascination for the
Elizabethans. Then, for six or seven years Shakespeare did not return to
a Roman theme, but, after completing Macbeth and King Lear, he again used
Thomas North's translation of Plutarch as a source for two more Roman
plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, both tragedies that seem as
much concerned to depict the broad context of history as to present
The "great," or "middle," comedies
The comedies written between 1596 and 1602 have much in common and are as
well considered together as individually. With the exception of The Merry
Wives of Windsor, all are set in some "imaginary" country. Whether called
Illyria, Messina, Venice and Belmont, Athens, or the Forest of Arden, the
sun shines as the dramatist wills. A lioness, snakes, magic caskets,
fairy spells, identical twins, disguise of sex, the sudden conversion of
a tyrannous duke or the defeat offstage of a treacherous brother can all
change the course of the plot and bring the characters to a conclusion in
which almost all are happy and just deserts are found. Lovers are young
and witty and almost always rich. The action concerns wooing; and its
conclusion is marriage, beyond which the audience is scarcely concerned.
Whether Shakespeare's source was an Italian novel (The Merchant of Venice
and Much Ado About Nothing), an English pastoral tale (As You Like It),
an Italian comedy (the Malvolio story in Twelfth Night), or something of
his own invention (probably A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and parts of
each), always in his hands story and sentiments are instinct with
idealism and capable of magic transformations.
In some ways these are intellectual plays. Each comedy has a multiple
plot and moves from one set of characters to another, between whom
Shakespeare invites his audience to seek connections and explanations.
Despite very different classes of people (or immortals) in different
strands of the narrative, the plays are unified by Shakespeare's
idealistic vision and by an implicit judgment of human relationships, and
all their characters are brought together--with certain significant
exceptions--at, or near, the end.
The great tragedies
It is a usual and reasonable opinion that Shakespeare's greatness is
nowhere more visible than in the series of tragedies--Hamlet, Othello,
King Lear and Macbeth. Julius Caesar, which was written before these, and
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, which were written after, have many
links with the four. But, because of their rather strict relationship
with the historical materials, they are best dealt with in a group by
themselves. Timon of Athens, probably written after the above-named seven
plays, shows signs of having been unfinished or abandoned by Shakespeare.
It has its own splendours but has rarely been considered equal in
achievement to the other tragedies of Shakespeare's maturity.
The "dark" comedies
Before the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 the country was ill at
ease: the House of Commons became more outspoken about monopolies and
royal prerogative, and uncertainty about the succession to the throne
made the future of the realm unsettled. In 1603 the Plague again struck
London, closing the theatres. In 1601 Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of
Southampton, was arrested on charges of treason; he was subsequently
released, but such scares did not betoken confidence in the new reign.
About Shakespeare's private reaction to these events there can be only
speculation, but three of the five plays usually assigned to these
years—Troilus and Cressida,, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for
Measure, --have become known as "dark" comedies for their distempered
vision of the world. Only during the 20th century have these plays been
frequently performed in anything like Shakespeare's texts, an indication
that their questioning, satiric, intense, and shifting comedy could not
please earlier audiences.
The late plays
Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Henry VIII,
written between 1608 and 1612, are commonly known as Shakespeare's "late
plays," or his "last plays," and sometimes, with reference to their
tragicomic form, they are called his "romances." Works written by an
author in his 40s hardly deserve to be classified as "late" in any
critical sense, yet these plays are often discussed as if they had been
written by a venerable old author, tottering on the edge of a well-earned
grave. On the contrary, Shakespeare must have believed that plenty of
writing years lay before him, and indeed the theatrical effectiveness and
experimental nature of Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in
particular make them very unlike the fatigued work of a writer about to
break his staff and drown his book.
The contribution of textual criticism
The early editors of Shakespeare saw their task chiefly as one of
correction and regularization of the faulty printing and imperfect texts
of the original editions or their reprints. Many changes in the text of
the quartos and folios that are now accepted derive from Nicholas Rowe
(1709) and Alexander Pope (1723-25), but these editors also introduced
many thousands of small changes that have since been rejected. Later in
the 18th century, editors compiled collations of alternative and rejected
readings. Samuel Johnson (1765), Edward Capell (1767-68), and Edmund
Malone (1790) were notable pioneers. Their work reached its most
comprehensive form in the Cambridge edition in nine volumes by W.G.
Clark, J. Glover, and W.A. Wright, published in 1863-66. A famous one-
volume Globe edition of 1864 was based on this Cambridge text.
Romeo and Juliet
play by William Shakespeare, performed about 1594-95 and first published
in a "bad" quarto in 1597. The characters of Romeo and Juliet have been
depicted in literature, music, dance, and theatre. The appeal of the
young hero and heroine--whose families, the Montagues and Capulets,
respectively, are implacable enemies--is such that they have become, in
the popular imagination, the representative type of star-crossed lovers.
Shakespeare's principal source for the plot was The Tragicall Historye of
Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem by the English poet
Arthur Broke (d. 1563). Broke had based his poem on a French translation
of a tale by the Italian Matteo Bandello (1485-1561).
Shakespeare set the scene in Verona, Italy, during July. Juliet and Romeo
meet and fall instantly in love at a masked ball of the Capulets and
profess their love when Romeo later visits her at her private balcony in
her family's home. Because the two noble families are enemies, the couple
is married secretly by Friar Laurence. When Tybald, a Capulet, kills
Romeo's friend Mercutio in a quarrel, Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished
to Mantua. Juliet's father insists on her marrying Count Paris, and
Juliet goes to consult the friar. He gives her a potion that will make
her appear to be dead and proposes that she take it and that Romeo rescue
her; she complies. Unaware of the friar's scheme, Romeo returns to Verona
on hearing of Juliet's apparent death. He encounters Paris, kills him,
and finds Juliet in the burial vault. There he gives her a last kiss and
kills himself with poison. Juliet awakens, sees the dead Romeo, and kills
herself. The families learn what has happened and end their feud.
The most complex of Shakespeare's early plays, Romeo and Juliet is far
more than "a play of young love" or "the world's typical love-tragedy."
Weaving together a large number of related impressions and judgments, it
is as much about hate as love. It tells of a family and its home as well
as a feud and a tragic marriage. The public life of Verona and the
private lives of the Veronese make up the setting for the love of Juliet
and Romeo and provide the background against which their love can be
assessed. It is not the deaths of the lovers that conclude the play but
the public revelation of what has happened, with the admonitions of the
Prince and the reconciliation of the two families.
Shakespeare enriched an already old story by surrounding the guileless
mutual passion of Romeo and Juliet with the mature bawdry of the other
characters--the Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory open the play with
their fantasies of exploits with the Montague women; the tongues of the
Nurse and Mercutio are seldom free from sexual matters--but the innocence
of the lovers is unimpaired.
Romeo and Juliet made a strong impression on contemporary audiences. It
was also one of Shakespeare's first plays to be pirated; a very bad text
appeared in 1597. Detestable though it is, this version does derive from
a performance of the play, and a good deal of what was seen on stage was
recorded. Two years later another version of the play appeared, issued by
a different, more respectable publisher, and this is essentially the play
known today, for the printer was working from a manuscript fairly close
to Shakespeare's own. Yet in neither edition did Shakespeare's name
appear on the title page, and it was only with the publication of Love's
Labour's Lost in 1598 that publishers had come to feel that the name of
Shakespeare as a dramatist, as well as the public esteem of the company
of actors to which he belonged, could make an impression on potential
purchasers of playbooks.
WALTER EBISCH and LEVIN L. SCHЬCKING, A Shakespeare Bibliography (1931,
reprinted 1968), and a supplement for the years 1930-35 (1937, reissued
1968), are comprehensive. They are updated by GORDON ROSS SMITH, A
Classified Shakespeare Bibliography, 1936-1958 (1963). JAMES G.
McMANAWAY, A Selective Bibliography of Shakespeare: Editions, Textual
Studies, Commentary (1975), covers more than 4,500 items published
between 1930 and 1970, mainly in English. LARRY S. CHAMPION, The
Essential Shakespeare: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies,
2nd ed. (1993), includes works in English published from 1900 through
1984. STANLEY WELLS (ed.), Shakespeare, new ed. (1990), provides
bibliographies on topics ranging from the poet to the text to the
performances. Shakespeare Quarterly publishes an annual classified
bibliography. Shakespeare Survey (quarterly) publishes annual accounts of
"Contributions to Shakespearian Study," as well as retrospective articles
on work done on particular aspects. A selection of important scholarly
essays published during the previous year is collected in Shakespearean