Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, William Shakespeare

A minor but persistent strain of Shakespearean criticism refuses to believe that a man of Shakespeare's biographical shortcomings should be responsible for his works, proposing instead that such persons as Christopher Marlowe (admittedly a great playwright), Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford were the actual authors; these theories are wholly unimportant to the Shakespearean legacy, except as comic relief in the critical canon.

Who was Shakespeare? In his own words: "You know me well. I am he." (Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene I). Baptized on this day in 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon, he has been nearly unanimously canonized as the greatest writer in the English tongue for almost 400 years, except perhaps during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, when his friend Ben Jonson was more highly praised.

His father was a prominent if chronically unsuccessful leathermaker and local politico, and consistent with his family's modest status, Shakespeare received only a little formal schooling in English, Latin and Greek. At 18 he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior, who was then pregnant with his first child, Susanna; less than two years later there followed the twins, Hamnet and Judith. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a young man with the restless intellect and creative energy evidenced by his writings should have found himself feeling stifled in this atmosphere; and some time in the late 1580s he left his wife and family behind and sought his fortune in London as an actor in the theater. He acted and wrote for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a London professional troupe, shared in the profits from the performance of his plays at the Globe and at Blackfriars Theatre, and through his practical business sense was able to retire comfortably to Stratford, where at his death on April 23, 1616 (at 52, after a night's drunken revel with Jonson and Michael Drayton) he left his wife his "2nd best bed."

His earliest published works were poems (Venus and Adonis, 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, 1594), but his lasting fame comes from his works for the stage. Thirty-eight plays bear his name, written between 1590 and 1613: a series of historical plays dealing with the War of the Roses showing a wry and world-weary sense of the arc of fate, as well as occasional flashes of crowd-rousing patriotism, such as in the jingoistic Henry V; earthy yet morally chaste comedies, both light (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and dark (Measure for Measure); and brilliant tragedies, from the early Romeo and Juliet to the four masterpieces, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet.

According to Jonson he worked as a quick and careless scribbler (in much the same way that 21st century popular culture imagines Mozart to have worked), yet his superior powers of material observation, sure ear and a rough-and-ready capacity for walking right into the three-dimensional consciousness of real or imagined human beings (something like Art Clokey's Gumby), apparently gave Shakespeare the ability to draw compelling scenes from all walks of Elizabethan and Jacobean life, from the curb up. Nevertheless, his plays have a transcendent quality which has enabled succeeding generations to adopt Shakespeare as their own, in countless productions of his plays, in other literary adaptations, music, visual arts and in films.

He also had the effect of enriching and stabilizing the English language itself: he loved to invent new words and reinvent old ones, and the longevity of his work assured that many of his usages would become common parlance (including "puke," faint-hearted," "monumental," "lackluster," "assassin," "useless," etc.).

For a few hundred years, the publication of a new critical edition of Shakespeare's works, or some other critical interpretation, was an essential task to be undertaken by the best and the brightest of subsequent generations: John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, to name but a few, all took their turn at dressing and undressing the Bard's corpus. It has been observed that you have to be nuts to produce a Shakespeare play today, with all the critical baggage which has collected around his old literary bones; yet the rewards for wading through it remain rich.

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Blogger Gawain said...

From a Shakey fan to a Shakey fan: I warmly recomment "1599, A Year in the life of William Shakespeare". Well written, informative. A real delight.

9:40 PM  

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