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Shakespeare, William (1564–1616) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

shakespeare’s critics scripts

William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April 1564 at Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon and was buried there on 25 April 1616 (his birth and death are often conjectured to be on 23 April, appropriate for a national poet, as it is St. George’s or Red Cross Knight’s Day). He was the son of John Shakespeare, a tradesman who married well into the minor gentry, to Mary Arden, mother of William, and became bailiff, or mayor, of Stratford, securing the coat of arms of a gentleman, though his last years seem to have been less successful. William is likely to have studied at the local grammar school, which was well endowed enough to secure excellent tutors from nearby Oxford University. In late November 1582, William contracted a precocious and hurried marriage with a much older woman, Anne Hathaway, for the first child was born soon after a marriage by special license. After the later birth of twins early in 1585, William disappears from records for several years, though recently E.A.J. Honigman has argued that he may have been employed by the Houghtons, a recusant family in Lancashire, to whom one of William’s teachers may have recommended him because of shared Catholic sympathies (of which there are also some faint hints in other records of the Shakespeare family).

The Houghtons had both court and theatrical connections, perhaps leading to Shakespeare’s subsequent career in the theater, though he could have encountered traveling theater companies at Stratford, observed court players at aristocratic festivals at Kenilworth, and even seen the last medieval mystery cycles at nearby Coventry. By 1592 Shakespeare surfaces in London as a professional actor who is already a successful dramatist, noted for revising and adapting existing scripts, thereby inviting charges of plagiarism (1592) from rivals such as Robert Greene,* a graduate of Cambridge University like many dramatists of the time, such as John Lyly* and Christopher Marlowe.* Shakespeare often ridicules the pretensions of such graduates, as in Love’s Labour’s Lost , implying the possible competitiveness of a nongraduate. However, in apologizing later in 1592 for publishing Greene’s slanders, Henry Chettle praised Shakespeare “because I have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes [i.e., his profession]: Beside, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”

Shakespeare early acquired the reputation of a talented author, not only for his first chronicle history plays, Henry VI and Richard III , but for neoclassical comedies (such as The Comedy of Errors ), realistic farces ( The Taming of the Shrew ), and romantic comedies ( The Two Gentlemen of Verona ). He also wrote extravagant tragedies such as the exaggeratedly gruesome Titus Andronicus and the highly sentimental Romeo and Juliet . His claims as a serious poet were strengthened by his widely circulated Sonnets (about his friendship with a young aristocrat, which overlapped with an adulterous love affair with a Dark Lady) and by his publication of two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece (probably written while the theaters were closed because of epidemics of the plague). The narrative poems’ dedication to the youthful earl of Southampton (perhaps the friend of the Sonnets ) indicates that Shakespeare was fashionable among the aristocracy frequenting the court of Queen Elizabeth.* He developed a close professional association with the talented theatrical family of the Burbages: the father, James, created London’s first custom-built Theatre in Shoreditch and later rebuilt it as the Globe in Southwark. His son, Richard, was for long Shakespeare’s leading actor. This invaluable association confirmed Shakespeare’s success in the theater and ensured access at court, where his skills seem to have earned him the approval of Queen Elizabeth, if we believe the story of her commissioning The Merry Wives of Windsor . The company progressed from being official court performers, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Company under Elizabeth, to more explicit royal status as the King’s Men, under James I.*

The early success of Richard Burbage’s performances of such intense characters as Richard III and Hamlet and other comic creations such as Falstaff made Shakespeare one of the most popular dramatists of the time, though his fortune was ensured chiefly through his share in the newly built outdoor Globe Theatre in Southwark (1599) and in the later use of the Blackfrairs indoor theater (1608). After completing a series of successful comedies and histories, Shakespeare wrote his major tragedies during the early years of the reign of the new King James I, whose somber Scottish tastes were directly exploited in Macbeth . Increasingly in later years Shakespeare withdrew to Stratford, where he bought New Place, one of its principal houses, thus perhaps restoring his marriage after the adulterous episode of the Dark Lady commemorated in the Sonnets . His last plays show a turn to more fanciful, even mystical attitudes, with strong pastoral elements. He seems finally to have shared his writing with his successor as dramatist for the King’s Men, John Fletcher, though the exact share of the latter in such works as The Two Noble Kinsmen and even (just possibly) in Henry VIII is still debated. Many of his works were rewritten for later revivals either by the author or his successors. Shakespeare’s works were collected, in various states, by his two colleagues Hemminge and Condell and published in a folio edition introduced by his friend Ben Jonson* in 1623—though many of its contents had been previously published in single-play quarto editions.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died early, in 1596; his father died in 1601, and his mother in 1608. Both his daughters married, but his direct line died out with their children, thus frustrating the apparent concern to establish a prosperous family line shown in Shakespeare’s sustained financial efforts to the end of his life. However, the first of his Stratford homes, in Henley Street, and those of the families of his wife and daughter have survived.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Even during Shakespeare’s lifetime his scripts were subject to casual revision by himself or by others for revivals and special occasions. While he was respected as a discreet personality (called “gentle Shakespeare”) and as a deft artist, the seventeenth century did not accord him the modern adulation as a unique and authoritative master playwright. By the Restoration his plays were seen by such critics as Thomas Rhymer as incompatible with the neoclassical decorum imported from France and the scenic sophistication borrowed from the Italian theater by entrepreneurs such as William Davenant, who found it necessary to adapt and correct Shakespeare to suit Restoration tastes. Revisions multiplied by such writers as John Dryden ( Antony and Cleopatra ), Nahum Tate ( King Lear ), and Colley Cibber ( Richard III ), many of whose versions survived on stage into the nineteenth century and even influenced adaptations as late as Olivier’s film of Richard III . Modern critics such as L. L. Schücking and Norman Rabkin still seem to prefer the smoother revisions to the hectic originals.

The eighteenth century saw the dawn of scholarly editing of Shakespeare by Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald, Samuel Johnson, Edward Capell, and others, often with bold emendations that have survived to the present, including such misleading additions as overly descriptive cast lists and stage directions with questionable locations. From Dryden to Johnson the critical tone was one of genuine admiration tinged with serious reservations about Shake-speare’s lack of discipline and decorum, as reflected in the adaptation of scripts to suit the eighteenth-century proscenium stages of Garrick and his successors. With the Romantics came a new enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s freedom from Aristotelian discipline and emotional restraint, as in Coleridge’s delight in Shakespeare’s imagination, coupled with distaste for the difficulty of displaying it via the supposed limitations of current stage practices, as expressed by Charles Lamb. However, critics such as William Hazlitt approved the passionate interpretations of Romantic actors, particularly Edmund Keene.

In roles such as Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons had also confirmed the stage-worthiness and emotional power of many of Shakespeare’s female roles, which continued to attract the interest of Victorian audiences and early feminist critics such as Mrs. Jameson. Charlotte Cushman even made fashionable the casting of actresses in such male roles as Romeo. However, from the time of Charles Kean historical realism was increasingly favored in Victorian staging, and by the end of the nineteenth century picturesque Shakespearean production reached a climax of extravagant local color in the historical detailing of Henry Irving and Beerbohm Tree, which looked forward to such historical epics of the modern cinema as Olivier’s Henry V . These scenic elaborations required severely cut texts.

The dawn of the twentieth century saw an increasing revulsion from such divergence from Elizabethan practices. Both scholarship and staging began to move toward recovery of the original character of the scripts and their first conditions of performance, under the influence of scholars such as William Poel. Literary historians such as E. K. Chambers sought to establish objective documentation about Shakespeare and his theater, while editors such as W. W. Greg became ever more cautious and scrupulous about the history of scripts and their staging. Critics such as E. E. Stoll sought to recover the original concerns and expectations of Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences. Lyly B. Campbell reestablished the cultural context of Shakespeare’s composition of his histories provided by such works as The Mirror for Magistrates . Interest in Shakespeare’s history plays increased under the influence of patriotic interpreters such as E.M.W. Tillyard. Many critics like M. M. Reese followed this affirmative lead, only to be increasingly countered by the more pessimistic political readings of Hugh Richmond, Michael Manheim, and David Riggs.

While artistic values had remained influential in the close verbal studies of the new criticism, Shakespeare critics like Caroline Spurgeon treated all scripts as lyric verse, whose imagery was ungoverned by conditions of performance or sustained dramatic structure. Context was ignored to an extent that provoked a vigorous reassertion recently of broader cultural values. As the disciplines of political science, sociology, and psychology evolved in the middle of the twentieth century, they impinged drastically on Shakespeare criticism. The application of psychoanalysis and Marxism increased, with subordination of literary considerations to psychiatric and sociological issues. Ernest Jones reinterpreted Hamlet as a victim of Freud’s Oedipus complex. He was followed by a multitude of critics and scholars from T. S. Eliot down to Norman Holland and by neo-Freudians such as Janet Adelman. This subordination of the texts to psychiatric theory remains a major element of academic Shakespeare criticism even in such subtle appreciations of the therapeutic role of the “festive” comedies as Cesare Barber’s.

The current polemical feminism of a Germaine Greer and a Lisa Jardine has sought divergence from aesthetic concerns to gender politics, which has defined a self-referential approach for most female academics. In America this deflection by preemptive considerations was increased recently by stress on nonliterary cultural contexts, following French theories of structuralism (in which Lévi-Strauss put art into a broader context of expression, following Saussure’s study of the language of symbols) and of deconstruction (when Derrida questioned the concept of artistic consistency and coherence), which finally collapsed modern critics into postmodern skepticism about the coherence or even the referential value of all art.

However, Shakespeare studies were still superficially much affected by sociological deflections deriving from the interest in power and class authorized by Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams, combined diversely with other influences by such movements as cultural materialism (Jonathan Dollimore), new historicism (Stephen Greenblatt), and neo-Freudianism (Jacques Lacan). Freud and Marx remain favored authorities among fashionable academic Shakespeare critics fearful of postmodern anarchy, not to say nihilism.

Postmodern repudiation of all objective standards of history and recoverable truth currently fosters a Restoration-like indifference to Shakespeare’s printed scripts in producers such as Charles Marowitz, whose questioning of all precedents and authority has facilitated the radical dismemberment and displacement of scripts via almost every available mode of staging and interpretation. Following the early radical experiments of Tyrone Guthrie, Orson Welles, Peter Brook, and others, such active modern directors have resited Shakespearean scripts in the India of the British raj, in medieval Japan, in a modern circus, and even in outer space. Sexes, races, and ethnicities are shuffled almost at random.

This flexibility of approach has achieved a feeling of freshness and contemporaneity for alien audiences even while often involving radical dislocation of Shakespeare’s text and its specifications. Shakespeare is now probably performed more than ever, but his identity as an intelligible person and a conscious artist has largely disappeared in fashionable expression of his work, both in performance and in criticism. One local gesture of more traditional historical affirmation supported by scholars such as Andrew Gurr and John Orrell may be found in the rebuilding of an approximation of the original Globe Theatre near its site in Southwark to attempt some recovery of the historical conditions of Shakespearean performance. The work of A. C. Sprague, Charles Shattuck, and Marvin Rosenberg confirms that the study of performance is the one field of Shakespearean study where traditional historical scholarship remains active, since even editors no longer believe now in a stable text. Meanwhile, scholars such as Anthony Nuttal, Richard Levin, and Brian Vickers have initiated counterattacks on the fashionable anachronisms of partisan interpreters and nihilistic theorists. Such moves hint at a possible return to the more meaningful, referential interpretation of Shakespeare’s own identifiable artistic intentions, which has always been endorsed by actors and audiences.

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