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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

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Shakespeare inherited and echoed the powerful traditions of English medieval drama, stressing didactic biblical themes. These cycles evolved into the more allegorical mode of the morality plays, while later the more secular chronicle history plays succeeded the miracle plays covering ecclesiastical history. Shakespeare also learned how to offset the religious plays’ relative seriousness by figures based on their comic vices and devils (e.g., Richard III, Falstaff, Iago) and to develop comic interludes by aid of classical precedents of Plautus and Terence as seen in Renaissance Italian comedy. The strong interest in drama at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities carried over into the sixteenth-century professional theater groups, above all in London, usually protected from the hostile civic authorities (often Puritan) by aristocratic patrons, including Queen Elizabeth herself. Shakespeare’s company proved one of the strongest of these, though its origins overlap with those of several others. Shakespeare often found himself in bitter competition with such university wits as Greene and Lodge.* Shakespeare’s greatest rival was another Cambridge graduate, Christopher Marlowe, who provided him with such models as the heroic militarism of Tamburlaine (for Henry V ), the supernatural drama of Dr. Faustus (for the magic of Prospero), the Machiavel of The Jew of Malta (for Richard of Gloucester), and the chronicle histories of The Massacre at Paris and Edward II (for Richard II ).

As a company playwright, Shakespeare was expected to be prolific enough to write numerous, equally lively plays on such popular themes as the wickedness of Richard III (the opponent of Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII) or the victories in France of the hero King Henry V, matching current military successes in Normandy of a contemporary Elizabethan hero, the Huguenot king Henry IV of France, seen as the king of Navarre in Love’s Labor’s Lost . Shakespeare managed to combine popular interest in Anglo-French history with melodramatic episodes such as the witchcraft of Joan of Arc and Duchess Eleanor in Henry VI or the rape and mutilations of Titus . His early comedies add romantic touches to the comic formulas of Plautus and Terence, while his tragedies include comic characters such as Juliet’s Nurse to provide relief from pathos. Many of his plays are not easily limited to the genres of comedy or tragedy, following the successful Italian precedents of tragicomedy popularized by authors such as Cinthio, from whom Shakespeare borrowed many precedents of plot and character, such as the melodramatic story of Measure for Measure . Cinthio also, perhaps, provided Shakespeare with a theory of romance or tragicomedy. Tragicomedy favored contemporary or realistic stories and characters, with highly bizarre effects involving suspense, discoveries, reversals, and sexually provocative situations, as seen in such comedies as Much Ado and All’s Well and even in the tragedy of Othello . It encouraged variety. As Geoffrey Bullough has shown, in most of his scripts Shakespeare either revises existing plays or dramatizes popular fiction, usually translated from French or Italian. He rarely invents his stories and characters wholly by himself, so that his materials already have a proven popular interest. His tragedies are not clearly distinguished from his history plays and usually have a substantially historical base, derived from native chroniclers such as Holinshed* for British themes, even going as far back as King Lear and Cymbeline , or from Plutarch for classical ones.

However, Shakespeare often evokes stereoscopic depth of borrowed characters and plots by including contrasting ideas, data, and interpretations from other, conflicting sources, resulting in a layering of impressions that prevents simple moral and political judgments. Moreover, despite hints in these sources, some of his greatest characters, such as Falstaff and Hamlet, display uniquely Shakespearean twists given to established stereotypes (in these cases, the braggart soldier and the melancholy malcontent, both made dazzlingly witty and more sympathetic), thus creating ambivalences and paradoxes not readily rationalized by any simple code of interpretation. This elusiveness and openness to diverse points of view have been a major feature of his fascination for later ages, coupled with his actor’s acute sense of provocative stage effects, including radical shifts of character. These startling dramatic strokes continue to fascinate modern directors, actors, and audiences—whether it be Richard of Gloucester’s improbable courtship of the very woman whom he has just widowed or the ethnic and racial polarities of his two Venice plays, The Merchant and Othello or the gender tensions in The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well . In his lively treatment of women’s roles, Shakespeare shows open concern with the presence of influential women in his audiences both in the public theater and at court. His plots often deal with the great social and political impact of energetic women: Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret, Portia, Olivia and Viola, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Paulina, Marina, and many others. The virtuosity required of the boy actors who successfully played these parts on Elizabethan and Jacobean stages continues to astound modern Shakespeareans.

The physical stages for which Shakespeare wrote largely governed the priorities for his successful dramatic enactments. The stage lacked elaborate scenery, inviting stress on actors’ skills in rhetoric (reflected in formal debates, trials, and political speeches) and in physical action such as battles, duels, dances, and rituals requiring elaborate costumes (such as coronations, festivals, processions, and marriages). The physical stage was a composite including a medieval platform, backed by a curtain. This stage could be set in any expedient enclosed but uncovered space such as an innyard with surrounding galleries or a college hall and might have spectators both in front and behind, if not all round it. When purpose-built structures such as Burbage’s Theatre appeared, this form persisted with a stage enriched by a galleried facade to the Green Room, pierced by two or three doors, and protected by a roof supported on two pillars at its outer corners, with various traps and with mobile props to dress a permanent set (particularly a central curtain, a throne, and furniture such as beds, and so on). The limited stage scenery shifted emphasis from exact re-creation of historical locations and periods to accommodate elaborate, but largely contemporary, costumes, manners, and issues, so that Shakespeare’s work transcends the context of its nominal sources.

The Globe audiences appear to have been large (up to 3,000), diverse, usually prosperous, even aristocratic, but not excluding the working class, who could stand round the stage as groundlings for a penny. With the option of performances at court or, later, in the more expensive indoor theater at the Blackfriars, Shakespeare wrote his plays to appeal to a wide range of social classes. This mixed audience encouraged the diversification of content and tone in Shake-speare’s treatment of issues likely to appeal to popular tastes: often a serious or sentimental plot was diversified by comic, melodramatic, or violent interludes. The plays are fast-paced, full of variety of mood, with surprises and reversals of plot and character, intended to hold a restless, usually outdoor audience for two hours or more without interruption. Mere consistency and the calculated decorum apparently favored by neoclassical critics such as Sir Philip Sidney* had little relevance, though many of the plays approach neoclassical unity of time and place (from The Comedy of Errors and the last four acts of Othello , to The Tempest ). While Shakespeare (and others) often rewrote his plays for revivals (hence the discrepancies between earlier single-play quarto editions and the later collected Folio version), playwrights had little control over the performance and publication of scripts once they were sold to the players. Modern editors wrestle with the resulting divergences between various texts (some perhaps crudely and inexactly pirated), often even of such major plays as Hamlet and King Lear , not to mention the drastically different versions of both Merry Wives and The Taming .

Shakespeare did not radically distinguish between the dramatic genres: his comedies often contain tragic elements as in the life-threatening ethnic tensions of The Merchant of Venice or the melodrama of Much Ado . His tragedies contain powerful comic strains such as the black humor of Iago in Othello or the salutary jibes of Lear’s Fool. Nor, like most of his contemporaries, did Shakespeare distinguish among histories, comedies, and tragedies: early chronicle plays like Richard III are seen as tragedies, while Henry IV is dominated by the comic genius of Falstaff; a comedy like Love’s Labor’s Lost uses the names of living contemporaries for its characters, enacting recorded events, as matched by the historical Don John of Much Ado or the Orsino of Twelfth Night . Usually, in such cases, Shakespeare compresses and heightens, rather than wholly recasts, his sources in history, fiction, or previous stage successes such as Legge’s Richardus Tertius , Kyd’s Hamlet, The Chronicle History of King Leir , and so on.

The two great themes of Shakespeare are the psychological tensions of sexual relationships (as seen in the comedies and romantic tragedies) and the instabilities of political power (seen in the almost medieval cycles of sequential rises and falls of rulers, often in series of plays: Henry VI–Richard III; Richard II– Henry IV–Henry V; Julius Caesar–Antony and Cleopatra–Cymbeline ). The two themes frequently intersect, almost always with tragic results, as with the Macbeths, Othello and Desdemona, and Antony and Cleopatra. In the comedies, tragic potentialities are usually avoided by the virtuosity of the heroines (Portia, Rosalind, Helena), who typically prove wiser, subtler, and more incisive than their enamored but incompetent admirers. Some later “comedies” achieve more problematic resolutions ( Measure for Measure , not to mention Troilus and Cressida ). In the late plays both the tragic potentialities and the amatory intensities are softened and resolved from a more mystical worldview, leading to their characterization as “romances”—though Shakespeare’s last history play, Henry VIII , shares the same tendency to introduce divine interventions. Scholars still debate whether this shift is personal or reflects the influence of Shakespeare’s late collaborator John Fletcher, King James and his court, or the more sophisticated indoor theater audience.

It has become customary to see Shakespeare as enshrining traditional values of patriotism and patriarchal authority, but he creates many powerful noncon-forming male and female roles, by no means always tragic in their outcomes. He deliberately uses conflicting sources and interpretations of dominant figures such as Henry V, Octavius Caesar, not to mention the calculated ambiguities of Brutus, Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Henry VIII. These tensions indicate a systematic intent to allow a wide range of interpretation for actors and audiences. Indeed, there is a recurrent element of provocation matching similar challenging effects in Euripides, Molière, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, Strindberg, and even Brecht (the moderns having all consciously followed Shakespearean precedents). Shakespeare’s intellectual agility and psychological flexibility explain the accessibility of his scripts to the aesthetic, moral, and political vagaries of each later age, including the twentieth century, which has found Shakespeare readily adaptable to every variant of modern sensibility, so that he remains the most popular of all staged dramatists.

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