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William Shakespeare is perceived as more than a poet or playwright today; he is among those people who shaped Western culture and became a popular figure of the epoch. However, it would be of great interest to consider how he was treated by his contemporaries and what historical and social conditions affected his works. Being born in the middle class bourgeois family, he achieved success due to self-help, but his position as an actor and dramatist was far less gracious in his epoch than it became with later generations.
Thus, when Shakespeare was born in a family of a merchant and glove maker in Stradford-on-Avon, nothing promised his later outstanding success. Moreover, even when he became a prominent playwright, he was never as glorified as he was after his death. Being an actor in the sixteenth century England was not a hugely respectable social role, as this occupation was considered to be quite controversial, if not immoral. From his birth in 1564, his fate was far less dramatic than the stories of kings and princes that he would create. From early childhood, he had to help his father with trade. Shakespeare got married quite early, aged just eighteen (which was quite normal for the epoch though, and quite different from the romantic marriages that he would later describe in his works). His wife Ann Hathaway was eight years his senior. She was probably pregnant with their first of three children, so this might explain the fact of such a hasty marriage.
It is remarkable that the evidence about Shakespeare’s life is quite scares, which proves the fact that his recognition was not especially significant by his contemporaries. Unlike his heroes like Hamlet, who got the best available education in German university, Shakespeare had to grasp knowledge from the simple position, which he took in society. It was probably only due to his curiosity, and his passion for literature that me managed to study the works of ancient authors like Ovid, whose writing Metamorphosis was his favorite one. In about three or four years after his marriage, he moved to London where he started his acting career. William Shakespeare played on stage until he was in his forties, though most likely he was not much good as an actor. However, he was appreciated as a playwright, which expanded Shakespeare’s popularity in the course of time. In his early career, he mostly was an author of comedies, whereas his famous tragedies were an outcome of his mature years.
There is some debate among scholars about the periodization of his works, though many of them agree that it is possible to divide them into four major periods. The first period can be marked between 1590 and1594 and it can be characterized by some features that are typical for beginner writers who have not worked out their established style. He is still inclined to imitation of other authors and their approach and does not go beyond mockery and light-hearted attitude to the plot. Such plays as The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Love’s Labor Lost and Titus Andronicus belong to this period. The comedies are remarkable by the touch of farce and folklore theatre and are mostly based on the effect of situations than word play as it is typical for later Shakespeare. The only tragedy of the period, Titus Andronicus is excessively passionate, cruel and naturalistic, which is imitation of that period’s typical approach.
Speaking about the second period of Shakespeare as a playwright, it is worth saying that the years 1594-1600 are typically mentioned by scholars. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous tragedy of this period, and it reveals a positive shift in the author’s style. His approach to portraying characters and the described events becomes more layered and less straightforward. Shakespeare realizes that a tragedy can have many voices and moods. It can be not only cruel but also lyrical and even comical once in a while. Because of this new approach his characters acquire volume and depth, so there is no wonder that Romeo and Juliet is still popular today. This style is more modern as it accepts the diversity of colors and points of view, so it is obvious that Shakespeare was a reformer of his days’ theatre, he clearly modernized the style and the overall vision bringing it closer to realism of later epochs. At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays can be called realistic based on their emotional credibility, not on their plot’s realism. On the contrary, in this part of his creative work, Shakespeare prefers choosing a fairytale atmosphere, which nevertheless helps convey his idea in a symbolic form. Thus, A Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Merchant of Venice are examples of this approach, where the author chooses to balance gently between dream and reality, thus conveying the idea of life’s illusionary nature. This period in Shakespeare’s work is different from the earlier one, as the values change. Characters of most plays are young but have lived for quite a while, so they lost their poetic illusion in favor of pleasure.
The third period is dated between 1600 and 1609 and is characterized by drastic change of mood that Shakespeare’s plays have. Instead of easy-going characters of earlier characters, now gloomy, disappointed, and revengeful heroes are on stage. In 1600, Shakespeare creates Hamlet, which is a perfect illustration to this new philosophy, where no hope is possible for a human. It looks like Shakespeare starts to care more about existential issues, as well as the concept of death, which is clear from the famous “To be or not to be” monologue of Hamlet. It is not clear, though, whether external life circumstances influenced the author in the way, or it was just part of his spiritual search and challenges. Shakespeare reached the top of prosperity and social acceptance during this period, as much as it was possible for his profession. This is the period of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, where larger-than-life heroes are present, full of controversy. The author realizes how the good and evil are mixed in a human, but also seems pessimistic about the power of the good. He rather believes that people tend to degrade, so that the evil easily takes power over their natures. Greed, jealousy, lust, revenge are among those vices that prevent people from living peacefully with each other and with their own inner self. The heroes are not only enemies to each other, but also they are constantly fighting with their own shadows, and the shadows seem to exhaust them. Overall, Shakespeare demonstrates his utter disappointment about the human race, which gives right to call his tone misanthropic. Indeed, the above mentioned Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens confirm this idea.
Finally, the last period of Shakespeare’s writing was between 1609 and 1612. According to the critics’ classification, that period is not quite homogeneous, but yet it mostly includes romantic dramas. These works demonstrate the end of the pessimistic extreme that Shakespeare pertained to in his tragedies and offers meaningful suffering instead. His works of the period demonstrate that life can be challenging but that it is worth living, as one will be rewarded for being good. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are those works where the author reveals his transformed vision of life. He says goodbye to theatre afterwards, and there are hints in these works about his decision, especially in the character of Prospero from Tempest. The spiritual recovery that the author seems to have is visible in fairytale beauty of the told stories, in the feeling of hope and belief in the humans’ initial goodness. It is hard to say, what exactly urged Shakespeare to changing and to dropping his theatrical career, though it might be some realization that his mission was over. Apart from his plays, Shakespeare is known for his poems and sonnets, which covered several themes such as love for a friend and a woman, melancholy, splitting apart, and reunion.
Thus, Shakespeare was an outstanding figure in English literature and theatre of his epoch, though he was more recognized by the following generations than by his contemporaries. He was the one to innovate the major concepts of theatrical art by turning it from artificial into lively and realistic. His achievements include enrichment of the English literary language by numerous words, combination of the comical and the dramatic in the same work and giving depth to his characters. Shakespeare was more an innovator than a follower of traditions, so there is no wonder that he is so modern several centuries after his death.
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