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About this book

An essential introductory text that provides students with a lively and enjoyable tour of Shakespeare's life, his writing career and the theatre of his time. Concise yet comprehensive, the guide examines the texts of twenty widely-studied plays, and the Sonnets, illuminating both their original contexts and their later reception. Lucidly written, with no jargon, this is an invaluable overview of Shakespeare's life and works for students who may be studying Shakespeare for the first time.

This is an ideal set text for modules on Shakespeare, Jacobean Drama or Renaissance/ Early Modern Literature which may be offered at all levels of an undergraduate Literature degree. In addition it is a helpful resource for students who may be studying Shakespeare’s plays as part of a taught postgraduate degree in Literature.

Table of Contents

2. The Recorded Life

Abstract
William Shakespeare’s name first appears on 26 April 1564, in the baptismal record of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, Holy Trinity. Holy Trinity is a grand medieval church for a small south Midlands market town of 2000-odd inhabitants. Stratford, sited at a crossing of the River Avon, which flows westward to meet the River Severn, is a day’s ride from Oxford; and Oxford to London is a two-day ride along the valley of the Thames. The register entry reads: ‘Guglielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’. He must have attended Stratford school; the pupil lists are lost. The details of when he left school, and where and how he lived before and after his marriage, are unknown. He next appears at 18 as ‘William Shagspere’, marrying ‘Anne Hathwey’, and then at the baptism of their daughter Susanna in 1583, and of their twins, Judith and Hamnet, in 1585. At the age of 20, Shakespeare had a wife and three children; he needed to make money. By 1592 his success as a playwright had drawn Robert Greene’s printed attack on him as an upstart, a ‘Shake-scene’, a player who presumed to write plays.
Michael Alexander

4. Shake-scene

Abstract
What kind of scene did Shakespeare shake? Permanent theatres were a new thing, and their repertoire was also new. It was no longer civic and communal, as medieval drama had been; and its former religious subject matter was now forbidden to it by law. It was not academic, like the translated classical plays appreciated by university audiences. It was no longer dependent on the decision of the owner of a great house or of a coaching inn. The actors belonged to the companies (initially travelling companies) which had replaced the civic guilds. Each company had a noble patron: Leicester’s Players, Strange’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Although the companies had noble patrons and could play at court, they were commercial enterprises like joint- stock companies and their performances were typically public, though they also performed in private. In London inn- yards of the 1550s, the spectator had put his penny in a box at the entrance (hence ‘box-office’). In 1576 came James Burbage’s polygonal Theatre, an amphitheatre open to the sky, built for the Earl of Leicester’s players but public and permanent. There was a new appetite for drama, a craze which explored the interests of a large new audience.
Michael Alexander

7. The Merchant of Venice and the Whirligig of Time

Abstract
This play appeared in print in 1600, with a title page reading The most Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the Extreame Cruelty of Shylocke the Iew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just Pound of his flesh: And the obtaining of Portia, by choyse of three Chests. Written by W. Shakespeare. On the next leaf, the play’s story is introduced not as most Excellent but as comicall. History has since made its story less comical, which is why the play receives extended attention here.
Michael Alexander

9. Horatio’s Question

Abstract
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the most varied, complex and exciting of Shakespeare’s plays, seems to have been a hit. It travelled far from the boards of the Globe. Two different printed versions soon appeared, and English players took the play to Germany. Hamlet is revived more often than any other play, reappearing on the stages and in the literatures of the world. Generations have read, performed, watched and quoted from Hamlet. Indeed the play has become so familiar in the Englishspeaking world that its reappearances in later literature are not always serious, as for example in Mr Wopsle’s comically inept performance in Great Expectations. In foreign literature it retains its tragic status. The poet Boris Pasternak, who translated several Shakespeare plays into Russian, ends his novel Dr Zhivago with the poems of his protagonist, the first of which is ‘Hamlet’, which in the English translation of 1958 begins, ‘The noise is stilled. I come out on to the stage’.1 Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ also inhabits other languages. The French know that Hamlet pondered the question Être ou ne pas être. Italian newspapers used to refer to Pope Paul VI, a scrupulous and cautious pontiff, much exercised by intractable problems, as troppo amletico.
Michael Alexander

10. Taken to Extremes

Abstract
The Quarto editions of some single plays have the words ‘comedy’, ‘history’ or ‘tragedy’ in their titles. The title page of the Folio (please look at Illustration 2, p. 4) puts history between comedy and tragedy, and the Folio orders the plays by genre, not, as modern editions usually do, in chronological order of composition. The placing of the histories between the received classical genres reflects Shakespeare’s less polarised practice. The simplification of genre had worked for him in his early plays, The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus, and also in the unclassical romance comedies, which invite smiles rather than laughter. Genre then weakens. History becomes less tragic in Henry IV, and comedy appears in tragedy: Juliet’s Nurse complicates the tragic effect. Shakespeare began with genre, then reverted to the habit of native English tradition, in which plays did not have generic purity. But he also addressed insoluble and existential problems not raised in medieval drama, though foreshadowed in William Langland’s Piers Plowman - problems which defy the simplification of genre.
Michael Alexander

13. Retrospect

Abstract
William Shakespeare had extraordinary gifts, and the luck to arrive in the theatre at an extraordinary moment. What he made, what he achieved, still seems wonderful. Like Mozart, he found composition easy, which is not to say that he did not push himself. He preferred to complicate existing plays and stories, inventing and transforming as necessary. He perfected the new genre of the history play, and developed new forms of romance and sexual comedy. After Henry VI, each play is different; this is especially true in tragedy and in the later work. To read through Shakespeare’s plays is to meet an unprecedented range and variety of situations, behaviour and sentiment, and to improve understanding of possible human actions and reactions, as experienced and seen from a succession of points of view. This understanding of multiple human interaction, seen from all sides, is a new thing in English literature, anticipated in Chaucer but rarely reapproached in later writers. An enriching sense that we can understand and feel what each character in a situation thinks and feels is perhaps Shakespeare’s most remarkable gift to us. If human lives have materially changed, human nature has changed less.
Michael Alexander
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