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.
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