Shakespeare, the prince of poets or the king of dramatist, is recognized all the world over as the greatest poet and dramatist. Paying a great tribute to him, Ben Jonson writes “He was not of an age, but for all time”. For more than three hundred years his reputation has remained constant and steadfast.
Shakespeare is the Proteus of the drama who changes himself into every character and enters into every condition of human nature. He wrote tragedies and comedies with equal felicity and art:
“And such Shakespeare whose strong soul could climb
Steeps of sheer terror, sound the ocean grand
Of passion deep, or fancy’s strand
Trip with his fairies, keeping step and time”.
His mind was “the universal mirror of mankind”. He was an intellectual ocean whose waves touched all shores of thought. His large heart embraced all nature:
“Nature herself was proud of his designs
And enjoy’d to wear the dressing of his lines”.
But Shakespeare is not without fault, as Hudson writes, “At places his psychology is hopelessly crude and unconvincing; his style vicious; his wit forced and poor; his tragic language bombastic”. At places there are factual errors in his dramas such that the story, plot, scenes and characters start seeing unreal, e.g. the Modern Switzerland in Winter’s Tale is shown as having a sea-coast. There are trees of coconut and palm-dates side by side in As You Like It. Sometimes, the “Mistaken Identity” scenes as in Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night seem unreal. But these are small things after the comparison with those paramount qualities which have given him the first place among the world’s dramatist.
In the end, taken as a whole, Shakespeare’s plays constitute the greatest single body of work which any writer has contributed to our English literature, says Hudson. He was supreme, not only as a dramatist, but also as a poet to whom the worlds of high imagination and delicate fancy were alike open.
Dr. Dowden divides Shakespeare’s 37 plays into 4 periods. He terms the last period (1606-12) as on the heights-a period of restored serenity, of calm alter the storm which marked the years of dramatist’s literary work. Pericles, Cymbeline, tempest, and winter’s tale belong to this period, the last two being the best examples of this period. These plays of Shakespeare’s last period though containing a lot of tragic matter have happy ending. They are neither true tragedies nor true comedies. For want of better names they are called “romances”. Their tone is calm and tranquil in marked contrast with the furious violence of the great tragedies that proceed them. Their theme is forgiveness and reconciliation.Like comedies the romances deal with love and end in a marriage. However, to quote Shakespeare’s own words, “the course of true love did never run smooth”. The young lovers have to undergo some sort of discipline before they reach the sweet fruition of their amours. For example, Ferdinand in The Tempest had to carry logs of word for Miranda. The Tempest commonly supposed to have been the last play of Shakespeare and shoes some autobiographical elements. But whether it was actually his last play or not it was certainly intended to be his farewell to the stage. Prospero’s farewell to his magic and his spirits leaves little doubt of this point.
The winter’s tale based on Greene’s romance Pondosto, is unforgettable for the character of that charming rogue Autolycus, that snapper up of unconsidered trifles, and for the famous song beginning with Daffodils…. Cymbeline is notable for the character of Imogen, one of Shakespeare’s great heroines. The play contains the beautiful funeral song: “fear no more the heat of the sun.” Pericles is not entirely Shakespeare’s and was added t his plays in a later folio.
To quote A.C. bardley, Shakespeare had a “sense of tragedy”, not a philosophy of it yet there are certain well-built principles which underline almost every shakespearean tragedy. In shakespearean tragedy the hero is the pivotal figure who stands as a colossus beside other characters. It is only in love tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, that some importance is given to the ‘heroine’. In shakespearean sense of tragedy always ends in suffering and death. So Triolus and Cressida and Cymbeline cannot be classes as tragedies.
The suffering an calmity which befall the hero are quite exceptional in their nature and magnitude. Halet by his mental torture is virrtuallu laid on the rack. Othello experiences a tempest in his very soul, lear turns mad, macbeth loses all interest in life and is obliged to characterise it as “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” But the suffering is not limited to the hero alone. May others too—like Cordelia, Desdimina, Ophelia and lady Macbeth also suffers. The hero who undergones the nerve-breaking ordeal of suffering culminating in death is, in Shakespearean tragedy, always a man of outstanding social status. For example, lear and Julius Caesar are Kings; Hamlet is a prince; macbeth and Brutus are nobles; Othello is a general. Bradley supports this concept of Shakespearean hero: “the greater a man, the more stuming and effective in his fall.”
Supernatual and chance happening do exert some influence on the hero’s destiny. The ghost in Hamlet, the three witchess in Macbeth, dropping the handkerchief by Desdimona at the crucial moment, Romeo’s failure in getting the Friar;s message about the pation and Kuliet’s awakeining from sleep a little earlier, Edgar’s failure to reach the prison a little later than the haging of Cordelia, a chance attack of Hamlet’s ship by pirates contributes their part in the tragedy. Yet the dictum :character is destiny” is fairly true of Shakespearean tragedy. Bradley observes, “Lear’s tragedy is the tragedy of dotage and short sightdness, Othello’s that of credulity, Hamlet’s that if indecision, Macbeth’s of ambition, and Antony’s that of neglect of duty and so on.”
Shakespeare’s Historical Plays
Covering the period between 1200-15—pf the history England, Shakespeare wrote some 10 plays as Richard III, the three parts of Henry VI, Richard II, two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII, King John. They are worls of art, loke other plays of Shakespeare, even thought they are conceived within historical framework. They were written between the period 1588-1598 when the patriotic feelings were at the highest pitch.
Shakespeare borrowed the historical framework of all his historical plays almost exclusivelu from the Chronicle of Holinshed—a mixed record of Truth hearsay, legend, and every myth. Come of Shakespeare’s major aims in writing historical plays was to make English Men proud of being Englishmen. To quote Hardian Craige, England is the hero in these days. These plays onspired with the patriotic spirit were also concluded to infuse patriotic spirit made a special appeal for unity.
According ro Dowden, Shakespearean kings can be divided into two classes—King John, Richard IInd and Henry VI embody the weakness of English King, whereas, Richard III, Henry IVm and Henry V are studies of English Kingly strength. Shakespeare’s historical plays are, to borrow the words of Schelegel, “Mirroe for kings.” The mirror unables the English king to discovers his real identity and to correct himself. To conclude, “in his historical plays Shakespeare revised dead princes and heroes and sett them in action on a stage crowded with life and manner,” (Walter Raleight)
Shakespeare’s Roman Plays
Shakespeare always moved with the current, and was sensitive even to slide change in the mood, tastes and temper of his audiences. In the early years of 17th C. Italian themes and Mediterranean were getting popular. People craved for novelty and their craving was being satisfied in various ways. Shakespeare to, responded to this desire by dramatizing Roman history in three of his finest plays—Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antonio and Cleopatra. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare has combined Roman history with the interpretation of Brutus’ tragic character. It may be considered the prelude to Shakespeare’s great tragedies. It’s style, grave and majestic in keeping with the theme of the tragedy. It presents the defeat of democracy by dictatorship. Cariolanus, though inferior to the great tragedies is true to type and depicts the tragedy of excessive pride. Antonio and Caleopatra stands apart, for in none of the other tragedies have love being given such a part in the plot, or woman such a place amid the (dramatic personae.) Critics have often condemned the plays as being to diffuse but the two central characters particularly Caleopatra, are among the best observed and most realistic in Shakespeare. These roman plays may not have historical accuracy, there might be a few anachronisms, but the Bard of Avon succeeded in capturing in them the very spirit of these remote times.
Shakespeare’s Early Comedies
Shakespeare started his dramatic career with three experimental comedies produced in 1591-92. All the three are boisterous and farcical comedies bearing the marks of Shakespeare’s prentice work. Love’s labour lost is a social satire. Two gentleman of Verona mixes romances and rather broad humour. Comedy of errors is highly farcical. That the dramatist’s comic range was widening was proved by the plays which followed.
In Merchant of Venice (1595) comedy is barely saved from getting converted into tragedy. It is a rich mixture of several plots and is one of the most popular. A midsummer Night’s dream blends light fancy with romance and humour. It introduces us to the world of fairies and their king and queen and a roguish imp of folklore Puck. The farce of Bottom, one of the greatest comic creations of Shakespeare, unconscious of his donkey’s ears, in the arms of Titania is heightened by poetry of rare delicacy. In the Taming of the Shrew (1595) romance and farcical elements come together. This comedy along with the comedy Merry Wives of Windsor are the middle class comedies. And the latter along worth all is well that ends well are rather pathetic romances.
Shakespeare, it is said, wrote merry wives of Windsor at the behest of Queen Elizabeth who desired to see Falstaff in love. Falstaff is over reached by the merry wives, is humbled and accepts defeat. Next follow the comedies like Much ado about nothing, As you like it and Twelfth nigh which belong to the period of maturity. But most of the Shakespearean comedies present us with a picture of life in its sunnier aspects—in its sparkling and vivacious moods. They mostly bubble and sparkle with humour of all types—humour of situation, humour of character and humour created by wit, dialogue and language. The comedy of Errors is a comedy of situation and a character while taming of the shrew is one of situation and character. Midsummer Night’s dream has the excesses of language all loned down. Shakespearean early comedy exhibit in lesser or greater degree all characteristic of Shakespearean comedy—love, predominant female role, humour, music mingling of realism and romance, complex moods and subtle characters.
Shakespeare’s Four Great Tragedies
Dr. Dowden calls the period 1600-06 of Shakespeare as out of the depths. It is period of gloom and depression which works the full maturity of his powers. His great tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Julius Caesar belong to this period. These tragedies transport the reader to the dark underworld of crime and punishment, passion and temptation, terror, madness and remorse. “Each of these tragedies”, to quote E.K. Chambers, “is the temperament at war with destiny00the brute is man, trampling upon the god.” The central figures in the tragedies are exceptional and calamity of tragedies mainly proceeds from actions of the person concerned. They give us a scene of justice by showing that evil is self-destroying, but poetic justice is not found in these plays. Nevertheless Shakespeare’s tragedies are not affirmations of moral pessimism. As curtain down, we are depressed by the spectacle of Desdimona strangled or Cordelia hanged. We are uplifted by the victory of human spirit that clings to good in the face of the dire face. The heroes downfall is brought about by a fatal weakness in his own character. In Hamlet, it is excessive refinement of sensibility, in Othello it is excessive with suppleness of Mind, in King Lear it is excessive with egoism temper, in Macbeth it is inordinate ambitions. To conclude, with Walter Raleigh Shakespeare’s tragedies “deal with greater things than men.”
Anachronism in Shakespeare’s plays
The word “anachronism comes from the Greek root word “anachronismos” from Ana-back: backward and chromos time. In other words it indicated an error in chronology or placing an event in its wrong historical time. In spire of his universality of appeal as the greatest dramatist of Elizabethan Era, critics have examined Shakespeare thread bare and pointed out a number of errors in his references to certain animals and events. In As You Like It he refers to “the venomoustood” which has a diamond or precious stone throwing light on the surroundings. Probably Shakespeare has mistaken the “toad” for a serpent believed to have a precious stone on his hood. In Richard Ii the king on the prison scene calls for a mirror on order to see himself. This is directly an anachronism. Mirrors were not known during the period of Richard II. Again he orders to bring pen and paper which were not known during his period.
In Julius Caesar Brutus says to Cassius “Peace” “count the clock”. Cassius replies “the clock had striken three” clocks were not known to the Romans, and striking clocks were not invented until some fourteen hundred years after the death of Caesar. G.B. Shaw makes delicate use of anachronism in St. John. The use of anachronism, as a defect, does not in any way cloud the artistic genius of the dramatist. In fact poets and dramatists have what is called the “poetic license” which cannot be questioned by a critic of any magnitude.
“No longer mourn for me when I an dead
Than you shall hear the surely sullen bell
Give warning to the world than I am fled
From this wile world, with vilest worms to dwell’
In Elizabethan Age, Shakespeare stands out as the supreme sonneteer, who produced a string of 154 sonnets which were published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe who refers to him “our ever loving poet” in the introductory note. Scholars have divided these sonnets into two unequal parts: the first 126 sonnets form the first series wherein Shakespeare presents his young friend as an exceptionally handsome and lovable person
I shall compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” (XVII)
The second series is an apostrophe to a woman whom the poet paints in the dark colour. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun
If hairs be wires, black wired grow on her head.”
The young man is the source of his delight whereas the dark lady is the cause of his despair:
“The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill” (144)
The chief theme that run through this sequence: (i) nature of love; (ii) glorification of friendship; (iii) frailty of womankind; (iv) destructive powers of time (v) eternal nature if the poet’s verse.
The rhyme scheme of Shakespeare sonnets abab, cdcd, efef, gh. Shakespeare employs highly metaphorical and figurative style by using conceits, puns, allusions and similes in these sonnets. Walter Raleigh calls this sequence “a cave of mystery” whereas Wordsworth maintains there Shakespeare “unlocks his heart.” Just observe how Shakespeare defines the power of love in the last line of last sonnet:“loves fire heat water, water cools not love.”
Shakesapeare’s Hero in tragedy
The most famous tragedies of Shakespeare like Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet are basically the tragedies of the hero, who must die towards the end of the play—not a sudden death but the culmination a series of incidents which have their seeds almost in the every beginning, generally in the opening scene. The hero in Shakespeare is not an average man: Lear is a king, Hamlet is a prince; Othello is a general and Macbeth belongs to the class of nobility. In this respect, Shakespearean tragedy is closer to Aristotle’s conception wherein a tragedy must pertain to a man in a high state of prosperous life from where he falls into a state of misery and destruction—a concept even borne out by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.
The role of villains, as for instance, Iago in Othello or Casca in Julius Caesar, cannot be dismisses summarily. In Macbeth’s case lady Macbeth was there to incite and abet him on the path of evil. Hence, it may be a sort of justice to blame Macbeth solely for his misfortune. In Hamlet’s case, the ghost was there to beckon him on to persuade him to follow a certain path.
A Shakespearean tragedy is a masterpiece of highly artistic conflict which only the genius of Shakespeare could manage. Needless to say those in a tragedy, the hero and his people are confronted with others who are explicitly antagonistic to them in a dynamically active manner. The minor conflict depicted by Shakespeare in the mind of the great tragic heroes, frequently in their soliloquies and asides and elsewhere for instance, that of Hamlet, Brutus, etc. is unmatched anywhere else in world literature.
Shakespeare’s outlook being universal, he cannot be stigmatized with any narrow provincial prejudges, this way or that way, on any racial, communal or even national plane though he cannot certainly be charged with neglecting the female role in the tragedies, but it was perhaps fair on his part to grant beauty, charm and initiative to women in his humorous comedies but diminish their role in his tragedies. Though some way still in the modern age deem Shakespeare’s terming of woman as “frailty” as unjust if not wicked.