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The Core Curriculum

William Shakespeare

1564 CE – 1616 CE

Life

Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford‐uponAvon. His birth is traditionally celebrated on April 23, the date of his death. He was the eldest son of John Shakespeare, who worked as a glover and a tanner, and who played an important role in local politics. He was most likely educated at the local grammar school, and later married to Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. A daughter, Susanna, was baptized on May 26, 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, on February 2, 1585.

The details of Shakespeare’s transition from Stratford to London are a mystery, and "[n]othing is known of his beginnings as a writer, nor when or in what capacity he entered the theatre," but he is first mentioned in print in 1592, in an allusion that suggests he was already established in London’s literary and theatrical worlds.* He was a "leading member" of one of the prominent London theatre companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with whom "he worked and grew prosperous for the rest of his career".* In 1599, the company moved to the Globe Theatre, becoming the King’s Men on James Stuart’s accession to the English throne in 1603, and taking over the Blackfriars as a winter performance space in 1608.

Throughout most of his professional life, London was Shakespeare’s base while his family remained in Stratford. But evidence suggests that by 1608, Shakespeare was withdrawing to New Place, a substantial house he had purchased in his place of birth, although his name continues to appear in London records. According to the inscription on his monument, he died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in Stratford. Studying the records of his life

creates the impression of an educated, well-read, and ambitious man who knew how to manage his business affairs and could pursue his financial interests astutely; who, while caring deeply for his family and his roots in Stratford, cared too for his career and was willing to make domestic sacrifices in order to pursue it, who took pleasure in his prosperity and the status it gave him, and who hoped to pass on something of what he had earned to his descendants.**

Works

Shakespeare is today known primarily as one of the great English playwrights, however much of his literary reputation while alive rested on his poetic works, particularly the Ovidian narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). His well-known Sonnets, probably dating from the mid‐1590s, were printed in 1609 and further bolstered his standing as a poet.

The writing of plays, on the other hand, was not considered a literary activity, nor an activity with the goal of publication in print. The plays of Shakespeare were thus published by being performed. Scripts of only half of them appeared in print in his lifetime, some in short, corrupt texts, often known as ‘bad quartos’. Dates and order of composition are often difficult to establish. The texts of Shakespeare’s plays survive either in the form of so-called quarto editions of single plays, published during his lifetime and after, or in the posthumous edition of collected plays known as the First Folio from 1623.

He probably began to write for the stage in the late 1580s, writing plays based on episodes from English history centered on the life of kings, eventually known as history plays. Plays such as Richard III, Richard II, and Henry V appeared from this period throughout the 1590s. Simultaneously during this decade, Shakespeare was producing well-known comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night, while also establishing himself as a tragedian with works such as Titus Andronicus and Romeo & Juliet dating from the early to mid-1590s. These tragedies culminated in the so-called major or great Shakespearean tragedies, such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra, which date from the period 1599–1607. Towards the end of his career, Shakespeare turned to tragicomedy and romance, with plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, both performed in 1611. 

Establishing the Shakespearean corpus—the collection of his writings—has occupied many people over many hundreds of years, in a process begun as early as 1623 with the publication of the First Folio and continued until the present day, with significant editions produced in every century in between. Shakespeare’s works thus exist in multiple versions, produced according to multiple aims: some seeking to establish a kind of master text, a ‘best version’ compiled from all those available, others seeking to explode the very notion of a master text by juxtaposing all available versions in the same edition.

Written by Frederick Bengtsson (Department of English & Comparative Literature)

* "Shakespeare, William" in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Dinah Birch.

** Stanley Wells, "Shakespeare, William" in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells.

Historical Contexts

King Lear

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of tumult and great social upheaval, both in England and in Europe as a whole. Some fifty years before Shakespeare’s birth, the Reformation had swept through the continent, challenging longstanding religious practices and institutions, and resulting in the establishment of a number of alternatives to the Catholic Church of Rome, including Lutheranism and Calvinism. While this movement was initially resisted in England, Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn in 1527, and the pope’s subsequent refusal to allow it, led to a break from the Church of Rome and the eventual founding of a Protestant Church of England in 1536, with the king as its head. The crown seized the properties and wealth of the monasteries, and England was thrown into a kind of religious identity crisis over the next few decades, as successive monarchs shifted the country back and forth from Catholicism to Protestantism several times. Each of these shifts was accompanied by danger, persecution, and death.

After the death of Henry’s daughter Mary, a staunch Catholic like her mother Catherine, her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, became queen in 1558, a succession by no means assured given the political implications of Henry’s marital relations. Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor monarchs, reigned until 1603, presiding over an extraordinary rise in England’s fortunes. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the country (along with its Protestant religion) had established itself as a political power within Europe, and embarked upon a process of imperial expansion. Simultaneously, there was a great flowering in literature, classical studies, historiography, geography and philosophy, which has made the Elizabethan era practically synonymous with the English Renaissance. Any doubts—and they were expressed often—about the capacity of a female monarch to rule effectively were, if not put to rest, at least exposed as unfounded by the multiple achievements of her long reign.

Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen, died without issue, having spent her reign skillfully playing various suitors and factions against each other for political gain while remaining unmarried throughout—on her deathbed in 1603 she appointed James VI of Scotland as her successor, and he was crowned James I of England, the first English monarch of the Stuart dynasty, ruling until his death in 1625. The Jacobean era saw the country continue to emerge as a colonial and trading power, both westwards in Ireland and North America, and eastwards in Asia. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of English Renaissance writing continued—the Authorized King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, and James himself was known to be a writer, and composed works on poetry, witchcraft, and on political theory and kingship. In the latter texts, he articulated his belief in an absolutist theory of monarchy and the divine right of kings, desiring to command not only complete obedience but also complete devotion, which would lead to difficulties in his relations with the Parliament. These difficulties would eventually lead to the English Civil War (1642–1651), and ultimately to the execution of James’ son and heir Charles I in 1649. 

That civil war broke out fewer than thirty years after Shakespeare’s death suggests the extent to which England, despite the advancements and triumphs of the Tudor-Stuart period, was still a troubled society. While both monarchs were to some extent popular and inspired the devotion of their subjects, the changes set in motion by Henry VIII continued to have far-reaching effects. While Elizabeth’s accession may have confirmed England as a Protestant nation, the next decades continued to be marked by religious tension, not only between England and Catholic Europe, but also within a populace for whom religious faith and identity had become a life-and-death matter—Catholics were persecuted and tolerated to varying degrees depending on the political climate and monarchical whim, and schisms within English Protestantism developed as well. At the same time, political pressures continued both from outside and within, with anxieties about foreign espionage and expansion, and internal treachery and power games. The social structure and geography of the country as a whole was being reorganized, and the possibilities for social advancement opened up, through a combination of factors, including the dissolution of the monasteries and their land-holdings, along with increased opportunities resulting from the expansion of trade and exploration, and the rise of London as a commercial center.

Early modern drama & ‘Shakespearean tragedy’

While Shakespeare is indeed one of the great writers of the Western canon—and one of the best-known—it’s important to avoid uncritically endorsing portrayals that render him as a near-mythical kind of universal genius, without considering the particular historical contexts not only of the period in which he lived and worked, but of the nearly 400 years after his death. He was undoubtedly a product of his age: not only of the flourishing literary world of early modern England along with writers such as Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney Herbert and John Donne, but also of a vibrant theatrical world together with playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and John Webster. This latter world, while it featured writers with literary aspirations, was distinctly separate from the world of literature: theater was a commercial venture that sought to entertain as many people as possible, and to turn a profit for its participants. The momentous transformation of the rich theatrical traditions of England into the commercial theatre of the late 1500s was closely linked to the transformation of London into a commercial center, and the attendant population explosion (from c. 50,000 in 1530 to c. 225,000 in 1605). Shakespeare was deeply involved in this theatrical world, as playwright, as actor and eventually as shareholder in one of the premier stage companies of the period, the Lord Chamberlain’s (later known as the King’s) Men.

If Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers, then King Lear is often considered one of his greatest works. Along with plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, and Macbeth, Lear has established its creator not only as one of the great tragedians, measured alongside the ancient Greeks, but as the foremost representative of a great age of tragedy, comparable again to fifth-century Athens. Again, such a view is worth considering closely—it is not to diminish the power and artistry of these works to acknowledge their differences both from Athenian tragedy and from our later conceptions of tragedy.

These plays were not produced in conjunction with religious festivals, and they were in competition with each other only insofar as the companies that staged them sought to maximize their share of the theatrical audience. The theater of early modern London was however similar to that of ancient Athens in terms of the interrelationships between playwrights who were composing as part of a complex dramatic community that existed both synchronically and diachronically. Shakespeare was not a solitary genius, composing plays in isolation, but both influenced and was influenced by other playwrights such as Kyd, Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, and Webster, sometimes working for the same company, sometimes for competing companies, sometimes collaborating on the same play, a common practice at the time.

In this kind of rich environment, where the demand for entertainment led to ever-increasing numbers of plays, where audience tastes could shift from one week to the next, and where theatrical companies thus had to remain flexible in order to maintain their edge, dramatic genres such as tragedy or comedy were never fixed or unified as they would later become. The range of influences on early modern tragedy includes classical tragic theories and texts alongside medieval dramas and moral philosophy, and any notion of what tragedy consisted of as a genre was pretty much worked out in practice on the stage, rather than in theory.

King Lear in historical context

As its title suggests, King Lear is a play about kingship, written during a period when the monarchy was of central importance, and the role of the monarch was under constant scrutiny and subject to endless theorization. James VI & I, on the throne when Lear was written and performed, himself extensively theorized the political role of the monarch as absolute ruler with divine right. The preceding reign of Elizabeth I was itself marked by continued efforts to justify her rule—both as a result of her gender and of her uneasy familial claim to the throne—including through the theory of the ‘king’s two bodies’, whereby her person was understood to be divided between her mortal body natural and the immortal body politic of the kingship. These theories were not just abstractions, but had a very real effect on life in Shakespeare’s England, and in early modern Europe as a whole. In the 1600s, both country and continent were still feeling the world-shattering impact of Henry VIII’s decision to separate from the Catholic church nearly a century earlier. The far-ranging political, spiritual and societal consequences of such an event exemplified the degree to which the monarch’s personal desires and actions could affect the destiny and structure of an entire country, seemingly on a whim.

In the 1590s, Shakespeare often dwelt on the nature of monarchy, and the history plays of the period can be read not just as historical narratives featuring kings, but also as meditations on monarchical rule. The two Richard plays explore the limits and abuses of such rule and the possibilities for its overthrow, the Henry IV plays deal with the issue of succession, while Henry V focuses on the role of king as national figurehead. In Lear, we see Shakespeare tackle the issue of patriarchal monarchy, where the king is figured as head of both his own family and of the state, a staple of Jacobean understandings of the relationship between monarch and country that saw in it an analogy to the relationship between a patriarch and his household. While Lear may have been a ruler of almost mythical status from ancient Britain, King Lear articulates pressing contemporary concerns about the power of early modern kings.

Written by Frederick Bengtsson (Department of English & Comparative Literature)

Works Consulted:

The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, & Katherine Eisaman Maus.

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells.