History of Literature






English literature

 

CONTENTS:

The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



 



English literature
 



The Renaissance period: 1550–1660
 

 



Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

 

Nicholas Udall
John Lyly

Thomas Kyd


Christopher Marlowe  "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus"

William Shakespeare  PART I "Sonnets", PART II "Hamlet", PART III "King Lear",
PART IV "Macbeth", PART V "Othello", PART VI
"Romeo and Juliet"

Thomas Heywood
John Day
Samuel Rowley


Ben Jonson  PART I "Volpone", PART II "The Alchemist"


Thomas Middleton
John Webster
John Fletcher
John Ford
Philip Massinger

Richard Brome
Lucius Cary
Edmund Waller
Thomas Carew
Sidney Godolphin


Thomas Hobbes  "Leviathan"

John Donne  "Songs and Sonnets", "Elegies"


William Cartwright

Francis Quarles
Henry King
Edward Herbert
George Herbert
Richard Crashaw
Henry Vaughan
John Cleveland
Abraham Cowley
Andrew Marvell

Robert Herrick
Sir John Suckling

Richard Lovelace
Sir William Davenant
Sir John Denham
Sir Richard Fanshawe
Thomas Stanley

Giles Fletcher
the Younger
Phineas Fletcher
Josuah Sylvester
William Browne

 

 


 

Theatre and society

In the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, the theatre was the focal point of the age. Public life was shot through with theatricality—monarchs ruled with ostentatious pageantry, rank and status were defined in a rigid code of dress—while on the stages the tensions and contradictions working to change the nation were embodied and played out. More than any other form, the drama addressed itself to the total experience of its society. Playgoing was inexpensive, and the playhouse yards were thronged with apprentices, fishwives, labourers, and the like, but the same play that was performed to citizen spectators in the afternoon would often be restaged at court by night. The drama’s power to activate complex, multiple perspectives on a single issue or event resides in its sensitivity to the competing prejudices and sympathies of this diverse audience.

Moreover, the theatre was fully responsive to the developing technical sophistication of nondramatic literature. In the hands of Shakespeare, the blank verse employed for translation by the earl of Surrey in the first half of the 16th century became a medium infinitely mobile between extremes of formality and intimacy, while prose encompassed both the control of Hooker and the immediacy of Nashe. This was above all a spoken drama, glorying in the theatrical energies of language. And the stage was able to attract the most technically accomplished writers of its day because it offered, uniquely, a literary career with some realistic prospect of financial return. The decisive event was the opening of the Theatre, considered the first purpose-built London playhouse, in 1576, and during the next 70 years some 20 theatres more are known to have operated. The quantity and diversity of plays they commissioned are little short of astonishing.


 

Theatres in London and the provinces

The London theatres were a meeting ground of humanism and popular taste. They inherited, on the one hand, a tradition of humanistic drama current at court, the universities, and the Inns of Court (collegiate institutions responsible for legal education). This tradition involved the revival of Classical plays and attempts to adapt Latin conventions to English, particularly to reproduce the type of tragedy, with its choruses, ghosts, and sententiously formal verse, associated with Seneca (10 tragedies by Seneca in English translation appeared in 1581). A fine example of the type is Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, a tragedy based on British chronicle history that draws for Elizabeth’s benefit a grave political moral about irresponsible government. It is also the earliest known English play in blank verse. On the other hand, all the professional companies performing in London continued also to tour in the provinces, and the stage was never allowed to lose contact with its roots in country show, pastime, and festival. The simple moral scheme that pitted virtues against vices in the mid-Tudor interlude was never entirely submerged in more sophisticated drama, and the Vice, the tricksy villain of the morality play, survives, in infinitely more amusing and terrifying form, in Shakespeare’s Richard III (c. 1592–94). Another survival was the clown or the fool, apt at any moment to step beyond the play’s illusion and share jokes directly with the spectators. The intermingling of traditions is clear in two farces, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1553) and the anonymous Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1559), in which academic pastiche is overlaid with country game; and what the popular tradition did for tragedy is indicated in Thomas Preston’s Cambises, King of Persia (c. 1560), a blood-and-thunder tyrant play with plenty of energetic spectacle and comedy.

A third tradition was that of revelry and masques, practiced at the princely courts across Europe and preserved in England in the witty and impudent productions of the schoolboy troupes of choristers who sometimes played in London alongside the professionals. An early play related to this kind is the first English prose comedy, Gascoigne’s Supposes (1566), translated from a reveling play in Italian. Courtly revel reached its apogee in England in the ruinously expensive court masques staged for James I and Charles I, magnificent displays of song, dance, and changing scenery performed before a tiny aristocratic audience and glorifying the king. The principal masque writer was Ben Jonson, the scene designer Inigo Jones.

 


Nicholas Udall

born December 1505?, Southampton, Hampshire, Eng.
died December 1556, Westminster

English playwright, translator, and schoolmaster who wrote the first known English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister.

Udall was educated at the University of Oxford, where he became a lecturer and fellow. He became a schoolmaster in 1529 and was teaching in London in 1533 when he wrote “ditties and interludes” for Anne Boleyn’s coronation. In 1534 he published Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered out of Terence . . . Translated into Englysshe (dated 1533). That same year he became headmaster of Eton College, but he was later dismissed for sexually abusing his pupils.

From 1542 to 1545 Udall seems to have been in London, engaged in work as a translator. In 1542 he published a version of Erasmus’ Apopthegmes; and he was employed by Catherine Parr, who shared his enthusiasm for the Reformation, to take charge of a translation of Erasmus’ paraphrase of the New Testament. The first volume, containing the Gospels and Acts, was published in 1548; the Gospel According to Luke was translated by Udall, and the Gospel According to John was translated by Princess Mary (later Queen Mary I).

In 1549 Udall became tutor to the young Edward Courtenay; in 1551 he obtained a prebend at Windsor, and in 1553 he was given a living in the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile he had become famous as a playwright and translator. Even under Queen Mary, his Protestant sympathies did not cause him to fall into disfavour at court; various documents refer to his connection with plays presented before the queen. He became a tutor in the household of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and in December 1555 was appointed headmaster of Westminster.

Although Udall is credited in John Bale’s catalog of English writers with “many comedies,” the only play extant that can certainly be assigned to him is Ralph Roister Doister. This must have been written, and probably was performed, about 1553. The play marks the emergence of English comedy from the medieval morality plays, interludes, and farces. It is modeled on Terence and Plautus: its central idea—of a braggart soldier-hero, with an impecunious parasite to flatter him, who thinks every woman he sees falls in love with him and is finally shown to be an arrant coward—is derived from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus. The incidents, characters, and colloquial idiom, however, are English. It was probably written as a Christmas entertainment to be performed by Udall’s pupils in London. The anonymous interludes Jacke Jugeler and Thersites are also sometimes attributed to him.
 


 

Professional playwrights

The first generation of professional playwrights in England has become known collectively as the university wits. Their nickname identifies their social pretensions, but their drama was primarily middle class, patriotic, and romantic. Their preferred subjects were historical or pseudo-historical, mixed with clowning, music, and love interest. At times, plot virtually evaporated; George Peele’s Old Wives’ Tale (c. 1595) and Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1600) are simply popular shows, charming medleys of comic turns, spectacle, and song. Peele was a civic poet, and his serious plays are bold and pageantlike; The Arraignment of Paris (1584) is a pastoral entertainment, designed to compliment Elizabeth. Greene’s speciality was comical histories, interweaving a serious plot set among kings with comic action involving clowns. In his Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594) and James IV (1598), the antics of vulgar characters complement but also criticize the follies of their betters. Only
John Lyly, writing for the choristers, endeavoured to achieve a courtly refinement. His Gallathea (1584) and Endimion (1591) are fantastic comedies in which courtiers, nymphs, and goddesses make rarefied love in intricate, artificial patterns, the very stuff of courtly dreaming.

 


John Lyly
 

English writer
born 1554?, Kent, Eng.
died November 1606, London

Main
author considered to be the first English prose stylist to leave an enduring impression upon the language. As a playwright he also contributed to the development of prose dialogue in English comedy.

Lyly was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, and went to London about 1576. There he gained fame with the publication of two prose romances, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580), which together made him the most fashionable English writer of the 1580s. Euphues is a romantic intrigue told in letters interspersed with general discussions on such topics as religion, love, and epistolary style. Lyly’s preoccupation with the exact arrangement and selection of words, his frequent use of similes drawn from classical mythology, and his artificial and excessively elegant prose inspired a short-lived Elizabethan literary style called “euphuism.” The Euphues novels introduced a new concern with form into English prose.

After 1580 Lyly devoted himself almost entirely to writing comedies. In 1583 he gained control of the first Blackfriars Theatre, in which his earliest plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, were produced. All of Lyly’s comedies except The Woman in the Moon were presented by the Children of Paul’s, a children’s company that was periodically favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The performance dates of his plays are as follows: Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, 1583–84; Gallathea, 1585–88; Endimion, 1588; Midas, 1589; Love’s Metamorphosis, 1590; Mother Bombie, 1590; and The Woman in the Moon, 1595. All but one of these are in prose. The finest is considered to be Endimion, which some critics hold a masterpiece.

Lyly’s comedies mark an enormous advance upon those of his predecessors in English drama. Their plots are drawn from classical mythology and legend, and their characters engage in euphuistic speeches redolent of Renaissance pedantry; but the charm and wit of the dialogues and the light and skillful construction of the plots set standards that younger and more gifted dramatists could not ignore.

Lyly’s popularity waned with the rise of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, and his appeals to Queen Elizabeth for financial relief went unheeded. He had hoped to succeed Edmund Tilney in the court post of Master of the Revels, but Tilney outlived him, and Lyly died a poor and bitter man.


 

 

Marlowe

Outshining all these is Christopher Marlowe, who alone realized the tragic potential inherent in the popular style, with its bombast and extravagance. His heroes are men of towering ambition who speak blank verse of unprecedented (and occasionally monotonous) elevation, their “high astounding terms” embodying the challenge that they pose to the orthodox values of the societies they disrupt. In Tamburlaine the Great (two parts, published 1590) and Edward II (c. 1591; published 1594), traditional political orders are overwhelmed by conquerors and politicians who ignore the boasted legitimacy of weak kings; The Jew of Malta (c. 1589; published 1633) studies the man of business whose financial acumen and trickery give him unrestrained power; The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (c. 1593; published 1604) depicts the overthrow of a man whose learning shows scant regard for God. The main focus of all these plays is on the uselessness of society’s moral and religious sanctions against pragmatic, amoral will. They patently address themselves to the anxieties of an age being transformed by new forces in politics, commerce, and science; indeed, the sinister, ironic prologue to The Jew of Malta is spoken by Machiavelli. In his own time Marlowe was damned as atheist, homosexual, and libertine, and his plays remain disturbing because his verse makes theatrical presence into the expression of power, enlisting the spectators’ sympathies on the side of his gigantic villain-heroes. His plays thus present the spectator with dilemmas that can be neither resolved nor ignored, and they articulate exactly the divided consciousness of their time. There is a similar effect in The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1591) by Marlowe’s friend Thomas Kyd, an early revenge tragedy in which the hero seeks justice for the loss of his son but, in an unjust world, can achieve it only by taking the law into his own hands. Kyd’s use of Senecan conventions (notably a ghost impatient for revenge) in a Christian setting expresses a genuine conflict of values, making the hero’s success at once triumphant and horrifying.
 



Christopher Marlowe


"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus"





English writer

baptized Feb. 26, 1564, Canterbury, Kent, Eng.
died May 30, 1593, Deptford, near London

Main
Elizabethan poet and Shakespeare’s most important predecessor in English drama, who is noted especially for his establishment of dramatic blank verse.

Early years
Marlowe was the second child and eldest son of John Marlowe, a Canterbury shoemaker. Nothing is known of his first schooling, but on Jan. 14, 1579, he entered the King’s School, Canterbury, as a scholar. A year later he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Obtaining his bachelor of arts degree in 1584, he continued in residence at Cambridge—which may imply that he was intending to take Anglican orders. In 1587, however, the university hesitated about granting him the master’s degree; its doubts (arising from his frequent absences from the university) were apparently set at rest when the Privy Council sent a letter declaring that he had been employed “on matters touching the benefit of his country”—apparently in Elizabeth I’s secret service.


Last years and literary career.
After 1587 Marlowe was in London, writing for the theatres, occasionally getting into trouble with the authorities because of his violent and disreputable behaviour, and probably also engaging himself from time to time in government service. Marlowe won a dangerous reputation for “atheism,” but this could, in Elizabeth I’s time, indicate merely unorthodox religious opinions. In Robert Greene’s deathbed tract, Greenes groats-worth of witte, Marlowe is referred to as a “famous gracer of Tragedians” and is reproved for having said, like Greene himself, “There is no god” and for having studied “pestilent Machiuilian pollicie.” There is further evidence of his unorthodoxy, notably in the denunciation of him written by the spy Richard Baines and in the letter of Thomas Kyd to the lord keeper in 1593 after Marlowe’s death. Kyd alleged that certain papers “denying the deity of Jesus Christ” that were found in his room belonged to Marlowe, who had shared the room two years before. Both Baines and Kyd suggested on Marlowe’s part atheism in the stricter sense and a persistent delight in blasphemy. Whatever the case may be, on May 18, 1593, the Privy Council issued an order for Marlowe’s arrest; two days later the poet was ordered to give daily attendance on their lordships “until he shall be licensed to the contrary.” On May 30, however, Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer, in the dubious company of Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, at a lodging house in Deptford, where they had spent most of the day and where, it was alleged, a fight broke out between them over the bill.

In a playwriting career that spanned little more than six years, Marlowe’s achievements were diverse and splendid. Perhaps before leaving Cambridge he had already written Tamburlaine the Great (in two parts, both performed by the end of 1587; published 1590). Almost certainly during his later Cambridge years, Marlowe had translated Ovid’s Amores (The Loves) and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia from the Latin. About this time he also wrote the play Dido, Queen of Carthage (published in 1594 as the joint work of Marlowe and Thomas Nashe). With the production of Tamburlaine he received recognition and acclaim, and playwriting became his major concern in the few years that lay ahead. Both parts of Tamburlaine were published anonymously in 1590, and the publisher omitted certain passages that he found incongruous with the play’s serious concern with history; even so, the extant Tamburlaine text can be regarded as substantially Marlowe’s. No other of his plays or poems or translations was published during his life. His unfinished but splendid poem Hero and Leander—which is almost certainly the finest nondramatic Elizabethan poem apart from those produced by Edmund Spenser—appeared in 1598.

There is argument among scholars concerning the order in which the plays subsequent to Tamburlaine were written. It is not uncommonly held that Faustus quickly followed Tamburlaine and that then Marlowe turned to a more neutral, more “social” kind of writing in Edward II and The Massacre at Paris. His last play may have been The Jew of Malta, in which he signally broke new ground. It is known that Tamburlaine, Faustus, and The Jew of Malta were performed by the Admiral’s Men, a company whose outstanding actor was Edward Alleyn, who most certainly played Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas the Jew.


Works.
In the earliest of Marlowe’s plays, the two-part Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587; published 1590), Marlowe’s characteristic “mighty line” (as Ben Jonson called it) established blank verse as the staple medium for later Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic writing. It appears that originally Marlowe intended to write only the first part, concluding with Tamburlaine’s marriage to Zenocrate and his making “truce with all the world.” But the popularity of the first part encouraged Marlowe to continue the story to Tamburlaine’s death. This gave him some difficulty, as he had almost exhausted his historical sources in part I; consequently the sequel has, at first glance, an appearance of padding. Yet the effort demanded in writing the continuation made the young playwright look more coldly and searchingly at the hero he had chosen, and thus part II makes explicit certain notions that were below the surface and insufficiently recognized by the dramatist in part I.

The play is based on the life and achievements of Timur (Timurlenk), the bloody 14th-century conqueror of Central Asia and India. Tamburlaine is a man avid for power and luxury and the possession of beauty: at the beginning of part I he is only an obscure Scythian shepherd, but he wins the crown of Persia by eloquence and bravery and a readiness to discard loyalty. He then conquers Bajazeth, emperor of Turkey, he puts the town of Damascus to the sword, and he conquers the sultan of Egypt; but, at the pleas of the sultan’s daughter Zenocrate, the captive whom he loves, he spares him and makes truce. In part II Tamburlaine’s conquests are further extended; whenever he fights a battle, he must win, even when his last illness is upon him. But Zenocrate dies, and their three sons provide a manifestly imperfect means for ensuring the preservation of his wide dominions; he kills Calyphas, one of these sons, when he refuses to follow his father into battle. Always, too, there are more battles to fight: when for a moment he has no immediate opponent on earth, he dreams of leading his army against the powers of heaven, though at other times he glories in seeing himself as “the scourge of God”; he burns the Qurʾān, for he will have no intermediary between God and himself, and there is a hint of doubt whether even God is to be granted recognition. Certainly Marlowe feels sympathy with his hero, giving him magnificent verse to speak, delighting in his dreams of power and of the possession of beauty, as seen in the following of Tamburlaine’s lines:

Nature, that fram’d us of four elements

Warring within our breasts for regiment,

Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world,

And measure every wandering planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest,

Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,

That perfect bliss and sole felicity,

The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

But, especially in part II, there are other strains: the hero can be absurd in his continual striving for more demonstrations of his power; his cruelty, which is extreme, becomes sickening; his human weakness is increasingly underlined, most notably in the onset of his fatal illness immediately after his arrogant burning of the Qurʾān. In this early play Marlowe already shows the ability to view a tragic hero from more than one angle, achieving a simultaneous vision of grandeur and impotence.

Marlowe’s most famous play is The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus; but it has survived only in a corrupt form, and its date of composition has been much-disputed. It was first published in 1604, and another version appeared in 1616. Faustus takes over the dramatic framework of the morality plays in its presentation of a story of temptation, fall, and damnation and its free use of morality figures such as the good angel and the bad angel and the seven deadly sins, along with the devils Lucifer and Mephistopheles. In Faustus Marlowe tells the story of the doctor-turned-necromancer Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. The devil’s intermediary in the play, Mephistopheles, achieves tragic grandeur in his own right as a fallen angel torn between satanic pride and dark despair. The play gives eloquent expression to this idea of damnation in the lament of Mephistopheles for a lost heaven and in Faustus’ final despairing entreaties to be saved by Christ before his soul is claimed by the devil:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock

will strike,

The devil will come, and Faustus must

be damn’d.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls

me down?—

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in

the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop:

ah, my Christ!—

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!—

Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God

Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his

ireful brows!

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall

on me,

And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

Just as in Tamburlaine Marlowe had seen the cruelty and absurdity of his hero as well as his magnificence, so here he can enter into Faustus’ grandiose intellectual ambition, simultaneously viewing those ambitions as futile, self-destructive, and absurd. The text is problematic in the low comic scenes spuriously introduced by later hack writers, but its more sober and consistent moments are certainly the uncorrupted work of Marlowe.

In The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, Marlowe portrays another power-hungry figure in the Jew Barabas, who in the villainous society of Christian Malta shows no scruple in self-advancement. But this figure is more closely incorporated within his society than either Tamburlaine, the supreme conqueror, or Faustus, the lonely adventurer against God. In the end Barabas is overcome, not by a divine stroke but by the concerted action of his human enemies. There is a difficulty in deciding how fully the extant text of The Jew of Malta represents Marlowe’s original play, for it was not published until 1633. But The Jew can be closely associated with The Massacre at Paris (1593), a dramatic presentation of incidents from contemporary French history, including the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, and with The Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second (published 1594), Marlowe’s great contribution to the Elizabethan plays on historical themes.

As The Massacre introduces in the duke of Guise a figure unscrupulously avid for power, so in the younger Mortimer of Edward II Marlowe shows a man developing an appetite for power and increasingly corrupted as power comes to him. In each instance the dramatist shares in the excitement of the pursuit of glory, but all three plays present such figures within a social framework: the notion of social responsibility, the notion of corruption through power, and the notion of the suffering that the exercise of power entails are all prominently the dramatist’s concern. Apart from Tamburlaine and the minor work Dido, Queen of Carthage (of uncertain date, published 1594 and written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe), Edward II is the only one of Marlowe’s plays whose extant text can be relied on as adequately representing the author’s manuscript. And certainly Edward II is a major work, not merely one of the first Elizabethan plays on an English historical theme. The relationships linking the king, his neglected queen, the king’s favourite, Gaveston, and the ambitious Mortimer are studied with detached sympathy and remarkable understanding: no character here is lightly disposed of, and the abdication and the brutal murder of Edward show the same dark and violent imagination as appeared in Marlowe’s presentation of Faustus’ last hour. Though this play, along with The Jew and The Massacre, shows Marlowe’s fascinated response to the distorted Elizabethan idea of Machiavelli, it more importantly shows Marlowe’s deeply suggestive awareness of the nature of disaster, the power of society, and the dark extent of an individual’s suffering.

In addition to translations (Ovid’s Amores and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia), Marlowe’s nondramatic work includes the poem Hero and Leander. This work was incomplete at his death and was extended by George Chapman: the joint work of the two poets was published in 1598.

An authoritative edition of Marlowe’s works was edited by Fredson Bowers, The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 2nd ed., 2 vol. (1981).

Clifford Leech
 

 

 


Thomas Kyd

baptized Nov. 6, 1558, London, Eng.
died c. December 1594, London

English dramatist who, with his The Spanish Tragedy (sometimes called Hieronimo, or Jeronimo, after its protagonist), initiated the revenge tragedy of his day. Kyd anticipated the structure of many later plays, including the development of middle and final climaxes. In addition, he revealed an instinctive sense of tragic situation, while his characterization of Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy prepared the way for Shakespeare’s psychological study of Hamlet.

The son of a scrivener, Kyd was educated at the Merchant Taylors School in London. There is no evidence that he attended the university before turning to literature. He seems to have been in service for some years with a lord (possibly Ferdinando, Lord Strange, the patron of Lord Strange’s Men). The Spanish Tragedy was entered in the Stationers’ Register in October 1592, and the undated first quarto edition almost certainly appeared in that year. It is not known which company first played it, nor when; but Strange’s company played Hieronimo 16 times in 1592, and the Admiral’s Men revived it in 1597, as apparently did the Chamberlain’s Men. It remained one of the most popular plays of the age and was often reprinted.

The only other play certainly by Kyd is Cornelia (1594), an essay in Senecan tragedy, translated from the French of Robert Garnier’s academic Cornélie. He may also have written an earlier version of Hamlet, known to scholars as the Ur-Hamlet, and his hand has sometimes been detected in the anonymous Arden of Feversham, one of the first domestic tragedies, and in a number of other plays.

About 1591 Kyd was sharing lodgings with Christopher Marlowe, and on May 13, 1593, he was arrested and then tortured, being suspected of treasonable activity. His room had been searched and certain “atheistical” disputations denying the deity of Jesus Christ found there. He probably averred then and certainly confirmed later, in a letter, that these papers had belonged to Marlowe. That letter is the source for almost everything that is known about Kyd’s life. He was dead by Dec. 30, 1594, when his mother made a formal repudiation of her son’s debt-ridden estate.
 


 



Shakespeare's works






Above all other dramatists stands William Shakespeare, a supreme genius whom it is impossible to characterize briefly. Shakespeare is unequaled as poet and intellect, but he remains elusive. His capacity for assimilation—what the poet John Keats called his “negative capability”—means that his work is comprehensively accommodating; every attitude or ideology finds its resemblance there yet also finds itself subject to criticism and interrogation. In part, Shakespeare achieved this by the total inclusiveness of his aesthetic, by putting clowns in his tragedies and kings in his comedies, juxtaposing public and private, and mingling the artful with the spontaneous; his plays imitate the counterchange of values occurring at large in his society. The sureness and profound popularity of his taste enabled him to lead the English Renaissance without privileging or prejudicing any one of its divergent aspects, while he—as actor, dramatist, and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s players—was involved in the Elizabethan theatre at every level. His career (dated from 1589 to 1613) corresponded exactly to the period of greatest literary flourishing, and only in his work are the total possibilities of the Renaissance fully realized.

 



William Shakespeare       

PART I
"Sonnets"

PART II
"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"

PART III
"The Tragedy of King Lear"

PART IV
"The Tragedy of Macbeth"

PART V
"Othello, the Moor of Venice"

PART VI "Romeo and Juliet"






English author
Shakespeare also spelled Shakspere, byname Bard of Avon or Swan of Avon

baptized April 26, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
died April 23, 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon

Overview
English poet and playwright, often considered the greatest writer in world literature.

He spent his early life in Stratford-upon-Avon, receiving at most a grammar-school education, and at age 18 he married a local woman, Anne Hathaway. By 1594 he was apparently a rising playwright in London and an actor in a leading theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later King’s Men); the company performed at the Globe Theatre from 1599. The order in which his plays were written and performed is highly uncertain. His earliest plays seem to date from the late 1580s to the mid-1590s and include the comedies Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; history plays based on the lives of the English kings, including Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3), Richard III, and Richard II; and the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The plays apparently written between 1596 and 1600 are mostly comedies, including The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It, and histories, including Henry IV (parts 1 and 2), Henry V, and Julius Caesar. Approximately between 1600 and 1607 he wrote the comedies Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, as well as the great tragedies Hamlet (probably begun in 1599), Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, which mark the summit of his art. Among his later works (about 1607 to 1614) are the tragedies Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens, as well as the fantastical romances The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. He probably also is responsible for some sections of the plays Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Shakespeare’s plays, all of them written largely in iambic pentameter verse, are marked by extraordinary poetry; vivid, subtle, and complex characterizations; and a highly inventive use of English. His 154 sonnets, published in 1609 but apparently written mostly in the 1590s, often express strong feeling within an exquisitely controlled form. Shakespeare retired to Stratford before 1610 and lived as a country gentleman until his death. The first collected edition of his plays, or First Folio, was published in 1623. As with most writers of the time, little is known about his life and work, and other writers, particularly the 17th earl of Oxford, have frequently been proposed as the actual authors of his plays and poems.

Shakespeare occupies a position unique in world literature. Other poets, such as Homer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, have transcended national barriers; but no writer’s living reputation can compare to that of Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before. The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time,” has been fulfilled.

It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness, but it is not so difficult to describe the gifts that enabled him to create imaginative visions of pathos and mirth that, whether read or witnessed in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there. He is a writer of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Other writers have had these qualities, but with Shakespeare the keenness of mind was applied not to abstruse or remote subjects but to human beings and their complete range of emotions and conflicts. Other writers have applied their keenness of mind in this way, but Shakespeare is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy, when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable expression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating. As if this were not enough, the art form into which his creative energies went was not remote and bookish but involved the vivid stage impersonation of human beings, commanding sympathy and inviting vicarious participation. Thus Shakespeare’s merits can survive translation into other languages and into cultures remote from that of Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare the man » Life
Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills, conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court—these are the dusty details. There are, however, many contemporary allusions to him as a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh and blood to the biographical skeleton.


Shakespeare the man » Life » Early life in Stratford
The parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before the grant of a further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some land. (Given the somewhat rigid social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have been a step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)

Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there was free, the schoolmaster’s salary being paid by the borough. No lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did not send his son there. The boy’s education would consist mostly of Latin studies—learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the Classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is unlikely that the scholarly round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then followed there would have interested him.

Instead, at age 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known, but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November 28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and “Anne Hathaway of Stratford,” upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. (Anne died in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good evidence to associate her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a beautiful farmhouse, now much visited, 2 miles [3.2 km] from Stratford.) The next date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church, where a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was baptized on May 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized, Hamnet and Judith. (Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died 11 years later.)

How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins to appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are stories—given currency long after his death—of stealing deer and getting into trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of going to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the horses of theatregoers. It has also been conjectured that Shakespeare spent some time as a member of a great household and that he was a soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence, such extrapolations about Shakespeare’s life have often been made from the internal “evidence” of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer, for he was clearly a writer who without difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the composition of his plays.


Shakespeare the man » Life » Career in the theatre
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet written on his deathbed:

There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

What these words mean is difficult to determine, but clearly they are insulting, and clearly Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms. When the book in which they appear (Greenes, groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592) was published after Greene’s death, a mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to Shakespeare and testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that Shakespeare was by then making important friends. For, although the puritanical city of London was generally hostile to the theatre, many of the nobility were good patrons of the drama and friends of the actors. Shakespeare seems to have attracted the attention of the young Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, and to this nobleman were dedicated his first published poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early and tried to retrieve the family’s fortunes and establish its gentility is the fact that a coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare in 1596. Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in the College of Arms, London, though the final document, which must have been handed to the Shakespeares, has not survived. Almost certainly William himself took the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms appears on Shakespeare’s monument (constructed before 1623) in the Stratford church. Equally interesting as evidence of Shakespeare’s worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large house in Stratford, which he as a boy must have passed every day in walking to school.

How his career in the theatre began is unclear, but from roughly 1594 onward he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company of players (called the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603). They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they had the best theatre, the Globe (finished by the autumn of 1599); they had the best dramatist, Shakespeare. It is no wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare became a full-time professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the financial success of the plays he wrote.

Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which Shakespeare’s professional life molded his marvelous artistry. All that can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama of the highest quality.


Shakespeare the man » Life » Private life
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking—dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King’s Men—at the coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In 1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes—a fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave’s Church in Cripplegate, London. The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, resulting from a Mountjoy family quarrel, show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as interesting himself generally in the family’s affairs.

No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the town of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It was written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn in Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford on business. On one side of the paper is inscribed: “To my loving good friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these.” Apparently Quiney thought his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply for the loan of £30—a large sum in Elizabethan times. Nothing further is known about the transaction, but, because so few opportunities of seeing into Shakespeare’s private life present themselves, this begging letter becomes a touching document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18 years later Quiney’s son Thomas became the husband of Judith, Shakespeare’s second daughter.

Shakespeare’s will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his “second-best bed” to his wife; no one can be certain what this notorious legacy means. The testator’s signatures to the will are apparently in a shaky hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23, 1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his own, appeared:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer


Shakespeare the man » Life » Sexuality
Like so many circumstances of Shakespeare’s personal life, the question of his sexual nature is shrouded in uncertainty. At age 18, in 1582, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman who was eight years older than he. Their first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583, about six months after the marriage ceremony. A license had been issued for the marriage on November 27, 1582, with only one reading (instead of the usual three) of the banns, or announcement of the intent to marry in order to give any party the opportunity to raise any potential legal objections. This procedure and the swift arrival of the couple’s first child suggest that the pregnancy was unplanned, as it was certainly premarital. The marriage thus appears to have been a “shotgun” wedding. Anne gave birth some 21 months after the arrival of Susanna to twins, named Hamnet and Judith, who were christened on February 2, 1585. Thereafter William and Anne had no more children. They remained married until his death in 1616.

Were they compatible, or did William prefer to live apart from Anne for most of this time? When he moved to London at some point between 1585 and 1592, he did not take his family with him. Divorce was nearly impossible in this era. Were there medical or other reasons for the absence of any more children? Was he present in Stratford when Hamnet, his only son, died in 1596 at age 11? He bought a fine house for his family in Stratford and acquired real estate in the vicinity. He was eventually buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where Anne joined him in 1623. He seems to have retired to Stratford from London about 1612. He had lived apart from his wife and children, except presumably for occasional visits in the course of a very busy professional life, for at least two decades. His bequeathing in his last will and testament of his “second best bed” to Anne, with no further mention of her name in that document, has suggested to many scholars that the marriage was a disappointment necessitated by an unplanned pregnancy.

What was Shakespeare’s love life like during those decades in London, apart from his family? Knowledge on this subject is uncertain at best. According to an entry dated March 13, 1602, in the commonplace book of a law student named John Manningham, Shakespeare had a brief affair after he happened to overhear a female citizen at a performance of Richard III making an assignation with Richard Burbage, the leading actor of the acting company to which Shakespeare also belonged. Taking advantage of having overheard their conversation, Shakespeare allegedly hastened to the place where the assignation had been arranged, was “entertained” by the woman, and was “at his game” when Burbage showed up. When a message was brought that “Richard the Third” had arrived, Shakespeare is supposed to have “caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third. Shakespeare’s name William.” This diary entry of Manningham’s must be regarded with much skepticism, since it is verified by no other evidence and since it may simply speak to the timeless truth that actors are regarded as free spirits and bohemians. Indeed, the story was so amusing that it was retold, embellished, and printed in Thomas Likes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) well before Manningham’s diary was discovered. It does at least suggest, at any rate, that Manningham imagined it to be true that Shakespeare was heterosexual and not averse to an occasional infidelity to his marriage vows. The film Shakespeare in Love (1998) plays amusedly with this idea in its purely fictional presentation of Shakespeare’s torchy affair with a young woman named Viola De Lesseps, who was eager to become a player in a professional acting company and who inspired Shakespeare in his writing of Romeo and Juliet—indeed, giving him some of his best lines.

Apart from these intriguing circumstances, little evidence survives other than the poems and plays that Shakespeare wrote. Can anything be learned from them? The sonnets, written perhaps over an extended period from the early 1590s into the 1600s, chronicle a deeply loving relationship between the speaker of the sonnets and a well-born young man. At times the poet-speaker is greatly sustained and comforted by a love that seems reciprocal. More often, the relationship is one that is troubled by painful absences, by jealousies, by the poet’s perception that other writers are winning the young man’s affection, and finally by the deep unhappiness of an outright desertion in which the young man takes away from the poet-speaker the dark-haired beauty whose sexual favours the poet-speaker has enjoyed (though not without some revulsion at his own unbridled lust; see Sonnet 129). This narrative would seem to posit heterosexual desire in the poet-speaker, even if of a troubled and guilty sort; but do the earlier sonnets suggest also a desire for the young man? The relationship is portrayed as indeed deeply emotional and dependent; the poet-speaker cannot live without his friend and that friend’s returning the love that the poet-speaker so ardently feels. Yet readers today cannot easily tell whether that love is aimed at physical completion. Indeed, Sonnet 20 seems to deny that possibility by insisting that Nature’s having equipped the friend with “one thing to my purpose nothing”—that is, a penis—means that physical sex must be regarded as solely in the province of the friend’s relationship with women: “But since she [Nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, / Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.” The bawdy pun on “pricked” underscores the sexual meaning of the sonnet’s concluding couplet. Critic Joseph Pequigney has argued at length that the sonnets nonetheless do commemorate a consummated physical relationship between the poet-speaker and the friend, but most commentators have backed away from such a bold assertion.

A significant difficulty is that one cannot be sure that the sonnets are autobiographical. Shakespeare is such a masterful dramatist that one can easily imagine him creating such an intriguing story line as the basis for his sonnet sequence. Then, too, are the sonnets printed in the order that Shakespeare would have intended? He seems not to have been involved in their publication in 1609, long after most of them had been written. Even so, one can perhaps ask why such a story would have appealed to Shakespeare. Is there a level at which fantasy and dreamwork may be involved?

The plays and other poems lend themselves uncertainly to such speculation. Loving relationships between two men are sometimes portrayed as extraordinarily deep. Antonio in Twelfth Night protests to Sebastian that he needs to accompany Sebastian on his adventures even at great personal risk: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant” (Act II, scene 1, lines 33–34). That is to say, I will die if you leave me behind. Another Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice, risks his life for his loving friend Bassanio. Actors in today’s theatre regularly portray these relationships as homosexual, and indeed actors are often incredulous toward anyone who doubts that to be the case. In Troilus and Cressida, Patroclus is rumoured to be Achilles’ “masculine whore” (V, 1, line 17), as is suggested in Homer, and certainly the two are very close in friendship, though Patroclus does admonish Achilles to engage in battle by saying,

A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action

Again, on the modern stage this relationship is often portrayed as obviously, even flagrantly, sexual; but whether Shakespeare saw it as such, or the play valorizes homosexuality or bisexuality, is another matter.

Certainly his plays contain many warmly positive depictions of heterosexuality, in the loves of Romeo and Juliet, Orlando and Rosalind, and Henry V and Katharine of France, among many others. At the same time, Shakespeare is astute in his representations of sexual ambiguity. Viola—in disguise as a young man, Cesario, in Twelfth Night—wins the love of Duke Orsino in such a delicate way that what appears to be the love between two men morphs into the heterosexual mating of Orsino and Viola. The ambiguity is reinforced by the audience’s knowledge that in Shakespeare’s theatre Viola/Cesario was portrayed by a boy actor of perhaps 16. All the cross-dressing situations in the comedies, involving Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind/Ganymede in As You Like It, Imogen in Cymbeline, and many others, playfully explore the uncertain boundaries between the genders. Rosalind’s male disguise name in As You Like It, Ganymede, is that of the cupbearer to Zeus with whom the god was enamoured; the ancient legends assume that Ganymede was Zeus’s catamite. Shakespeare is characteristically delicate on that score, but he does seem to delight in the frisson of sexual suggestion.

David Bevington


Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation
Shakespeare’s family or friends, however, were not content with a simple gravestone, and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the chancel wall. It seems to have existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in Latin and inscribed immediately below the bust, attributes to Shakespeare the worldly wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and the poetic art of Virgil. This apparently was how his contemporaries in Stratford-upon-Avon wished their fellow citizen to be remembered.


Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation » The tributes of his colleagues
The memory of Shakespeare survived long in theatrical circles, for his plays remained a major part of the repertory of the King’s Men until the closing of the theatres in 1642. The greatest of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries in the theatre, Ben Jonson, had a good deal to say about him. To William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1619 he said that Shakespeare “wanted art.” But, when Jonson came to write his splendid poem prefixed to the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, he rose to the occasion with stirring words of praise:

Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!

Besides almost retracting his earlier gibe about Shakespeare’s lack of art, he gives testimony that Shakespeare’s personality was to be felt, by those who knew him, in his poetry—that the style was the man. Jonson also reminded his readers of the strong impression the plays had made upon Queen Elizabeth I and King James I at court performances:

Sweet Swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!


Shakespeare seems to have been on affectionate terms with his theatre colleagues. His fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell (who, with Burbage, were remembered in his will) dedicated the First Folio of 1623 to the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Montgomery, explaining that they had collected the plays “without ambition either of self-profit or fame; only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare.”


Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation » Anecdotes and documents
Seventeenth-century antiquaries began to collect anecdotes about Shakespeare, but no serious life was written until 1709, when Nicholas Rowe tried to assemble information from all available sources with the aim of producing a connected narrative. There were local traditions at Stratford: witticisms and lampoons of local characters; scandalous stories of drunkenness and sexual escapades. About 1661 the vicar of Stratford wrote in his diary: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” On the other hand, the antiquary John Aubrey wrote in some notes about Shakespeare: “He was not a company keeper; lived in Shoreditch; wouldn’t be debauched, and, if invited to, writ he was in pain.” Richard Davies, archdeacon of Lichfield, reported, “He died a papist.” How much trust can be put in such a story is uncertain. In the early 18th century a story appeared that Queen Elizabeth had obliged Shakespeare “to write a play of Sir John Falstaff in love” and that he had performed the task (The Merry Wives of Windsor) in a fortnight. There are other stories, all of uncertain authenticity and some mere fabrications.

When serious scholarship began in the 18th century, it was too late to gain anything from traditions. But documents began to be discovered. Shakespeare’s will was found in 1747 and his marriage license in 1836. The documents relating to the Mountjoy lawsuit already mentioned were found and printed in 1910. It is conceivable that further documents of a legal nature may yet be discovered, but as time passes the hope becomes more remote. Modern scholarship is more concerned to study Shakespeare in relation to his social environment, both in Stratford and in London. This is not easy, because the author and actor lived a somewhat detached life: a respected tithe-owning country gentleman in Stratford, perhaps, but a rather rootless artist in London.

John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer

 


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » The intellectual background
Shakespeare lived at a time when ideas and social structures established in the Middle Ages still informed human thought and behaviour. Queen Elizabeth I was God’s deputy on earth, and lords and commoners had their due places in society under her, with responsibilities up through her to God and down to those of more humble rank. The order of things, however, did not go unquestioned. Atheism was still considered a challenge to the beliefs and way of life of a majority of Elizabethans, but the Christian faith was no longer single. Rome’s authority had been challenged by Martin Luther, John Calvin, a multitude of small religious sects, and, indeed, the English church itself. Royal prerogative was challenged in Parliament; the economic and social orders were disturbed by the rise of capitalism, by the redistribution of monastic lands under Henry VIII, by the expansion of education, and by the influx of new wealth from discovery of new lands.

An interplay of new and old ideas was typical of the time: official homilies exhorted the people to obedience; the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli was expounding a new, practical code of politics that caused Englishmen to fear the Italian “Machiavillain” and yet prompted them to ask what men do, rather than what they should do. In Hamlet, disquisitions—on man, belief, a “rotten” state, and times “out of joint”—clearly reflect a growing disquiet and skepticism. The translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1603 gave further currency, range, and finesse to such thought, and Shakespeare was one of many who read them, making direct and significant quotations in The Tempest. In philosophical inquiry the question “How?” became the impulse for advance, rather than the traditional “Why?” of Aristotle. Shakespeare’s plays written between 1603 and 1606 unmistakably reflect a new, Jacobean distrust. James I, who, like Elizabeth, claimed divine authority, was far less able than she to maintain the authority of the throne. The so-called Gunpowder Plot (1605) showed a determined challenge by a small minority in the state; James’s struggles with the House of Commons in successive Parliaments, in addition to indicating the strength of the “new men,” also revealed the inadequacies of the administration.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic traditions
The Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence were familiar in Elizabethan schools and universities, and English translations or adaptations of them were occasionally performed by students. Seneca’s rhetorical and sensational tragedies, too, had been translated and often imitated. But there was also a strong native dramatic tradition deriving from the medieval miracle plays, which had continued to be performed in various towns until forbidden during Elizabeth’s reign. This native drama had been able to assimilate French popular farce, clerically inspired morality plays on abstract themes, and interludes or short entertainments that made use of the “turns” of individual clowns and actors. Although Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors were known as University wits, their plays were seldom structured in the manner of those they had studied at Oxford or Cambridge; instead, they used and developed the more popular narrative forms.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic traditions » Changes in language
The English language at this time was changing and extending its range. The poet Edmund Spenser led with the restoration of old words, and schoolmasters, poets, sophisticated courtiers, and travelers all brought further contributions from France, Italy, and the Roman classics, as well as from farther afield. Helped by the growing availability of cheaper, printed books, the language began to become standardized in grammar and vocabulary and, more slowly, in spelling. Ambitious for a European and permanent reputation, the essayist and philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in Latin as well as in English; but, if he had lived only a few decades later, even he might have had total confidence in his own tongue.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic traditions » Shakespeare’s literary debts
Shakespeare’s most obvious debt was to Raphael Holinshed, whose Chronicles (the second edition, published in 1587) furnished story material for several plays, including Macbeth and King Lear. In Shakespeare’s earlier works other debts stand out clearly: to Plautus for the structure of The Comedy of Errors; to the poet Ovid and to Seneca for rhetoric and incident in Titus Andronicus; to morality drama for a scene in which a father mourns his dead son and a son his father, in Henry VI, Part 3; to Christopher Marlowe for sentiments and characterization in Richard III and The Merchant of Venice; to the Italian popular tradition of commedia dell’arte for characterization and dramatic style in The Taming of the Shrew; and so on. Soon, however, there was no line between their effects and his. In The Tempest (perhaps the most original of all his plays in form, theme, language, and setting) folk influences may also be traced, together with a newer and more obvious debt to a courtly diversion known as the masque, as developed by Ben Jonson and others at the court of King James.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Theatrical conditions
hereThe Globe and its predecessor, the Theatre, were public playhouses run by the Chamberlain’s Men, a leading theatre company of which Shakespeare was a member. Almost all classes of citizens, excepting many Puritans and like-minded Reformers, came to them for afternoon entertainment. The players were also summoned to court, to perform before the monarch and assembled nobility. In times of plague, usually in the summer, they might tour the provinces, and on occasion they performed at London’s Inns of Court (associations of law students), at universities, and in great houses. Popularity led to an insatiable demand for plays: early in 1613 the King’s Men—as the Chamberlain’s Men were then known—could present “fourteen several plays.” The theatre soon became fashionable, too, and in 1608–09 the King’s Men started to perform on a regular basis at the Blackfriars, a “private” indoor theatre where high admission charges assured the company a more select and sophisticated audience for their performances. (For more on theatre in Shakespeare’s day, see Sidebar: Shakespeare and the Liberties.)

Shakespeare’s first associations with the Chamberlain’s Men seem to have been as an actor. He is not known to have acted after 1603, and tradition gives him only secondary roles, such as the ghost in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It, but his continuous association must have given him direct working knowledge of all aspects of theatre. Numerous passages in his plays show conscious concern for theatre arts and audience reactions. Hamlet gives expert advice to visiting actors in the art of playing. Prospero in The Tempest speaks of the whole of life as a kind of “revels,” or theatrical show, that, like a dream, will soon be over. The Duke of York in Richard II is conscious of how

…in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious.

In Shakespeare’s day there was little time for group rehearsals, and actors were given the words of only their own parts. The crucial scenes in Shakespeare’s plays, therefore, are between two or three characters only or else are played with one character dominating a crowded stage. Most female parts were written for young male actors or boys, so Shakespeare did not often write big roles for them or keep them actively engaged onstage for lengthy periods. Writing for the clowns of the company—who were important popular attractions in any play—presented the problem of allowing them to use their comic personalities and tricks and yet have them serve the immediate interests of theme and action.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » The chronology of Shakespeare’s plays
Despite much scholarly argument, it is often impossible to date a given play precisely. But there is a general consensus, especially for plays written in 1588–1601, in 1605–07, and from 1609 onward. The following list of dates of composition is based on external and internal evidence, on general stylistic and thematic considerations, and on the observation that an output of no more than two plays a year seems to have been established in those periods when dating is rather clearer than others.

1588–97 Love’s Labour’s Lost 1589–92 Henry VI, Part 1; Titus Andronicus 1589–94 The Comedy of Errors 1590–92 Henry VI, Part 2 1590–93 Henry VI, Part 3 1590–94 The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona 1590–95 Edward III 1592–94 Richard III 1594–96 King John, Romeo and Juliet 1595–96 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II 1596–97 The Merchant of Venice; Henry IV, Part 1 1597–98 Henry IV, Part 2 1597–1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor 1598–99 Much Ado About Nothing 1598–1600 As You Like It 1599 Henry V 1599–1600 Julius Caesar 1599–1601 Hamlet 1600–02 Twelfth Night 1601–02 Troilus and Cressida 1601–05 All’s Well That Ends Well 1603–04 Measure for Measure, Othello 1605–06 King Lear 1605–08 Timon of Athens 1606–07 Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra 1606–08 Pericles 1608 Coriolanus 1608–10 Cymbeline 1609–11 The Winter’s Tale 1611 The Tempest 1612–14 The Two Noble Kinsmen 1613 Henry VIII
Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, can be dated with certainty to the years when the plague stopped dramatic performances in London, in 1592–93 and 1593–94, respectively, just before their publication. But the sonnets offer many and various problems; they cannot have been written all at one time, and most scholars set them within the period 1593–1600. The Phoenix and the Turtle can be dated 1600–01.


Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Publication
Acting companies in London during the Renaissance were perennially in search of new plays. They usually paid on a piecework basis, to freelance writers. Shakespeare was an important exception; as a member of Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, he wrote for his company as a sharer in their capitalist enterprise.

The companies were not eager to sell their plays to publishers, especially when the plays were still popular and in the repertory. At certain times, however, the companies might be impelled to do so: when a company disbanded or when it was put into enforced inactivity by visitations of the plague or when the plays were no longer current. (The companies owned the plays; the individual authors had no intellectual property rights once the plays had been sold to the actors.)

Such plays were usually published in quarto form—that is, printed on both sides of large sheets of paper with four printed pages on each side. When the sheet was folded twice and bound, it yielded eight printed pages to each “gathering.” A few plays were printed in octavo, with the sheet being folded thrice and yielding 16 smaller printed pages to each gathering.

Half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in quarto (at least one in octavo) during his lifetime. Occasionally a play was issued in a seemingly unauthorized volume—that is, not having been regularly sold by the company to the publisher. The acting company might then commission its own authorized version. The quarto title page of Romeo and Juliet (1599), known today as the second quarto, declares that it is “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended, as it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlain His Servants.” The second quarto of Hamlet (1604–05) similarly advertises itself as “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy.” Indeed, the first quarto of Hamlet (1603) is considerably shorter than the second, and the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet lacks some 800 lines found in its successor. Both contain what appear to be misprints or other errors that are then corrected in the second quarto. The first quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) presents itself as “Newly corrected and augmented,” implying perhaps that it, too, corrects an earlier, unauthorized version of the play, though none today is known to exist.

The status of these and other seemingly unauthorized editions is much debated today. The older view of A.W. Pollard, W.W. Greg, Fredson Bowers, and other practitioners of the so-called New Bibliography generally regards these texts as suspect and perhaps pirated, either by unscrupulous visitors to the theatre or by minor actors who took part in performance and who then were paid to reconstruct the plays from memory. The unauthorized texts do contain elements that sound like the work of eyewitnesses or actors (and are valuable for that reason). In some instances, the unauthorized text is notably closer to the authorized text when certain minor actors are onstage than at other times, suggesting that these actors may have been involved in a memorial reconstruction. The plays Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3 originally appeared in shorter versions that may have been memorially reconstructed by actors.

A revisionary school of textual criticism that gained favour in the latter part of the 20th century argued that these texts might have been earlier versions with their own theatrical rationale and that they should be regarded as part of a theatrical process by which the plays evolved onstage. Certainly the situation varies from quarto to quarto, and unquestionably the unauthorized quartos are valuable to the understanding of stage history.

Several years after Shakespeare died in 1616, colleagues of his in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, undertook the assembling of a collected edition. It appeared in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published According to the True Original Copies. It did not contain the poems and left out Pericles as perhaps of uncertain authorship; nor did it include The Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, or the portion of The Book of Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare may have contributed. It did nonetheless include 36 plays, half of them appearing in print for the first time.

Heminge and Condell had the burdensome task of choosing what materials to present to the printer, for they had on hand a number of authorial manuscripts, other documents that had served as promptbooks for performance (these were especially valuable since they bore the license for performance), and some 18 plays that had appeared in print. Fourteen of these had been published in what the editors regarded as more or less reliable texts (though only two were used unaltered): Titus Andronicus; Romeo and Juliet (the second quarto); Richard II; Richard III; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Much Ado About Nothing; Hamlet; King Lear; Troilus and Cressida; and Othello. Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2 had been published in quarto in shortened form and under different titles (The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York) but were not used in this form by Heminge and Condell for the 1623 Folio.

Much was discovered by textual scholarship after Heminge and Condell did their original work, and the result was a considerable revision in what came to be regarded as the best choice of original text from which an editor ought to work. In plays published both in folio and quarto (or octavo) format, the task of choosing was immensely complicated. King Lear especially became a critical battleground in which editors argued for the superiority of various features of the 1608 quarto or the folio text. The two differ substantially and must indeed represent different stages of composition and of staging, so that both are germane to an understanding of the play’s textual and theatrical history. The same is true of Hamlet, with its unauthorized quarto of 1603, its corrected quarto of 1604–05, and the folio text, all significantly at variance with one another. Other plays in which the textual relationship of quarto to folio is highly problematic include Troilus and Cressida; Othello; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2; The Merry Wives of Windsor; Henry V; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of the cases where there are both quarto and folio originals are problematic in some interesting way. Individual situations are too complex to be described here, but information is readily available in critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, especially in The Oxford Shakespeare, in a collected edition and in individual critical editions; The New Cambridge Shakespeare; and the third series of The Arden Shakespeare.

John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
David Bevington




Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays
Shakespeare arrived in London probably sometime in the late 1580s. He was in his mid-20s. It is not known how he got started in the theatre or for what acting companies he wrote his early plays, which are not easy to date. Indicating a time of apprenticeship, these plays show a more direct debt to London dramatists of the 1580s and to Classical examples than do his later works. He learned a great deal about writing plays by imitating the successes of the London theatre, as any young poet and budding dramatist might do.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus (c. 1589–92) is a case in point. As Shakespeare’s first full-length tragedy, it owes much of its theme, structure, and language to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which was a huge success in the late 1580s. Kyd had hit on the formula of adopting the dramaturgy of Seneca (the younger), the great Stoic philosopher and statesman, to the needs of a burgeoning new London theatre. The result was the revenge tragedy, an astonishingly successful genre that was to be refigured in Hamlet and many other revenge plays. Shakespeare also borrowed a leaf from his great contemporary Christopher Marlowe. The Vice-like protagonist of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Barabas, may have inspired Shakespeare in his depiction of the villainous Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, though other Vice figures were available to him as well.

The Senecan model offered Kyd, and then Shakespeare, a story of bloody revenge, occasioned originally by the murder or rape of a person whose near relatives (fathers, sons, brothers) are bound by sacred oath to revenge the atrocity. The avenger must proceed with caution, since his opponent is canny, secretive, and ruthless. The avenger becomes mad or feigns madness to cover his intent. He becomes more and more ruthless himself as he moves toward his goal of vengeance. At the same time he is hesitant, being deeply distressed by ethical considerations. An ethos of revenge is opposed to one of Christian forbearance. The avenger may see the spirit of the person whose wrongful death he must avenge. He employs the device of a play within the play in order to accomplish his aims. The play ends in a bloodbath and a vindication of the avenger. Evident in this model is the story of Titus Andronicus, whose sons are butchered and whose daughter is raped and mutilated, as well as the story of Hamlet and still others.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » The early romantic comedies
Other than Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare did not experiment with formal tragedy in his early years. (Though his English history plays from this period portrayed tragic events, their theme was focused elsewhere.) The young playwright was drawn more quickly into comedy, and with more immediate success. For this his models include the dramatists Robert Greene and John Lyly, along with Thomas Nashe. The result is a genre recognizably and distinctively Shakespearean, even if he learned a lot from Greene and Lyly: the romantic comedy. As in the work of his models, Shakespeare’s early comedies revel in stories of amorous courtship in which a plucky and admirable young woman (played by a boy actor) is paired off against her male wooer. Julia, one of two young heroines in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1590–94), disguises herself as a man in order to follow her lover, Proteus, when he is sent from Verona to Milan. Proteus (appropriately named for the changeable Proteus of Greek myth), she discovers, is paying far too much attention to Sylvia, the beloved of Proteus’s best friend, Valentine. Love and friendship thus do battle for the divided loyalties of the erring male until the generosity of his friend and, most of all, the enduring chaste loyalty of the two women bring Proteus to his senses. The motif of the young woman disguised as a male was to prove invaluable to Shakespeare in subsequent romantic comedies, including The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. As is generally true of Shakespeare, he derived the essentials of his plot from a narrative source, in this case a long Spanish prose romance, the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor.

Shakespeare’s most classically inspired early comedy is The Comedy of Errors (c. 1589–94). Here he turned particularly to Plautus’s farcical play called the Menaechmi (Twins). The story of one twin (Antipholus) looking for his lost brother, accompanied by a clever servant (Dromio) whose twin has also disappeared, results in a farce of mistaken identities that also thoughtfully explores issues of identity and self-knowing. The young women of the play, one the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Adriana) and the other her sister (Luciana), engage in meaningful dialogue on issues of wifely obedience and autonomy. Marriage resolves these difficulties at the end, as is routinely the case in Shakespearean romantic comedy, but not before the plot complications have tested the characters’ needs to know who they are and what men and women ought to expect from one another.

Shakespeare’s early romantic comedy most indebted to John Lyly is Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588–97), a confection set in the never-never land of Navarre where the King and his companions are visited by the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting on a diplomatic mission that soon devolves into a game of courtship. As is often the case in Shakespearean romantic comedy, the young women are sure of who they are and whom they intend to marry; one cannot be certain that they ever really fall in love, since they begin by knowing what they want. The young men, conversely, fall all over themselves in their comically futile attempts to eschew romantic love in favour of more serious pursuits. They perjure themselves, are shamed and put down, and are finally forgiven their follies by the women. Shakespeare brilliantly portrays male discomfiture and female self-assurance as he explores the treacherous but desirable world of sexual attraction, while the verbal gymnastics of the play emphasize the wonder and the delicious foolishness of falling in love.

In The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590–94), Shakespeare employs a device of multiple plotting that is to become a standard feature of his romantic comedies. In one plot, derived from Ludovico Ariosto’s I suppositi (Supposes, as it had been translated into English by George Gascoigne), a young woman (Bianca) carries on a risky courtship with a young man who appears to be a tutor, much to the dismay of her father, who hopes to marry her to a wealthy suitor of his own choosing. Eventually the mistaken identities are straightened out, establishing the presumed tutor as Lucentio, wealthy and suitable enough. Simultaneously, Bianca’s shrewish sister Kate denounces (and terrorizes) all men. Bianca’s suitors commission the self-assured Petruchio to pursue Kate so that Bianca, the younger sister, will be free to wed. The wife-taming plot is itself based on folktale and ballad tradition in which men assure their ascendancy in the marriage relationship by beating their wives into submission. Shakespeare transforms this raw, antifeminist material into a study of the struggle for dominance in the marriage relationship. And, whereas he does opt in this play for male triumph over the female, he gives to Kate a sense of humour that enables her to see how she is to play the game to her own advantage as well. She is, arguably, happy at the end with a relationship based on wit and companionship, whereas her sister Bianca turns out to be simply spoiled.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » The early histories
In Shakespeare’s explorations of English history, as in romantic comedy, he put his distinctive mark on a genre and made it his. The genre was, moreover, an unusual one. There was as yet no definition of an English history play, and there were no aesthetic rules regarding its shaping. The ancient Classical world had recognized two broad categories of genre, comedy and tragedy. (This account leaves out more specialized genres like the satyr play.) Aristotle and other critics, including Horace, had evolved, over centuries, Classical definitions. Tragedy dealt with the disaster-struck lives of great persons, was written in elevated verse, and took as its setting a mythological and ancient world of gods and heroes: Agamemnon, Theseus, Oedipus, Medea, and the rest. Pity and terror were the prevailing emotional responses in plays that sought to understand, however imperfectly, the will of the supreme gods. Classical comedy, conversely, dramatized the everyday. Its chief figures were citizens of Athens and Rome—householders, courtesans, slaves, scoundrels, and so forth. The humour was immediate, contemporary, topical; the lampooning was satirical, even savage. Members of the audience were invited to look at mimetic representations of their own daily lives and to laugh at greed and folly.

The English history play had no such ideal theoretical structure. It was an existential invention: the dramatic treatment of recent English history. It might be tragic or comic or, more commonly, a hybrid. Polonius’s list of generic possibilities captures the ludicrous potential for endless hybridizations: “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,” and so on (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, lines 397–399). (By “pastoral,” Polonius presumably means a play based on romances telling of shepherds and rural life, as contrasted with the corruptions of city and court.) Shakespeare’s history plays were so successful in the 1590s’ London theatre that the editors of Shakespeare’s complete works, in 1623, chose to group his dramatic output under three headings: comedies, histories, and tragedies. The genre established itself by sheer force of its compelling popularity.

Shakespeare in 1590 or thereabouts had really only one viable model for the English history play, an anonymous and sprawling drama called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1583–88) that told the saga of Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, from the days of his adolescent rebellion down through his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415—in other words, the material that Shakespeare would later use in writing three major plays, Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. Shakespeare chose to start not with Prince Hal but with more recent history in the reign of Henry V’s son Henry VI and with the civil wars that saw the overthrow of Henry VI by Edward IV and then the accession to power in 1483 of Richard III. This material proved to be so rich in themes and dramatic conflicts that he wrote four plays on it, a “tetralogy” extending from Henry VI in three parts (c. 1589–93) to Richard III (c. 1592–94).

These plays were immediately successful. Contemporary references indicate that audiences of the early 1590s thrilled to the story (in Henry VI, Part 1) of the brave Lord Talbot doing battle in France against the witch Joan of Arc and her lover, the French Dauphin, but being undermined in his heroic effort by effeminacy and corruption at home. Henry VI himself is, as Shakespeare portrays him, a weak king, raised to the kingship by the early death of his father, incapable of controlling factionalism in his court, and enervated personally by his infatuation with a dangerous Frenchwoman, Margaret of Anjou. Henry VI is cuckolded by his wife and her lover, the Duke of Suffolk, and (in Henry VI, Part 2) proves unable to defend his virtuous uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, against opportunistic enemies. The result is civil unrest, lower-class rebellion (led by Jack Cade), and eventually all-out civil war between the Lancastrian faction, nominally headed by Henry VI, and the Yorkist claimants under the leadership of Edward IV and his brothers. Richard III completes the saga with its account of the baleful rise of Richard of Gloucester through the murdering of his brother the Duke of Clarence and of Edward IV’s two sons, who were also Richard’s nephews. Richard’s tyrannical reign yields eventually and inevitably to the newest and most successful claimant of the throne, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond. This is the man who becomes Henry VII, scion of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603 and hence during the entire first decade and more of Shakespeare’s productive career.

The Shakespearean English history play told of the country’s history at a time when the English nation was struggling with its own sense of national identity and experiencing a new sense of power. Queen Elizabeth had brought stability and a relative freedom from war to her decades of rule. She had held at bay the Roman Catholic powers of the Continent, notably Philip II of Spain, and, with the help of a storm at sea, had fought off Philip’s attempts to invade her kingdom with the great Spanish Armada of 1588. In England the triumph of the nation was viewed universally as a divine deliverance. The second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles was at hand as a vast source for Shakespeare’s historical playwriting. It, too, celebrated the emergence of England as a major Protestant power, led by a popular and astute monarch.

From the perspective of the 1590s, the history of the 15th century also seemed newly pertinent. England had emerged from a terrible civil war in 1485, with Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The chief personages of these wars, known as the Wars of the Roses—Henry Tudor, Richard III, the duke of Buckingham, Hastings, Rivers, Gray, and many more—were very familiar to contemporary English readers.

Because these historical plays of Shakespeare in the early 1590s were so intent on telling the saga of emergent nationhood, they exhibit a strong tendency to identify villains and heroes. Shakespeare is writing dramas, not schoolbook texts, and he freely alters dates and facts and emphases. Lord Talbot in Henry VI, Part 1 is a hero because he dies defending English interests against the corrupt French. In Henry VI, Part 2 Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, is cut down by opportunists because he represents the best interests of the commoners and the nation as a whole. Most of all, Richard of Gloucester is made out to be a villain epitomizing the very worst features of a chaotic century of civil strife. He foments strife, lies, and murders and makes outrageous promises he has no intention of keeping. He is a brilliantly theatrical figure because he is so inventive and clever, but he is also deeply threatening. Shakespeare gives him every defect that popular tradition imagined: a hunchback, a baleful glittering eye, a conspiratorial genius. The real Richard was no such villain, it seems; at least, his politically inspired murders were no worse than the systematic elimination of all opposition by his successor, the historical Henry VII. The difference is that Henry VII lived to commission historians to tell the story his way, whereas Richard lost everything through defeat. As founder of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII could command a respect that even Shakespeare was bound to honour, and accordingly the Henry Tudor that he portrays at the end of Richard III is a God-fearing patriot and loving husband of the Yorkist princess who is to give birth to the next generation of Tudor monarchs.

Richard III is a tremendous play, both in length and in the bravura depiction of its titular protagonist. It is called a tragedy on its original title page, as are other of these early English history plays. Certainly they present us with brutal deaths and with instructive falls of great men from positions of high authority to degradation and misery. Yet these plays are not tragedies in the Classical sense of the term. They contain so much else, and notably they end on a major key: the accession to power of the Tudor dynasty that will give England its great years under Elizabeth. The story line is one of suffering and of eventual salvation, of deliverance by mighty forces of history and of divine oversight that will not allow England to continue to suffer once she has returned to the true path of duty and decency. In this important sense, the early history plays are like tragicomedies or romances.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The poems
Shakespeare seems to have wanted to be a poet as much as he sought to succeed in the theatre. His plays are wonderfully and poetically written, often in blank verse. And when he experienced a pause in his theatrical career about 1592–94, the plague having closed down much theatrical activity, he wrote poems. Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are the only works that Shakespeare seems to have shepherded through the printing process. Both owe a good deal to Ovid, the Classical poet whose writings Shakespeare encountered repeatedly in school. These two poems are the only works for which he wrote dedicatory prefaces. Both are to Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton. This young man, a favourite at court, seems to have encouraged Shakespeare and to have served for a brief time at least as his sponsor. The dedication to the second poem is measurably warmer than the first. An unreliable tradition supposes that Southampton gave Shakespeare the stake he needed to buy into the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s acting company in 1594. Shakespeare became an actor-sharer, one of the owners in a capitalist enterprise that shared the risks and the gains among them. This company succeeded brilliantly; Shakespeare and his colleagues, including Richard Burbage, John Heminge, Henry Condell, and Will Sly, became wealthy through their dramatic presentations.

Shakespeare may also have written at least some of his sonnets to Southampton, beginning in these same years of 1593–94 and continuing on through the decade and later. The question of autobiographical basis in the sonnets is much debated, but Southampton at least fits the portrait of a young gentleman who is being urged to marry and produce a family. (Southampton’s family was eager that he do just this.) Whether the account of a strong, loving relationship between the poet and his gentleman friend is autobiographical is more difficult still to determine. As a narrative, the sonnet sequence tells of strong attachment, of jealousy, of grief at separation, of joy at being together and sharing beautiful experiences. The emphasis on the importance of poetry as a way of eternizing human achievement and of creating a lasting memory for the poet himself is appropriate to a friendship between a poet of modest social station and a friend who is better-born. When the sonnet sequence introduces the so-called “Dark Lady,” the narrative becomes one of painful and destructive jealousy. Scholars do not know the order in which the sonnets were composed—Shakespeare seems to have had no part in publishing them—but no order other than the order of publication has been proposed, and, as the sonnets stand, they tell a coherent and disturbing tale. The poet experiences sex as something that fills him with revulsion and remorse, at least in the lustful circumstances in which he encounters it. His attachment to the young man is a love relationship that sustains him at times more than the love of the Dark Lady can do, and yet this loving friendship also dooms the poet to disappointment and self-hatred. Whether the sequence reflects any circumstances in Shakespeare’s personal life, it certainly is told with an immediacy and dramatic power that bespeak an extraordinary gift for seeing into the human heart and its sorrows.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » Romantic comedies
In the second half of the 1590s, Shakespeare brought to perfection the genre of romantic comedy that he had helped to invent. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595–96), one of the most successful of all his plays, displays the kind of multiple plotting he had practiced in The Taming of the Shrew and other earlier comedies. The overarching plot is of Duke Theseus of Athens and his impending marriage to an Amazonian warrior, Hippolyta, whom Theseus has recently conquered and brought back to Athens to be his bride. Their marriage ends the play. They share this concluding ceremony with the four young lovers Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, who have fled into the forest nearby to escape the Athenian law and to pursue one another, whereupon they are subjected to a complicated series of mix-ups. Eventually all is righted by fairy magic, though the fairies are no less at strife. Oberon, king of the fairies, quarrels with his Queen Titania over a changeling boy and punishes her by causing her to fall in love with an Athenian artisan who wears an ass’s head. The artisans are in the forest to rehearse a play for the forthcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Thus four separate strands or plots interact with one another. Despite the play’s brevity, it is a masterpiece of artful construction.

The use of multiple plots encourages a varied treatment of the experiencing of love. For the two young human couples, falling in love is quite hazardous; the long-standing friendship between the two young women is threatened and almost destroyed by the rivalries of heterosexual encounter. The eventual transition to heterosexual marriage seems to them to have been a process of dreaming, indeed of nightmare, from which they emerge miraculously restored to their best selves. Meantime the marital strife of Oberon and Titania is, more disturbingly, one in which the female is humiliated until she submits to the will of her husband. Similarly, Hippolyta is an Amazon warrior queen who has had to submit to the authority of a husband. Fathers and daughters are no less at strife until, as in a dream, all is resolved by the magic of Puck and Oberon. Love is ambivalently both an enduring ideal relationship and a struggle for mastery in which the male has the upper hand.

The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97) uses a double plot structure to contrast a tale of romantic wooing with one that comes close to tragedy. Portia is a fine example of a romantic heroine in Shakespeare’s mature comedies: she is witty, rich, exacting in what she expects of men, and adept at putting herself in a male disguise to make her presence felt. She is loyally obedient to her father’s will and yet determined that she shall have Bassanio. She triumphantly resolves the murky legal affairs of Venice when the men have all failed. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is at the point of exacting a pound of flesh from Bassanio’s friend Antonio as payment for a forfeited loan. Portia foils him in his attempt in a way that is both clever and shystering. Sympathy is uneasily balanced in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, who is both persecuted by his Christian opponents and all too ready to demand an eye for an eye according to ancient law. Ultimately Portia triumphs, not only with Shylock in the court of law but in her marriage with Bassanio.

Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–99) revisits the issue of power struggles in courtship, again in a revealingly double plot. The young heroine of the more conventional story, derived from Italianate fiction, is wooed by a respectable young aristocrat named Claudio who has won his spurs and now considers it his pleasant duty to take a wife. He knows so little about Hero (as she is named) that he gullibly credits the contrived evidence of the play’s villain, Don John, that she has had many lovers, including one on the evening before the intended wedding. Other men as well, including Claudio’s senior officer, Don Pedro, and Hero’s father, Leonato, are all too ready to believe the slanderous accusation. Only comic circumstances rescue Hero from her accusers and reveal to the men that they have been fools. Meantime, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, finds it hard to overcome her skepticism about men, even when she is wooed by Benedick, who is also a skeptic about marriage. Here the barriers to romantic understanding are inner and psychological and must be defeated by the good-natured plotting of their friends, who see that Beatrice and Benedick are truly made for one another in their wit and candour if they can only overcome their fear of being outwitted by each other. In what could be regarded as a brilliant rewriting of The Taming of the Shrew, the witty battle of the sexes is no less amusing and complicated, but the eventual accommodation finds something much closer to mutual respect and equality between men and women.

Rosalind, in As You Like It (c. 1598–1600), makes use of the by-now familiar device of disguise as a young man in order to pursue the ends of promoting a rich and substantial relationship between the sexes. As in other of these plays, Rosalind is more emotionally stable and mature than her young man, Orlando. He lacks formal education and is all rough edges, though fundamentally decent and attractive. She is the daughter of the banished Duke who finds herself obliged, in turn, to go into banishment with her dear cousin Celia and the court fool, Touchstone. Although Rosalind’s male disguise is at first a means of survival in a seemingly inhospitable forest, it soon serves a more interesting function. As “Ganymede,” Rosalind befriends Orlando, offering him counseling in the affairs of love. Orlando, much in need of such advice, readily accepts and proceeds to woo his “Rosalind” (“Ganymede” playing her own self) as though she were indeed a woman. Her wryly amusing perspectives on the follies of young love helpfully puncture Orlando’s inflated and unrealistic “Petrarchan” stance as the young lover who writes poems to his mistress and sticks them up on trees. Once he has learned that love is not a fantasy of invented attitudes, Orlando is ready to be the husband of the real young woman (actually a boy actor, of course) who is presented to him as the transformed Ganymede-Rosalind. Other figures in the play further an understanding of love’s glorious foolishness by their various attitudes: Silvius, the pale-faced wooer out of pastoral romance; Phoebe, the disdainful mistress whom he worships; William, the country bumpkin, and Audrey, the country wench; and, surveying and commenting on every imaginable kind of human folly, the clown Touchstone and the malcontent traveler Jaques.

Twelfth Night (c. 1600–02) pursues a similar motif of female disguise. Viola, cast ashore in Illyria by a shipwreck and obliged to disguise herself as a young man in order to gain a place in the court of Duke Orsino, falls in love with the duke and uses her disguise as a cover for an educational process not unlike that given by Rosalind to Orlando. Orsino is as unrealistic a lover as one could hope to imagine; he pays fruitless court to the Countess Olivia and seems content with the unproductive love melancholy in which he wallows. Only Viola, as “Cesario,” is able to awaken in him a genuine feeling for friendship and love. They become inseparable companions and then seeming rivals for the hand of Olivia until the presto change of Shakespeare’s stage magic is able to restore “Cesario” to her woman’s garments and thus present to Orsino the flesh-and-blood woman whom he has only distantly imagined. The transition from same-sex friendship to heterosexual union is a constant in Shakespearean comedy. The woman is the self-knowing, constant, loyal one; the man needs to learn a lot from the woman. As in the other plays as well, Twelfth Night neatly plays off this courtship theme with a second plot, of Malvolio’s self-deception that he is desired by Olivia—an illusion that can be addressed only by the satirical devices of exposure and humiliation.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597–1601) is an interesting deviation from the usual Shakespearean romantic comedy in that it is set not in some imagined far-off place like Illyria or Belmont or the forest of Athens but in Windsor, a solidly bourgeois village near Windsor Castle in the heart of England. Uncertain tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Falstaff in love. There is little, however, in the way of romantic wooing (the story of Anne Page and her suitor Fenton is rather buried in the midst of so many other goings-on), but the play’s portrayal of women, and especially of the two “merry wives,” Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page, reaffirms what is so often true of women in these early plays, that they are good-hearted, chastely loyal, and wittily self-possessed. Falstaff, a suitable butt for their cleverness, is a scapegoat figure who must be publicly humiliated as a way of transferring onto him the human frailties that Windsor society wishes to expunge.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » Completion of the histories
Concurrent with his writing of these fine romantic comedies, Shakespeare also brought to completion (for the time being, at least) his project of writing 15th-century English history. After having finished in 1589–94 the tetralogy about Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, bringing the story down to 1485, and then circa 1594–96 a play about John that deals with a chronological period (the 13th century) that sets it quite apart from his other history plays, Shakespeare turned to the late 14th and early 15th centuries and to the chronicle of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry’s legendary son Henry V. This inversion of historical order in the two tetralogies allowed Shakespeare to finish his sweep of late medieval English history with Henry V, a hero king in a way that Richard III could never pretend to be.

Richard II (c. 1595–96), written throughout in blank verse, is a sombre play about political impasse. It contains almost no humour, other than a wry scene in which the new king, Henry IV, must adjudicate the competing claims of the Duke of York and his Duchess, the first of whom wishes to see his son Aumerle executed for treason and the second of whom begs for mercy. Henry is able to be merciful on this occasion, since he has now won the kingship, and thus gives to this scene an upbeat movement. Earlier, however, the mood is grim. Richard, installed at an early age into the kingship, proves irresponsible as a ruler. He unfairly banishes his own first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (later to be Henry IV), whereas the king himself appears to be guilty of ordering the murder of an uncle. When Richard keeps the dukedom of Lancaster from Bolingbroke without proper legal authority, he manages to alienate many nobles and to encourage Bolingbroke’s return from exile. That return, too, is illegal, but it is a fact, and, when several of the nobles (including York) come over to Bolingbroke’s side, Richard is forced to abdicate. The rights and wrongs of this power struggle are masterfully ambiguous. History proceeds without any sense of moral imperative. Henry IV is a more capable ruler, but his authority is tarnished by his crimes (including his seeming assent to the execution of Richard), and his own rebellion appears to teach the barons to rebel against him in turn. Henry eventually dies a disappointed man.

The dying king Henry IV must turn royal authority over to young Hal, or Henry, now Henry V. The prospect is dismal both to the dying king and to the members of his court, for Prince Hal has distinguished himself to this point mainly by his penchant for keeping company with the disreputable if engaging Falstaff. The son’s attempts at reconciliation with the father succeed temporarily, especially when Hal saves his father’s life at the battle of Shrewsbury, but (especially in Henry IV, Part 2) his reputation as wastrel will not leave him. Everyone expects from him a reign of irresponsible license, with Falstaff in an influential position. It is for these reasons that the young king must publicly repudiate his old companion of the tavern and the highway, however much that repudiation tugs at his heart and the audience’s. Falstaff, for all his debauchery and irresponsibility, is infectiously amusing and delightful; he represents in Hal a spirit of youthful vitality that is left behind only with the greatest of regret as the young man assumes manhood and the role of crown prince. Hal manages all this with aplomb and goes on to defeat the French mightily at the Battle of Agincourt. Even his high jinks are a part of what is so attractive in him. Maturity and position come at a great personal cost: Hal becomes less a frail human being and more the figure of royal authority.

Thus, in his plays of the 1590s, the young Shakespeare concentrated to a remarkable extent on romantic comedies and English history plays. The two genres are nicely complementary: the one deals with courtship and marriage, while the other examines the career of a young man growing up to be a worthy king. Only at the end of the history plays does Henry V have any kind of romantic relationship with a woman, and this one instance is quite unlike courtships in the romantic comedies: Hal is given the Princess of France as his prize, his reward for sturdy manhood. He takes the lead in the wooing scene in which he invites her to join him in a political marriage. In both romantic comedies and English history plays, a young man successfully negotiates the hazardous and potentially rewarding paths of sexual and social maturation.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » Romeo and Juliet
Apart from the early Titus Andronicus, the only other play that Shakespeare wrote prior to 1599 that is classified as a tragedy is Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594–96), which is quite untypical of the tragedies that are to follow. Written more or less at the time when Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet shares many of the characteristics of romantic comedy. Romeo and Juliet are not persons of extraordinary social rank or position, like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. They are the boy and girl next door, interesting not for their philosophical ideas but for their appealing love for each other. They are character types more suited to Classical comedy in that they do not derive from the upper class. Their wealthy families are essentially bourgeois. The eagerness with which Capulet and his wife court Count Paris as their prospective son-in-law bespeaks their desire for social advancement.

Accordingly, the first half of Romeo and Juliet is very funny, while its delight in verse forms reminds us of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The bawdry of Mercutio and of the Nurse is richly suited to the comic texture of the opening scenes. Romeo, haplessly in love with a Rosaline whom we never meet, is a partly comic figure like Silvius in As You Like It. The plucky and self-knowing Juliet is much like the heroines of romantic comedies. She is able to instruct Romeo in the ways of speaking candidly and unaffectedly about their love rather than in the frayed cadences of the Petrarchan wooer.

The play is ultimately a tragedy, of course, and indeed warns its audience at the start that the lovers are “star-crossed.” Yet the tragic vision is not remotely that of Hamlet or King Lear. Romeo and Juliet are unremarkable, nice young people doomed by a host of considerations outside themselves: the enmity of their two families, the misunderstandings that prevent Juliet from being able to tell her parents whom it is that she has married, and even unfortunate coincidence (such as the misdirection of the letter sent to Romeo to warn him of the Friar’s plan for Juliet’s recovery from a deathlike sleep). Yet there is the element of personal responsibility upon which most mature tragedy rests when Romeo chooses to avenge the death of Mercutio by killing Tybalt, knowing that this deed will undo the soft graces of forbearance that Juliet has taught him. Romeo succumbs to the macho peer pressure of his male companions, and tragedy results in part from this choice. Yet so much is at work that the reader ultimately sees Romeo and Juliet as a love tragedy—celebrating the exquisite brevity of young love, regretting an unfeeling world, and evoking an emotional response that differs from that produced by the other tragedies. Romeo and Juliet are, at last, “Poor sacrifices of our enmity” (Act V, scene 3, line 304). The emotional response the play evokes is a strong one, but it is not like the response called forth by the tragedies after 1599.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The “problem” plays
Whatever his reasons, about 1599–1600 Shakespeare turned with unsparing intensity to the exploration of darker issues such as revenge, sexual jealousy, aging, midlife crisis, and death. Perhaps he saw that his own life was moving into a new phase of more complex and vexing experiences. Perhaps he felt, or sensed, that he had worked through the romantic comedy and history play and the emotional trajectories of maturation that they encompassed. At any event, he began writing not only his great tragedies but a group of plays that are hard to classify in terms of genre. They are sometimes grouped today as “problem” plays or “problem” comedies. An examination of these plays is crucial to understanding this period of transition from 1599 to 1605.

The three problem plays dating from these years are All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida. All’s Well is a comedy ending in acceptance of marriage, but in a way that poses thorny ethical issues. Count Bertram cannot initially accept his marriage to Helena, a woman of lower social station who has grown up in his noble household and has won Bertram as her husband by her seemingly miraculous cure of the French king. Bertram’s reluctance to face the responsibilities of marriage is all the more dismaying when he turns his amorous intentions to a Florentine maiden, Diana, whom he wishes to seduce without marriage. Helena’s stratagem to resolve this difficulty is the so-called bed trick, substituting herself in Bertram’s bed for the arranged assignation and then calling her wayward husband to account when she is pregnant with his child. Her ends are achieved by such morally ambiguous means that marriage seems at best a precarious institution on which to base the presumed reassurances of romantic comedy. The pathway toward resolution and emotional maturity is not easy; Helena is a more ambiguous heroine than Rosalind or Viola.

Measure for Measure (c. 1603–04) similarly employs the bed trick, and for a similar purpose, though in even murkier circumstances. Isabella, on the verge of becoming a nun, learns that she has attracted the sexual desire of Lord Angelo, the deputy ruler of Vienna serving in the mysterious absence of the Duke. Her plea to Angelo for her brother’s life, when that brother (Claudio) has been sentenced to die for fornication with his fiancée, is met with a demand that she sleep with Angelo or forfeit Claudio’s life. This ethical dilemma is resolved by a trick (devised by the Duke, in disguise) to substitute for Isabella a woman (Mariana) whom Angelo was supposed to marry but refused when she could produce no dowry. The Duke’s motivations in manipulating these substitutions and false appearances are unclear, though arguably his wish is to see what the various characters of this play will do when faced with seemingly impossible choices. Angelo is revealed as a morally fallen man, a would-be seducer and murderer who is nonetheless remorseful and ultimately glad to have been prevented from carrying out his intended crimes; Claudio learns that he is coward enough to wish to live by any means, including the emotional and physical blackmail of his sister; and Isabella learns that she is capable of bitterness and hatred, even if, crucially, she finally discovers that she can and must forgive her enemy. Her charity, and the Duke’s stratagems, make possible an ending in forgiveness and marriage, but in that process the nature and meaning of marriage are severely tested.

Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601–02) is the most experimental and puzzling of these three plays. Simply in terms of genre, it is virtually unclassifiable. It can hardly be a comedy, ending as it does in the deaths of Patroclus and Hector and the looming defeat of the Trojans. Nor is the ending normative in terms of romantic comedy: the lovers, Troilus and Cressida, are separated from one another and embittered by the failure of their relationship. The play is a history play in a sense, dealing as it does with the great Trojan War celebrated in Homer’s Iliad, and yet its purpose is hardly that of telling the story of the war. As a tragedy, it is perplexing in that the chief figures of the play (apart from Hector) do not die at the end, and the mood is one of desolation and even disgust rather than tragic catharsis. Perhaps the play should be thought of as a satire; the choric observations of Thersites and Pandarus serve throughout as a mordant commentary on the interconnectedness of war and lechery. With fitting ambiguity, the play was placed in the Folio of 1623 between the histories and the tragedies, in a category all by itself. Clearly, in these problem plays Shakespeare was opening up for himself a host of new problems in terms of genre and human sexuality.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » Julius Caesar
Written in 1599 (the same year as Henry V) or 1600, probably for the opening of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, Julius Caesar illustrates similarly the transition in Shakespeare’s writing toward darker themes and tragedy. It, too, is a history play in a sense, dealing with a non-Christian civilization existing 16 centuries before Shakespeare wrote his plays. Roman history opened up for Shakespeare a world in which divine purpose could not be easily ascertained. (Click here for a video clip of Caesar’s well-known speech.) The characters of Julius Caesar variously interpret the great event of the assassination of Caesar as one in which the gods are angry or disinterested or capricious or simply not there. The wise Cicero observes, “Men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (Act I, scene 3, lines 34–35).

Human history in Julius Caesar seems to follow a pattern of rise and fall, in a way that is cyclical rather than divinely purposeful. Caesar enjoys his days of triumph, until he is cut down by the conspirators; Brutus and Cassius succeed to power, but not for long. Brutus’s attempts to protect Roman republicanism and the freedom of the city’s citizens to govern themselves through senatorial tradition end up in the destruction of the very liberties he most cherished. He and Cassius meet their destiny at the Battle of Philippi. They are truly tragic figures, especially Brutus, in that their essential characters are their fate; Brutus is a good man but also proud and stubborn, and these latter qualities ultimately bring about his death. Shakespeare’s first major tragedy is Roman in spirit and Classical in its notion of tragic character. It shows what Shakespeare had to learn from Classical precedent as he set about looking for workable models in tragedy.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The tragedies
Hamlet (c. 1599–1601), on the other hand, chooses a tragic model closer to that of Titus Andronicus and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. In form, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. It features characteristics found in Titus as well: a protagonist charged with the responsibility of avenging a heinous crime against the protagonist’s family, a cunning antagonist, the appearance of the ghost of the murdered person, the feigning of madness to throw off the villain’s suspicions, the play within the play as a means of testing the villain, and still more.

Yet to search out these comparisons is to highlight what is so extraordinary about Hamlet, for it refuses to be merely a revenge tragedy. Shakespeare’s protagonist is unique in the genre in his moral qualms, and most of all in his finding a way to carry out his dread command without becoming a cold-blooded murderer. Hamlet does act bloodily, especially when he kills Polonius, thinking that the old man hidden in Gertrude’s chambers must be the King whom Hamlet is commissioned to kill. The act seems plausible and strongly motivated, and yet Hamlet sees at once that he has erred. He has killed the wrong man, even if Polonius has brought this on himself with his incessant spying. Hamlet sees that he has offended heaven and that he will have to pay for his act. When, at the play’s end, Hamlet encounters his fate in a duel with Polonius’s son, Laertes, Hamlet interprets his own tragic story as one that Providence has made meaningful. By placing himself in the hands of Providence and believing devoutly that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (Act V, scene 2, lines 10–11), Hamlet finds himself ready for a death that he has longed for. He also finds an opportunity for killing Claudius almost unpremeditatedly, spontaneously, as an act of reprisal for all that Claudius has done.

Hamlet thus finds tragic meaning in his own story. More broadly, too, he has searched for meaning in dilemmas of all sorts: his mother’s overhasty marriage, Ophelia’s weak-willed succumbing to the will of her father and brother, his being spied on by his erstwhile friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and much more. His utterances are often despondent, relentlessly honest, and philosophically profound, as he ponders the nature of friendship, memory, romantic attachment, filial love, sensuous enslavement, corrupting habits (drinking, sexual lust), and almost every phase of human experience.

One remarkable aspect about Shakespeare’s great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra most of all) is that they proceed through such a staggering range of human emotions, and especially the emotions that are appropriate to the mature years of the human cycle. Hamlet is 30, one learns—an age when a person is apt to perceive that the world around him is “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (Act I, scene 2, lines 135–137). Shakespeare was about 36 when he wrote this play. Othello (c. 1603–04) centres on sexual jealousy in marriage. King Lear (c. 1605–06) is about aging, generational conflict, and feelings of ingratitude. Macbeth (c. 1606–07) explores ambition mad enough to kill a father figure who stands in the way. Antony and Cleopatra, written about 1606–07 when Shakespeare was 42 or thereabouts, studies the exhilarating but ultimately dismaying phenomenon of midlife crisis. Shakespeare moves his readers vicariously through these life experiences while he himself struggles to capture, in tragic form, their terrors and challenges.

These plays are deeply concerned with domestic and family relationships. In Othello Desdemona is the only daughter of Brabantio, an aging senator of Venice, who dies heartbroken because his daughter has eloped with a dark-skinned man who is her senior by many years and is of another culture. With Othello, Desdemona is briefly happy, despite her filial disobedience, until a terrible sexual jealousy is awakened in him, quite without cause other than his own fears and susceptibility to Iago’s insinuations that it is only “natural” for Desdemona to seek erotic pleasure with a young man who shares her background. Driven by his own deeply irrational fear and hatred of women and seemingly mistrustful of his own masculinity, Iago can assuage his own inner torment only by persuading other men like Othello that their inevitable fate is to be cuckolded. As a tragedy, the play adroitly exemplifies the traditional Classical model of a good man brought to misfortune by hamartia, or tragic flaw; as Othello grieves, he is one who has “loved not wisely, but too well” (Act V, scene 2, line 354). It bears remembering, however, that Shakespeare owed no loyalty to this Classical model. Hamlet, for one, is a play that does not work well in Aristotelian terms. The search for an Aristotelian hamartia has led all too often to the trite argument that Hamlet suffers from melancholia and a tragic inability to act, whereas a more plausible reading of the play argues that finding the right course of action is highly problematic for him and for everyone. Hamlet sees examples on all sides of those whose forthright actions lead to fatal mistakes or absurd ironies (Laertes, Fortinbras), and indeed his own swift killing of the man he assumes to be Claudius hidden in his mother’s chambers turns out to be a mistake for which he realizes heaven will hold him accountable.

Daughters and fathers are also at the heart of the major dilemma in King Lear. In this configuration, Shakespeare does what he often does in his late plays: erase the wife from the picture, so that father and daughter(s) are left to deal with one another. (Compare Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and perhaps the circumstances of Shakespeare’s own life, in which his relations with his daughter Susanna especially seem to have meant more to him than his partly estranged marriage with Anne.) Lear’s banishing of his favourite daughter, Cordelia, because of her laconic refusal to proclaim a love for him as the essence of her being, brings upon this aging king the terrible punishment of being belittled and rejected by his ungrateful daughters, Goneril and Regan. Concurrently, in the play’s second plot, the Earl of Gloucester makes a similar mistake with his good-hearted son, Edgar, and thereby delivers himself into the hands of his scheming bastard son, Edmund. Both these erring elderly fathers are ultimately nurtured by the loyal children they have banished, but not before the play has tested to its absolute limit the proposition that evil can flourish in a bad world.

The gods seem indifferent, perhaps absent entirely; pleas to them for assistance go unheeded while the storm of fortune rains down on the heads of those who have trusted in conventional pieties. Part of what is so great in this play is that its testing of the major characters requires them to seek out philosophical answers that can arm the resolute heart against ingratitude and misfortune by constantly pointing out that life owes one nothing. The consolations of philosophy preciously found out by Edgar and Cordelia are those that rely not on the suppositious gods but on an inner moral strength demanding that one be charitable and honest because life is otherwise monstrous and subhuman. The play exacts terrible prices of those who persevere in goodness, but it leaves them and the reader, or audience, with the reassurance that it is simply better to be a Cordelia than to be a Goneril, to be an Edgar than to be an Edmund.

Macbeth is in some ways Shakespeare’s most unsettling tragedy, because it invites the intense examination of the heart of a man who is well-intentioned in most ways but who discovers that he cannot resist the temptation to achieve power at any cost. (Click here for a video clip of the opening scene from Macbeth.) Macbeth is a sensitive, even poetic person, and as such he understands with frightening clarity the stakes that are involved in his contemplated deed of murder. Duncan is a virtuous king and his guest. The deed is regicide and murder and a violation of the sacred obligations of hospitality. Macbeth knows that Duncan’s virtues, like angels, “trumpet-tongued,” will plead against “the deep damnation of his taking-off” (Act I, scene 7, lines 19–20). The only factor weighing on the other side is personal ambition, which Macbeth understands to be a moral failing. The question of why he proceeds to murder is partly answered by the insidious temptations of the three Weird Sisters, who sense Macbeth’s vulnerability to their prophecies, and the terrifying strength of his wife, who drives him on to the murder by describing his reluctance as unmanliness. (Click here for a video clip of Lady Macbeth goading her husband.) Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with Macbeth. His collapse of moral integrity confronts the audience and perhaps implicates it. The loyalty and decency of such characters as Macduff hardly offset what is so painfully weak in the play’s protagonist.

Antony and Cleopatra approaches human frailty in terms that are less spiritually terrifying. The story of the lovers is certainly one of worldly failure. Plutarch’s Lives gave to Shakespeare the object lesson of a brave general who lost his reputation and sense of self-worth through his infatuation with an admittedly attractive but nonetheless dangerous woman. Shakespeare changes none of the circumstances: Antony hates himself for dallying in Egypt with Cleopatra, agrees to marry with Octavius Caesar’s sister Octavia as a way of recovering his status in the Roman triumvirate, cheats on Octavia eventually, loses the battle of Actium because of his fatal attraction for Cleopatra, and dies in Egypt a defeated, aging warrior. Shakespeare adds to this narrative a compelling portrait of midlife crisis. Antony is deeply anxious about his loss of sexual potency and position in the world of affairs. His amorous life in Egypt is manifestly an attempt to affirm and recover his dwindling male power.

Yet the Roman model is not in Shakespeare’s play the unassailably virtuous choice that it is in Plutarch. In Antony and Cleopatra Roman behaviour does promote attentiveness to duty and worldly achievement, but, as embodied in young Octavius, it is also obsessively male and cynical about women. Octavius is intent on capturing Cleopatra and leading her in triumph back to Rome—that is, to cage the unruly woman and place her under male control. When Cleopatra perceives that aim, she chooses a noble suicide rather than humiliation by a patriarchal male. In her suicide, Cleopatra avers that she has called “great Caesar ass / Unpolicied” (Act V, scene 2, lines 307–308). Vastly to be preferred is the fleeting dream of greatness with Antony, both of them unfettered, godlike, like Isis and Osiris, immortalized as heroic lovers even if the actual circumstances of their lives were often disappointing and even tawdry. The vision in this tragedy is deliberately unstable, but at its most ethereal it encourages a vision of human greatness that is distant from the soul-corrupting evil of Macbeth or King Lear.

Two late tragedies also choose the ancient Classical world as their setting but do so in a deeply dispiriting way. Shakespeare appears to have been much preoccupied with ingratitude and human greed in these years. Timon of Athens (c. 1605–08), probably an unfinished play and possibly never produced, initially shows us a prosperous man fabled for his generosity. When he discovers that he has exceeded his means, he turns to his seeming friends for the kinds of assistance he has given them, only to discover that their memories are short. Retiring to a bitter isolation, Timon rails against all humanity and refuses every sort of consolation, even that of well-meant companionship and sympathy from a former servant. He dies in isolation. The unrelieved bitterness of this account is only partly ameliorated by the story of the military captain Alcibiades, who has also been the subject of Athenian ingratitude and forgetfulness but who manages to reassert his authority at the end. Alcibiades resolves to make some accommodation with the wretched condition of humanity; Timon will have none of it. Seldom has a more unrelievedly embittered play been written.

Coriolanus (c. 1608) similarly portrays the ungrateful responses of a city toward its military hero. The problem is complicated by the fact that Coriolanus, egged on by his mother and his conservative allies, undertakes a political role in Rome for which he is not temperamentally fitted. His friends urge him to hold off his intemperate speech until he is voted into office, but Coriolanus is too plainspoken to be tactful in this way. His contempt for the plebeians and their political leaders, the tribunes, is unsparing. His political philosophy, while relentlessly aristocratic and snobbish, is consistent and theoretically sophisticated; the citizens are, as he argues, incapable of governing themselves judiciously. Yet his fury only makes matters worse and leads to an exile from which he returns to conquer his own city, in league with his old enemy and friend, Aufidius. When his mother comes out for the city to plead for her life and that of other Romans, he relents and thereupon falls into defeat as a kind of mother’s boy, unable to assert his own sense of self. As a tragedy, Coriolanus is again bitter, satirical, ending in defeat and humiliation. It is an immensely powerful play, and it captures a philosophical mood of nihilism and bitterness that hovers over Shakespeare’s writings throughout these years in the first decade of the 1600s.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The romances
Concurrently, nonetheless, and then in the years that followed, Shakespeare turned again to the writing of comedy. The late comedies are usually called romances or tragicomedies because they tell stories of wandering and separation leading eventually to tearful and joyous reunion. They are suffused with a bittersweet mood that seems eloquently appropriate to a writer who has explored with such unsparing honesty the depths of human suffering and degradation in the great tragedies.

Pericles, written perhaps in 1606–08 and based on the familiar tale of Apollonius of Tyre, may involve some collaboration of authorship; the text is unusually imperfect, and it did not appear in the Folio of 1623. It employs a chorus figure, John Gower (author of an earlier version of this story), to guide the reader or viewer around the Mediterranean on Pericles’ various travels, as he avoids marriage with the daughter of the incestuous King Antiochus of Antioch; marries Thaisa, the daughter of King Simonides of Pentapolis; has a child by her; believes his wife to have died in childbirth during a storm at sea and has her body thrown overboard to quiet the superstitious fears of the sailors; puts his daughter Marina in the care of Cleon of Tarsus and his wicked wife, Dionyza; and is eventually restored to his wife and child after many years. The story is typical romance. Shakespeare adds touching scenes of reunion and a perception that beneath the naive account of travel lies a subtle dramatization of separation, loss, and recovery. Pericles is deeply burdened by his loss and perhaps, too, a sense of guilt for having consented to consign his wife’s body to the sea. He is recovered from his despair only by the ministrations of a loving daughter, who is able to give him a reason to live again and then to be reunited with his wife.

The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609–11) is in some ways a replaying of this same story, in that King Leontes of Sicilia, smitten by an irrational jealousy of his wife, Hermione, brings about the seeming death of that wife and the real death of their son. The resulting guilt is unbearable for Leontes and yet ultimately curative over a period of many years that are required for his only daughter, Perdita (whom he has nearly killed also), to grow to maturity in distant Bohemia. This story, too, is based on a prose romance, in this case Robert Greene’s Pandosto. The reunion with daughter and then wife is deeply touching as in Pericles, with the added magical touch that the audience does not know that Hermione is alive and in fact has been told that she is dead. Her wonderfully staged appearance as a statue coming to life is one of the great theatrical coups in Shakespeare, playing as it does with favourite Shakespearean themes in these late plays of the ministering daughter, the guilt-ridden husband, and the miraculously recovered wife. The story is all the more moving when one considers that Shakespeare may have had, or imagined, a similar experience of attempting to recover a relationship with his wife, Anne, whom he had left in Stratford during his many years in London.

In Cymbeline (c. 1608–10) King Cymbeline drives his virtuous daughter Imogen into exile by his opposition to her marriage with Posthumus Leonatus. The wife in this case is Cymbeline’s baleful Queen, a stereotypical wicked stepmother whose witless and lecherous son Cloten (Imogen’s half brother) is the embodiment of everything that threatens and postpones the eventual happy ending of this tale. Posthumus, too, fails Imogen by being irrationally jealous of her, but he is eventually recovered to a belief in her goodness. The dark portraiture of the Queen illustrates how ambivalent is Shakespeare’s view of the mother in his late plays. This Queen is the wicked stepmother, like Dionyza in Pericles; in her relentless desire for control, she also brings to mind Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, as well as Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia. The devouring mother is a forbidding presence in the late plays, though she is counterbalanced by redeeming maternal figures such as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles.

The Tempest (c. 1611) sums up much of what Shakespeare’s mature art was all about. Once again we find a wifeless father with a daughter, in this case on a deserted island where the father, Prospero, is entirely responsible for his daughter’s education. He behaves like a dramatist in charge of the whole play as well, arranging her life and that of the other characters. He employs a storm at sea to bring young Ferdinand into the company of his daughter; Ferdinand is Prospero’s choice, because such a marriage will resolve the bitter dispute between Milan and Naples—arising after the latter supported Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio in his claim to the dukedom of Milan—that has led to Prospero’s banishment. At the same time, Ferdinand is certainly Miranda’s choice as well; the two fall instantly in love, anticipating the desired romantic happy ending. The ending will also mean an end to Prospero’s career as artist and dramatist, for he is nearing retirement and senses that his gift will not stay with him forever. The imprisoned spirit Ariel, embodiment of that temporary and precious gift, must be freed in the play’s closing moments. Caliban, too, must be freed, since Prospero has done what he could to educate and civilize this Natural Man. Art can only go so far.

The Tempest seems to have been intended as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre. It contains moving passages of reflection on what his powers as artist have been able to accomplish, and valedictory themes of closure. As a comedy, it demonstrates perfectly the way that Shakespeare was able to combine precise artistic construction (the play chooses on this farewell occasion to observe the Classical unities of time, place, and action) with his special flair for stories that transcend the merely human and physical: The Tempest is peopled with spirits, monsters, and drolleries. This, it seems, is Shakespeare’s summation of his art as comic dramatist.

But The Tempest proved not to be Shakespeare’s last play after all. Perhaps he discovered, as many people do, that he was bored in retirement in 1613 or thereabouts. No doubt his acting company was eager to have him back. He wrote a history play titled Henry VIII (1613), which is extraordinary in a number of ways: it relates historical events substantially later chronologically than those of the 15th century that had been his subject in his earlier historical plays; it is separated from the last of those plays by perhaps 14 years; and, perhaps most significant, it is as much romance as history play. History in this instance is really about the birth of Elizabeth I, who was to become England’s great queen. The circumstances of Henry VIII’s troubled marital affairs, his meeting with Anne Boleyn, his confrontation with the papacy, and all the rest turn out to be the humanly unpredictable ways by which Providence engineers the miracle of Elizabeth’s birth. The play ends with this great event and sees in it a justification and necessity of all that has proceeded. Thus history yields its providential meaning in the shape of a play that is both history and romance.


Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » Collaborations and spurious attributions
The Two Noble Kinsmen (c. 1612–14) brought Shakespeare into collaboration with John Fletcher, his successor as chief playwright for the King’s Men. (Fletcher is sometimes thought also to have helped Shakespeare with Henry VIII.) The story, taken out of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, is essentially another romance, in which two young gallants compete for the hand of Emilia and in which deities preside over the choice. Shakespeare may have had a hand earlier as well in Edward III, a history play of about 1590–95, and he seems to have provided a scene or so for The Book of Sir Thomas More (c. 1593–1601) when that play encountered trouble with the censor. Collaborative writing was common in the Renaissance English stage, and it is not surprising that Shakespeare was called upon to do some of it. Nor is it surprising that, given his towering reputation, he was credited with having written a number of plays that he had nothing to do with, including those that were spuriously added to the third edition of the Folio in 1664: Locrine (1591–95), Sir John Oldcastle (1599–1600), Thomas Lord Cromwell (1599–1602), The London Prodigal (1603–05), The Puritan (1606), and A Yorkshire Tragedy (1605–08). To a remarkable extent, nonetheless, his corpus stands as a coherent body of his own work. The shape of the career has a symmetry and internal beauty not unlike that of the individual plays and poems.

David Bevington


Shakespeare’s sources
With a few exceptions, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Sometimes he used old stories (Hamlet, Pericles). Sometimes he worked from the stories of comparatively recent Italian writers, such as Giovanni Boccaccio—using both well-known stories (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing) and little-known ones (Othello). He used the popular prose fictions of his contemporaries in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. In writing his historical plays, he drew largely from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for the Roman plays and the chronicles of Edward Hall and Holinshed for the plays based upon English history. Some plays deal with rather remote and legendary history (King Lear, Cymbeline, Macbeth). Earlier dramatists had occasionally used the same material (there were, for example, the earlier plays called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth and King Leir). But, because many plays of Shakespeare’s time have been lost, it is impossible to be sure of the relation between an earlier, lost play and Shakespeare’s surviving one: in the case of Hamlet it has been plausibly argued that an “old play,” known to have existed, was merely an early version of Shakespeare’s own.

Shakespeare was probably too busy for prolonged study. He had to read what books he could, when he needed them. His enormous vocabulary could only be derived from a mind of great celerity, responding to the literary as well as the spoken language. It is not known what libraries were available to him. The Huguenot family of Mountjoys, with whom he lodged in London, presumably possessed French books. Moreover, he seems to have enjoyed an interesting connection with the London book trade. The Richard Field who published Shakespeare’s two poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in 1593–94, seems to have been (as an apprenticeship record describes him) the “son of Henry Field of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwick, tanner.” When Henry Field the tanner died in 1592, John Shakespeare the glover was one of the three appointed to value his goods and chattels. Field’s son, bound apprentice in 1579, was probably about the same age as Shakespeare. From 1587 he steadily established himself as a printer of serious literature—notably of North’s translation of Plutarch (1595, reprinted in 1603 and 1610). There is no direct evidence of any close friendship between Field and Shakespeare. Still, it cannot escape notice that one of the important printer-publishers in London at the time was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare at Stratford, that he can hardly have been other than a schoolmate, that he was the son of a close associate of John Shakespeare, and that he published Shakespeare’s first poems. Clearly, a considerable number of literary contacts were available to Shakespeare, and many books were accessible.

That Shakespeare’s plays had “sources” was already apparent in his own time. An interesting contemporary description of a performance is to be found in the diary of a young lawyer of the Middle Temple, John Manningham, who kept a record of his experiences in 1602 and 1603. On February 2, 1602, he wrote:

At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, much like The Comedy of Errors, or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni.

The first collection of information about sources of Elizabethan plays was published in the 17th century—Gerard Langbaine’s Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) briefly indicated where Shakespeare found materials for some plays. But, during the course of the 17th century, it came to be felt that Shakespeare was an outstandingly “natural” writer, whose intellectual background was of comparatively little significance: “he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature,” wrote John Dryden in 1668. It was nevertheless obvious that the intellectual quality of Shakespeare’s writings was high and revealed a remarkably perceptive mind. The Roman plays, in particular, gave evidence of careful reconstruction of the ancient world.

The first collection of source materials, arranged so that they could be read and closely compared with Shakespeare’s plays, was made by Charlotte Lennox in the 18th century. More complete collections appeared later, notably those of John Payne Collier (Shakespeare’s Library, 1843; revised by W. Carew Hazlitt, 1875). These earlier collections have been superseded by a seven-volume version edited by Geoffrey Bullough as Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957–72).

It has become steadily more possible to see what was original in Shakespeare’s dramatic art. He achieved compression and economy by the exclusion of undramatic material. He developed characters from brief suggestions in his source (Mercutio, Touchstone, Falstaff, Pandarus), and he developed entirely new characters (the Dromio brothers, Beatrice and Benedick, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Paulina, Roderigo, Lear’s fool). He rearranged the plot with a view to more-effective contrasts of character, climaxes, and conclusions (Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It). A wider philosophical outlook was introduced (Hamlet, Coriolanus, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida). And everywhere an intensification of the dialogue and an altogether higher level of imaginative writing transformed the older work.

But, quite apart from evidence of the sources of his plays, it is not difficult to get a fair impression of Shakespeare as a reader, feeding his own imagination by a moderate acquaintance with the literary achievements of other men and of other ages. He quotes his contemporary Christopher Marlowe in As You Like It. He casually refers to the Aethiopica (“Ethiopian History”) of Heliodorus (which had been translated by Thomas Underdown in 1569) in Twelfth Night. He read the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding, which went through seven editions between 1567 and 1612. George Chapman’s vigorous translation of Homer’s Iliad impressed him, though he used some of the material rather sardonically in Troilus and Cressida. He derived the ironical account of an ideal republic in The Tempest from one of Montaigne’s essays. He read (in part, at least) Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostors and remembered lively passages from it when he was writing King Lear. The beginning lines of one sonnet (106) indicate that he had read Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene or comparable romantic literature.

He was acutely aware of the varieties of poetic style that characterized the work of other authors. A brilliant little poem he composed for Prince Hamlet (Act V, scene 2, line 115) shows how ironically he perceived the qualities of poetry in the last years of the 16th century, when poets such as John Donne were writing love poems uniting astronomical and cosmogenic imagery with skepticism and moral paradoxes. The eight-syllable lines in an archaic mode written for the 14th-century poet John Gower in Pericles show his reading of that poet’s Confessio amantis. The influence of the great figure of Sir Philip Sidney, whose Arcadia was first printed in 1590 and was widely read for generations, is frequently felt in Shakespeare’s writings. Finally, the importance of the Bible for Shakespeare’s style and range of allusion is not to be underestimated. His works show a pervasive familiarity with the passages appointed to be read in church on each Sunday throughout the year, and a large number of allusions to passages in Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) indicates a personal interest in one of the deuterocanonical books.

John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer




Understanding Shakespeare » Questions of authorship
Readers and playgoers in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and indeed until the late 18th century, never questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. He was a well-known actor from Stratford who performed in London’s premier acting company, among the great actors of his day. He was widely known by the leading writers of his time as well, including Ben Jonson and John Webster, both of whom praised him as a dramatist. Many other tributes to him as a great writer appeared during his lifetime. Any theory that supposes him not to have been the writer of the plays and poems attributed to him must suppose that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were universally fooled by some kind of secret arrangement.

Yet suspicions on the subject gained increasing force in the mid-19th century. One Delia Bacon proposed that the author was her claimed ancestor Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, who was indeed a prominent writer of the Elizabethan era. What had prompted this theory? The chief considerations seem to have been that little is known about Shakespeare’s life (though in fact more is known about him than about his contemporary writers), that he was from the country town of Stratford-upon-Avon, that he never attended one of the universities, and that therefore it would have been impossible for him to write knowledgeably about the great affairs of English courtly life such as we find in the plays.

The theory is suspect on a number of counts. University training in Shakespeare’s day centred on theology and on Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts of a sort that would not have greatly improved Shakespeare’s knowledge of contemporary English life. By the 19th century, a university education was becoming more and more the mark of a broadly educated person, but university training in the 16th century was quite a different matter. The notion that only a university-educated person could write of life at court and among the gentry is an erroneous and indeed a snobbish assumption. Shakespeare was better off going to London as he did, seeing and writing plays, listening to how people talked. He was a reporter, in effect. The great writers of his era (or indeed of most eras) are not usually aristocrats, who have no need to earn a living by their pens. Shakespeare’s social background is essentially like that of his best contemporaries. Edmund Spenser went to Cambridge, it is true, but he came from a sail-making family. Christopher Marlowe also attended Cambridge, but his kindred were shoemakers in Canterbury. John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton came from similar backgrounds. They discovered that they were writers, able to make a living off their talent, and they (excluding the poet Spenser) flocked to the London theatres where customers for their wares were to be found. Like them, Shakespeare was a man of the commercial theatre.

Other candidates—William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, and Christopher Marlowe among them—have been proposed, and indeed the very fact of so many candidates makes one suspicious of the claims of any one person. The late 20th-century candidate for the writing of Shakespeare’s plays, other than Shakespeare himself, was Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. Oxford did indeed write verse, as did other gentlemen; sonneteering was a mark of gentlemanly distinction. Oxford was also a wretched man who abused his wife and drove his father-in-law to distraction. Most seriously damaging to Oxford’s candidacy is the fact that he died in 1604. The chronology presented here, summarizing perhaps 200 years of assiduous scholarship, establishes a professional career for Shakespeare as dramatist that extends from about 1589 to 1614. Many of his greatest plays—King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, to name but three—were written after 1604. To suppose that the dating of the canon is totally out of whack and that all the plays and poems were written before 1604 is a desperate argument. Some individual dates are uncertain, but the overall pattern is coherent. The growth in poetic and dramatic styles, the development of themes and subjects, along with objective evidence, all support a chronology that extends to about 1614. To suppose alternatively that Oxford wrote the plays and poems before 1604 and then put them away in a drawer, to be brought out after his death and updated to make them appear timely, is to invent an answer to a nonexistent problem.

When all is said, the sensible question one must ask is, why would Oxford want to write the plays and poems and then not claim them for himself? The answer given is that he was an aristocrat and that writing for the theatre was not elegant; hence he needed a front man, an alias. Shakespeare, the actor, was a suitable choice. But is it plausible that a cover-up like this could have succeeded?

Shakespeare’s contemporaries, after all, wrote of him unequivocally as the author of the plays. Ben Jonson, who knew him well, contributed verses to the First Folio of 1623, where (as elsewhere) he criticizes and praises Shakespeare as the author. John Heminge and Henry Condell, fellow actors and theatre owners with Shakespeare, signed the dedication and a foreword to the First Folio and described their methods as editors. In his own day, therefore, he was accepted as the author of the plays. In an age that loved gossip and mystery as much as any, it seems hardly conceivable that Jonson and Shakespeare’s theatrical associates shared the secret of a gigantic literary hoax without a single leak or that they could have been imposed upon without suspicion. Unsupported assertions that the author of the plays was a man of great learning and that Shakespeare of Stratford was an illiterate rustic no longer carry weight, and only when a believer in Bacon or Oxford or Marlowe produces sound evidence will scholars pay close attention.


Understanding Shakespeare » Linguistic, historical, textual, and editorial problems
Since the days of Shakespeare, the English language has changed, and so have audiences, theatres, actors, and customary patterns of thought and feeling. Time has placed an ever-increasing cloud before the mirror he held up to life, and it is here that scholarship can help.

Problems are most obvious in single words. In the 21st century, presently, for instance, does not mean “immediately,” as it usually did for Shakespeare, or will mean “lust,” or rage mean “folly,” or silly denote “innocence” and “purity.” In Shakespeare’s day, words sounded different, too, so that ably could rhyme with eye or tomb with dumb. Syntax was often different, and, far more difficult to define, so was response to metre and phrase. What sounds formal and stiff to a modern hearer might have sounded fresh and gay to an Elizabethan.

Ideas have changed, too, most obviously political ones. Shakespeare’s contemporaries almost unanimously believed in authoritarian monarchy and recognized divine intervention in history. Most of them would have agreed that a man should be burned for ultimate religious heresies. It is the office of linguistic and historical scholarship to aid the understanding of the multitude of factors that have significantly affected the impressions made by Shakespeare’s plays.

None of Shakespeare’s plays has survived in his handwritten manuscript, and, in the printed texts of some plays, notably King Lear and Richard III, there are passages that are manifestly corrupt, with only an uncertain relationship to the words Shakespeare once wrote. Even if the printer received a good manuscript, small errors could still be introduced. Compositors were less than perfect; they often “regularized” the readings of their copy, altered punctuation in accordance with their own preferences or “house” style or because they lacked the necessary pieces of type, or made mistakes because they had to work too hurriedly. Even the correction of proof sheets in the printing house could further corrupt the text, since such correction was usually effected without reference to the author or to the manuscript copy; when both corrected and uncorrected states are still available, it is sometimes the uncorrected version that is preferable. Correctors are responsible for some errors now impossible to right.

John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
David Bevington


Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism
During his own lifetime and shortly afterward, Shakespeare enjoyed fame and considerable critical attention. The English writer Francis Meres, in 1598, declared him to be England’s greatest writer in comedy and tragedy. Writer and poet John Weever lauded “honey-tongued Shakespeare.” Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and a literary critic in his own right, granted that Shakespeare had no rival in the writing of comedy, even in the ancient Classical world, and that he equaled the ancients in tragedy as well, but Jonson also faulted Shakespeare for having a mediocre command of the Classical languages and for ignoring Classical rules. Jonson objected when Shakespeare dramatized history extending over many years and moved his dramatic scene around from country to country, rather than focusing on 24 hours or so in a single location. Shakespeare wrote too glibly, in Jonson’s view, mixing kings and clowns, lofty verse with vulgarity, mortals with fairies.


Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Seventeenth century
Jonson’s Neoclassical perspective on Shakespeare was to govern the literary criticism of the later 17th century as well. John Dryden, in his essay Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) and other essays, condemned the improbabilities of Shakespeare’s late romances. Shakespeare lacked decorum, in Dryden’s view, largely because he had written for an ignorant age and poorly educated audiences. Shakespeare excelled in “fancy” or imagination, but he lagged behind in “judgment.” He was a native genius, untaught, whose plays needed to be extensively rewritten to clear them of the impurities of their frequently vulgar style. And in fact most productions of Shakespeare on the London stage during the Restoration did just that: they rewrote Shakespeare to make him more refined.


Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Eighteenth century
This critical view persisted into the 18th century as well. Alexander Pope undertook to edit Shakespeare in 1725, expurgating his language and “correcting” supposedly infelicitous phrases. Samuel Johnson also edited Shakespeare’s works (1765), defending his author as one who “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”; but, though he pronounced Shakespeare an “ancient” (supreme praise from Johnson), he found Shakespeare’s plays full of implausible plots quickly huddled together at the end, and he deplored Shakespeare’s fondness for punning. Even in his defense of Shakespeare as a great English writer, Johnson lauded him in classical terms, for his universality, his ability to offer a “just representation of general nature” that could stand the test of time.


Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Romantic critics
For Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century, Shakespeare deserved to be appreciated most of all for his creative genius and his spontaneity. For Goethe in Germany as well, Shakespeare was a bard, a mystical seer. Most of all, Shakespeare was considered supreme as a creator of character. Maurice Morgann wrote such character-based analyses as appear in his book An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), where Falstaff is envisaged as larger than life, a humane wit and humorist who is no coward or liar in fact but a player of inspired games. Romantic critics, including Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey (who wrote Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on Shakespeare for the eighth edition), and William Hazlitt, extolled Shakespeare as a genius able to create an imaginative world of his own, even if Hazlitt was disturbed by what he took to be Shakespeare’s political conservatism. In the theatre of the Romantic era, Shakespeare fared less well, but as an author he was much touted and even venerated. In 1769 the famous actor David Garrick had instituted a Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare had become England’s national poet.


Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » Increasing importance of scholarship
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw major increases in the systematic and scholarly exploration of Shakespeare’s life and works. Philological research established a more reliable chronology of the work than had been hitherto available. Edward Dowden, in his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), analyzed the shape of Shakespeare’s career in a way that had not been possible earlier. A.C. Bradley’s magisterial Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), a book that remains highly readable, showed how the achievements of scholarship could be applied to a humane and moving interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest work. As in earlier studies of the 19th century, Bradley’s approach focused largely on character.

Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » Historical criticism
Increasingly in the 20th century, scholarship furthered an understanding of Shakespeare’s social, political, economic, and theatrical milieu. Shakespeare’s sources came under new and intense scrutiny. Elmer Edgar Stoll, in Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1933), stressed the ways in which the plays could be seen as constructs intimately connected with their historical environment. Playacting depends on conventions, which must be understood in their historical context. Costuming signals meaning to the audience; so does the theatre building, the props, the actors’ gestures.

Accordingly, historical critics sought to know more about the history of London’s theatres (as in John Cranford Adams’s well-known model of the Globe playhouse or in C. Walter Hodges’s The Globe Restored [1953]), about audiences (Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It [1947]; and Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London, 1576–1642 [1981]), about staging methods (Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe 1599–1609 [1962]), and much more. Other scholarly studies examined censorship, the religious controversies of the Elizabethan era and how they affected playwriting, and the heritage of native medieval English drama. Studies in the history of ideas have examined Elizabethan cosmology, astrology, philosophical ideas such as the Great Chain of Being, physiological theories about the four bodily humours, political theories of Machiavelli and others, the skepticism of Montaigne, and much more. See also Sidebar: Shakespeare on Theatre; Sidebar: Shakespeare and the Liberties; and Sidebar: Music in Shakespeare’s Plays.

Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » New Criticism
As valuable as it is, historical criticism has not been without its opponents. A major critical movement of the 1930s and ’40s was the so-called New Criticism of F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights, Derek Traversi, Robert Heilman, and many others, urging a more formalist approach to the poetry. “Close reading” became the mantra of this movement. At its most extreme, it urged the ignoring of historical background in favour of an intense and personal engagement with Shakespeare’s language: tone, speaker, image patterns, and verbal repetitions and rhythms. Studies of imagery, rhetorical patterns, wordplay, and still more gave support to the movement. At the commencement of the 21st century, close reading remained an acceptable approach to the Shakespearean text.

Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » New interpretive approaches
Shakespeare criticism of the 20th and 21st centuries has seen an extraordinary flourishing of new schools of critical approach. Psychological and psychoanalytic critics such as Ernest Jones have explored questions of character in terms of Oedipal complexes, narcissism, and psychotic behaviour or, more simply, in terms of the conflicting needs in any relationship for autonomy and dependence. Mythological and archetypal criticism, especially in the influential work of Northrop Frye, has examined myths of vegetation having to do with the death and rebirth of nature as a basis for great cycles in the creative process. Christian interpretation seeks to find in Shakespeare’s plays a series of deep analogies to the Christian story of sacrifice and redemption.

Conversely, some criticism has pursued a vigorously iconoclastic line of interpretation. Jan Kott, writing in the disillusioning aftermath of World War II and from an eastern European perspective, reshaped Shakespeare as a dramatist of the absurd, skeptical, ridiculing, and antiauthoritarian. Kott’s deeply ironic view of the political process impressed filmmakers and theatre directors such as Peter Brook (King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). (For further discussion of later interpretations of Shakespeare, see Sidebar: Viewing Shakespeare on Film and Sidebar: Shakespeare and Opera.) He also caught the imagination of many academic critics who were chafing at a modern political world increasingly caught up in image making and the various other manipulations of the powerful new media of television and electronic communication.

A number of the so-called New Historicists (among them Stephen Greenblatt, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Helgerson) read avidly in cultural anthropology, learning from Clifford Geertz and others how to analyze literary production as a part of a cultural exchange through which a society fashions itself by means of its political ceremonials. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) provided an energizing model for the ways in which literary criticism could analyze the process. Mikhail Bakhtin was another dominant influence. In Britain the movement came to be known as Cultural Materialism; it was a first cousin to American New Historicism, though often with a more class-conscious and Marxist ideology. The chief proponents of this movement with regard to Shakespeare criticism are Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, John Drakakis, and Terry Eagleton.

Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » Feminist criticism and gender studies
Feminist and gender-study approaches to Shakespeare criticism made significant gains after 1980. Feminists, like New Historicists, were interested in contextualizing Shakespeare’s writings rather than subjecting them to ahistorical formalist analysis. Turning to anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, feminist critics illuminated the extent to which Shakespeare inhabited a patriarchal world dominated by men and fathers, in which women were essentially the means of exchange in power relationships among those men. Feminist criticism is deeply interested in marriage and courtship customs, gender relations, and family structures. In The Tempest, for example, feminist interest tends to centre on Prospero’s dominating role as father and on the way in which Ferdinand and Miranda become engaged and, in effect, married when they pledge their love to one another in the presence of a witness—Miranda’s father. Plays and poems dealing with domestic strife (such as Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece) take on a new centrality in this criticism. Diaries, marriage-counseling manuals, and other such documents become important to feminist study. Revealing patterns emerge in Shakespeare’s plays as to male insecurities about women, men’s need to dominate and possess women, their fears of growing old, and the like. Much Ado About Nothing can be seen as about men’s fears of being cuckolded; Othello treats the same male weakness with deeply tragic consequences. The tragedy in Romeo and Juliet depends in part on Romeo’s sensitivity to peer pressure that seemingly obliges him to kill Tybalt and thus choose macho male loyalties over the more gentle and forgiving model of behaviour he has learned from Juliet. These are only a few examples. Feminist critics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries included, among many others, Lynda Boose, Lisa Jardine, Gail Paster, Jean Howard, Karen Newman, Carol Neely, Peter Erickson, and Madelon Sprengnether.

Gender studies such as those of Bruce R. Smith and Valerie Traub also dealt importantly with issues of gender as a social construction and with changing social attitudes toward “deviant” sexual behaviour: cross-dressing, same-sex relationships, and bisexuality.

Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and beyond » Deconstruction
The critical movement generally known as deconstruction centred on the instability and protean ambiguity of language. It owed its origins in part to the linguistic and other work of French philosophers and critics such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Some of the earliest practitioners and devotees of the method in the United States were Geoffrey Hartmann, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man, all of Yale University. Deconstruction stressed the extent to which “meaning” and “authorial intention” are virtually impossible to fix precisely. Translation and paraphrase are exercises in approximation at best.

The implications of deconstruction for Shakespeare criticism have to do with language and its protean flexibility of meanings. Patricia Parker’s Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (1996), for example, offers many brilliant demonstrations of this, one of which is her study of the word preposterous, a word she finds throughout the plays. It means literally behind for before, back for front, second for first, end or sequel for beginning. It suggests the cart before the horse, the last first, and “arsie versie,” with obscene overtones. It is thus a term for disorder in discourse, in sexual relationships, in rights of inheritance, and much more. Deconstruction as a philosophical and critical movement aroused a good deal of animosity because it questioned the fixity of meaning in language. At the same time, however, deconstruction attuned readers to verbal niceties, to layers of meaning, to nuance.

Late 20th-century and early 21st-century scholars were often revolutionary in their criticism of Shakespeare. To readers the result frequently appeared overly postmodern and trendy, presenting Shakespeare as a contemporary at the expense of more traditional values of tragic intensity, comic delight, and pure insight into the human condition. No doubt some of this criticism, as well as some older criticism, was too obscure and ideologically driven. Yet deconstructionists and feminists, for example, at their best portray a Shakespeare of enduring greatness. His durability is demonstrable in the very fact that so much modern criticism, despite its mistrust of canonical texts written by “dead white European males,” turns to Shakespeare again and again. He is dead, white, European, and male, and yet he appeals irresistibly to readers and theatre audiences all over the world. In the eyes of many feminist critics, he portrays women with the kind of fullness and depth found in authors such as Virginia Woolf and George Eliot.

David Bevington

 



 

The early histories

Shakespeare’s early plays were principally histories and comedies. About a fifth of all Elizabethan plays were histories, but this was the genre that Shakespeare particularly made his own, dramatizing the whole sweep of English history from Richard II to Henry VII in two four-play sequences, an astonishing project carried off with triumphant success. The first sequence, comprising the three Henry VI plays and Richard III (1589–94), begins as a patriotic celebration of English valour against the French. But this is soon superseded by a mature, disillusioned understanding of the world of politics, culminating in the devastating portrayal of Richard III—probably the first “character,” in the modern sense, on the English stage—who boasts in Henry VI, Part 3 that he can “set the murtherous Machevil to school.” Richard III ostensibly monumentalizes the glorious accession of the dynasty of Tudor, but its realistic depiction of the workings of state power insidiously undercuts such platitudes, and the appeal of Richard’s quick-witted individuality is deeply unsettling, short-circuiting any easy moral judgments. The second sequence—Richard II (1595–96), Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 (1596–98), and Henry V (1599)—begins with the deposing of a bad but legitimate king and follows its consequences through two generations, probing relentlessly at the difficult questions of authority, obedience, and order that it raises. (The earl of Essex’s faction paid for a performance of Richard II on the eve of their ill-fated rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601.) In the Henry IV plays, which are dominated by the massive character of Falstaff and his roguish exploits in Eastcheap, Shakespeare intercuts scenes among the rulers with scenes among those who are ruled, thus creating a multifaceted composite picture of national life at a particular historical moment. The tone of these plays, though, is increasingly pessimistic, and in Henry V a patriotic fantasy of English greatness is hedged around with hesitations and qualifications about the validity of the myth of glorious nationhood offered by the Agincourt story. Through all these plays runs a concern for the individual and his subjection to historical and political necessity, a concern that is essentially tragic and anticipates greater plays yet to come. Shakespeare’s other history plays, King John (1594–96) and Henry VIII (1613), approach similar questions through material drawn from Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

 

The early comedies

The early comedies share the popular and romantic forms used by the university wits but overlay them with elements of elegant courtly revel and a sophisticated consciousness of comedy’s fragility and artifice. These are festive comedies, giving access to a society vigorously and imaginatively at play. The plays of one group—The Comedy of Errors (c. 1589–94), The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1589–94), The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597–98), and Twelfth Night (1600–01)—are comedies of intrigue, fast-moving, often farcical, and placing a high premium on wit. The plays of a second group—The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1589–94), Love’s Labour’s Lost (1589–94), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595–96), and As You Like It (1598–1600)—have as a common denominator a journey to a natural environment, such as a wood or a park, in which the restraints governing everyday life are released and the characters are free to remake themselves untrammeled by society’s forms, sportiveness providing a space in which the fragmented individual may recover wholeness. All the comedies share a belief in the positive, health-giving powers of play, but none is completely innocent of doubts about the limits that encroach upon the comic space. In the four plays that approach tragicomedy—The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97), Much Ado About Nothing (1598–99), All’s Well That Ends Well (1601–05), and Measure for Measure (1603–04)—festivity is in direct collision with the constraints of normality, with time, business, law, human indifference, treachery, and selfishness. These plays give greater weight to the less-optimistic perspectives on society current in the 1590s, and their comic resolutions are openly acknowledged to be only provisional, brought about by manipulation, compromise, or the exclusion of one or more major characters. The unique play Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601–02) presents a kind of theatrical no-man’s-land between comedy and tragedy, between satire and savage farce. Shakespeare’s reworking of the Trojan War pits heroism against its parody in a way that voices fully the fin-de-siècle sense of confused and divided individuality.


 


W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix




The tragedies


"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"

"The Tragedy of King Lear"

"The Tragedy of Macbeth"

"Othello, the Moor of Venice"

"Romeo and Juliet"



The confusions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s age find their highest expression in his tragedies. In these extraordinary achievements, all values, hierarchies, and forms are tested and found wanting, and all society’s latent conflicts are activated. Shakespeare sets husband against wife, father against child, the individual against society; he uncrowns kings, levels the nobleman with the beggar, and interrogates the gods. Already in the early experimental tragedies Titus Andronicus (1589–94), with its spectacular violence, and Romeo and Juliet (1594–96), with its comedy and romantic tale of adolescent love, Shakespeare had broken away from the conventional Elizabethan understanding of tragedy as a twist of fortune to an infinitely more complex investigation of character and motive, and in Julius Caesar (1599) he begins to turn the political interests of the history plays into secular and corporate tragedy, as men fall victim to the unstoppable train of public events set in motion by their private misjudgments. In the major tragedies that follow, Shakespeare’s practice cannot be confined to a single general statement that covers all cases, for each tragedy belongs to a separate category: revenge tragedy in Hamlet (c. 1599–1601), domestic tragedy in Othello (1603–04), social tragedy in King Lear (1605–06), political tragedy in Macbeth (1606–07), and heroic tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07). In each category Shakespeare’s play is exemplary and defines its type; the range and brilliance of this achievement are staggering. The worlds of Shakespeare’s heroes are collapsing around them, and their desperate attempts to cope with the collapse uncover the inadequacy of the systems by which they rationalize their sufferings and justify their existence. The ultimate insight is Lear’s irremediable grief over his dead daughter: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all?” Before the overwhelming suffering of these great and noble spirits, all consolations are void, and all versions of order stand revealed as adventitious. The humanism of the Renaissance is punctured in the very moment of its greatest single product.

 

Shakespeare’s later works

In his last period Shakespeare’s astonishingly fertile invention returned to experimentation. In Coriolanus (1608) he completed his political tragedies, drawing a dispassionate analysis of the dynamics of the secular state; in the scene of the Roman food riot (not unsympathetically depicted) that opens the play is echoed the Warwickshire enclosure riots of 1607. Timon of Athens (1605–08) is an unfinished spin-off, a kind of tragic satire. The last group of plays comprises the four romances—Pericles (c. 1606–08), Cymbeline (c. 1608–10), The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609–11), and The Tempest (1611)—which develop a long, philosophical perspective on fortune and suffering. (A final work, The Two Noble Kinsmen [1613–14], was written in collaboration with John Fletcher.) In these plays Shakespeare’s imagination returns to the popular romances of his youth and dwells on mythical themes—wanderings, shipwrecks, the reunion of sundered families, and the resurrection of people long thought dead. There is consolation here, of a sort, beautiful and poetic, but still the romances do not turn aside from the actuality of suffering, chance, loss, and unkindness, and Shakespeare’s subsidiary theme is a sustained examination of the nature of his own art, which alone makes these consolations possible. Even in this unearthly context a subtle interchange is maintained between the artist’s delight in his illusion and his mature awareness of his own disillusionment.




Playwrights after Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s perception of a crisis in public norms and private belief became the overriding concern of the drama until the closing of the theatres in 1642. The prevailing manner of the playwrights who succeeded him was realistic, satirical, and antiromantic, and their plays focused predominantly on those two symbolic locations, the city and the court, with their typical activities, the pursuit of wealth and power. “Riches and glory,” wrote Sir Walter Raleigh, “Machiavel’s two marks to shoot at,” had become the universal aims, and this situation was addressed by city comedies and tragedies of state. Increasingly, it was on the stages that the rethinking of early Stuart assumptions took place.

On the one hand, in the works of Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, John Day, Samuel Rowley, and others, the old tradition of festive comedy was reoriented toward the celebration of confidence in the dynamically expanding commercial metropolis. Heywood claimed to have been involved in some 200 plays, and they include fantastic adventures starring citizen heroes, spirited, patriotic, and inclined to a leveling attitude in social matters. His masterpiece, A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603), is a middle-class tragedy. Dekker was a kindred spirit, best seen in his Shoemakers’ Holiday (1599), a celebration of citizen brotherliness and Dick Whittington-like success; the play nevertheless faces squarely up to the hardships of work, thrift, and the contempt of the great. On the other hand, the very industriousness that the likes of Heywood viewed with civic pride became in the hands of Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston, and Thomas Middleton a sign of self-seeking, avarice, and anarchy, symptomatic of the sicknesses in society at large.
 


Thomas Heywood

born 1574?, Lincolnshire, Eng.
died Aug. 16, 1641, London

English actor-playwright whose career spans the peak periods of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

Heywood apparently attended the University of Cambridge, though his attendance there remains undocumented. After arriving in London sometime before 1598, he joined Philip Henslowe’s theatrical company, the Admiral’s Men, and was subsequently active in London as a playwright and actor for the rest of his life. He claimed to have had “either an entire hand, or at least a maine finger” in 220 plays. Of these, about 30 survive that are generally accepted as wholly or partly his.

Most of Heywood’s plays are theatrical mélanges employing two or more contrasted plots, poorly unified and liberally laced with clowning. They are sentimental in theme but realistic in setting and reveal an affectionate regard for all the daily sights, sounds, and activities of London. He produced such romances as The Captives and A Pleasant Comedy, Called a Maidenhead Well Lost (both in 1634); such adventure plays as The Fair Maid of the West (1631); and seven lord mayor’s pageants, completed between 1631 and 1639. He also wrote masques, mythological cycles, and chronicle plays. The most popular of his history plays, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1605–06), is about Elizabeth I.

Heywood’s art found its finest expression in the field of domestic sentiment. His masterpiece, A Woman Killed with Kindness (1607), is one of the earliest middle-class tragedies. His plays were so popular that they were sometimes performed at two theatres simultaneously. His charming masque Love’s Mistress (1636) was seen by Charles I and his queen three times in eight days.

Heywood also wrote many books and pamphlets that are now of interest chiefly to students of the period. His most important prose work was An Apology for Actors (1612), an account of actors’ place and dignity and their role in society since antiquity.
 

 

 


John Day

born 1574, Cawston, Norfolk, Eng.
died 1640?

Elizabethan dramatist whose verse allegory The Parliament of Bees shows unusual ingenuity and delicacy of imagination.

Day was expelled from the University of Cambridge in 1593 for theft, and after 1598 he became a playwright for the theatre proprietor and manager Philip Henslowe. In this capacity Day collaborated with Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and some lesser-known writers. His first extant play is The Blind-Beggar of Bednal-Green (written in 1600, with Chettle; published 1659). Among his other plays are The Isle of Gulls (1606) and Humour Out of Breath (1608). Day’s reputation rests mainly on The Parliament of Bees, published posthumously in 1641 and probably written near the end of his life. This exquisite masque, which is actually a series of pastoral eclogues, is about “the doings, the births, the wars, the wooings” of bees. The bees hold a parliament under Prorex, the “Master Bee,” and grievances are presented against the bumblebee, the wasp, the drone, and other insects whom the author uses to represent various human types. The satirical allegory ends with a royal progress of the fairy king Oberon, who dispenses justice among the bees.
 

 

 


Samuel Rowley

flourished 1597–c. 1633?

English dramatist apparently employed by the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe. Sometimes he is described as William Rowley’s brother, but they seem not to have been related.

After 1601 Rowley acted with and wrote plays for the Admiral’s Men and other companies. Several plays on which he is thought to have collaborated are lost. His When You See Me, You Know Me, or The Famous Chronicle Historie of King Henrie the Eight (probably performed 1604; published 1605) resembles William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (which may have been influenced by it) in owing something to popular tradition. His only other extant play, The Noble Souldier. Or, A Contract Broken, Justly Reveng’d, a tragedy (1634), was probably written largely by Thomas Dekker. Rowley has also been credited with the prose scenes in some of Shakespeare’s plays, and he is thought to have made some additions to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
 


 

Jonson

 

The crucial innovations in satiric comedy were made by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and nearest rival, who stands at the fountainhead of what subsequently became the dominant modern comic tradition. His early plays, particularly Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), with their galleries of grotesques, scornful detachment, and rather academic effect, were patently indebted to the verse satires of the 1590s; they introduced to the English stage a vigorous and direct anatomizing of “the time’s deformities,” the language, habits, and humours of the London scene. Jonson began as a self-appointed social legislator, socially conservative but intellectually radical, outraged by a society given over to inordinate appetite and egotism, and ambitious through his mammoth learning to establish himself as the privileged artist, the fearless and faithful mentor and companion to kings; but he was ill at ease with a court inclined in its masques to prefer flattery to judicious advice. Consequently, the greater satires that followed are marked by their gradual accommodations with popular comedy and by their unwillingness to make their implied moral judgments explicit: in Volpone (1606) the theatrical brilliance of the villain easily eclipses the sordid legacy hunters whom he deceives; Epicoene (1609) is a noisy farce of metropolitan fashion and frivolity; The Alchemist (1610) exhibits the conjurings and deceptions of clever London rogues; and Bartholomew Fair (1614) draws a rich portrait of city life parading through the annual fair at Smithfield, a vast panorama of a society given over to folly. In these plays, fools and rogues are indulged to the very height of their daring, forcing upon the audience both criticism and admiration; the strategy leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions while liberating Jonson’s wealth of exuberant comic invention, virtuoso skill with plot construction, and mastery of a language tumbling with detailed observation of London’s multifarious ephemera. After 1616 Jonson abandoned the stage for the court, but, finding himself increasingly disregarded, he made a hard-won return to the theatres. The most notable of his late plays are popular in style: The New Inn (1629), which has affinities with the Shakespearean romance, and A Tale of a Tub (1633), which resurrects the Elizabethan country farce.

 


Ben Jonson


PART I "Volpone"

PART II
The Alchemist




English writer
byname of Benjamin Jonson
born June 11?, 1572, London, Eng.
died Aug. 6, 1637, London

Main
English Stuart dramatist, lyric poet, and literary critic. He is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I. Among his major plays are the comedies Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (1605), Epicoene; or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614).

Theatrical career
Jonson was born two months after his father died. His stepfather was a bricklayer, but by good fortune the boy was able to attend Westminster School. His formal education, however, ended early, and he at first followed his stepfather’s trade, then fought with some success with the English forces in the Netherlands. On returning to England, he became an actor and playwright, experiencing the life of a strolling player. He apparently played the leading role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. By 1597 he was writing plays for Philip Henslowe, the leading impresario for the public theatre. With one exception (The Case Is Altered), these early plays are known, if at all, only by their titles. Jonson apparently wrote tragedies as well as comedies in these years, but his extant writings include only two tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611).

The year 1598 marked an abrupt change in Jonson’s status, when Every Man in His Humour was successfully presented by the Lord Chamberlain’s theatrical company (a legend has it that Shakespeare himself recommended it to them), and his reputation was established. In this play Jonson tried to bring the spirit and manner of Latin comedy to the English popular stage by presenting the story of a young man with an eye for a girl, who has difficulty with a phlegmatic father, is dependent on a clever servant, and is ultimately successful—in fact, the standard plot of the Latin dramatist Plautus. But at the same time Jonson sought to embody in four of the main characters the four “humours” of medieval and Renaissance medicine—choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood—which were thought to determine human physical and mental makeup.

That same year Jonson killed a fellow actor in a duel, and, though he escaped capital punishment by pleading “benefit of clergy” (the ability to read from the Latin Bible), he could not escape branding. During his brief imprisonment over the affair he became a Roman Catholic.

Following the success of Every Man in His Humour, the same theatrical company acted Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), which was even more ambitious. It was the longest play ever written for the Elizabethan public theatre, and it strove to provide an equivalent of the Greek comedy of Aristophanes; “induction,” or “prelude,” and regular between-act comment explicated the author’s views on what the drama should be.

The play, however, proved a disaster, and Jonson had to look elsewhere for a theatre to present his work. The obvious place was the “private” theatres, in which only young boys acted (see children’s company). The high price of admission they charged meant a select audience, and they were willing to try strong satire and formal experiment; for them Jonson wrote Cynthia’s Revels (c. 1600) and Poetaster (1601). Even in these, however, there is the paradox of contempt for human behaviour hand in hand with a longing for human order.

From 1605 to 1634 he regularly contributed masques for the courts of James I and Charles I, collaborating with the architect and designer Inigo Jones. This marked his favour with the court and led to his post as poet laureate.


His masques at court
It appears that Jonson won royal attention by his Entertainment at Althorpe, given before James I’s queen as she journeyed down from Scotland in 1603, and in 1605 The Masque of Blackness was presented at court. The “masque” was a quasi-dramatic entertainment, primarily providing a pretense for a group of strangers to dance and sing before an audience of guests and attendants in a royal court or nobleman’s house. This elementary pattern was much elaborated during the reign of James I, when Jones provided increasingly magnificent costumes and scenic effects for masques at court. The few spoken words that the masque had demanded in Elizabethan days expanded into a “text” of a few hundred lines and a number of set songs. Thus the author became important as well as the designer: he was to provide not only the necessary words but also a special “allegorical” meaning underlying the whole entertainment. It was Jonson, in collaboration with Jones, who gave the Jacobean masque its characteristic shape and style. He did this primarily by introducing the suggestion of a “dramatic” action. It was thus the poet who provided the informing idea and dictated the fashion of the whole night’s assembly. Jonson’s early masques were clearly successful, for during the following years he was repeatedly called upon to function as poet at court. Among his masques were Hymenaei (1606), Hue and Cry After Cupid (1608), The Masque of Beauty (1608), and The Masque of Queens (1609). In his masques Jonson was fertile in inventing new motives for the arrival of the strangers. But this was not enough: he also invented the “antimasque,” which preceded the masque proper and which featured grotesques or comics who were primarily actors rather than dancers or musicians.

Important though Jonson was at the court in Whitehall, it was undoubtedly Jones’s contributions that caused the most stir. That tension should arise between the two men was inevitable, and eventually friction led to a complete break: Jonson wrote the Twelfth Night masque for the court in 1625 but then had to wait five years before the court again asked for his services.


His prime and later life
In 1606 Jonson and his wife (whom he had married in 1594) were brought before the consistory court in London to explain their lack of participation in the Anglican church. He denied that his wife was guilty but admitted that his own religious opinions held him aloof from attendance. The matter was patched up through his agreement to confer with learned men, who might persuade him if they could. Apparently it took six years for him to decide to conform. For some time before this he and his wife had lived apart, Jonson taking refuge in turn with his patrons Sir Robert Townshend and Esmé Stuart, Lord Aubigny.

During this period, nevertheless, he made a mark second only to Shakespeare’s in the public theatre. His comedies Volpone; or, the Foxe (1606) and The Alchemist (1610) were among the most popular and esteemed plays of the time. Each exhibited man’s folly in the pursuit of gold. Set respectively in Italy and London, they demonstrate Jonson’s enthusiasm both for the typical Renaissance setting and for his own town on Europe’s fringe. Both plays are eloquent and compact, sharp-tongued and controlled. The comedies Epicoene (1609) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) were also successful.

Jonson embarked on a walking tour in 1618–19, which took him to Scotland. During the visit the city of Edinburgh made him an honorary burgess and guild brother. On his return to England he received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University, a most signal honour in his time. Jonson’s life was a life of talk as well as of writing. He engaged in “wit-combats” with Shakespeare and reigned supreme. It was a young man’s ultimate honour to be regarded as a “son of Ben.”

In 1623 his personal library was destroyed by fire. By this time his services were seldom called on for the entertainment of Charles I’s court, and his last plays failed to please. In 1628 he suffered what was apparently a stroke and, as a result, was confined to his room and chair, ultimately to his bed. That same year he was made city chronologer (thus theoretically responsible for the city’s pageants), though in 1634 his salary for the post was made into a pension. Jonson died in 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The first folio edition of his works had appeared in 1616; posthumously, in a second Jonson folio (1640), appeared Timber: or, Discoveries, a series of observations on life and letters. Here Jonson held forth on the nature of poetry and drama and paid his final tribute to Shakespeare: in spite of acknowledging a belief that his great contemporary was, on occasion, “full of wind”—sufflaminandus erat—he declared that “I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.”


His plays and achievement
Ben Jonson occupies by common consent the second place among English dramatists of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. He was a man of contraries. For “twelve years a papist,” he was also—in fact though not in title—Protestant England’s first poet laureate. His major comedies express a strong distaste for the world in which he lived and a delight in exposing its follies and vices. A gifted lyric poet, he wrote two of his most successful plays entirely in prose, an unusual mode of composition in his time. Though often an angry and stubborn man, no one had more disciples than he. He was easily the most learned dramatist of his time, and he was also a master of theatrical plot, language, and characterization. It is a measure of his reputation that his dramatic works were the first to be published in folio (the term, in effect, means the “collected works”) and that his plays held their place on the stage until the period of the Restoration. Later they fell into neglect, though The Alchemist was revived during the 18th century, and in the mid-20th century several came back into favour: Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair especially have been staged with striking success.

Jonson’s chief plays are still very good theatre. His insistence on putting classical theory into practice in them has reinforced rather than weakened the effect of his gift of lively dialogue, robust characterization, and intricate, controlled plotting. In each of them he maneuvers a large cast of vital personages, all consistently differentiated from one another. Jonson’s plots are skillfully put together; incident develops out of incident in a consistent chain of cause and effect, taking into account the respective natures of the personages involved and proceeding confidently through a twisting, turning action that is full of surprises without relying on coincidence or chance. Sometimes Jonson’s comedy derives from the dialogue, especially when it is based on his observation of contemporary tricks of speech. But there are also superbly ludicrous situations, often hardly removed from practical joke.

Jonson is renowned for his method of concentrating on a selected side, or on selected sides, of a character, showing how they dominate the personality. This is to some extent a natural outcome of his classical conception of art, but it also stems from his clear, shrewd observation of people. In Jonson’s plays both eccentricity and normal behaviour are derived from a dominating characteristic, so that the result is a live, truthfully conceived personage in whom the ruling passion traces itself plainly. The later plays, for example, have characters whose behaviour is dominated by one psychological idiosyncrasy. But Jonson did not deal exclusively in “humours.” In some of his plays (notably Every Man in His Humour), the stock types of Latin comedy contributed as much as the humours theory did. What the theory provided for him and for his contemporaries was a convenient mode of distinguishing among human beings. The distinctions so made could be based on the “humours,” on Latin comic types, or, as in Volpone, in the assimilation of humans to different members of the animal kingdom. The characters Volpone, Mosca, Sir Epicure Mammon, Face, Subtle, Dol Common, Overdo, and Ursula are not simply “humours”; they are glorious type figures, so vitally rendered as to take on a being that transcends the type. This method was one of simplification, of typification, and yet also of vitalization.

The Restoration dramatists’ use of type names for their characters (Cockwood, Witwoud, Petulant, Pinchwife, and so on) was a harking back to Jonson, and similarly in the 18th century, with such characters as Peachum, Lumpkin, Candour, and Languish. And though, as the 18th century proceeded, comic dramatists increasingly used names quite arbitrarily, the idea of the Jonsonian “type” or “humour” was always at the root of their imagining. Jonson thus exerted a great influence on the playwrights who immediately followed him. In the late Jacobean and Caroline years, it was he, Shakespeare, and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher who provided all the models. But it was he, and he alone, who gave the essential impulse to dramatic characterization in comedy of the Restoration and also in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Clifford Leech
 




Other Jacobean dramatists

Of Jonson’s successors in city comedy, Francis Beaumont, in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), amusingly insults the citizenry while ridiculing its taste for romantic plays. John Marston adopts so sharp a satirical tone that his comic plays frequently border on tragedy. All values are mocked by Marston’s bitter and universal skepticism; his city comedy The Dutch Courtezan (1605), set in London, explores the pleasures and perils of libertinism. His tragicomedy The Malcontent (1604) is remarkable for its wild language and sexual and political disgust; Marston cuts the audience adrift from the moorings of reason by a dizzying interplay of parody and seriousness. Only in the city comedies of Thomas Middleton was Jonson’s moral concern with greed and self-ignorance bypassed, for Middleton presents the pursuit of money as the sole human absolute and buying and selling, usury, law, and the wooing of rich widows as the dominant modes of social interaction. His unprejudiced satire touches the actions of citizen and gentleman with equal irony and detachment; the only operative distinction is between fool and knave, and the sympathies of the audience are typically engaged on the side of wit, with the resourceful prodigal and dexterous whore. His characteristic form, used in Michaelmas Term (1605) and A Trick to Catch the Old One (1606), was intrigue comedy, which enabled him to portray his society dynamically, as a mechanism in which each sex and class pursues its own selfish interests. He was thus concerned less with characterizing individuals in depth than with examining the inequalities and injustices of the world that cause them to behave as they do. His The Roaring Girl (c. 1608) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) are the only Jacobean comedies to rival the comprehensiveness of Bartholomew Fair, but their social attitudes are opposed to Jonson’s; the misbehaviour that Jonson condemned morally as “humours” or affectation Middleton understands as the product of circumstance.

Middleton’s social concerns are also powerfully to the fore in his great tragedies, Women Beware Women (c. 1621) and The Changeling (1622), in which the moral complacency of men of rank is shattered by the dreadful violence they themselves have casually set in train, proving the answerability of all men for their actions despite the exemptions claimed for privilege and status. The hand of heaven is even more explicitly at work in the overthrow of the aristocratic libertine D’Amville in Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy (c. 1611), where the breakdown of old codes of deference before a progressive middle-class morality is strongly in evidence. In The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), now generally attributed to Middleton, a scathing attack on courtly dissipation is reinforced by complaints about inflation and penury in the countryside at large. For more traditionally minded playwrights, new anxieties lay in the corrupt and sprawling bureaucracy of the modern court and in the political eclipse of the nobility before incipient royal absolutism. In Jonson’s Sejanus (1603) Machiavellian statesmen abound, while George Chapman’s Bussy d’Ambois (1604) and Conspiracy of Charles, Duke of Byron (1608) drew on recent French history to chart the collision of the magnificent but redundant heroism of the old-style aristocrat, whose code of honour had outlived its social function, with pragmatic arbitrary monarchy; Chapman doubtless had the career and fate of Essex in mind. The classic tragedies of state are John Webster’s, with their dark Italian courts, intrigue and treachery, spies, malcontents, and informers. His The White Devil (1612), a divided, ambivalent play, elicits sympathy even for a vicious heroine, since she is at the mercy of her deeply corrupt society, and the heroine in The Duchess of Malfi (1623) is the one decent and spirited inhabitant of her world, yet her noble death cannot avert the fearfully futile and haphazard carnage that ensues. As so often on the Jacobean stage, the challenge to the male-dominated world of power was mounted through the experience of its women.
 


Thomas Middleton




born , April? 1580, London, Eng.
died July 4, 1627, Newington Butts, Surrey

late-Elizabethan dramatist who drew people as he saw them, with comic gusto or searching irony.

By 1600 Middleton had spent two years at Oxford and had published three books of verse. He learned to write plays by collaborating with Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and others for the producer Philip Henslowe.

A popular playwright, he was often commissioned to write and produce lord mayor’s pageants and other civic entertainments, and in 1620 he was appointed city chronologer. His chief stage success was A Game at Chess (1625), in which the Black King and his men, representing Spain and the Jesuits, are checkmated by the White Knight, Prince Charles. This political satire drew crowds to the Globe Theatre until the Spanish ambassador protested and James I suppressed the play.

Middleton’s masterpieces are two tragedies, Women Beware Women (1621?, published 1657) and The Changeling (1622, with William Rowley; published 1653). His comedies picture a society dazzled by money in which most people grasp for all they can get, by any means. Michaelmas Term (1605?, published 1607) is one of the richest in irony. In A Trick to Catch the Old One (1606?, published 1608) two rival usurers are so eager to score over each other that both are taken in by a clever nephew. A Trick was entered for licensing with an unattributed play entitled The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607). Modern scholarship attributes the latter to Middleton, although Cyril Tourneur is sometimes given as the author. In A Mad World, My Masters (1604?, published 1608) an old country gentleman prides himself on his generosity to all except his grandson and heir.

The Roaring Girl (1604–10?, with Dekker; published 1611) depicts events in the life of the notorious criminal Moll Frith (Moll Cutpurse), who dressed as a man and preferred her freedom to marriage. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613?, published 1630) is an exuberant comedy that makes fun of naive or complacent London citizens.

Middleton’s tragicomedies are farfetched in plot but strong in dramatic situations. A Fair Quarrel (1616?, with Rowley, published 1617) contains one of Middleton’s few heroes, Captain Ager, with his conflicts of conscience. Most of Middleton’s other plays are comedies. He collaborated with Dekker in The Honest Whore (1604), and with Rowley and Philip Massinger in The Old Law (1618?, published 1656). In 2007 all the works attributed to Middleton were published together, for the first time, as Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (eds. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino).
 

 

 


John Webster

born c. 1580, London, Eng.
died c. 1632

English dramatist whose The White Devil (c. 1609–c. 1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1612/13, published 1623) are generally regarded as the paramount 17th-century English tragedies apart from those of Shakespeare.

Little is known of Webster’s life. His preface to Monuments of Honor, his Lord Mayor’s Show for 1624, says he was born a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. He was probably a coachmaker, and possibly he was an actor. Apart from his two major plays and The Devils Law-Case (c. 1620; published 1623), his dramatic work consists of collaborations (not all extant) with leading writers. With Thomas Dekker, his main collaborator, he wrote Westward Ho (1604) and Northward Ho (1605), both of which were published in 1607. He is also believed to have worked to varying degrees with William Rowley, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, John Ford, and perhaps Philip Massinger. Eight extant plays and some nondramatic verse and prose are wholly or partly his; the most standard edition is The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. by F.L. Lucas, 4 vol. (1927).
 



 

The last Renaissance dramatists

Already in the Jacobean period, signs of a politer drama such as would prevail after 1660 were beginning to appear. Simply in terms of productivity and longevity, the most successful Jacobean playwright was John Fletcher, whose ingenious tragicomedies and sometimes bawdy comedies were calculated to attract the applause of the emerging Stuart leisured classes. With plays such as The Faithful Shepherdess (1609 or 1610), Fletcher caught up with the latest in avant-garde Italianate drama, while his most dazzling comedy, The Wild Goose Chase (produced 1621, printed 1652), is a battle of the sexes set among Parisian gallants and their ladies; it anticipates the Restoration comedy of manners. Fletcher’s successor in the reign of Charles I was James Shirley, who showed even greater facility with romantic comedy and the mirroring of fashions and foibles. In The Lady of Pleasure (1635) and Hyde Park (1637), Shirley presented the fashionable world to itself in its favourite haunts and situations.
 


John Fletcher



baptized December 20, 1579, Rye, Sussex, England
died August 29, 1625, London

English Jacobean dramatist who collaborated with Francis Beaumont and other dramatists on comedies and tragedies between about 1606 and 1625.

His father, Richard Fletcher, was minister of the parish in which John was born and became afterward queen’s chaplain, dean of Peterborough, and bishop successively of Bristol, Worcester, and London, gaining a measure of fame as an accuser in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and as the chaplain sternly officiating at her execution. When not quite 12, John was apparently admitted pensioner of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and two years later became a Bible clerk. From the time of his father’s death (1596) until 1607 nothing is known of him. His name is first linked with Beaumont’s in Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1607), to which both men contributed encomiums.

Fletcher began to work with Beaumont probably about 1607, at first for the Children of the Queen’s Revels and its successor and then (from c. 1609 until Beaumont’s retirement in 1613) mainly for the King’s Men at the Globe and Blackfriars theatres. After 1613 he often collaborated with or had his plays revised by Philip Massinger, who actually succeeded him in 1625 as chief playwright of the King’s Men; other collaborators included Nathan Field and William Rowley. Throughout his career he also wrote plays unaided. He died in the London plague of 1625 that killed some 40,000 others; the antiquarian John Aubrey claimed that he had lingered in the city to be measured for a suit of clothes instead of making his escape to the country.

The canon of the Beaumont and Fletcher plays is approximately represented by the 52 plays in the folio Fifty Comedies and Tragedies… (1679); but any consideration of the canon must omit one play from the 1679 folio (James Shirley’s Coronation) and add three not to be found in it (Henry VIII, Sir John van Olden Barnavelt, A Very Woman). Of these 54 plays not more than 12 are by Beaumont or by Beaumont and Fletcher in collaboration. Another 3 were probably collaborations with Beaumont and Massinger. The others represent Fletcher either unaided or in collaboration with dramatists other than Beaumont, principally Massinger.

The masterpieces of the Beaumont and Fletcher collaboration—Philaster, The Maides Tragedy, and A King and No King—show, most clearly in the last, the emergence of most of the features that distinguish the Fletcherian mode from that of Shakespeare, George Chapman, or John Webster: the remote, often pseudohistorical, fairy-tale setting; the clear, smooth speech rising to great emotional arias of declamatory rhetoric; the basically sensational or bizarre plot that faces the characters with wild “either–or” choices between extremes and that can be manipulated toward a sad or a happy ending as the playwrights choose; the sacrifice of consistency and plausibility in characterization so that patterns can be made out of constantly shifting emotional states and piquant situations can be prolonged.

Of Fletcher’s unaided plays, The Faithfull Shepheardesse, The Mad Lover, The Loyall Subject, The Humorous Lieutenant, Women Pleas’d, The Island Princesse, and A Wife for a Moneth (all between c. 1608 and c. 1624) are perhaps the best. Each of these is a series of extraordinary situations and extreme attitudes, displayed through intense declamations. The best of these are perhaps The Loyall Subject and A Wife for a Moneth, the latter a florid and loquacious play, in which a bizarre sexual situation is handled with cunning piquancy, and the personages illustrate clearly Fletcher’s tendency to make his men and women personifications of vices and virtues rather than individuals. The best of Fletcher’s comedies, for urbanity and consistency of tone, is probably The Wild-Goose Chase, a play of episodes rather than of intricate intrigue, but alive with irony and easy wit.

Lastly, there are the Fletcherian plays in which others besides Beaumont had a hand. Wit at Several Weapons is a comedy that might have been written wholly by Thomas Middleton; and The Captaine (to which Beaumont may, however, have contributed) is a lively, complex play of sexual intrigue, with tragic dilemmas too. Notable among the numerous plays in this group are The False One and The Beggars Bush. The former is an original, incisive, and moderately subtle treatment of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, which may well have aided John Dryden to compose All for Love and for which the greater credit goes to Massinger. The latter is worth reading for its “version of pastoral,” which genially persuades the audience that it is better to be a country beggar than a tyrannical king.
 



However, the underlying tensions of the time continued to preoccupy the drama of the other major Caroline playwrights: John Ford, Philip Massinger, and Richard Brome. The plays of Ford, the last major tragic dramatist of the Renaissance, focus on profoundly conservative societies whose values are in crisis. In ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633?), a seemingly typical middle-class family is destroyed by the discovery of incest. In The Broken Heart (1633?), a courtly society collapses under the pressure of hidden political maladies. Massinger, too, wrote some fine tragedies (The Roman Actor, 1626), but his best plays are comedies and tragicomedies preoccupied with political themes, such as The Bondman (1623), which deals with issues of liberty and obedience, and A New Way to Pay Old Debts (performed 1625, printed 1633), which satirizes the behaviour and outlook of the provincial gentry. The tradition of subversive domestic satire was carried down to the English Civil Wars in the plays of Brome, whose anarchic and popular comedies, such as The Antipodes (1640) and A Jovial Crew (produced 1641, printed 1652), poke fun at all levels of society and include caustic and occasionally libelous humour. The outbreak of fighting in 1642 forced the playhouses to close, but this was not because the theatre had become identified with the court. Rather, a theatre of complex political sympathies was still being produced. The crisis in which the playhouses had become embroiled had been the drama’s preoccupation for three generations.

 


John Ford

baptized April 17, 1586, Ilsington, Devon, Eng.
died 1639?

English dramatist of the Caroline period, whose revenge tragedies are characterized by certain scenes of austere beauty, insight into human passions, and poetic diction of a high order.

In 1602 Ford was admitted to the Middle Temple (a training college for lawyers), and he remained there, except for a period of suspension (1606–08), until at least 1617 and possibly much later still. He published an elegy on the Earl of Devonshire and a prose pamphlet in 1606, and a few other minor nondramatic works have been attributed to him during this period. It is not certain that he wrote for the stage until his collaboration with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley on the play The Witch of Edmonton in 1621. He also collaborated with Dekker in The Sun’s Darling (1624), perhaps also in The Welsh Ambassador (1623), and in three other plays, now lost, of about the same date. His hand has been seen in Thomas Middleton’s and William Rowley’s Spanish Gypsy (1623), John Fletcher’s Fair Maid of the Inn (1626), and other plays of Francis Beaumont and Fletcher.

From about 1627 to 1638 Ford wrote plays by himself, mostly for private theatres, but the sequence of his eight extant plays cannot be precisely determined, and only two of them can be dated. His plays are: The Broken Heart; The Lover’s Melancholy (1628); ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore; Perkin Warbeck; The Queen; The Fancies, Chaste and Noble; Love’s Sacrifice; and The Lady’s Trial (1638). There are a few contemporary references to Ford, but nothing is known of his personal life, and there is no certain record of him after 1639.

Ford’s reputation, which has never been beyond controversy, rests mainly on the first four plays he wrote alone; of these, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is probably the best known. The story concerns the incestuous love of Giovanni and his sister Annabella. When she is found to be pregnant, she agrees to marry her suitor Soranzo; the lovers’ secret is finally discovered, but Soranzo’s plan for revenge is outpaced by Giovanni’s murder of Annabella and then Soranzo, at the hands of whose hired killers Giovanni himself finally dies. There is no sense in ’Tis Pity that Ford is arguing a case for the brother and sister’s unnatural union, but he does exhibit an eloquent sympathy for the lovers, who are set apart from others by their unlawful relationship, their consciousness of their sin, and their sensual and at times even arrogant acceptance of it.

The Broken Heart is characteristic of Ford’s work in its depiction of a noble and virtuous heroine who is torn between her true love and an unhappy forced marriage, again with tragic consequences for all concerned. Perkin Warbeck is a historical play centring on the tragic fate of the deluded impostor of that name who claimed to be the Duke of York. The Lover’s Melancholy is the best of Ford’s other plays, all of which are tragicomedies.

Ford’s austerely powerful themes are blurred by subplots featuring minor characters and bad comedy, but he is still considered the most important tragedian of the reign of King Charles I (1625–49). Ford’s work is distinguished by the highly wrought power of its blank verse and by its tragically frustrated characters whose intense desires are blocked by the dictates of circumstance.
 

 

 


Philip Massinger

born 1583, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Eng.
died March 1639/40, London

English Jacobean and Caroline playwright noted for his gifts of comedy, plot construction, social realism, and satirical power.

Besides the documentation of his baptism at St. Thomas’s Church, Salisbury, it is known that Massinger attended St. Alban Hall, Oxford, in 1602, but nothing certain is known about his life from then until 1613, when he was in prison for debt. Bailed out by the theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe, he spent a period working as the junior partner in coauthored plays, collaborating with established dramatists such as Thomas Dekker and John Fletcher, and eventually graduated to his own independent productions. In 1625 he succeeded Fletcher, some of whose plays he revised, as the chief playwright of the King’s Men (formerly Lord Chamberlain’s Men). Though apparently not as successful as Fletcher, he remained with the King’s Men until his death, producing plays marked by a high moral tone and elevated philosophic character.

Among the plays Massinger collaborated on with Fletcher is The False One (c. 1620), a treatment of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra. Two other important plays written in collaboration are The Fatal Dowry (1616–19, with Nathan Field), a domestic tragedy in a French setting, and The Virgin Martyr (1620?, with Thomas Dekker), a historical play about the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. Fifteen plays written solely by Massinger have survived, but many of their dates can only be conjectured. The four tragedies are The Duke of Milan (1621–22) and The Unnatural Combat (1624?)—both skillfully told mystery stories of a melodramatic type—and The Roman Actor (1626) and Believe As You List (1631)—each a historical tragedy in a classical setting. The Roman Actor is considered his best serious play.

The Bondman (1623), about a slave revolt in the Greek city of Syracuse, is one of Massinger’s seven tragicomedies and shows his concern for state affairs. The Renegado (1624), a tragicomedy with a heroic Jesuit character, gave rise to the still-disputed theory that he became a Roman Catholic. Another tragicomedy, The Maid of Honour (1621?), combines political realism with the courtly refinement of later Caroline drama. The tendency of his serious plays to conform to Caroline fashion, however, is contradicted by the mordant realism and satirical force of his two great comedies—A New Way to Pay Old Debts, his most popular and influential play, in which he expresses genuine indignation at economic oppression and social disorder, and The City Madam (1632?), dealing with similar evils but within a more starkly contrived plot that curiously combines naturalistic and symbolic modes. One of his last plays, The King and the Subject (1638), had politically objectionable lines cut from it by King Charles himself.
 

 

 


Richard Brome

born c. 1590
died Sept. 24, 1652, London, Eng.

English dramatist generally deemed the most considerable of the minor Jacobean playwrights.

Nothing is known of Brome’s origins. As early as 1614, he is known to have been in Ben Jonson’s service, probably acting as Jonson’s secretary and domestic. The relationship developed into friendship, and knowledge of Brome’s personal character is chiefly drawn from Jonson’s sonnet to “my old faithful servant and by his continued virtue my loving friend . . . Mr. Richard Brome,” prefixed to Brome’s Northern Lasse (produced 1629?; published 1632).

Brome was a prolific and inventive writer, continuing the Elizabethan dramatic tradition until the theatres were closed by order of Parliament in 1642. Filled with pictures of contemporary London and its life, his comedies present a lively and sometimes challenging criticism of their own times.

The Northern Lasse made Brome’s reputation as a dramatist and was the most popular of his plays, although A Joviall Crew (produced 1641, published 1652) is considered to be his best work. There are 15 of his comedies extant, including The City Wit; or The Woman Wears the Breeches (produced 1629; published 1653), The Sparagus Garden (produced 1635; published 1640), The Antipodes (produced 1638; published 1640), and A Mad Couple Well Match’d (produced 1639; published 1653). He was ruined by the closing of the theatres and died in the Charterhouse, a charity institution. Two volumes of his plays were edited by Alexander Brome (no relation) in 1653 and 1659.
 








Early Stuart poetry and prose

In the early Stuart period the failure of consensus was dramatically demonstrated in the political collapse of the 1640s and in the growing sociocultural divergences of the immediately preceding years. While it was still possible for the theatres to address the nation very much as a single audience, the court—with the Baroque style, derived from the Continent, that it encouraged in painting, masque, and panegyric—was becoming more remote from the country at large and was regarded with increasing distrust. In fact, a growing separation between polite and vulgar literature was to dispel many of the characteristic strengths of Elizabethan writing. Simultaneously, long-term intellectual changes were beginning to impinge on the status of poetry and prose. Sidney’s defense of poetry, which maintained that poetry depicted what was ideally rather than actually true, was rendered redundant by the loss of agreement over transcendent absolutes; the scientist, the Puritan with his inner light, and the skeptic differed equally over the criteria by which truth was to be established. From the circle of Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, at Great Tew in Oxfordshire—which included poets such as Edmund Waller, Thomas Carew, and Sidney Godolphin—William Chillingworth argued that it was unreasonable for any individual to force his opinions onto any other, while
Thomas Hobbes reached the opposite conclusion (in his Leviathan, 1651) that all must be as the state pleases. In this context, the old idea of poetry as a persuader to virtue fell obsolete, and the century as a whole witnessed a massive transfer of energy into new literary forms, particularly into the rationally balanced couplet, the autobiography, and the embryonic novel. At the same time, these influences were neither uniform nor consistent; Hobbes might repudiate the use of metaphor as senseless and ambiguous, yet his own prose was frequently enlivened by half-submerged metaphors.
 


Lucius Cary

born c. 1610, Burford Priory, Oxfordshire, England
died September 20, 1643, Newbury, Berkshire

English royalist who attempted to exercise a moderating influence in the struggles that preceded the English Civil Wars (1642–51) between the royalists and the Parliamentarians. He is remembered chiefly as a prominent figure in the History of the Rebellion by his close friend Edward Hyde (afterward Earl of Clarendon).

The son of Sir Henry Cary, lord deputy of Ireland from 1622 to 1629, Cary succeeded his father as Viscount Falkland in 1633. At his manor at Great Tew, near Burford Priory, Falkland surrounded himself with some of the most learned men of his age.

As a member of the Long Parliament, which convened in November 1640, Falkland at first took an active part in the opposition to the policies of King Charles I, going so far as to support the impeachment of the king’s chief minister, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. At the same time, he sought a compromise between the Anglican, or royalist, and the Puritan factions in Parliament. When the Puritans obtained control of the House of Commons, he broke with Parliament and on Jan. 1, 1642, became Charles I’s secretary of state. He saw limited action in the Civil Wars but fell into despair when it became evident the conflict would not end quickly. According to Hyde, Falkland then welcomed death on the battlefield. He was killed in the Battle of Newbury in September 1643.
 

 

 


Edmund Waller


 

born March 3, 1606, Coleshill, Hertfordshire, Eng.
died Oct. 21, 1687, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

English poet whose adoption of smooth, regular versification prepared the way for the heroic couplet’s emergence by the end of the century as the dominant form of poetic expression. His importance was fully recognized by his age. “Mr. Waller reformed our numbers,” said John Dryden, who, with Alexander Pope, followed him and raised the couplet to its most concentrated form.

Waller was educated at Eton College and the University of Cambridge and entered Parliament while still a young man. In 1631 he married the heiress of a wealthy London merchant, but she died three years later. He then paid unsuccessful court to Lady Dorothy Sidney (whom he addressed in poetry as Sacharissa) and in 1644 married Mary Bracey.

During the political turmoil of the 1640s, with Parliament arrayed against the King, Waller was at first a champion of religious toleration and an opponent of the bishops. He then drifted to the King’s cause, and in 1643 he was deeply involved in a conspiracy (sometimes known as Waller’s plot) to establish London as a stronghold of the King, leading to the poet’s arrest in May. By wholesale betrayal of his colleagues, and by lavish bribes, he managed to avoid the death sentence, but he was banished and heavily fined. He then lived abroad until 1651, when he made his peace with his distant cousin Oliver Cromwell, later lord protector of the Commonwealth.

Several of Waller’s poems, including “Go, lovely Rose!”—one of the most famous lyric poems in English literature—had circulated for some 20 years before the appearance of his Poems in 1645. The first edition claiming full authorization, however, was that of 1664. In 1655 appeared his “Panegyrick to my Lord Protector” (i.e., Cromwell), but in 1660 he also celebrated “To the King, upon his Majesties happy return.” He became a member of the Royal Society and was returned to Parliament in 1661, where he held moderate opinions and advocated religious toleration. His later works include Divine Poems (1685). The Second Part of Mr. Waller’s Poems was published in 1690.

Waller’s poetry was held in high esteem throughout the 18th century, but his reputation waned in the 19th century along with that of Augustan poetry in general. His technical achievement in leading away from the dense verse of the Metaphysical poets lies in his incorporation of wit more related to rational judgment and in his replacement of Metaphysical poetry’s dramatic immediacy, argumentative structure, and ethical seriousness with generalizing statement, easy associative development, and urbane social comment. His pursuit of definitive phrasing through inversion and balance led to the tight, symmetrical patterning of the Augustan heroic couplet. Waller helped to transmit to the Augustans a synthesis of the regular iambic norm with native English four-stress alliterative metre and showed its use for expressive emphasis, as in the line “Invíte affećtion, and restráin our ráge.” Waller is also remembered for the distinction of his poems on public themes and for his elegance, lyrical grace, and formal polish.
 

 

 


Thomas Carew

born 1594/95, West Wickham, Kent, Eng.
died March 22, 1639/40, London

English poet and first of the Cavalier song writers.

Educated at the University of Oxford and at the Middle Temple, London, Carew served as secretary at embassies in Venice, The Hague, and Paris. In 1630 Carew received a court appointment and became server at table to the king. The Earl of Clarendon considered him as “a person of pleasant and facetious wit” among a brilliant circle of friends that included the playwright Ben Jonson.

Carew’s only masque, Coelum Britannicum, was performed by the king and his gentlemen in 1634 and published the same year. Music for it was composed by Henry Lawes, who, among others, set some of Carew’s songs to music.

Carew’s poems, circulated in manuscript, were amatory lyrics or occasional poems addressed to members of the court circle, notable for their ease of language and skillful control of mood and imagery. His longest poem was the sensuous Rapture, but his lyrics are among the most complex and thoughtful of any produced by the Cavalier poets. He was a meticulous workman, and his own verses addressed to Ben Jonson show that he was proud to share Jonson’s creed of painstaking perfection. He greatly admired the poems of John Donne, whom he called king of “the universal monarchy of wit” in his elegy on Donne (deemed the outstanding piece of poetic criticism of the age). Carew was also indebted to Italian poets, particularly Giambattista Marino, whose libertine spirit, brilliant wit, and technical facility were much akin to his own, and on whose work he based several of his lyrics. He translated a number of the Psalms and is said to have died with expressions of remorse for a life of libertinism. His poems were published a few weeks after his death. The definitive edition is The Poems of Thomas Carew, with His Masque “Coelum Britannicum,” edited by Rhodes Dunlap (1949).
 

 

 


Sidney Godolphin

baptized Jan. 15, 1610
died Feb. 9, 1643, Chagford, Devon, Eng.

English poet and Royalist during the reign of Charles I.

Educated at Exeter College, Oxford (1624–27), and at one of the Inns of Court, Godolphin traveled abroad and also became friends with Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes, and other men of letters. He was elected a member of the House of Commons (from Helston, Cornwall) in 1628 and was again elected to the Short Parliament in March 1640 and to the Long Parliament in October 1640. A staunch Royalist, he was a supporter of the doomed Earl of Strafford and was one of the last to leave the House of Commons when Charles I ordered his supporters to withdraw. During the first Civil War, he joined the Royalist forces of Sir Ralph Hopton and, at age 33, was killed in action while advancing into Devon.

The Earl of Clarendon paid a notable tribute to Godolphin in his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, and Hobbes eulogized him in Leviathan. A few of Godolphin’s poems were published in the 17th century; of these, the chief is The Passion of Dido for Aeneas, a translation from Virgil’s fourth book of the Aeneid, apparently unfinished at his death and completed and published by the poet Edmund Waller (1658). Other poems survived in manuscript collections. The first complete collection was edited by George Saintsbury, in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period, vol. 2 (1906).
 

 

 


Thomas Hobbes


"Leviathan"




English philosopher

born April 5, 1588, Westport, Wiltshire, Eng.
died Dec. 4, 1679, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Main
English philosopher, scientist, and historian, best known for his political philosophy, especially as articulated in his masterpiece Leviathan (1651). Hobbes viewed government primarily as a device for ensuring collective security. Political authority is justified by a hypothetical social contract among the many that vests in a sovereign person or entity the responsibility for the safety and well-being of all. In metaphysics, Hobbes defended materialism, the view that only material things are real. His scientific writings present all observed phenomena as the effects of matter in motion. Hobbes was not only a scientist in his own right but a great systematizer of the scientific findings of his contemporaries, including Galileo and Johannes Kepler. His enduring contribution is as a political philosopher who justified wide-ranging government powers on the basis of the self-interested consent of citizens.

Early life
Hobbes’s father was a quick-tempered vicar of a small Wiltshire parish church. Disgraced after engaging in a brawl at his own church door, he disappeared and abandoned his three children to the care of his brother, a well-to-do glover in Malmesbury. When he was four years old, Hobbes was sent to school at Westport, then to a private school, and finally, at 15, to Magdalen Hall in the University of Oxford, where he took a traditional arts degree and in his spare time developed an interest in maps.

For nearly the whole of his adult life, Hobbes worked for different branches of the wealthy and aristocratic Cavendish family. Upon taking his degree at Oxford in 1608, he was employed as page and tutor to the young William Cavendish, afterward the second earl of Devonshire. Over the course of many decades Hobbes served the family and their associates as translator, traveling companion, keeper of accounts, business representative, political adviser, and scientific collaborator. Through his employment by William Cavendish, the first earl of Devonshire, and his heirs, Hobbes became connected with the royalist side in disputes between the king and Parliament that continued until the 1640s and that culminated in the English Civil Wars (1642–51). Hobbes also worked for the marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a cousin of William Cavendish, and Newcastle’s brother, Sir Charles Cavendish. The latter was the centre of the “Wellbeck Academy,” an informal network of scientists named for one of the family houses at Wellbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.


Intellectual development
The two branches of the Cavendish family nourished Hobbes’s enduring intellectual interests in politics and natural science, respectively. Hobbes served the earls of Devonshire intermittently until 1628; Newcastle and his brother employed him in the following decade. He returned to the Devonshires after the 1640s. Through both branches of the Cavendish family, and through contacts he made in his own right on the Continent as traveling companion to various successors to the Devonshire title, Hobbes became a member of several networks of intellectuals in England. Farther afield, in Paris, he became acquainted with the circle of scientists, theologians, and philosophers presided over by the theologian Marin Mersenne. This circle included René Descartes.

Hobbes was exposed to practical politics before he became a student of political philosophy. The young William Cavendish was a member of the 1614 and 1621 Parliaments, and Hobbes would have followed his contributions to parliamentary debates. Further exposure to politics came through the commercial interests of the earls of Devonshire. Hobbes attended many meetings of the governing body of the Virginia Company, a trading company established by James I to colonize parts of the eastern coast of North America, and came into contact with powerful men there. (Hobbes himself was given a small share in the company by his employer.) He also confronted political issues through his connection with figures who met at Great Tew; with them he debated not only theological questions but also the issues of how the Anglican church should be led and organized and how its authority should be related to that of any English civil government.

In the late 1630s Parliament and the king were in conflict over how far normal kingly powers could be exceeded in exceptional circumstances, especially in regard to raising money for armies. In 1640 Hobbes wrote a treatise defending King Charles I’s own wide interpretation of his prerogatives. Royalist members of Parliament used arguments from Hobbes’s treatise in debates, and the treatise itself circulated in manuscript form. The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (written in 1640, published in a misedited unauthorized version in 1650) was Hobbes’s first work of political philosophy, though he did not intend it for publication as a book.

The development of Hobbes the scientist began in his middle age. He was not trained in mathematics or the sciences at Oxford, and his Wiltshire schooling was strongest in classical languages. His interest in motion and its effects was stimulated mainly through his conversation and reading on the Continent, as well as through his association with the scientifically and mathematically minded Wellbeck Cavendishes. In 1629 or 1630 Hobbes was supposedly charmed by Euclid’s method of demonstrating theorems in the Elements. According to a contemporary biographer, he came upon a volume of Euclid in a gentleman’s study and fell in love with geometry. Later, perhaps in the mid-1630s, he had gained enough sophistication to pursue independent research in optics, a subject he later claimed to have pioneered. Within the Wellbeck Academy, he exchanged views with other people interested in the subject. And as a member of Mersenne’s circle in Paris after 1640, he was taken seriously as a theorist not only of ethics and politics but of optics and ballistics. Indeed, he was even credited with competence in mathematics by some very able French mathematicians, including Gilles Personne de Roberval.

Self-taught in the sciences and an innovator at least in optics, Hobbes also regarded himself as a teacher or transmitter of sciences developed by others. In this connection he had in mind sciences that, like his own optics, traced observed phenomena to principles about the sizes, shapes, positions, speeds, and paths of parts of matter. His great trilogy—De Corpore (1655; “Concerning Body”), De Homine (1658; “Concerning Man”), and De Cive (1642; “Concerning the Citizen”)—was his attempt to arrange the various pieces of natural science, as well as psychology and politics, into a hierarchy, ranging from the most general and fundamental to the most specific. Although logically constituting the last part of his system, De Cive was published first, because political turmoil in England made its message particularly timely and because its doctrine was intelligible both with and without natural-scientific preliminaries. De Corpore and De Homine incorporated the findings of, among others, Galileo on the motions of terrestrial bodies, Kepler on astronomy, William Harvey on the circulation of the blood, and Hobbes himself on optics. The science of politics contained in De Cive was substantially anticipated in Part II of The Elements of Law and further developed in Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), the last—and in the English-speaking world the most famous—formulation of Hobbes’s political philosophy (see below Hobbes’s system).


Exile in Paris
When strife became acute in 1640, Hobbes feared for his safety. Shortly after completing The Elements of Law, he fled to Paris, where he rejoined Mersenne’s circle and made contact with other exiles from England. He would remain in Paris for more than a decade, working on optics and on De Cive, De Corpore, and Leviathan. In 1646 the young prince of Wales, later to become Charles II, sought refuge in Paris, and Hobbes accepted an invitation to instruct him in mathematics.


Political philosophy
Hobbes presented his political philosophy in different forms for different audiences. De Cive states his theory in what he regarded as its most scientific form. Unlike The Elements of Law, which was composed in English for English parliamentarians—and which was written with local political challenges to Charles I in mind—De Cive was a Latin work for an audience of Continental savants who were interested in the “new” science—that is, the sort of science that did not appeal to the authority of the ancients but approached various problems with fresh principles of explanation.

De Cive’s break from the ancient authority par excellence—Aristotle—could not have been more loudly advertised. After only a few paragraphs, Hobbes rejects one of the most famous theses of Aristotle’s politics, namely that human beings are naturally suited to life in a polis and do not fully realize their natures until they exercise the role of citizen. Hobbes turns Aristotle’s claim on its head: human beings, he insists, are by nature unsuited to political life. They naturally denigrate and compete with each other, are very easily swayed by the rhetoric of ambitious men, and think much more highly of themselves than of other people. In short, their passions magnify the value they place on their own interests, especially their near-term interests. At the same time, most people, in pursuing their own interests, do not have the ability to prevail over competitors. Nor can they appeal to some natural common standard of behaviour that everyone will feel obliged to abide by. There is no natural self-restraint, even when human beings are moderate in their appetites, for a ruthless and bloodthirsty few can make even the moderate feel forced to take violent preemptive action in order to avoid losing everything. The self-restraint even of the moderate, then, easily turns into aggression. In other words, no human being is above aggression and the anarchy that goes with it.

War comes more naturally to human beings than political order. Indeed, political order is possible only when human beings abandon their natural condition of judging and pursuing what seems best to each and delegate this judgment to someone else. This delegation is effected when the many contract together to submit to a sovereign in return for physical safety and a modicum of well-being. Each of the many in effect says to the other: “I transfer my right of governing myself to X (the sovereign) if you do too.” And the transfer is collectively entered into only on the understanding that it makes one less of a target of attack or dispossession than one would be in one’s natural state. Although Hobbes did not assume that there was ever a real historical event in which a mutual promise was made to delegate self-government to a sovereign, he claimed that the best way to understand the state was to conceive of it as having resulted from such an agreement.

In Hobbes’s social contract, the many trade liberty for safety. Liberty, with its standing invitation to local conflict and finally all-out war—a “war of every man against every man”—is overvalued in traditional political philosophy and popular opinion, according to Hobbes; it is better for people to transfer the right of governing themselves to the sovereign. Once transferred, however, this right of government is absolute, unless the many feel that their lives are threatened by submission. The sovereign determines who owns what, who will hold which public offices, how the economy will be regulated, what acts will be crimes, and what punishments criminals should receive. The sovereign is the supreme commander of the army, supreme interpreter of law, and supreme interpreter of scripture, with authority over any national church. It is unjust—a case of reneging on what one has agreed—for any subject to take issue with these arrangements, for, in the act of creating the state or by receiving its protection, one agrees to leave judgments about the means of collective well-being and security to the sovereign. The sovereign’s laws and decrees and appointments to public office may be unpopular; they may even be wrong. But unless the sovereign fails so utterly that subjects feel that their condition would be no worse in the free-for-all outside the state, it is better for the subjects to endure the sovereign’s rule.

It is better both prudentially and morally. Because no one can prudently welcome a greater risk of death, no one can prudently prefer total liberty to submission. Total liberty invites war, and submission is the best insurance against war. Morality too supports this conclusion, for, according to Hobbes, all the moral precepts enjoining virtuous behaviour can be understood as derivable from the fundamental moral precept that one should seek peace—that is to say, freedom from war—if it is safe to do so. Without peace, he observed, man lives in “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” and what life he has is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What Hobbes calls the “laws of nature,” the system of moral rules by which everyone is bound, cannot be safely complied with outside the state, for the total liberty that people have outside the state includes the liberty to flout the moral requirements if one’s survival seems to depend on it.

The sovereign is not a party to the social contract; he receives the obedience of the many as a free gift in their hope that he will see to their safety. The sovereign makes no promises to the many in order to win their submission. Indeed, because he does not transfer his right of self-government to anyone, he retains the total liberty that his subjects trade for safety. He is not bound by law, including his own laws. Nor does he do anything unjustly if he makes decisions about his subjects’s safety and well-being that they do not like.

Although the sovereign is in a position to judge the means of survival and well-being for the many more dispassionately than they are able to do themselves, he is not immune to self-interested passions. Hobbes realizes that the sovereign may behave iniquitously. He insists that it is very imprudent for a sovereign to act so iniquitously that he disappoints his subjects’s expectation of safety and makes them feel insecure. Subjects who are in fear of their lives lose their obligations to obey and, with that, deprive the sovereign of his power. Reduced to the status of one among many by the defection of his subjects, the unseated sovereign is likely to feel the wrath of those who submitted to him in vain.

Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan (1651), does not significantly depart from the view of De Cive concerning the relation between protection and obedience, but it devotes much more attention to the civil obligations of Christian believers and the proper and improper roles of a church within a state. Hobbes argues that believers do not endanger their prospects of salvation by obeying a sovereign’s decrees to the letter, and he maintains that churches do not have any authority that is not granted by the civil sovereign.

Hobbes’s political views exerted a discernible influence on his work in other fields, including historiography and legal theory. His political philosophy is chiefly concerned with the way in which government must be organized in order to avoid civil war. It therefore encompasses a view of the typical causes of civil war, all of which are represented in Behemoth; or, The Long Parliament (1679), his history of the English Civil Wars. Hobbes produced the first English translation of Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, which he thought contained important lessons for his contemporaries regarding the excesses of democracy, the worst kind of dilution of sovereign authority, in his view.

Hobbes’s works on church history and the history of philosophy also strongly reflect his politics. He was firmly against the separation of government powers, either between branches of government or between church and state. His ecclesiastical history emphasizes the way in which power-hungry priests and popes threatened legitimate civil authority. His history of philosophy is mostly concerned with how metaphysics was used as a means of keeping people under the sway of Roman Catholicism at the expense of obedience to a civil authority. His theory of law develops a similar theme regarding the threats to a supreme civil power posed by common law and the multiplication of authoritative legal interpreters.


Return to England
There are signs that Hobbes intended Leviathan to be read by a monarch, who would be able to take the rules of statecraft from it. A specially bound copy was given to Prince Charles while he was in exile in Paris. Unfortunately, Hobbes’s suggestion in Leviathan that a subject had the right to abandon a ruler who could no longer protect him gave serious offense to the prince’s advisers. Barred from the exiled court and under suspicion by the French authorities for his attack on the papacy (see below), Hobbes found his position in Paris becoming daily more intolerable. At the end of 1651, at about the time that Leviathan was published, he returned to England and made his peace with the new regime of Oliver Cromwell. Hobbes submitted to that authority for a long time before the monarchy was restored in 1660.

From the time of the Restoration in 1660, Hobbes enjoyed a new prominence. Charles II received Hobbes again into favour. Although Hobbes’s presence at court scandalized the bishops and the chancellor, the king relished his wit. He even granted Hobbes a pension of £100 a year and had his portrait hung in the royal closet. It was not until 1666, when the House of Commons prepared a bill against atheism and profaneness, that Hobbes felt seriously endangered, for the committee to which the bill was referred was instructed to investigate Leviathan. Hobbes, then verging upon 80, burned such of his papers as he thought might compromise him.


Optics
Hobbes’s most significant contributions to natural science were in the field of optics. An optical theory in his day was expected to pronounce on the nature of light, on the transmission of light from the Sun to the Earth, on reflection and refraction, and on the workings of optical instruments such as mirrors and lenses. Hobbes took up these topics in several relatively short treatises and in correspondence, including with Descartes on the latter’s Dioptrics (1637). The most polished of Hobbes’s optical works was A Minute or First Draught of the Optiques (1646).

In its mature form, Hobbes’s optical theory held that the dilations and contractions of an original light source, such as the Sun, are transmitted by contact with a uniform, pervading ethereal medium, which in turn stimulates the eye and the nerves connected to it, eventually resulting in a “phantasm,” or sense-image, in the brain. In Hobbes’s theory, the qualities of a sense-image do not need to be explained in terms of the qualities of a perceived object. Instead, motion and matter—the motion of a light source, the disturbance of a physical nervous system, and sensory membranes—are all that have to be invoked. In contrast, traditional optics—optics as developed within Aristotle’s framework—had held that seeing the colour of something—the redness of a strawberry, for example—was a matter of reproducing the “form” of the colour in the sense organs; the form is then abstracted from the sense organs by the mind. “Sensible forms,” the characteristic properties transmitted by objects to the senses in the act of perception, were entirely dispensed with in Hobbes’s optics.


Hobbes’s system
Theories that trace all observed effects to matter and motion are called mechanical. Hobbes was thus a mechanical materialist: He held that nothing but material things are real, and he thought that the subject matter of all the natural sciences consists of the motions of material things at different levels of generality. Geometry considers the effects of the motions of points, lines, and solids; pure mechanics deals with the motions of three-dimensional bodies in a full space, or plenum; physics deals with the motions of the parts of inanimate bodies insofar as they contribute to observed phenomena; and psychology deals with the effects of the internal motions of animate bodies on behaviour. The system of the natural sciences described in Hobbes’s trilogy represents his understanding of the materialist principles on which all science is based.

The fact that Hobbes included politics as well as psychology within his system, however, has tended to overshadow his insistence on the autonomy of political understanding from natural-scientific understanding. According to Hobbes, politics does not need to be understood in terms of the motions of material things (although, ultimately, it can be); a certain kind of widely available self-knowledge is evidence enough of the human propensity to war. Although Hobbes is routinely read as having discerned the “laws of motion” for both human beings and human societies, the most that can plausibly be claimed is that he based his political philosophy on psychological principles that he thought could be illuminated by general laws of motion.


Last years and influence
Although he was impugned by enemies at home, no Englishman of the day stood in such high repute abroad as Hobbes, and distinguished foreigners who visited England were always eager to pay their respects to the old man, whose vigour and freshness of intellect remained unquenched. In his last years Hobbes amused himself by returning to the classical studies of his youth. The autobiography in Latin verse with its playful humour, occasional pathos, and sublime self-complacency was brought forth at the age of 84. In 1675 he produced a translation of the Odyssey in rugged English rhymes, with a lively preface, “Concerning the Virtues of an Heroic Poem.” A translation of the Iliad appeared in the following year. As late as four months before his death, he was promising his publisher “somewhat to print in English.”

Hobbes’s importance lies not only in his political philosophy but also in his contribution to the development of an anti-Aristotelian and thoroughly materialist conception of natural science. His political philosophy influenced not only successors who adopted the social-contract framework—John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, for example—but also less directly those theorists who connected moral and political decision making in rational human beings to considerations of self-interest broadly understood. The materialist bent of Hobbes’s metaphysics is also much in keeping with contemporary Anglo-American, or analytic, metaphysics, which tends to recognize as real only those entities that physics in particular or natural science in general presupposes.

Tom Sorell
 




The Metaphysical poets

Writers responded to these conditions in different ways, and in poetry three main traditions may broadly be distinguished, which have been coupled with the names of Spenser, Jonson, and John Donne. Donne heads the tradition that 18th-century critic Samuel Johnson labeled for all time as the Metaphysicals; what unites these poets as a group is less the violent yoking of unlike ideas to which Johnson objected than that they were all poets of personal and individual feeling, responding to their time’s pressures privately or introspectively. This privateness, of course, was not new, but the period in general experienced a huge upsurge of contemplative or devotional verse.

 

Donne

Donne has been taken to be the apex of the 16th-century tradition of plain poetry, and certainly the love lyrics of his that parade their cynicism, indifference, and libertinism pointedly invert and parody the conventions of Petrarchan lyric, though he courts admiration for his poetic virtuosity no less than the Petrarchans. A “great haunter of plays” in his youth, he is always dramatic; his verse cultivates “strong lines,” dissonance, and colloquiality. Carew praised him for avoiding poetic myths and excluding from his verse the “train of gods and goddesses”; what fills it instead is a dazzling battery of language and argument drawn from science, law and trade, court and city. Donne is the first London poet: his early satires and elegies are packed with the busy metropolitan milieu, and his songs and sonnets, which include his best writing, with their kaleidoscope of contradictory attitudes, ironies, and contingencies, explore the alienation and ennui of urban living. Donne treats experience as relative, a matter of individual point of view; the personality is multiple, quizzical, and inconsistent, eluding definition. His love poetry is that of the frustrated careerist. By inverting normal perspectives and making the mistress the centre of his being—he boasts that she is “all states, and all princes, I, nothing else is”—he belittles the public world, defiantly asserting the superior validity of his private experience, and frequently he erodes the traditional dichotomy of body and soul, outrageously praising the mistress in language reserved for platonic or religious contexts. The defiance is complicated, however, by a recurrent conviction of personal unworthiness that culminates in the Anniversaries (1611–12), two long commemorative poems written on the death of a patron’s daughter. These expand into the classic statement of Jacobean melancholy, an intense meditation on the vanity of the world and the collapse of traditional certainties. Donne would, reluctantly, find respectability in a church career, but even his religious poems are torn between the same tense self-assertion and self-abasement that mark his secular poetry.




 


John Donne


"Songs and Sonnets", "Elegies"




English poet

born , sometime between Jan. 24 and June 19, 1572, London, Eng.
died March 31, 1631, London

Main
leading English poet of the Metaphysical school and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (1621–31). Donne is often considered the greatest love poet in the English language. He is also noted for his religious verse and treatises and for his sermons, which rank among the best of the 17th century.

Life and career
Donne was born of Roman Catholic parents. His mother, a direct descendant of Sir Thomas More’s sister, was the youngest daughter of John Heywood, epigrammatist and playwright. His father, who, according to Donne’s first biographer, Izaak Walton, was “descended from a very ancient family in Wales,” was a prosperous London merchant. Donne was four when his father died, and shortly thereafter his mother married Dr. John Syminges, who raised the Donne children. At age 12 Donne matriculated at the University of Oxford, where he studied for three years, and he then most likely continued his education at the University of Cambridge, though he took no degree from either university because as a Roman Catholic he could not swear the required oath of allegiance to the Protestant queen, Elizabeth. Following his studies Donne probably traveled in Spain and Italy and then returned to London to read law, first at Thavies Inn (1591) and then at Lincoln’s Inn (1592–94). There he turned to a comparative examination of Roman Catholic and Protestant theology and perhaps even toyed with religious skepticism. In 1596 he enlisted as a gentleman with the Earl of Essex’s successful privateering expedition against Cádiz, and the following year he sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh and Essex in the near-disastrous Islands expedition, hunting for Spanish treasure ships in the Azores.

After his return to London in 1597, Donne became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the great seal, in whose employ Donne remained for almost five years. The appointment itself makes it probable that Donne had become an Anglican by this time. During his tenure with the lord keeper, Donne lived, according to Walton, more as a friend than as a servant in the Egerton household, where Sir Thomas appointed him “a place at his own table, to which he esteemed [Donne’s] company and discourse to be a great ornament.” Donne’s contemporary, Richard Baker, wrote of him at this time as “not dissolute [i.e., careless], but very neat; a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses.”

While in Egerton’s service, Donne met and fell in love with Anne More, niece of Egerton’s second wife and the daughter of Sir George More, who was chancellor of the garter. Knowing there was no chance of obtaining Sir George’s blessing on their union, the two married secretly, probably in December 1601. For this offense Sir George had Donne briefly imprisoned and dismissed from his post with Egerton as well. He also denied Anne’s dowry to Donne. Because of the marriage, moreover, all possibilities of a career in public service were dashed, and Donne found himself at age 30 with neither prospects for employment nor adequate funds with which to support his household.

During the next 10 years Donne lived in poverty and humiliating dependence, first on the charity of Anne’s cousin at Pyrford, Surrey, then at a house in Mitcham, about 7 miles (11 km) from London, and sometimes in a London apartment, where he relied on the support of noble patrons. All the while he repeatedly tried (and failed) to secure employment, and in the meantime his family was growing; Anne ultimately bore 12 children, 5 of whom died before they reached maturity. Donne’s letters show his love and concern for his wife during these years: “Because I have transplanted [her] into a wretched fortune, I must labour to disguise that from her by all such honest devices, as giving her my company, and discourse.” About himself, however, Donne recorded only despair: “To be part of no body is as nothing; and so I am. . . . I am rather a sickness or a disease of the world than any part of it and therefore neither love it nor life.”

In spite of his misery during these years, Donne wrote and studied assiduously, producing prose works on theology, canon law, and anti-Catholic polemics and composing love lyrics, religious poetry, and complimentary and funerary verse for his patrons. As early as 1607 friends had begun urging him to take holy orders in the Church of England, but he felt unworthy and continued to seek secular employment. In 1611–12 he traveled through France and the Low Countries with his newfound patron, Sir Robert Drury, leaving his wife at Mitcham. Upon their return from the European continent, the Drurys provided the Donnes with a house on the Drury estate in London, where they lived until 1621.

In 1614 King James I refused Donne’s final attempt to secure a post at court and said that he would appoint him to nothing outside the church. By this time Donne himself had come to believe he had a religious vocation, and he finally agreed to take holy orders. He was ordained deacon and priest on Jan. 23, 1615, and preferment soon followed. He was made a royal chaplain and received, at the king’s command, the degree of doctor of divinity from Cambridge. On Nov. 22, 1621, Donne was installed as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, at which he carried out his duties with efficiency and integrity. But this turnabout in Donne’s professional life was accompanied by searing personal grief. Two years after his ordination, in 1617, Anne Donne died at the age of 33 after giving birth to a stillborn child. Grief-stricken at having lost his emotional anchor, Donne vowed never to marry again, even though he was left with the task of raising his children in modest financial circumstances at the time. Instead, his bereavement turned him fully to his vocation as an Anglican divine. The power and eloquence of Donne’s sermons soon secured for him a reputation as the foremost preacher in the England of his day, and he became a favourite of both Kings James I and Charles I.

In 1623 Donne fell seriously ill with either typhus or relapsing fever, and during his sickness he reflected on the parallels between his physical and spiritual illnesses—reflections that culminated during his recovery in the prose Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624. On Feb. 25, 1631, Donne, who was fatally ill with stomach cancer, left his sickbed to preach a final sermon at court; this was published posthumously as “Death’s Duell” and is sometimes considered to be his own funeral sermon. He returned to his sickbed and, according to Walton, had a drawing made of himself in his shroud, perhaps as an aid to meditating on his own dissolution. From this drawing Nicholas Stone constructed a marble effigy of Donne that survived the Great Fire of 1666 and still stands today in St. Paul’s Cathedral.


Poetry
Because almost none of Donne’s poetry was published during his lifetime, it is difficult to date it accurately. Most of his poems were preserved in manuscript copies made by and passed among a relatively small but admiring coterie of poetry lovers. Most current scholars agree, however, that the elegies (which in Donne’s case are poems of love, not of mourning), epigrams, verse letters, and satires were written in the 1590s, the Songs and Sonnets from the 1590s until 1617, and the “Holy Sonnets” and other religious lyrics from the time of Donne’s marriage until his ordination in 1615. He composed the hymns late in his life, in the 1620s. Donne’s Anniversaries were published in 1611–12 and were the only important poetic works by him published in his lifetime.

Donne’s poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the conventions of 16th-century English verse, particularly that of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Even his early satires and elegies, which derive from classical Latin models, contain versions of his experiments with genre, form, and imagery. His poems contain few descriptive passages like those in Spenser, nor do his lines follow the smooth metrics and euphonious sounds of his predecessors. Donne replaced their mellifluous lines with a speaking voice whose vocabulary and syntax reflect the emotional intensity of a confrontation and whose metrics and verbal music conform to the needs of a particular dramatic situation. One consequence of this is a directness of language that electrifies his mature poetry. “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,” begins his love poem “The Canonization,” plunging the reader into the midst of an encounter between the speaker and an unidentified listener. Holy Sonnet XI opens with an imaginative confrontation wherein Donne, not Jesus, suffers indignities on the cross: “Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side. . .”

From these explosive beginnings, the poems develop as closely reasoned arguments or propositions that rely heavily on the use of the conceit—i.e., an extended metaphor that draws an ingenious parallel between apparently dissimilar situations or objects. Donne, however, transformed the conceit into a vehicle for transmitting multiple, sometimes even contradictory, feelings and ideas. And, changing again the practice of earlier poets, he drew his imagery from such diverse fields as alchemy, astronomy, medicine, politics, global exploration, and philosophical disputation. Donne’s famous analogy of parting lovers to a drawing compass affords a prime example. The immediate shock of some of his conceits aroused Samuel Johnson to call them “heterogeneous ideas . . . yoked by violence together.” Upon reflection, however, these conceits offer brilliant and multiple insights into the subject of the metaphor and help give rise to the much-praised ambiguity of Donne’s lyrics.

The presence of a listener is another of Donne’s modifications of the Renaissance love lyric, in which the lovers lament, hope, and dissect their feelings without facing their ladies. Donne, by contrast, speaks directly to the lady or some other listener. The latter may even determine the course of the poem, as in “The Flea,” in which the speaker changes his tack once the woman crushes the insect on which he has built his argument about the innocence of lovemaking. But for all their dramatic intensity, Donne’s poems still maintain the verbal music and introspective approach that define lyric poetry. His speakers may fashion an imaginary figure to whom they utter their lyric outburst, or, conversely, they may lapse into reflection in the midst of an address to a listener. “But O, selfe traytor,” the forlorn lover cries in “Twickham Garden” as he transforms part of his own psyche into a listener. Donne also departs from earlier lyrics by adapting the syntax and rhythms of living speech to his poetry, as in “I wonder by my troth, what thou, and I/Did, till we lov’d?”. Taken together, these features of his poetry provided an impetus for the works of such later poets as Robert Browning, William Butler Yeats, and T.S. Eliot.

Donne also radically adapted some of the standard materials of love lyrics. For example, even though he continued to use such Petrarchan conceits as “parting from one’s beloved is death,” a staple of Renaissance love poetry, he either turned the comparisons into comedy, as when the man in “The Apparition” envisions himself as a ghost haunting his unfaithful lady, or he subsumed them into the texture of his poem, as the title “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning” exemplifies. Donne’s love lyrics provide keen psychological insights about a broad range of lovers and a wide spectrum of amorous feelings. His speakers range from lustful men so sated by their numerous affairs that they denounce love as a fiction and women as objects—food, birds of prey, mummies—to platonic lovers who celebrate both the magnificence of their ladies and their own miraculous abstention from consummating their love. Men whose love is unrequited feel victimized and seek revenge on their ladies, only to realize the ineffectuality of their retaliation. In the poems of mutual love, however, Donne’s lovers rejoice in the compatibility of their sexual and spiritual love and seek immortality for an emotion that they elevate to an almost religious plane.

Donne’s devotional lyrics, especially the “Holy Sonnets,” “Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward,” and the hymns, passionately explore his love for God, sometimes through sexual metaphors, and depict his doubts, fears, and sense of spiritual unworthiness. None of them shows him spiritually at peace.

The most sustained of Donne’s poems, the Anniversaries, were written to commemorate the death of Elizabeth Drury, the 14-year-old daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. These poems subsume their ostensible subject into a philosophical meditation on the decay of the world. Elizabeth Drury becomes, as Donne noted, “the Idea of a woman,” and a lost pattern of virtue. Through this idealized feminine figure, Donne in The First Anniversarie: An Anatomie of the World laments humanity’s spiritual death, beginning with the loss of Eden and continuing in the decay of the contemporary world, in which men have lost the wisdom that connects them to God. In The Second Anniversarie: Of the Progres of the Soule, Donne, partly through a eulogy on Elizabeth Drury, ultimately regains the wisdom that directs him toward eternal life.


Prose
Donne’s earliest prose works, Paradoxes and Problems, probably were begun during his days as a student at Lincoln’s Inn. These witty and insouciant paradoxes defend such topics as women’s inconstancy and pursue such questions as “Why do women delight much in feathers?” and “Why are Courtiers sooner Atheists than men of other conditions?” While living in despair at Mitcham in 1608, Donne wrote a casuistic defense of suicide entitled Biathanatos. His own contemplation of suicide, he states, prompted in him “a charitable interpretation of theyr Action, who dye so.” Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610, attacks the recusants’ unwillingness to swear the oath of allegiance to the king, which Roman Catholics were required to do after the Gunpowder Plot (1605). The treatise so pleased James I that he had Oxford confer an honorary master of arts degree on Donne. In 1610 Donne also wrote a prose satire on the Jesuits entitled Ignatius His Conclave, in both Latin and English.

In 1611 Donne completed his Essays in Divinity, the first of his theological works. Upon recovering from a life-threatening illness, Donne in 1623 wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, the most enduring of his prose works. Each of its 23 devotions consists of a meditation, an expostulation, and a prayer, all occasioned by some event in Donne’s illness, such as the arrival of the king’s personal physician or the application of pigeons to draw vapours from Donne’s head. The Devotions correlate Donne’s physical decline with spiritual sickness, until both reach a climax when Donne hears the tolling of a passing bell (16, 17, 18) and questions whether the bell is ringing for him. Like Donne’s poetry, the Devotions are notable for their dramatic immediacy and their numerous Metaphysical conceits, such as the well-known “No man is an Iland,” by which Donne illustrates the unity of all Christians in the mystical body of Christ.

It is Donne’s sermons, however, that most powerfully illustrate his mastery of prose. One-hundred and fifty-six of them were published by his son in three great folio editions (1640, 1649, and 1661). Though composed during a time of religious controversy, Donne’s sermons—intellectual, witty, and deeply moving—explore the basic tenets of Christianity rather than engage in theological disputes. Donne brilliantly analyzed Biblical texts and applied them to contemporary events, such as the outbreak of plague that devastated London in 1625. The power of his sermons derives from their dramatic intensity, candid personal revelations, poetic rhythms, and striking conceits.


Reputation and influence
The first two editions of Donne’s Poems were published posthumously, in 1633 and 1635, after having circulated widely in manuscript copies. The Poems were sufficiently popular to be published eight times within 90 years of Donne’s death, but his work was not to the general taste of the 18th century, when he was regarded as a great but eccentric “wit.” The notable exception to that appraisal was Alexander Pope, who admired Donne’s intellectual virtuosity and echoed some of Donne’s lines in his own poetry. From the early 19th century, however, perceptive readers began to recognize Donne’s poetic genius. Robert Browning credited Donne with providing the germ for his own dramatic monologues. By the 20th century, mainly because of the pioneering work of the literary scholar H.J.C. Grierson and the interest of T.S. Eliot, Donne’s poetry experienced a remarkable revival.

The impression in his poetry that thought and argument are arising immediately out of passionate feeling made Donne the master of both the mature Yeats and Eliot, who were reacting against the meditative lyricism of a Romantic tradition in decline. Indeed, the play of intellect in Donne’s poetry, his scorn of conventionally poetic images, and the dramatic realism of his style made him the idol of English-speaking poets and critics in the first half of the 20th century. Readers continue to find stimulus in Donne’s fusion of witty argument with passion, his dramatic rendering of complex states of mind, his daring and unhackneyed images, and his ability (little if at all inferior to William Shakespeare’s) to make common words yield up rich poetic meaning without distorting the essential quality of English idiom.

Patricia Garland Pinka
 


 

Donne’s influence

Donne’s influence was vast; the taste for wit and conceits reemerged in dozens of minor lyricists, among them courtiers such as Aurelian Townshend and William Habington, academics such as
William Cartwright, and religious poets such as Francis Quarles and Henry King. The only true Metaphysical, in the sense of a poet with genuinely philosophical pretensions, was Edward Herbert (Lord Herbert of Cherbury), important as an early proponent of religion formulated by the light of reason. Donne’s most enduring followers were the three major religious poets George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. Herbert, a Cambridge academic who buried his courtly ambitions in the quiet life of a country parsonage, wrote some of the most resonant and attractive religious verse in the language. Though not devoid of tension, his poems substitute for Donne’s tortured selfhood a humane, meditative assurance. They evoke a practical piety and a richly domestic world, but they dignify it with a musicality and a feeling for the beauty of holiness that bespeak Herbert’s identification with the nascent Anglican church of Archbishop William Laud. By contrast, the poems of Crashaw (a Roman Catholic) and the Welsh recluse Vaughan move in alternative traditions: the former toward the sensuous ecstasies and effusions of the Continental Baroque, the latter toward hermetic naturalism and mystical raptures.

However, in the context of the Civil Wars, Vaughan’s and Crashaw’s introspection began to look like retreat, and, when the satires of John Cleveland and the lyrics of Abraham Cowley took the Donne manner to extremes of paradox and vehemence, it was symptomatic of a loss of control in the face of political and social traumas. The one poet for whom metaphysical wit became a strategy for holding together conflicting allegiances was Donne’s outstanding heir, Andrew Marvell. Marvell’s writing is taut, extraordinarily dense and precise, uniquely combining a cavalier lyric grace with Puritanical economy of statement. His finest work seems to have been done at the time of greatest strain, in about 1650–53, and under the patronage of Sir Thomas Fairfax, parliamentarian general but opponent of King Charles I’s execution, to whose retirement from politics to his country estate Marvell accorded qualified praise in Upon Appleton House. His lyrics are poems of the divided mind, sensitive to all the major conflicts of their society—body against soul, action against retirement, experience against innocence, Oliver Cromwell against the king—but Marvell sustains the conflict of irreconcilables through paradox and wit rather than attempting to decide or transcend it. In this situation, irresolution has become a strength; in a poem like An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland, which weighs the claims of King Charles and Cromwell, the poet’s reserve was the only effective way of confronting the unprecedented demise of traditional structures of politics and morality.
 


William Cartwright

born December 1611, Ashchurch, Tewkesbury, Eng.
died Nov. 29, 1643, Oxford, Oxfordshire

British writer greatly admired in his day as a poet, scholar, wit, and author of plays in the comic tradition of Ben Jonson.

Educated at Westminster School and the University of Oxford, Cartwright became a preacher, noted for his florid style, and a reader in metaphysics. On the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in 1642, he joined the university war council, and in 1643 he was university junior proctor. Charles I wore black on the day of Cartwright’s funeral. Cartwright’s plays were written before he took orders; The Ordinary (produced 1635?) mocked Puritans, and The Royal Slave (1636) was staged at court. His plays, fantastic in plot and stilted and artificial in treatment, have not withstood the test of time.
 

 

 


Francis Quarles

baptized May 8, 1592, Romford, Essex, Eng.
died Sept. 8, 1644, London

religious poet remembered for his Emblemes, the most notable emblem book in English.

The son of a minor court official, Quarles was educated at the University of Cambridge and at Lincoln’s Inn, London. The wealth of Quarles’s family at first allowed him to live a leisured and studious life, but in the late 1620s he served as secretary to Archbishop James Ussher in Ireland. In 1640 Quarles became chronologer to London, virtually abandoning poetry to employ his pen more lucratively. He died in relative poverty.

With Emblemes (1635) Quarles produced a new type of emblem book (traditionally a collection of symbolic pictures, usually accompanied by mottoes and expositions in verse and by a prose commentary). Each emblem consisted of a grotesque engraving and a paraphrase of Scripture in ornate and metaphysical language and concluded with an epigrammatic verse. Emblemes was so successful that Quarles produced another emblem book, Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man (1638). The two were printed together in 1639, and this work became possibly the most popular book of verse of the 17th century.

His first prose work, Enchiridion (1640), was a highly popular book of aphorisms. In the English Civil Wars he is said to have suffered for his allegiance and for writing The Loyall Convert (1644), a pamphlet defending Charles I’s position.
 

 

 


Henry King

baptized Jan. 16, 1592, Worminghall, Buckinghamshire, Eng.
died Sept. 30, 1669, Chichester, Sussex

English poet and Anglican bishop whose elegy for his wife is considered one of the best in the English language.

Educated at Oxford, King received numerous and remunerative preferments. A friend and an executor of the estate of John Donne, his poetry was as much influenced by Ben Jonson as by Donne. King became bishop of Chichester in 1642, but his estate was sequestered during the interregnum and he spent the time until the Restoration (1660) in restless retirement with friends and relations. The collection Poems, Elegies, Paradoxes, and Sonets (1657), bearing his name, was not prepared by him and included poems of others. The standard modern edition is that of Margaret Crum (1965).
 

 

 


Edward Herbert

born March 3, 1583, Eyton-on-Severn, Shropshire, Eng.
died Aug. 5, 1648, London

Baron Herbert Of Castle Island
English courtier, soldier, diplomat, historian, metaphysical poet, and philosopher (“the father of English Deism”), also remembered for his revealing Autobiography.

Brother of the devotional poet George Herbert, he was educated at Oxford. From 1608 to 1617 he campaigned in Holland and travelled in France and Italy. He was ambassador at Paris for five years and received Irish and English peerages (1624, 1629) for his political services.

De Veritate (“On Truth”) was published in Paris in 1624. Thereafter he devoted himself to philosophy, history, and literature. When the Civil War broke out he lacked enthusiasm for either cause; however, he opened Montgomery Castle to the Parliamentary forces in 1644 and met with severe criticism.

De Veritate was designed to establish instructed reason as the safest guide in a search for truth. Herbert examines freshly the nature of truth and concludes that there are five religious ideas that are God-given, innate in the mind of man. They are the belief in a Supreme Being, in the need to worship him, in the pursuit of a pious and virtuous life as the best form of worship, in repentance, and in rewards and punishments in the next world. Supplementary intuitions may be valid, but Herbert virtually rejected revelation.

De Veritate was further elaborated in his De Causis Errorum (“On the Causes of Errors”) and De Religione Laici (“On the Religion of the Laity”), published together in 1645; De Religione Gentilium (1663; “On the Religion of the Gentiles”); and A Dialogue Between a Tutor and His Pupil (c. 1645; published 1768; authorship disputed).

His works reflect the active and versatile mind of a competent writer. The Autobiography, ending at 1624, (published 1764), brings his human qualities into focus: his social gifts, adventurous spirit, studious bent, and worldly wisdom. Proud of his military experience and diplomatic skill, he nourished a crotchety regard for his personal honour, resulting in af-frays which he recalls with evident satisfaction.

Herbert also wrote historical works, including The Expedition to the Isle of Rhé (Latin 1656; Eng. trans., 1860) and The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1649). Occasional Verses (1665) shows him to have been a talented and original poet as well.
 

 

 


George Herbert

born April 3, 1593, Montgomery Castle, Wales
died March 1, 1633, Bemerton, Wiltshire, Eng.

English religious poet, a major metaphysical poet, notable for the purity and effectiveness of his choice of words.

A younger brother of Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, a notable secular metaphysical poet, George in 1610 sent his mother for New Year’s two sonnets on the theme that the love of God is a fitter subject for verse than the love of woman, a foreshadowing of his poetic and vocational bent.

Educated at home, at Westminster School, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was in 1620 elected orator of the university, a position that he described as “the finest place in the university.” His two immediate predecessors in the office had risen to high positions in the state, and Herbert was much involved with the court. During Herbert’s academic career, his only published verse was that written for special occasions in Greek and Latin. By 1625 Herbert’s sponsors at court were dead or out of favour, and he turned to the church, being ordained deacon. He resigned as orator in 1627 and in 1630 was ordained priest and became rector at Bemerton. He became friends with Nicholas Ferrar, who had founded a religious community at nearby Little Gidding, and devoted himself to his rural parish and the reconstruction of his church. Throughout his life he wrote poems, and from his deathbed he sent a manuscript volume to Ferrar, asking him to decide whether to publish or destroy them. Ferrar published them with the title The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations in 1633.

Herbert described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” Herbert shares his conflicts with John Donne, the archetypal metaphysical poet and a family friend. As well as personal poems, The Temple includes doctrinal poems, notably “The Church Porch,” the first in the volume, and the last, “The Church Militant.” Other poems are concerned with church ritual.

The main resemblance of Herbert’s poems to Donne’s is in the use of common language in the rhythms of speech. Some of his poems, such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” are “pattern” poems, the lines forming the shape of the subject, a practice Joseph Addison in the 18th century called “false wit.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th century wrote of Herbert’s diction, “Nothing can be more pure, manly, and unaffected.” Herbert was a versatile master of metrical form and all aspects of the craft of verse. Though he shared the critical disapproval given the metaphysical poets until the 20th century, he was still popular with readers. Herbert also wrote at Bemerton A Priest to the Temple: Or The Country Parson, his Character and Rule of Life (1652). Herbert’s Works (1941; corrected, 1945), edited by F. Hutchinson, is the standard text.
 

 

 


Richard Crashaw

born c. 1613, London, Eng.
died Aug. 21, 1649, Loreto, Papal States [Italy]

English poet known for religious verse of vibrant stylistic ornamentation and ardent faith.

The son of a zealous, learned Puritan minister, Crashaw was educated at the University of Cambridge. In 1634, the year of his graduation, he published Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber (“A Book of Sacred Epigrams”), a collection of Latin verse on scriptural subjects. He held a fellowship at Peterhouse, Cambridge, a centre of High Church thought, where he was ordained.

During the English Civil Wars (1642–51), his position at Peterhouse became untenable because of his growing inclination toward Roman Catholicism, and he resigned his post before the Puritans could evict him. He prepared the first edition of his Steps to the Temple: Sacred Poems, with other Delights of the Muses for publication in 1646. It included religious and secular poems in Latin and English.

He went to France in 1644 and became a Roman Catholic. When Queen Henrietta Maria of England, consort of Charles I, moved to Paris with her entourage two years later, Crashaw was found, by his friend and fellow poet Abraham Cowley, living in poverty. The queen sent him to Rome with a strong recommendation to the pope, but it was not until a few months before his death that he received the position of canon of the Cathedral of Santa Casa (“Holy House”) at Loreto.

Crashaw’s English religious poems were republished in Paris in 1652 under the title Carmen Deo Nostro (“Hymn to Our Lord”). Some of his finest lines are those appended to “The Flaming Heart” a poem on St. Teresa of Avila.

Having read the Italian and Spanish mystics, Crashaw reflected little of the contemporary English metaphysical poets, adhering, rather, to the flamboyant imagery of the continental Baroque poets. He used conceits (elaborate metaphors) to draw analogies between the physical beauties of nature and the spiritual significance of existence. Crashaw’s verse is marked by loose trains of association, sensuous imagery, and eager religious emotion. The standard text of his poems was edited by L.C. Martin (1927; rev. ed., 1957).
 

 

 


Henry Vaughan

born April 17, 1622, Llansantffraed, Breconshire, Wales
died April 23, 1695, Llansantffraed

Anglo-Welsh poet and mystic remarkable for the range and intensity of his spiritual intuitions.

Educated at Oxford and studying law in London, Vaughan was recalled home in 1642 when the first Civil War broke out, and he remained there the rest of his life.

In 1646 his Poems, with the Tenth Satyre of Juvenal Englished was published, followed by a second volume in 1647. Meanwhile he had been “converted” by reading the religious poet George Herbert and gave up “idle verse.” His Silex Scintillans (1650; “The Glittering Flint,” enlarged 1655) and the prose Mount of Olives: or, Solitary Devotions (1652) show the depth of his religious convictions and the authenticity of his poetic genius. Two more volumes of secular verse were published, ostensibly without his sanction; but it is his religious verse that has lived. He also translated short moral and religious works and two medical works in prose. At some time in the 1650s he began to practice medicine and continued to do so throughout his life.

Though Vaughan borrowed phrases from Herbert and other writers and wrote poems with the same titles as Herbert’s, he was one of the most original poets of his day. Chiefly he had a gift of spiritual vision or imagination that enabled him to write freshly and convincingly, as is illustrated in the opening of “The World”:

I saw Eternity the other night

Like a Great Ring of pure and endless light


He was equally gifted in writing about nature, holding the old view that every flower enjoys the air it breathes and that even sticks and stones share man’s expectation of resurrection. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth may have been influenced by Vaughan.

Vaughan’s poetry was largely disregarded in his own day and for a century after his death. He shared in the revival of interest in 17th-century metaphysical poets in the 20th century. The standard edition is Works (1914; 2nd ed., 1957), edited by L.C. Martin.
 

 

 


John Cleveland


 

born June 16, 1613, Loughborough, Leicestershire, Eng.
died April 29, 1658, London

English poet, the most popular of his time, and then and in later times the most commonly abused Metaphysical poet.

Educated at Cambridge, Cleveland became a fellow there before joining the Royalist army at Oxford in 1643. In 1645–46 he was judge advocate with the garrison at Newark until it surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, after which he lived with friends. When Charles I put himself in the hands of the Scots’ army and they turned him over to the Parliamentary forces, Cleveland excoriated his enemies in a famous satire, The Rebel Scot. Imprisoned for “delinquency” in 1655, Cleveland was released on appeal to Oliver Cromwell, but he did not repudiate his royalist convictions.

Cleveland’s poems first appeared in The Character of a London Diurnal (1647) and thereafter in some 20 collections in the next quarter century; this large number of editions attests to his great popularity in the mid-17th century. Cleveland carried Metaphysical obscurity and conceit to their limits, and many of his poems are merely intellectual gymnastics. From the time of John Dryden’s deprecatory criticism of the Metaphysical poets, Cleveland has been a whipping boy for them, largely because his conceits are profuse and cosmetic rather than integral to his thought. Cleveland’s real achievement lay in his political poems, which were mostly written in heroic couplets and satirized contemporary persons and issues. Cleveland’s political satires influenced his friend Samuel Butler (in Hudibras), and his use of heroic couplets foreshadowed that of Dryden.

 

 

 


Abraham Cowley

born 1618, London
died July 28, 1667, Chertsey, Eng.

poet and essayist who wrote poetry of a fanciful, decorous nature. He also adapted the Pindaric ode to English verse.

Educated at Westminster school and the University of Cambridge, where he became a fellow, he was ejected in 1643 by the Parliament during the Civil War and joined the royal court at Oxford. He went abroad with the queen’s court in 1645 as her cipher secretary and performed various Royalist missions until his return to England in 1656. Seemingly reconciled to the Commonwealth, he did not receive much reward after Charles II was restored in 1660 and retired to Chertsey, where he engaged in horticulture and wrote on the virtues of the contemplative life.

Cowley tended to use grossly elaborate, self-consciously poetic language that decorated, rather than expressed, his feelings. In his adolescence he wrote verse (Poeticall Blossomes, 1633, 1636, 1637) imitating the intricate rhyme schemes of Edmund Spenser. In The Mistress (1647, 1656) he exaggerated John Donne’s “metaphysical wit”—jarring the reader’s sensibilities by unexpectedly comparing quite different things—into what later tastes felt was fanciful poetic nonsense. His Pindarique Odes (1656) try to reproduce the Latin poet’s enthusiastic manner through lines of uneven length and even more extravagant poetic conceits.

Cowley also wrote an unfinished epic, Davideis (1656). His stage comedy The Guardian (1641, revised 1661) introduced the fop Puny, who became a staple of Restoration comedy. As an amateur man of science he promoted the Royal Society, publishing A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661). In his retirement he wrote sober, reflective essays reminiscent of Montaigne.

Cowley is often considered a transitional figure from the metaphysical poets to the Augustan poets of the 18th century. He was universally admired in his own day, but by 1737 Alexander Pope could write, justly: “Who now reads Cowley?” Perhaps his most effective poem is the elegy on the death of his friend and fellow poet Richard Crashaw.
 

 

 


Andrew Marvell

born March 31, 1621, Winestead, Yorkshire, Eng.
died Aug. 18, 1678, London

English poet whose political reputation overshadowed that of his poetry until the 20th century. He is now considered to be one of the best Metaphysical poets.

Marvell was educated at Hull grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge, taking a B.A. in 1639. His father’s death in 1641 may have ended Marvell’s promising academic career. He was abroad for at least five years (1642–46), presumably as a tutor. In 1651–52 he was tutor to Mary, daughter of Lord Fairfax, the Parliamentary general, at Nun Appleton, Yorkshire, during which time he probably wrote his notable poems “Upon Appleton House” and “The Garden” as well as his series of Mower poems.

Although earlier opposed to Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth government, he wrote “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” (1650), and from 1653 to 1657 he was a tutor to Cromwell’s ward William Dutton. In 1657 he became assistant to John Milton as Latin secretary in the foreign office. “The First Anniversary” (1655) and “On the Death of O.C.” (1659) showed his continued and growing admiration for Cromwell. In 1659 he was elected member of Parliament for Hull, an office he held until his death, serving skillfully and effectively.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Marvell turned to political verse satires—the most notable was Last Instructions to a Painter, against Lord Clarendon, Charles’s lord chancellor—and prose political satire, notably The Rehearsal Transpros’d (1672–73). Marvell is also said to have interceded on behalf of Milton to have him freed from prison in 1660. He wrote a commendatory poem for the second edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. His political writings favoured the toleration of religious dissent and attacked the abuse of monarchical power.

At Marvell’s death, his housekeeper-servant Mary Palmer claimed to be his widow, although this was undoubtedly a legal fiction. The first publication of his poems in 1681 resulted from a manuscript volume she found among his effects.

While Marvell’s political reputation has faded and his reputation as a satirist is on a par with others of his time, his small body of lyric poems, first recommended in the 19th century by Charles Lamb, has since appealed to many readers, and in the 20th century he came to be considered one of the most notable poets of his century. Marvell was eclectic: his “To His Coy Mistress” is a classic of Metaphysical poetry; the Cromwell odes are the work of a classicist; his attitudes are sometimes those of the elegant Cavalier poets; and his nature poems resemble those of the Puritan Platonists. In “To His Coy Mistress,” which is one of the most famous poems in the English language, the impatient poet urges his mistress to abandon her false modesty and submit to his embraces before time and death rob them of the opportunity to love:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime. . . .

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity . . .

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace. . . .
 





Jonson and the Cavalier poets

By contrast, the Jonsonian tradition was, broadly, that of social verse, written with a Classical clarity and weight and deeply informed by ideals of civilized reasonableness, ceremonious respect, and inner self-sufficiency derived from Seneca; it is a poetry of publicly shared values and norms. Jonson’s own verse was occasional; it addresses other individuals, distributes praise and blame, and promulgates sober and judicious ethical attitudes. His favoured forms were the ode, elegy, satire, epistle, and epigram, and they are always beautifully crafted objects, achieving a Classical symmetry and monumentality. For Jonson, the unornamented style meant not colloquiality but labour, restraint, and control; a good poet had first to be a good man, and his verses lead his society toward an ethic of gracious but responsible living.

With the Cavalier poets who succeeded Jonson, the element of urbanity and conviviality tended to loom larger. Robert Herrick was perhaps England’s first poet to express impatience with the tediousness of country life. However, Herrick’s The Country Life and The Hock Cart rival Jonson’s To Penshurst as panegyrics to the Horatian ideal of the “good life,” calm and retired, but Herrick’s poems gain retrospective poignancy by their implied contrast with the disruptions of the Civil Wars. The courtiers Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace developed a manner of ease and naturalness suitable to the world of gentlemanly pleasure in which they moved; Suckling’s A Session of the Poets (1637; published 1646) lists more than 20 wits then in town. The Cavalier poets were writing England’s first vers de société, lyrics of compliments and casual liaisons, often cynical, occasionally obscene; this was a line to be picked up again after 1660, as were the heroic verse and attitudinizing drama of Jonson’s successor as poet laureate, Sir William Davenant. A different contribution was the elegance and smoothness that came to be associated with Sir John Denham and Edmund Waller, whom the poet John Dryden named as the first exponents of “good writing.” Waller’s inoffensive lyrics are the epitome of polite taste, and Denham’s topographical poem Cooper’s Hill (1641), a significant work in its own right, is an important precursor of the balanced Augustan couplet (as is the otherwise slight oeuvre of Viscount Falkland). The growth of Augustan gentility was further encouraged by work done on translations in mid-century, particularly by Sir Richard Fanshawe and Thomas Stanley.

 


Robert Herrick


 

baptized Aug. 24, 1591, London, Eng.
died October 1674, Dean Prior, Devonshire

English cleric and poet, the most original of the “sons of Ben [Jonson],” who revived the spirit of the ancient classic lyric. He is best remembered for the line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

As a boy, Herrick was apprenticed to his uncle, Sir William Herrick, a prosperous and influential goldsmith. In 1613 he went to the University of Cambridge, graduating in 1617. He took his M.A. in 1620 and was ordained in 1623. He then lived for a time in London, cultivating the society of the city’s wits, enlarging his acquaintance with writers (Ben Jonson being the most prominent) and musicians, and enjoying the round of court society. In 1627 he went as a chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham on the military expedition to the Île de Ré to relieve La Rochelle from the French Protestants. He was presented with the living of Dean Prior (1629), where he remained for the rest of his life, except when, because of his Royalist sympathies, he was deprived of his post from 1646 until after the Restoration (1660).

Herrick became well known as a poet about 1620–30; many manuscript commonplace books from that time contain his poems. The only book that Herrick published was Hesperides (1648), which included His Noble Numbers, a collection of poems on religious subjects with its own title page dated 1647 but not previously printed. Hesperides contained about 1,400 poems, mostly very short, many of them being brief epigrams. His work appeared after that in miscellanies and songbooks; the 17th-century English composer Henry Lawes and others set some of his songs.

Herrick wrote elegies, satires, epigrams, love songs to imaginary mistresses, marriage songs, complimentary verse to friends and patrons, and celebrations of rustic and ecclesiastical festivals. The appeal of his poetry lies in its truth to human sentiments and its perfection of form and style. Frequently light, worldly, and hedonistic, and making few pretensions to intellectual profundity, it yet covers a wide range of subjects and emotions, ranging from lyrics inspired by rural life to wistful evocations of life and love’s evanescence and fleeting beauty. Herrick’s lyrics are notable for their technical mastery and the interplay of thought, rhythm, and imagery that they display. As a poet Herrick was steeped in the classical tradition; he was also influenced by English folklore and lyrics, by Italian madrigals, by the Bible and patristic literature, and by contemporary English writers, notably Jonson and Robert Burton.
 

 

 


Sir John Suckling

born February 1609, Whitton, Middlesex, England
died 1642, Paris, France

English Cavalier poet, dramatist, and courtier, best known for his lyrics.

He was educated at Cambridge and inherited his father’s considerable estates at the age of 18. He entered Gray’s Inn in 1627 and was knighted in 1630. He became a prominent figure at court with a reputation for being “the greatest gallant of his time, and the greatest gamester both for bowling and cards”; and he is credited with having invented cribbage. He was a gentleman of the privy chamber to Charles I and a friend of the poets Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and Sir William Davenant. When the war with the Scots broke out in 1639, Suckling raised a troop of soldiers, supplying them with horses at his own expense, and accompanied Charles I on his ill-fated expedition. The costumes of Suckling’s gaudy warriors and the troop’s poor performance in the field were the subjects of much ridicule.

In 1641 Suckling took an active part in the plot to rescue the Earl of Strafford from the Tower. When the plot was discovered, Suckling fled to France and is believed to have committed suicide.

Suckling was the author of four plays, the most ambitious of which is the tragedy Aglaura, magnificently staged in 1637 and handsomely printed at the author’s expense (1638); the best is the lively comedy The Goblins (1638). They all contain echoes of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher.

His reputation as a poet rests on his lyrics, the best of which justifies the description of him as “natural, easy Suckling.” He inherited from Donne the tradition of the “anti-platonic” deflation of high-flown love sentiment and uses it with insouciance.

Out upon it I have loved

Three whole days together;

And am like to love three more,

If it prove fair weather.

He can even be cynically chiding in such songs as this:

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?

Prithee, why so pale?

Will, when looking well can’t move her,

Looking ill prevail?

Prithee, why so pale?

A Session of the Poets (1637; published 1646) is an amusing skit for which he probably took a hint from an Italian work by Traiano Boccalini; it is the prototype of a long line of similar works in the 17th and 18th centuries. His masterpiece is undoubtedly “A Ballad Upon a Wedding,” in the style and metre of the contemporary street ballad. Suckling’s extant letters are in lively, colloquial prose that anticipates that of the Restoration wits.
 

 

 


Richard Lovelace



born 1618
died 1657, London

English poet, soldier, and Royalist whose graceful lyrics and dashing career made him the prototype of the perfect Cavalier.

Lovelace was probably born in the Netherlands, where his father was in military service. He was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, and at age 16 or possibly a little later he wrote The Scholars, a comedy acted at Whitefriars, of which the prologue and epilogue survive. He took part in the expeditions to Scotland (1639–40) at the time of the rebellions against Charles I. During this period he is said to have written a tragedy, The Soldier, but there is no certain evidence of this.

Returning to his estates in Kent, Lovelace was chosen to present (1642) a Royalist petition to a hostile House of Commons. For this he was imprisoned in the Gatehouse, London, where he wrote “To Althea, from Prison,” which contains the well-known lines: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage.” He passed much of the next four years abroad and was wounded fighting for the French against the Spaniards at Dunkerque in 1646. In 1648 he was again imprisoned. During his imprisonment, Lovelace prepared Lucasta (1649) for the press.

The antiquarian and historian Anthony à Wood says he died in misery and poverty in 1658, but an elegy on him was printed in 1657. He had certainly sold much of his estates, but none of the elegies supports the story of his unhappy death.

The only other publication of his work was Lucasta; Posthume Poems of Richard Lovelace, Esq. (1659), edited by his brother Dudley, including Elegies, and dated 1660.
 

 

 


Sir William Davenant

born February 1606, Oxford, Eng.
died April 7, 1668, London

English poet, playwright, and theatre manager who was made poet laureate on the strength of such successes as The Witts (licensed 1634), a comedy; the masques The Temple of Love, Britannia Triumphans, and Luminalia; and a volume of poems, Madagascar (published 1638).

Shakespeare was apparently Davenant’s godfather, and gossip held that the famous playwright may even have been his father. Davenant became a page in London in 1622 and later served a famous literary courtier, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Meanwhile he was writing his early revenge tragedies, such as Albovine (produced c. 1629), and tragicomedies, such as The Colonel. After he had served in continental wars, his engaging, reckless personality and his plays and occasional verses attracted the patronage of Queen Henrietta Maria. Davenant was appointed to the poet laureateship in 1638, after the death of Ben Jonson the previous year, and composed several court masques.

In 1641 Davenant risked his life in a bungled army plot, and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 nullified a royal patent he had secured to build a theatre. A supporter of King Charles I during the Civil War, he was knighted by the king in 1643 for running supplies across the English Channel. Later, having joined the defeated and exiled Stuart court in Paris, he began his uncompleted verse epic Gondibert (1651), a tale of chivalry in 1,700 quatrains. After the execution of Charles I, his queen sent Davenant to aid the Royalist cause in America as lieutenant governor of Maryland. Davenant’s ship was captured in the English Channel, however, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1654.

In 1656 Davenant made the first attempt to revive English drama, which had been banned under Cromwell, with The first day’s Entertainment (produced 1656), a work disguised under the title Declamations and Musick. This work led to his creating the first public opera in England, The Siege of Rhodes Made a Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes, And the Story sung in Recitative Musick (produced 1656). In The Siege he introduced three innovations to the English public stage: an opera, painted stage sets, and a female actress-singer.

In 1660, after the Restoration, he was granted one of two new royal patents to establish new acting companies and founded the new Duke of York’s Playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. As manager, director, and playwright, he continued to produce, write, and adapt plays. The charter was later transferred to Covent Garden. Together with the poet John Dryden, he adapted Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1667.
 

 

 


Sir John Denham



born 1615, Dublin, Ire.
died March 10, 1669, London, Eng.

poet who established as a new English genre the leisurely meditative poem describing a particular landscape.

Educated at the University of Oxford, Denham was admitted to the bar, but he was already actively writing. He had translated six books of the Aeneid, parts of which were later printed; but he made his reputation with The Sophy, a blank-verse historical tragedy acted in 1641, and with Cooper’s Hill, a poem published in 1642. During the English Civil Wars, he was engaged at home and abroad in the cause of Charles II. Made a knight of the Bath and elected to the Royal Society after the Restoration in 1660, he also served as a member of Parliament. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Denham’s poetry is essentially didactic. Its strength lies in its gravely reflective ethical solidity, and it achieves an expression of balance and unity that is developed out of a theory of the harmony of opposites. He helped develop the closed heroic couplet (a couplet rhyming aa and containing a complete idea, not dependent upon the preceding or following couplet). Denham greatly increased the popularity of that form with Cooper’s Hill, a new type of descriptive landscape verse that was imitated by English poets for the next 100 years.
 

 
 


Sir Richard Fanshawe



born June 1608, Ware Park, Hertfordshire, Eng.
died , June, 16, 1666, Madrid

English poet, translator, and diplomat whose version of Camões’ Os Lusíadas is a major achievement of English verse translation.

Educated at Cambridge, he was appointed secretary to the English embassy at Madrid in 1635. At the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the King. In 1648 he became treasurer to the navy, and in 1650 he was dispatched by Charles II to obtain help from Spain. Although this was refused, Fanshawe was created a baronet; he rejoined Charles in Scotland and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester. On Cromwell’s death he reentered the King’s service in Paris and after the Restoration was appointed ambassador to Portugal and later to Spain.

Fanshawe’s Il Pastor Fido, The faithful Shepherd, a translation of Battista Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido, was published in 1647. A second edition “with divers other poems” (1648) included his version of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Spenserian stanza. His Selected Parts of Horace appeared in 1652. The great work of his retirement during the Protectorate was his translation in the original metre of the Os Lusíadas of Camões (1655).
 

 
 


Thomas Stanley

born 1625, Cumberlow, Hertfordshire, Eng.
died April 12, 1678, London

English poet, translator, and the first English historian of philosophy.

Stanley was the son of Sir Thomas Stanley, himself the grandson of Thomas Stanley, a natural son of Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby. The younger Stanley was educated by William Fairfax, son of the translator of Torquato Tasso. He became a good classical scholar and an enthusiastic student of French, Italian, and Spanish poetry. Stanley entered Pembroke Hall (later College), Cambridge, in 1639 and studied there and at the University of Oxford, graduating with an M.A. in 1641.

Stanley was the friend of many poets and himself a prolific translator and writer of verse. He traveled on the European continent during the English Civil Wars and on his return lived in the Middle Temple, London, where he devoted himself to literary work. His first volume of poems appeared in 1647. Subsequent volumes included translations from Anacreon, Bion, Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Battista Guarini, Giambattista Marino, Petrarch, Pierre de Ronsard, and others. His classic renderings of the Anacreontic poems were published in 1651, and the same collection contains his version of Pico della Mirandola’s A Platonick Discourse upon Love. Stanley’s The History of Philosophy, which long remained a standard work, was published in 1655–62, and his edition of Aeschylus with Latin translation and commentary in 1663. He had a graceful if tenuous gift as a lyrical poet and was a versatile and accomplished translator.
 





Continued influence of Spenser


Donne had shattered Spenser’s leisurely ornamentation, and Jonson censured his archaic language, but the continuing regard for Spenser at this time was significant. Variants of the Spenserian stanza were used by the brothers Giles Fletcher and Phineas Fletcher, the former in his long religious poem Christ’s Victory (1610), which is also indebted to Josuah Sylvester’s highly popular translations from the French Calvinist poet Guillaume du Bartas, the Divine Weeks and Works (1605). Similarly, Spenserian pastorals still flowed from the pens of William Browne (Britannia’s Pastorals, 1613–16), George Wither (The Shepherd’s Hunting, 1614), and Michael Drayton, who at the end of his life returned nostalgically to portraying an idealized Elizabethan golden age (The Muses Elizium, 1630). Nostalgia was a dangerous quality under the progressive and absolutist Stuarts; the taste for Spenser involved a respect for values—traditional, patriotic, and Protestant—that were popularly, if erroneously, linked with the Elizabethan past but thought to be disregarded by the new regime. These poets believed they had a spokesman at court in the heroic and promising Prince Henry, but his death in 1612 disappointed many expectations, intellectual, political, and religious, and this group in particular was forced further toward the Puritan position. Increasingly, their pastorals and fervently Protestant poetry made them seem out of step with a court whose sympathies in foreign affairs were pro-Spanish and pro-Catholic; so sharp became Wither’s satires that he earned imprisonment and was lampooned by Jonson in a court masque. The failure of the Stuarts to conciliate attitudes such as these was to be crucial to their inability to prevent the collapse of the Elizabethan compromise in the next generation. The nearest affinities, both in style and substance, of John Milton’s early poetry would be with the Spenserians; in Areopagitica (1644) Milton praised “our sage and serious poet Spenser” as “a better teacher than [the philosophers] Scotus or Aquinas.”

 


Giles Fletcher the Younger

born c. 1585, London
died 1623, Alderton, Suffolk, Eng.

English poet principally known for his great Baroque devotional poem Christs Victorie.

He was the younger son of Giles Fletcher the Elder. He was educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Cambridge. After his ordination, he held a college position, and became known for his sermons at the Church of St. Mary the Great. He left Cambridge about 1618 and soon after received the rectory of Alderton, Suffolk.

The theme of Fletcher’s masterpiece, Christs Victorie, and Triumph in Heaven, and Earth, over, and after death (1610), bears some resemblance to that of the religious epic Semaine (1578; Eng. trans., Devine Weekes and Workes, 1605) of the French Protestant poet Du Bartas; but the devotion, the passionate lyricism, and the exquisite vision of paradise that critics have praised are Fletcher’s own. The poem is written in eight-line stanzas somewhat derivative of Edmund Spenser, of whom, like his brother Phineas, Giles was a disciple.
 

 

 


Phineas Fletcher

baptized April 8, 1582, Cranbrook, Kent, England
died 1650, Hilgay, Norfolk

English poet best known for his religious and scientific poem The Purple Island.

He was the elder son of Giles Fletcher the Elder and brother of Giles Fletcher the Younger. He was educated at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge. Fletcher became chaplain to Sir Henry Willoughby, who presented him in 1621 to the rectory of Hilgay, Norfolk, where he spent the rest of his life.

His greatest work, The Purple Island, was published in 1633. It included the Piscatorie Eclogs and other Poetical Miscellanies. The Purple Island: or the Isle of Man, is a poem in 12 cantos describing allegorically the human physiology and soul. The manner of Edmund Spenser is employed throughout, and the chief charm of the poem is considered by critics to be its descriptions of rural scenery. The Piscatorie Eclogs are pastorals, the characters of which are represented as fisherboys on the banks of the Cam, and are interesting for the light they cast on the biography of the poet himself (Thyrsil) and his father (Thelgon), and on Phineas’ friendship with Cambridge men. Fletcher’s poetry has not the sublimity sometimes reached by his brother Giles.

 

 

 


Josuah Sylvester

born 1563, Kent, Eng.
died Sept. 28, 1618, Middelburg, Neth.

English poet-translator, best known as the translator of a popular biblical epic, the Divine Weekes and Workes. Translated from a French Protestant poet, Guillaume du Bartas, (1544–90), it appeared in sections in 1592 and complete in 1608. This epic on the creation, the fall of man, and other early parts of Genesis was extremely popular in England through the first half of the 17th century. Sylvester had some small influence on Dryden, Milton, and other poets.
 

 

 


William Browne

born 1591?, Tavistock, Devonshire, Eng.
died 1645?

English poet, author of Britannia’s Pastorals (1613–16) and other pastoral and miscellaneous verse.

Browne studied at the University of Oxford and entered the Inner Temple in 1611. Between 1616 and 1621 he lived in France. In 1623 he became tutor to Robert Dormer, the future Earl of Carnarvon, accompanying him to Eton and Oxford. His later life appears to have been spent near Dorking, Surrey.

Britannia’s Pastorals, modeled on the work of the poet Edmund Spenser, is a long, discursive pastoral narrative interspersed with songs. Devoted to his country, and especially to Devonshire, he attempted to glorify them in pastoral verse of epic dignity.
 

 

 
 
 
 

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