What Made Shakespeare So Great?

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Background

Is there anyone on earth who has not heard of William Shakespeare? Four hundred years after his death, his writings are still required readings for English literature! ‘The Bard’, as he is called, is famous for his plays and poetry in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era.

Back in the days, biographies and dramatists were not a big thing. This is why, a biographical research on Shakespeare’s life did not happen half a century after his death! Despite this, he is the most written about playwright among his contemporaries.

It is said that he has written around 38 plays and 154 sonnets, some are in collaboration with other playwrights.

Who was William Shakespeare?

Who was William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was born in 1564 during the Tudor Period in Stratford-upon-Avon, the urban center of Warwickshire county in England. He had four brothers and four sisters and lived in the family house at Henley Street until 18 when he got married to Anne Hathwey in 1582, a woman who was eight years his senior. [1] He had a daughter named Susanna and twins named Hamnet and Judith [2]

John Shakespeare, William’s father was a glove-maker and a government official. He has served as a borough ale-tester, council member and also sat in the highest civic seat in Stratford as a bailiff. Meanwhile, William’s mother is Mary Arden is the daughter of a well-to-do landowner and aristocrat. [3]

His reputation as a playwright reached its peak around 1592 in London where he also helped start a group for actors called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men where he was also a regular dramatist. This group was later known as The King’s Men in 1603 under King James I. [4]

What made William Shakespeare the “Greatest Playwright”?

Five things make Shakespeare standout from his contemporaries. These are:

  1. He enriched the English language. According to a computer study, Shakespeare has used 17,677 and 50% of this was used once in his writings only! Around 1700 of these words were printed for the first time in his writings. [5] Phrases like “kill with kindness”, “heart of gold” and “apple of my eye” as well as words like jaded, obscene and fashionable were attributed to him. In fact, he is the most quoted author in the Oxford English Dictionary!
  2. His language is so descriptive. It may be difficult to read at first but after the second or third read, you will appreciate how dense and rich it is! After all, these plays were performed in broad daylight in an open-air setting sans the technologies we have today. His words stimulated people to dream dreams through language alone.
  3. His use of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a verse rhythm with 10 syllables per line, alternating between unstressed ”iamb” and stressed ”dee Dum” beats repeated five times. This then creates the “de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM” pattern, just like a heartbeat! [6] Shakespeare was a creative and he would play around with the stress patterns or add syllables to create different effects. Do you know that lines that uses iambic pentameter were reserved for characters in his play that belongs to high society while the lower class spoke in prose? [7]
  4. The universal and timeless appeal of his works. The themes in Shakespeare’s works are timeless. It talks about the duality of man like life and death, love and hate, youth and aging and fate and free will. [8] People, regardless of age and race, through time are able to identify with the rawness of emotions exhibited in Shakespeare’s characters.
  5. He wrote in three main genres. He is known to write in three genres: tragedy, comedy and history. The tragedies like “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” was a crowd favorite during the Elizabethan times. The common theme was the rise and fall of a man of noble descent with a fatal weakness, which usually causes his death.

Next are the comedies which uses satire, metaphors and puns. It has a complex plot with elements of love and lust and ends with the lovers reunion. The main characters often cross-dress in drags. This can be seen in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado about Nothing”.

Lastly, is histories like “Richard III” and “Henry V.” These are a form of socio-political commentary. The main character is often a monarch and the setting is the Hundred Years’ War. These plays shows us a good picture of the class divide in those times. Histories can be divided into two tetralogies, or groups of four plays. [9]

Interesting Facts about William Shakespeare

  • Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and also died on the same day 52 years later.
  • It is said that he gave his wife his second best bed when he died, indicating that he did not have a happy marriage. [10] It said, “I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.” Bed linens in those times are called “furniture.” [11]
  • A poem etched in his tomb and it says that those who moves his bones will be cursed.
  • He was the third son of eight but his oldest siblings died while young thus making him the eldest of the bunch. [12]
  • Women in his plays are characterized as honest and wise.
  • Teenaged boys whose voices has not changed yet are often cast in female roles.
  • His plays were not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
  • Transcriptions of his plays are said to be done by drunk theater-enthusiasts. [13]

Interesting Facts about William Shakespeare

Conclusion 

Shakespeare has a strong influence on English literature. His works has been translated in many languages all over the world and even movies are based on it.

References

  1. Who was William Shakespeare? (n.d.) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/william-shakespeare/william-shakespeare-biography/
  2. Best, Michael. “Married Life” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/youth/children.html
  3. Best, Michael. “Shakespeare’s family.” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/childhood/family.html
  4. Who was William Shakespeare? (n.d.) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/william-shakespeare/william-shakespeare-biography/
  5. Yancey, Philip. (17 February 2020) What makes Shakespeare great? (Part I). Philip Yancey. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://philipyancey.com/what-makes-shakespeare-great-part-i
  6. To dee-dum or dum-dee that is the question.(n.d.) A thousand monkeys. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://www.athousandmonkeys.co.uk/post/to-dee-dum-or-dum-dee-that-is-the-question
  7. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Shakespeare’s Plays. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/iambic-pentameter-examples-2985081
  8. Why is Shakespeare still important today? (n.d.) Celtic English. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://www.celticenglish.co.uk/blog/why-is-shakespeare-still-important-today/
  9. Appendix: Shakespeare’s Two Tetralogies.Folger Shakespeare Library. Retrieved September 18 2022 from https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/henry-vi-part-1/appendix-shakespeares-two-tetralogies/
  10. William Shakespeare. (n.d.) Absolute Shakespeare. Retrieved September 18 2022 from https://absoluteshakespeare.com/william_shakespeare.htm
  11. 10 strange facts about Shakespeare. (n.b.) Great British Mag. Retrieved September 18 2022 from https://greatbritishmag.co.uk/uk-culture/10-strange-facts-about-shakespeare/
  12. Best, Michael. “Shakespeare’s baptism.” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/childhood/childhood.html
  13. Types of Shakespeare Plays. (n.d.). Story That. Retrieved 18 September 2022 from https://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/types-of-shakespearean-plays

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