Introduction to Shakespeare

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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William Shakespeare was born on or around April 23, 1564 into a prosperous home in Warwickshire’s Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the third child of multifaceted businessman and local politician John Shakespeare (1531-1601) and Mary Elizabeth Arden (1536-1608), the daughter of a gentleman farmer who whose Arden ancestors went back at least to the time of William the Conqueror. Aside from William, four siblings survived to adulthood, but only one, his sister Joan (d. 1646), outlived him, and in fact the descendants of Joan and her husband William Hart are the great poet’s closest living descendants since none of William and Anne Shakespeare’s grandkids had children. Three other siblings of William were his brothers Gilbert (d. 1612), Richard (d. 1613), and Edmund, who became an actor in London but died in 1607 at the age of 27).

William almost certainly attended King Edward IV Grammar School in his hometown from approximately 1571-78, where he studied copious amounts of Latin grammar and possibly a bit of Greek as well.[1] His tutors would have been the Catholics Simon Hunt, Thomas Jenkins, and John Cottam. The last-mentioned of these men had a brother named Thomas who was executed for his connection to the famous Catholic scholar Edmund Campion. There is some speculation that after his schoolboy days but before he went to London in the mid-to-later 1590s, Shakespeare was a tutor in a prominent Catholic household in Lancashire, but nothing along these lines is certain, and the period after grammar school and before he was well established in London as a playwright (1592) are sometimes referred to as the “lost years.” Where did Shakespeare get his earliest preparation for his brilliant career in London theater? As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his excellent biography on Shakespeare[2], young William would have been introduced in grammar school to a good deal of Latin literature, including comic plays by Terence and Plautus and the elegant poetry of Ovid and Vergil. From such material, an imaginative lad like him could have learned a great deal about effective storytelling.

We can probably add to school studies Shakespeare’s viewings of late-medieval mystery and miracle plays put on by traveling players, along with Catholic-tending folk rites. This sort of entertainment was going out of style under the continued pressure of the Reformation in England, but to some extent, at least, it still seems to have been around during Shakespeare’s boyhood. Greenblatt points out that in 1575, Queen Elizabeth made a “progress” through an area not far from young William’s home, so the boy could easily have caught glimpses of the dazzling spectacles provided by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester for the queen’s entertainment.[3] Proximity to John Shakespeare’s business interests as a glover, agricultural- and wool-trader, money-lender, government official, and so forth would have given William considerable knowledge of these professions, too. It would also, as Greenblatt points out, have introduced young William to the manners of the aristocratic class. Mark Twain would one day advise students everywhere, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Will Shakespeare needed no prompting from a nineteenth-century American to avoid that mistake.

One thing we can’t source from any of these experiences is Shakespeare’s astonishing facility with language: this isn’t something one can just pick up along the way through education or even robust life experience. Biographer Peter Ackroyd and others have suggested that Shakespeare’s plays contain some of Warwickshire’s dialect, so perhaps we can add that to the mix of positive influences.[4] Still, to read or listen to the best of Shakespeare’s verse is to realize that we can’t reduce its author to a set of experiences and influences—we can’t dismiss the concept of genius out of hand.[5]

William married Anne Hathaway in 1582. Anne was several years older than her husband, which was rather unusual at the time. The couple had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and in 1585 the twins Judith (d. 1662) and Hamnet (d. 1596). When William subsequently moved to London, Anne stayed in Stratford. We don’t know exactly how Shakespeare got his vital opportunity to travel from Stratford-upon-Avon to the great metropolis, but some biographers speculate that he may have become attached to one of the aristocrat-supported acting troupes that sometimes visited the area near where he lived.[6] In any case, Shakespeare must have been in London already by the late 1580s, and by 1592 (a tough year for the theater in London since the playhouses were shut down due to plague and other problems), he was becoming known as a promising playwright.

Being part of the theater scene in London must have been exciting for the young man—the first theater was built there around 1576, and though there were predecessors to the stage such as the late medieval mystery cycles and morality plays like Everyman, the theater had an air of newness and played a significant part in the vibrant life of cosmopolitan London. Shakespeare attracted considerable notice from the outset. Even though he never attended either Oxford or Cambridge, he seems to have made some connections with the University Wits, brash young men such as Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Thomas Watson, George Peele, and Thomas Lodge. The dying Robert Greene refers to Shakespeare with considerable resentment in his September 20, 1592 posthumously printed essay “Groats-worth of Wit”: “there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you…..” [7] Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (c. 1591) contains language very similar to Greene’s “Tygers hart” passage, as the Duke of York reproaches his enemy Queen Margaret with the words “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” (Norton 243, 1.4.137),[8] so it seems certain that this caustic putdown was aimed directly at William. (As for at least some of his excellent poetry—the Sonnets, The Phoenix and the Turtle, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece—Shakespeare had patrons such as Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton to provide some Elizabethan aristocratic backing.)

For most of his career, Shakespeare was associated with the playing company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which was later renamed the King’s Men when James I became monarch in 1603. Shakespeare seems to have chosen John Fletcher (1579-1625) to succeed him as the head of the King’s Men, and the two collaborated on three of Shakespeare’s late plays, namely Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio. Some other plays for which he seems to have had collaborators were Titus Andronicus (George Peele), Timon of Athens (Thomas Middleton), and Pericles, Prince of Tyre (George Wilkins). Collaboration of this sort was evidently common in the great age of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama—no doubt it was driven by the thriving market for new works to put before the public.

With or without other playwrights, Shakespeare produced an astonishing number of brilliant plays during his time as a dramatist, divided into comedies, tragedies, and histories. (The ones we call “romance” plays were not so called until the mid-Victorian Era.) He even acted in some of them, perhaps taking the role of Old Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet. But his main players were the magnificent Richard Burbage for the tragic roles, and Will Kempe for comedy until 1599, after him coming the subtler Robert Armin. There were others as listed in the 1623 Folio. Well before his death in 1616 from an illness of some kind, Shakespeare had become a successful businessman (he owned part of the Globe Theatre that had been built in 1599 and the indoors Blackfriars Playhouse used from 1608 onward during the winter, which yielded considerable revenue), and had other financial interests back home in Stratford. There were some difficult times in Shakespeare’s life: his son Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of 11, and later, to this personal tragedy was added a moment of political peril when the Earl of Essex almost sucked the playwright into a 1599 rebellion by commissioning a performance of Richard II. The performance enraged Queen Elizabeth, who got Essex’s point that she, like the king in the play, was a bad ruler who deserved to be deposed. But Shakespeare had written the play around 1595-96, not for Essex’s doomed rebellion, so he wasn’t blamed. It could be dangerous to write and stage plays during his time. But all in all, Shakespeare’s was a remarkable and successful career.

It may seem odd to us that Shakespeare never published a collected edition of his plays during his lifetime. He may have agreed with Duke Theseus in 5.1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that with regard to plays, “The best in this kind are but shadows.” Perhaps, in his view, the thunderous applause of his fellow Londoners was fame enough. Or—and this seems doubtful—perhaps he meant to turn out a fair copy of his collected dramas someday, but his relatively swift-progressing final illness prevented that project. Who can say? In any case, memory of nearly all of Shakespeare’s dramas (aside from the lost Cardenio and possibly Love’s Labour’s Won) was kept alive by the publication of the First Folio in 1623. Although no original hand-written manuscripts now survive, the 1623 Folio collected edition preserved 18 of its 36 plays from oblivion since no popular quarto editions of them had yet been printed.[9]

In politics, Shakespeare seems to have been a royalist in so far as he was of any view (the relevant sovereigns are the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and the Stuart King James I (1603-25; James’s mother was Elizabeth’s rival Mary Queen of Scots), and somewhat conservative in the broad sense that his plays consistently respect the interests of the nobility, and not so much the commonfolk, at least when they are involved in disorders. The last years of his life were spent mainly in looking after his real estate holdings and other business interests in or near Stratford. It is logical to suppose that Shakespeare’s outlook stemmed from his bourgeois roots and lifestyle: he grew up in the Warwickshire countryside, and his father had some local influence and wealth when William was young. John Shakespeare was a local official and a glover, moneylender, and dealer in the illegal wool trade, though he seems to have fallen on hard times later on.

As already mentioned, William did quite well for himself as a businessman, what with his crowd-pleasing playwright and acting skills, wise decisions about theatrical matters at the Globe from 1599 and later at the more intimate Blackfriars, and possibly in other side ventures. People who have property and wealth tend to support stability in the social and political realms, and Shakespeare was almost certainly no different from most in that regard: a bourgeois gentleman is not likely to take the side of chaos-sowing rebels like Jack Cade or Wat Tyler over the Crown, or of house-torching plebeian Roman rioters over the interests of safety and security. One senses some humor concerning, but no genuine fondness for, mobs of any sort in Shakespeare’s plays. Stephen Greenblatt seems right to suggest in Will in the World that what Shakespeare likes about mobs of any composition was their dynamism, their energy—but not their ideas or intentions.

In religion Shakespeare may, as many biographers have suggested, have had Catholic leanings even though he conformed to the Anglican Church, which took its inception from Henry VIII’s inability to get the Pope to grant him a divorce from his first queen, Catherine of Aragon. For that reason, England joined the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther had begun in October 1517. Still, it’s expecting a lot to suppose that everybody in the “reformed” countries would automatically go along with the program. Many English people tried to keep up the old faith, though they had to put a lid on their activities since Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth in particular didn’t want their subjects reverting to Catholic forms and allegiances. Shakespeare seems to have had a few “Papists” in his family—possibly including his father John—and he also seems to have had connections with powerful Catholics beyond his family. Ackroyd notes that quite a number of the Shakespeare family’s neighbors in Stratford were Catholic. At the very least, then, young William’s way of thinking about Catholics could not have been grounded in the sentiment, “I’ve never met one.”

In sum, Shakespeare seems to have been a culturally traditionalist, affable, entrepreneurial-minded Englishman, not some atheist radical like Christopher Marlowe or irascible ruffian like Robert Greene, even if he knew and consorted with such men. What does this biography mean for his art? It’s hard to say, really. If we were to let this “businessman burgher” image lead us to suppose that Shakespeare’s plays would offer stodgy characters and lackluster, preachy action, we would be hilariously wrong. When John Keats wrote admiringly in one of his letters of the “chameleon poet” endowed with “negative capability” (the ability to explore a personality or a situation without need for immediate certainty in the moral or factual sense), he must have been thinking of Shakespeare.[10] What besides “negative capability” and chameleonic tendencies would allow an artist so completely to enter into the mindset of a charming but thoroughly wicked character such as Richard III or Iago; or a flawed but noble one like the Roman general Coriolanus; or an all-purpose rogue and morality-play “Vice” like Jack Falstaff; or an intelligent, sensitive character like Macbeth whose ambition traps him in a downward spiral of preventive murder and psychological hardness? It would be challenging to generate so many wonderful characters if you were intent on propagating some rock-solid moral drawn from your politics or religion.[11] Shakespeare disappears with remarkable ease into his multifarious characters, so that he really is what Samuel Johnson and others have called him: “a poet of nature” (including human nature). It may seem grandiose to suggest that there has never been an artist quite like Shakespeare, but it’s also defensible.


The Tudor Era begins with Henry VII (1485-1509), victor in the Wars of the Roses over the last Yorkist King Richard III (1483-85). It continues through the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58), and ends after Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The Stuart Era begins with the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I (1603-25), continues with the reign of his ill-fated son Charles I (1625-49), and then after an interregnum period in which Cromwell and his Puritans ruled, it is restored in the person of Charles II (1660-85).[12]

A central period of English history with respect to Shakespeare and his dramas is the mid-fifteenth century through his own lifetime (1564-1616). Henry VII put an end to the Wars of the Roses, a period of dynastic strife between the descendants of Edward III (1327-77) stretching from 1455 to Henry’s ascension and even a few years after that, to 1487. In essence, the throne was tossed back and forth between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with the often incapacitated Lancastrian King Henry VI (son of Henry V, victor of Agincourt) ruling from 1422-61, and Yorkist Richard III getting rid of the heirs of his deceased brother and fellow Yorkist Edward IV (1461-83), who had defeated Henry VI, to rule in his own right for three fitful years (1483-85). Finally, Henry, Earl of Richmond, an exiled member of the Welsh Tudor clan, married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two great houses. This Henry VII, of course, is the grandfather of the mightiest of English rulers, Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth I. So the recent political past had been one of strife and instability, with great nobles traversing England and at times treating the people with as little respect as foreign invaders might.

Elizabeth I’s reign, which covered Shakespeare’s lifetime until his 39th year, was a time of growth, promise, and international danger for England. Her father Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47), as mentioned above, swept Martin Luther’s bracing Protestant Reformation into England from the Continent, posing a severe challenge to the safety and consciences of many English citizens, and while at first Queen Elizabeth seemed content to require only outward conformity with the new Protestant dispensation, genuine threats from the Popes in Rome and from Catholic plotting led her into ever-more severe means of dealing with Catholic priests infiltrating England from Europe and with English “recusants” and other religious malcontents. The massive Spanish Armada sent by Philip II of Spain (Elizabeth’s half-brother!) was sent on a mission in 1588 to crush the English navy and then invade England itself. Thanks in part to a major storm, the Armada failed, but the menace was real, which meant persecution and forced secrecy for many of England’s still large number of dedicated Catholics.

This was a time of growing English nationalism, naval power, and exploration, with the Queen encouraging men such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake to set sail for the new world. Royal power had been much centralized from the time of feudalism and the Court was a great factor in English life during Tudor and Stuart times, but Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I were by no means unencumbered absolutists, however fond the latter was of “the divine right of kings.” In particular, the growing commercial class in London began to feel its power as an important economic force in the life of the nation, and religious Puritans began to take issue with the authority of the Crown and the Church of England (or Anglican Church) that Henry VIII had turned into a nationalist instrument when Pope Paul III excommunicated him in 1534.

The struggle between Puritans and the State intensified in the reigns of the Stuart James I and then of his son Charles I, who was executed in 1649 during the course of a bloody Civil War won by Oliver Cromwell and his faction, who were determined to establish the Rule of the Saints on English soil. These theater-closing, pleasure-disdaining Puritans ruled for only a decade or so, with Charles II returning from the Continent to initiate the Stuart Restoration of 1660, but the monarchy has never been as powerful since the Puritans’ regicidal Interregnum. Shakespeare, of course, didn’t live to see the civil strife of the 1640s, though his sister Joan did, and so did his last direct descendant, granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Hall Barnard, who died childless in 1670, ten years after the Restoration.[13] On the whole, during the Tudor and Stuart periods, English sovereigns were acutely aware of how valuable the arts could be to them in their quest to shore up and augment their own power, and Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights certainly benefited from this awareness.


Let’s leave aside political and religious history and move on to consider briefly Shakespeare’s London. It was a thriving city of perhaps 200,000-250,000 people by his day (say 1600), and the whole of England had around four million inhabitants. The neoclassical critic Samuel Johnson later declared proudly that “He that is tired of London is tired of life,” but even before his time the City must have been an exciting place to live, if not a very safe one. Many of the protections modern people take for granted didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. Safe food and good sanitation? Forget it. Health care? Not available—aside from perhaps some herbal remedies and advice to “take the waters” or avoid strenuous exertion, physicians were about as likely to kill their patients as cure them. The germ theory of disease was unknown (it’s more or less a nineteenth-century development), and the average lifespan seems to have been around 35 years. If a person was very lucky and never contracted a serious illness or needed surgery, he or she might live to the biblical threescore and ten (70), but more likely the end would come much sooner. And there was still the Bubonic Plague to deal with in both London and the countryside—Daniel Defoe’s post-Restoration book Journal of the Plague Year (1722) conveys how horrifying and deadly a prospect that was. Material life for London’s working class of servants, apprentices, and artisans must have been rough, always a struggle. The City had its guildsmen and prosperous merchants, too, but all were subject to the difficulties of life in a noisy, dirty, dangerous environment.

One thing to draw from this characterization is that life in early modern London retained some of the uncertainties of medieval times, in particular a deep sense of the tenuousness of existence itself—people never knew when they or someone they loved would be carried off by the plague or some other sickness, or by an accident due to unsafe conditions. Death was an acknowledged, if feared, part of everyday life. That kind of awareness makes for a very different sensibility from ours because our culture tends to distance us from the presence and processes of death. At the same time, London offered a new sense of possibility and liveliness, a sense of the larger world “out there,” the one beyond Europe being explored by Raleigh and Drake and others. London was becoming to some degree cosmopolitan, a place that invited the world in rather than excluding it. In plays such as The Tempest, Shakespeare plays to this awareness of the greater world beyond England, no doubt much to his audiences’ delight.


The advent of the public theater in the 1580s certainly testifies to a thriving intellectual climate in London. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold was surely right when he mentioned Elizabethan London in the same sentence as Classical Athens in this regard. In his 1866 treatise “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold wrote that Shakespeare didn’t need tremendous book-learning because a lot of his acumen came from living in a culture that was alive to all that life had to offer in the Early Modern Age. Shakespeare grew up in this heady atmosphere, and his audiences were receptive to the imaginative spectacles he staged for them. Some acting companies performed up to twelve plays a week, so they had to foster a community spirit among the actors, who didn’t get much rehearsal time for their performances. Many Londoners of all classes had at least some leisure time, and aside from their attendance at crude spectacles such as bear-baiting and public executions, they flocked in impressive numbers to the several theaters (the Rose, the Swan, and others before the Globe’s opening in 1599). It should be noted that the theaters were not located in areas within the city of London’s jurisdiction since the authorities frowned upon the seamy, morally suspect presence of the lower orders in and around the major playhouses.[14]

In Shakespeare’s Audience, Alfred Harbage suggests that on any given day, several thousand inhabitants probably paid their penny or more to attend an afternoon theater performance, and the demand only went away when the Bubonic Plague struck from time to time and closed the theaters down.[15] Harbage also deals carefully with the question of audience composition: the most extreme characterizations of the London playgoers, to be sure, are the product of Puritan loathing. Not all of Shakespeare’s groundlings[16] were prostitutes or pickpockets, though some of them were. The profession wasn’t considered solid in terms of class status, and women were not allowed to become actors because it was not deemed a respectable craft for them to practice. Still, respectable people, male and female, attended the London theatres, which were a meeting ground for citizens from various stations and walks of life. For that matter, Shakespeare’s players strutted their stuff at times even before the nobility and monarchs at court, so drama was an interest that cut across large sections of Elizabethan-Jacobean society. Theater was an impressive part of the life of a burgeoning Early-Modern nation, and it served all of the purposes that art can and does serve, from reinforcing social mores to questioning them sharply; from praising monarchs to reminding them that they were, after all, only mortal; from delightful escapism to stark, almost unbearable realism.


We might expect an active playwright like Shakespeare to deal directly with the flow of modern life, but unlike Ben Jonson and some others of his time, for the most part he doesn’t do that. London’s mercantile class was increasing, and nationalism was beginning to flex its muscles. So why don’t we find London’s social structure “ripped from the headlines” in Shakespeare? He deals with courtly environments and characters, and often at some historical distance, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages in Europe: he represents monarchs as nearly unconstrained, not as having to deal with parliament as they did by his own day, and his treatment of rank reinforces this preference. Shakespeare concentrates on the parallel order of society and the grand cosmos, as in the Troilus and Cressida passage that runs “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (Norton1.3.113-14). Kings and high nobles, not commoners, are the center of his tragedies and histories, but the same statement holds to a great extent for his comic and romance plays. This may be due in part to what was called above a degree of conservatism in his approach to life and to his propertied station. There’s also the fact that censorship was part of life in England: a dramatist’s scripts had to be cleared by the Master of Revels before they were performed, and it was safer not to try to deal with current political affairs or great personages.


To what extent do the main characters step out as strong individuals?

— Generally, in comedy we are dealing with characters who fit into some recognizable pattern or type, but does that truism do justice to the play you’re studying?

What do the characters seek?

— Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.

— Characters seek not only love but also transcendence, security, understanding, clarity, etc. (Evidently, there’s more to life than news, weather, and Cupid’s Arrow.)

What obstacles stand in the way of characters’ fulfilling their desires?

— There are both internal and external hindrances.

— That is, not everything is a matter of stern patriarchs getting in the way, etc.

How do the main characters react to the obstacles that stand in their way?

— Reactions, as always, can tell us a lot about a character’s depth and understanding.

What is the disposition of time and chance?

— Time is on the comic protagonist’s side, but what more is to be said in this regard  

about the comic or romance or history play you are studying?

— Are time and chance dealt with in a more or less realistic manner, or a fantastical one? Why might the playwright be dealing with these things in such a “non-verisimilar” or non-lifelike way?


Shakespeare’s plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance (though this last category was invented by Edward Dowden in 1875). Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories, and it’s extremely unlikely that he read Aristotle’s Poetics. As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “No work of genius dares want its appropriate form….”[17] That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, it makes sense to affirm it: Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or odd reference or allusion, composed as something like a romantic poet. Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other (no one cared about absolute originality in his day) he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure. We respond to a work of art as we create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively. Form and meaning aren’t merely imposed upon the material in cookie-cutter fashion. Instead, they develop dynamically in accordance with the inner laws of the work itself.

The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well: imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone. Soon, the first creative act is performed, and then the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone. This prompts another act, and on it goes in a sustained dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process. Consider Beethoven starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony: GGGF. He followed those notes where they had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where listeners might have thought they should go. Beethoven consistently surprises his hearers in this way, and so does Shakespeare. In practical terms, readers and listeners need not seek a facile coherency in the material. Rather, they should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort they find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays. Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament. His brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though one can learn a lot about English history from his history plays, with due allowances for dramatic imperatives and poetical devices).

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays make sense, but the sense they make isn’t reducible to neat formulae or critical principles. Those who consult online “note factory” materials should be mindful of this complexity. Such note material tends to be of variable quality, and it may let readers down when it comes to interpreting or contextualizing the most difficult passages: sometimes it’s evident that the interpreter has not understood the basic meaning of the passage, or writes in ignorance of the broader context in which the language is embedded. Even the better sort of online notes comes at us saying “Here are three key themes you can use to write a paper on The Merchant of Venice.” The themes identified may be worthwhile, but the more we allow ourselves to be bound by them, the less room will there be for our own perhaps eccentric and more interesting interpretations. Maybe we will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the note-writers, either because they lack the sophistication to notice it or because they presume very few students consulting their notes have that level of expertise. But perhaps that “something” is what we should really be writing about. At bottom, good critics are good storytellers: they tell interesting, compelling stories about other people’s stories. Any resort to commercially produced notes should be made to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to facile comprehensibility. Few of us go to art looking for it to hand us simple solutions to painfully complex existential problems, so criticism shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that we do.


Grammar and Rhetorical/Literary Devices.

See the Shakespeare Resource Center’s guide to Shakespeare’s Grammar as well as Grammarly writer Lindsey Kramer’s blog entries All about Alliteration and What Is a Rhetorical Device? See also Grammarly’s What Is Assonance? by Parker Yamasaki and What Is Consonance? by Matt Ellis.

A. Inverted or otherwise altered syntax:

“If’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (Norton Tragedies 930, Macbeth 3.1.64-66). The three Weird Sisters told Banquo that he would beget kings even though he himself would never be one. In his sharp desire to secure his ill-gotten throne, Macbeth can hardly afford to let that bit of information go undealt with. If we rearranged the above lines, they would run, “If it be so, / I have defiled my mind for Banquo’s issue (i.e. descendants); / I have killed the gracious Duncan for them.” But Macbeth’s mind has been in turmoil ever since he killed King Duncan, so he does not express his thoughts in tidy subject-verb-object order. The emphasis in the inverted lines is on Banquoand his descendants. Macbeth can’t believe he was so stupid as to destroy his own soul to put Banquo’s line on the throne of Scotland. He did it for them! And the Weird Sisters told him as much. In general, bear in mind that Shakespeare’s word order tends to be more flexible than our English today. Often, there’s a strong substantive reason for the syntactical inversions that occur in Shakespeare’s verse.

B. Literary devices such as the following:

Alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” (Sonnet 30, Norton Romances and Poems 666). The repetition of initial consonant sounds in words close to one another. The consonantal sounds can be represented by different letters—it’s the sound that matters. “The seven cities of Cibola” is alliterative. There’s also consonance, in which the repeated consonantal sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of the words in question: “I acknowledge that Jack is back.” And there’s assonance, which involves repetition of vowel sounds rather than consonants: “Get it through your head that Freddy isn’t ready, Neddie!”

Allusion: “O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst / thou!” exclaims Hamlet in his mocking encounter with the king’s counselor Polonius. (Norton Tragedies Folio/Q2 390, Hamlet 2.2.329-30) The prince alludes to the Bible’s Judges 11-12. Judge and warrior Jephthah of Gilead had promised Jehovah that if He would grant victory to the Israelites over the Ammonites, he, Jephthah, would willingly sacrifice whatever exited his door first. Alas, “whatever” turned out to be his daughter, and he ended up having to sacrifice her just as he had promised. Hamlet knows that Polonius—who is more of a Machiavel than we give him credit for—is slyly sacrificing his daughter Ophelia’s affections in order to gather intelligence for King Claudius about the prince’s alleged madness. Indirectly, he is warning Polonius, “I know what you’re up to. Remember what happened to Jephthah’s daughter—are you really willing to ruin Ophelia’s life?”

Aside from biblical allusions, Shakespeare ranges from references to classical mythology, persons, and history to Gothic lore like that of the faerie lords Titania, Oberon and their helpers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are allusions to various professions and practices: heraldry, hunting, falconry, horticulture, farming, moneylending, etc. Shakespeare’s work is also full of allusions to English history (mainly via Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) and to the kinds of ceremonies and stories he must have enjoyed in and around Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. In Shakespeare: the Biography,[18] Peter Ackroyd reminds us of Shakespeare’s intimate, lifelong appreciation of his native patch of English town and countryside. He relocated to London for many years, but he never really left Warwickshire behind, and indeed he returned there toward the end of his career and life.

Another allusion worth noting is a classical Latin citation from Horace in Act 4, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s intense revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. The boy Lucius delivers to the two sons of conquered Goth queen turned Roman empress Tamora some weapons along with a scroll that reads, “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu” (Norton Tragedies 178, 4.2.20-21). Translated freely, this means, “He that is pure of life and free from faults / Has no need of any bow or Moorish javelin.” Shakespeare probably remembered this Horatian passage from days spent with his trusty Latin textbook, known as Lily’s Grammar. The original text is from the opening part of Horace’s Odes 1.22. One of Tamora’s sons, Chiron, says “Oh, ‘tis a verse in Horace. I know it well: / I read it in the grammar long ago” (Norton 178, 4.2.22-23). Aaron, Tamora’s lover and supposedly a “barbarous Moor,” immediately scans the verses and takes their measure: “The old man [Titus] hath found their guilt / And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines / That wound beyond their feeling to the quick” (Norton 178, 4.2.26-28). This is interesting—that the old Roman general Titus would know Horace’s verses shouldn’t surprise us. But that two Goths and the Moor in this play are also familiar with them may seem somewhat odd. Roman culture is common to them all.

What, then, is Shakespeare doing by implanting this real-life Roman allusion into his fictive Roman drama in a manner that shows its accessibility even to the play’s non-Romans? Most likely, he is suggesting that the empire, centered around its eternal city, Rome, was a cosmopolitan entity from its inception, and that the city itself was a hybrid, dynamic place, a place that brought together many people’s stories into an uneasy, ever-shifting association. There is no single, coherent history of Rome, no unified concept of Romanness. Moreover, given Shakespeare’s representations of Rome and the empire in several of his plays, we may safely assume that the playwright knew this. It should be noted, too, that the English often compared their own nascent Empire and their great city of London to Rome and its once glorious empire, so questions like “What was Rome?” and “What were the Romans really like?” would have been of great interest to many Londoners and English people more broadly. In sum, this is not a play that sets up Rome as a “civilized” place over against “barbarians” who must be repelled. Instead, Shakespeare seems intent on undermining any such binary notion. That sophistication on his part may be what saves this strange, ultraviolent play from deserving the strong and even dismissive reproaches of the likes of T. S. Eliot, J. Dover Wilson, and Samuel Johnson.[19]

Metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York,” as Richard Duke of Gloucester says to open Richard III (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-2), paying false, poisonous tribute to the brother and sovereign whom he is about to afflict with mortal grief. Metaphor clarifies or deepens the meaning of a first thing by ascribing to it or transferring over to it the qualities of a second, unrelated thing. Here, discontentment, an emotional state or condition, borrows the qualities of a pensive, anxious season, winter. Winter is a season that people soon tire of and want to put behind them: it threatens to deaden the soul. “Winter” (and summer, in the second line) is the figurative term, the vehicle, that Shakespeare uses to convey something important about the tenor, the thing to be understood, which here is discontent, an emotional state. (Tenor comes from the Latin verb teneo, I comprehend, keep, or hold.) The second line’s pun on sun/son adds an additional metaphor: the newly crowned Yorkist king, Edward IV, is said to be a “sun” that rises over the English people’s newly established summer-state of contentment. Metaphor grabs listeners’ attention, feelings, and even intellect in a way that less creative usages seldom do. If we were to write, “Now is our wintry discontent turned into summery satisfaction,” hearers would reach for the nearest basket of rotten tomatoes to toss at us. Mixed metaphors deserve mention as well. We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s most famous howler straight from Hamlet’s lips: “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Norton 396, Hamlet 3.1.58-59). Please don’t shoot the Renaissance lute-player—he’s doing his best.

Simile: “This old car balks like a horse trader’s mule.” Or, “Frank is as fearsome as a lion.” This device compares one thing to another. It isn’t as radically transformative or creative as metaphor in that it involves a mere comparison, not an equation or confounding of the two things. A Shakespearean example: When Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII realizes that his downfall is certain, he utters these haunting lines: “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, /
But far beyond my depth” (Norton Histories 930, 3.2.358-61). The once-great cleric compares himself to carefree little children playing in the water. Another good example of a simile being as effective as metaphor in a master poet’s hands is John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” He says of his and his lover’s souls, “If they be two, they are two so / As stiffe twin compasses are two; / Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if the’other doe”[20] Strictly, the first two lines involve a comparison—paraphrased, it would run, “our souls are two like twin compasses are two.” When Donne extends this figure to give us a sense of how the compasses actually work, he turns it into a metaphor: “Thy soul, the fixed foot….” Both parts of the quatrain work equally well.

Metonymy: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Norton Tragedies 320, 3.2.71), as Mark Antony says at the beginning of his masterful speech to stir up the plebeians against Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators in Julius Caesar. This figure entails replacing a word with another word closely related to it, but not simply a part of it. Here, “ears” replaces “attention.” (Note that in this instance, it does not replace “person.” That would make it a synecdoche.) A famous example runs something like “Let’s run it by the suits in corporate headquarters.” The word “suits” is not a part of a corporate attorney the way an arm or a leg would be, but it issomething we associate with attorneys: They usually wear suits.

Synecdoche: “All hands on deck!” The Monty Python players would represent that sentence by showing us a row of hands moving across a ship’s deck. Here, “hands” stands in for “sailors.” Another well-worn synecdoche would be “twenty sail” for “twenty ships.”

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall along with you,” says Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet (Norton Tragedies 408, 3.3.4) The verb “go” is omitted: “shall go along” would be the standard way to say it, but Shakespeare’s expression is more elegant.

C. Grammatical irregularities:

Anthimeria. One part of speech is often substituted for another. This happens especially with nouns and verbs. For example, in the first act of The Tempest, Prospero asks Miranda, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (Norton Romances 400, 1.2.49-50.) The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and apt since Prospero is asking his daughter to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes? You have seen Cassio and she together?” Asks suspicious Othello of Desdemona’s companion Emilia (Norton Tragedies 566, 4.2.3.) Instead of “Cassio and her.” If a student wrote this in a paper, we would mark it down. But Shakespeare? We dare not.

Archaic pronoun and verb forms: The familiar or intimate second-person singular forms are thou/thee, as in, “I tell thee (direct object) that thou (subject) art mistaken.” The possessive form is often “thy/thine” (and “my/mine” for first person): “thy book is before thine eyes.” As for verbs, the second-person familiar suffix is often (e)-st, as in “Thou speakest or speak’st, while the third person singular is often -eth, as in “He/she speaketh.” Key verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to do,” and “to say” can have odd forms: “thou art, he/she is”; “thou dost, he/she doth; thou sayest, he/she saith; “thou hast, he/she hath.” Here’s a fine example: When Hamlet berates his mother Gertrude for marrying his uncle Claudius, she begs him to stop, crying out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (Norton Tragedies 414, Hamlet 3.4.157.)

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother is condemned to die,” says Isabella to Angelo in Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies 916, 2.2.35.) Ordinarily, this would read, “I have a brother who is condemned to die.”

Verb number: “Three parts of him / Is ours already” says Cassius of the worthy Brutus in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies 300, 1.3.154-55).

Antithesis: This quality of Shakespearean verse accounts for no small part of its overall impact. Shakespeare consistently uses it as a literary figure to lend emphasis and shape to his characters’ speech. Hamlet characterizes antithesis as “setting the word against the word.” For example, Brutus says in Julius Caesar that he killed the dictator not from personal spite or envy, but from patriotism:“not that I loved Caesar less,/ but that I loved Rome more” (Norton Tragedies 319, 3.2.20-21). The effect of antithesis (implied or direct) is to render an utterance emphatic. Consider the following part of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, which offers multiple antithetical pairings to strengthen its appeal: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York, / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-4). Reading the rest of this passage down to line 13 will reveal several more such antithetical pairings.

This quality is partly what makes Shakespeare’s verse memorable: the words are knit together by antithetical imagery and concepts, with alliteration also accomplishing much the same effect. This is strong blank verse, the sort of stuff one can speak boldly without losing the sensitivity and psychological subtlety necessary for the representation of a complex character. Rhyme is another way of lending shape to verse and making it memorable, though Shakespeare mostly uses rhyme for special effects. The end of a scene is a good place to serve up a rhyme, as in Hamlet’s quip, “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Norton Tragedies 394, Hamlet F1/Q2 3.1.523-24), or his wicked uncle Claudius’s anguished conclusion to a prayer for absolution, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Norton Tragedies 410, 3.4.97-98). Such rhymes often have the effect of medieval moral sayings known as sententiae, summations of a moral principle or lesson.

Further Observations on the Distinctive Qualities of Shakespeare’s Language:

Shakespeare’s language is growing increasingly remote from us. It isn’t as remote as Chaucer’s middle English, or the Old English of Beowulf, but it’s sufficiently far from today’s standard “newspaper English” to turn our heads. In some cases, an utterance may puzzle us because we are missing key knowledge of some ancient social custom or bit of folklore or history, or we lack an understanding of the symbolism of flowers, or terms relevant to the craft of heraldry, hunting, medicine, law, etc., so we miss the overall meaning of the passage as well as its relation to the action. But even aside from such specific things, every reader of Shakespeare has probably had the sensation of being perfectly able to scan all the words of a passage for their modern sense and yet not being able really to understand the passage as a coherent sentence or expression.

To a large extent, this difficulty may be due to the quality that critics often say best distinguishes poetry from prose: compression. Good poetry is remarkably efficient language. People who don’t like poetry sometimes accusing it of being “flowery” or overly loquacious, but the truth is closer to the opposite: poetry is often sparing, even stark, in its approach. Compared to prose, verse packs in a great deal of meaning in very few words. This quality may be what lends poetry its special ability to achieve heights of elegance or depths of emotional impact that even the best prose rarely achieves, but it also undeniably makes poetry harder to read at the surface level than most prose. Unless we are dealing with texts by Modernist or postmodernist authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Pynchon, or David Foster Wallace, we generally expect prose to make immediate and full sense. We don’t expect the same transparency from poetry—we expect it to challenge our understanding, startle us out of stale truisms, and so forth. Prose does more of the work for us, while poetry expects more work from us.

Here is an instance of such difficulty from Shakespeare’s romance play Cymbeline: at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 3, the heroine Imogen says to her husband’s servant Pisanio, “I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’th’ haven / And questioned’st every sail. If he should write / And I not have it, ‘twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is” (Norton Romances and Poems 226, 1.3.1-4). Some parts of this speech are easy to understand: “haven” means “harbor,” the word “sail” is a synecdoche (part for the whole) for “every ship,” which in turn seems like a metonymic expression for “everyone on every ship in the harbor.” Or it could playfully mean, “I’d have you plant yourself on the harbor’s shore and scan every ship’s sail, waiting—what if Posthumus, now that he’s sailed to foreign shores, sends me a letter by ship and I never receive it?” So far, so good.

But what about “’twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is”? It’s a beautiful expression and in terms of vocabulary not mystifying, but its exact meaning is not apparent. In context this phrasing seems to mean that if Posthumus should write a love letter and Imogen doesn’t receive it, she will, as the Norton editors suggest, feel like someone who has been offered mercy but somehow has either not accepted it, or has not actually received word because it arrived too late. So Imogen will feel bereft, deprived of consolation and confidence. In such cases, it reallyhelps to have as your reading text a good copy like the Norton, Arden, or Folger editions: they offer the sort of contextual and grammatical notes that can help you sort out expressions that might otherwise frustrate your efforts. It’s good to try to work such passages out on your own first, but if you don’t meet with success, the notes are there to guide you. Free online texts seldom offer this level of assistance, and a dictionary alone won’t help much because the problem isn’t that you don’t know the basic meaning of the words.

Another example occurs later in the same play, Cymbeline. In Act 3, Scene 3, old Belarius tells Arviragus and Guiderius, Cymbeline’s’ two sons whom Belarius, enraged at being falsely accused of treason, had long ago stolen from court to raise in the countryside, that the life they’re living now is much better than any to be had at some corrupt court. Here is part of the relevant passage: “Oh, this life / Is nobler than attending for a check, / … / Such gain the cap of him that makes him fine, / Yet keeps his book uncrossed” (Norton Romances and Poems 255, 3.3.21-22, 25-26). “Check” here means “rebuke,” and “gain the cap” means “get the workman to tip his cap and thereby show respect for his customer.” The expression “keeps his book uncrossed” means that the customer thus treated so deferentially still owes the workman money, and the workman’s entries in his ledger show it. The further point is that courtly, ambitious people often mistake the flattering treatment they’re getting for genuine respect, when in truth it’s all purely transactional—they’re getting taken for fools, and they’re too vain to recognize it. Good notes need not, of course, provide so much detail; they just need to provide enough grammatical, vocabulary-based, and contextual assistance so that we can arrive at a reasonably accurate reading. The note in question allows us to do so.

One other point worth making is that while at times we may long for a patch of simplicity in Shakespeare’s verse, the more flowery or “purple” patches one finds are usually written as they are to suit the mentality of a silly or pompous character, a word-mangler like Dogberry from Much Ado about Nothing, or someone speaking in dialect, like Kent or Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear. Consider the arch temporal description like the one Benvolio offers Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet: “Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the East, / A troubled mind drive me to walk abroad…” (Norton Tragedies 213, 1.1113-15). Benvolio is no doubt putting on airs in addressing the wife of the Montague paterfamilias. Later in the same play, the time is described in a much lower register, when Mercutio scandalizes Juliet’s Nurse with the following classic: “the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon” (2.3.101-02). Back and forth we go, from the high-toned to the profane and back again, in this ultimately tragic tale of two young but determined souls, forced to eternize their holy love by self-violence in a profane, dirty world. Shakespeare wrote both descriptions, and he wasn’t one to pass up a bawdy pun—such things pleased his audiences, and what’s more important, they often served his purposes thematically.

Under extreme pressure, too, a character’s speech may break down and become evasive or fragmented, as does Lear’s towards the end of King Lear. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ability to capture the fleeting processes of the mind under pressure in its relation to speech is praised highly by Harold Bloom.[21] There is even a deliberately hollow, brittle eloquence to be noted, particularly that of Macbeth as his life winds down and his only remaining strategy is to deaden his soul to the evil he has done: “My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have” (Norton Tragedies 963, Macbeth 5.3.22-26). He speaks beautifully, but the words mean little to him and are cut off from a vital orientation towards action. Shakespeare often seems to revel in the beauty of language in a way that seems almost foreign to modern sensibilities, but he does not exempt himself from chronicling the many ways this crowning glory of the species, language, often fails to keep us fully human, or even “indifferent honest.”


[1] See a 1709 edition of Headmaster of St. Paul’s School William Lily’s popular Latin grammar textbook; the first edition was published in 1513.)

[2] Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. Ch. 1, “Primal Scenes,” 23-53.

[3] Greenblatt, Will in the World. Ch. 1, “Primal Scenes,” 42-53.

[4] Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: the Biography. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. Ch. 8, 42-44. But as for the issue of Warwickshire dialect appearing in Shakespeare’s plays, this is a matter of contention. See, for example, this 2016 article by Ros Barber in The Conversation. It’s fair to point out that we have no reliable way to arrive at a precise sense of the dialect that prevailed in Shakespeare’s environs more than 400 years ago.

[5] A note on the “authorship controversy.” While it’s theoretically possible that the man William Shakespeare who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and lived from 1564 to 1616 did not write the works of Shakespeare, such claims seem to be consistently unconvincing. Shakespeare was well respected (if also resented by some) as a playwright—among his friends were learned fellow playwright Ben Jonson and other artistic notables, and to them we may add Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, for whom he staged fine productions at court: Elizabeth probably saw at least The Merry Wives of Windsor and Love’s Labour’s Lost, while James watched Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Henry V, and other plays. The oft-stated notion that Shakespeare couldn’t have written “Shakespeare” because he was a commoner seems fundamentally flawed. It makes more sense to suggest that an aristocrat would not have had the range of life experience to write as Shakespeare did—he wouldn’t have the varied experiences that an ordinary but strikingly observant citizen would have. In this view, William Shakespeare, a member of a tolerably prosperous but countryside-based family, was perfectly positioned to become “Shakespeare,” author of the remarkable and varied dramas we still appreciate today. Perhaps Shakespeare the man is subjected to so much suspicion because so many critics have turned “Shakespeare” into a god. When that happens, people look for the feet of clay that they think must uphold the golden image.

A recent author-question effort by the excellent book-trade historian Stuart Kells is Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2018), which, starting from what is conceived of as the major problem of Shakespeare’s missing library, re-envisions the playwright as essentially a specialist in “vitalising” other colleagues’ work, a kind of middleman in the “production line” of a complex Elizabethan-Jacobean publication process (see especially pp. 208-15). This is an interesting view, but one question to ask of it would be as follows: if, as Professor Kells suggests, Ben Jonson was the “master editor” of such a project as the First Folio of 1623 and thus (allegedly along with John Florio) put the final polish on Shakespeare’s presumably mediocre work, why did Jonson never produce plays in his own name that were as sparkling as much of what we encounter in Shakespeare’s Folio? Jonson was an excellent poet and playwright, but very few readers today would claim that his work equals that of Shakespeare. By what editorial magic do we get, say, the Folio version of Hamlet from the author of Sejanus? Another question to ask concerns the poetry that Shakespeare published before his death, in particular the Sonnets that went out in Quarto format in 1609. They are widely acknowledged to be brilliant, highly polished, perhaps even unparalleled in their kind. Surely, they are not the work of a mere journeyman who desperately needed an editor, so why shouldn’t the plays be equally fine?

[6] Greenblatt, ibid. Ch. 5, “Crossing the Bridge,” 162-63.

[7] Greene, Robert. “Groats-worth of Wit.” Renascence Editions. Accessed 1/31/2024.

[8] The edition used for Shakespeare quotations is Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

[9] Which plays stood to have been lost? The eighteen are as follows: All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter’s Tale.

[10] Keats, John. “Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct. 1818.” (Keats Letters Project) Accessed 1/30/2024.

[11] This is not meant to disparage didactic authors. John Milton is exemplary in this regard. No one would say that Milton lacked firm moral, “teacherly” intentions for his art, but he was quite able to create dynamic characters and page-turning narrative.

[12] The Hanoverian line begins with George I (1714-27). The name changed to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha when Edward VII (1901-10) reigned. He was the son of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. The name changed again in the wake of WWI when “Saxe-Coburg Gotha” came to sound too Germanic. This time, it changed to the elegantly titled “House of Windsor” with George V (1910-36). The most recent three sovereigns in this line are George VI (1936-52), Elizabeth II (1952-2022) and Charles III (2022-present).

[13] However, some descendants of Shakespeare’s sister Joan Hart are still around today.

[14] On the forced relocation of theaters to land beyond the city limits, see, for example The Old Globe Theater History

[15] Harbage, Alfred. Shakespeare’s Audience. Columbia UP, 1961.

[16] Groundlings, who paid only a penny for entry, had to stand during performances rather than enjoy them seated.

[17] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius.”

[18] Ackroyd, Peter. Ibid. Ch. 8, 42-44.

[19] T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”, Selected Essays 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), 67. Eliot called the play “”one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all….” As for J. Dover Wilson, he wrote in his edition of the play that Titus Andronicus “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells” (xii).

[20] Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Gutenberg public domain edition. Accessed 1/31/2024.

[21] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999. Bloom’s general thesis is that in the wake of Shakespeare’s breakthrough treatment of human interiority, this quality has become central to modern humanity’s self-definition.