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Shakespeare: An Overview Essay

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William Shakespeare can be classified as the most influential writer in history. His works and contributions to the English language are still recognized today; almost four hundred years later. The Bard’s writing is so popular that may quotes from both his plays and sonnets have become common sayings. His stories have withstood the test of time and serve as inspiration for various modern adaptations. Shakespeare’s life and the events unfolding around him greatly influenced his works. From 1594-96, Shakespeare produced his greatest and most famous works;

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice.

This was also when Shakespeare gained popularity with the king and queen of England. However, this period was also a time of great strife for The Bard as, in 1596, he lost his only son Hamnet; he was only 11 years old when he died. Immediately after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote King John, one of his least successful plays. Shakespeare’s writing was also greatly affected by the people he was writing for.

If Shakespeare had been living in 2014, his subject matter and writing style may be very different because he wrote to please his audience.

There were multiple social and cultural aspects of Elizabethan England that Shakespeare experienced in his life and included in his writing. One of these features was the class system. Shakespeare was very aware of who his audiences would be, his plays were carefully crafted in order to cater for the needs of both the higher class and the “groundlings”. Shakespeare did this by 2 3 Shakespeare:

An Overview including witty humor and political commentary for the more intelligent, high-class audience as well as physical humor for the low class. His plays often featured characters of all classes in order to make the characters relatable. Characters in Shakespeare’s plays can often be categorized into classes based on the way they speak. Shakespeare would write dialogue for upper class characters in verse while lower class characters spoke in prose. The class system had a substantial affect on Shakespeare’s writing because he recognized the importance of writing to cater for all kinds of people.

The remarkable endurance of Shakespeare’s work can be partially explained by the lasting significance of his messages. The Bard used his plays as an outlet for social commentary and the delivery of important moral ideologies. This is apparent in both Macbeth and the Merchant of Venice. The function of the story of Macbeth is to warn people of the dangers of ambition. The theme of ambition and the way the characters handle their ambition is very destructive. The Macbeths know that the acts they must commit to reach what they desire are wrong, yet they make the conscious decision to allow their ambition to discount their moral convictions.

The way Macbeth is so easily swayed to commit such a horrible crime against his king conveys to the audience that those who are controlled by ambition are weak of character. People will always be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve what they desire. Ambition can be destructive and those steered by ambition are always left wanting more. This is evident in Macbeth’s decision to have his 3 4 Shakespeare: An Overview friend, Banquo, murdered in order to retain his power.

Through the way he ends the lives of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare also makes the statement that those who allow their morals to be compromised due to personal ambition are likely to encounter grave repercussions. Similarly, Shakespeare creates specific characters to exemplify the issues he has identified within his own society. Shylock is the catalyst in The Merchant of Venice.

It is his experience with the bigotry of the Christian citizens of Venice, which aids the audience’s understanding of the play’s anti-Semitic themes. Shakespeare has created an anti-hero in Shylock for the purpose of developing an equally sympathetic and real character. While he is portrayed as a rather shallow character, obsessed with money and material objects, Shakespeare also reveals the more vulnerable side of Shylock.

Many people reference Shylock’s cry of “O my ducats! O my daughter! ” as proof that the grief he feel is equal for the loss of his daughter and the loss of his money (act 2, scene 8). However, Shylock is also sentimental. After Jessica has fled with Lorenzo, Shylock learns that she has traded one of his rings for a monkey. Shylock is infuriated; “Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: /it was my/turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:/ I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. ” (Act 3, scene 1). This dialogue shows that even some things are more important to Shylock than money.

The turquoise ring is priceless to him because his late wife gave it to him. The role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is to serve as the Jewish archetype that also 4 5 Shakespeare: An Overview encompasses relatable human attributes with the purpose of encouraging the audience to empathize with him. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have survived all this time because modern audiences are still able to recognize and sympathize with their themes.

The way these themes are interpreted is relative to the time period. For example, living in a post holocaust society, we interpret The Merchant of Venice very differently to audiences 80 years ago.

The fact that Shakespeare is still studied all over the world and referenced in daily conversation is the basis for my opinion that his writings will continue to be considered as significant contributions to English literature. If Shakespeare continues to be studied in schools, I believe the disparity in language can be overcome and the essential messages of his plays can be accurately interpreted by future generations. Shakespeare’s writing is so compelling because of the variety of techniques he uses to create relatable characters and stories.

For example, Shakespeare applies juxtaposition to aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to express the theme of love out of balance. Shakespeare’s employment of juxtaposition is most lucidly presented in the relationship between Demetrius and Helena. Though Lysander states in Scene One that Demetrius had previously loved Helena, for the first half of the play Demetrius hates her with a burning passion. When they are alone in the wood, he warns her, “temp not too much the hatred of my spirit. For I am sick when I do look on thee” (Act 2, Scene 1).

Helena’s reply, “And I am sick when I 5 6 Shakespeare: An Overview look not on you”, is stark in contrast and a near perfect inverse of Demetrius’ words. The two lines relate to the idea of sickness, one sick from hate and one from love. This direct comparison unmistakably communicates to the audience the conflicting feelings they have for one another and how their love, which had previously flourished, is now one-sided.

The hatred and disgust Demetrius feels towards Helena is contrasted not only with her feelings towards him, but also with the way he feels about her at the end of the play. After Puck has bewitched Demetrius’ eye with the love potion, he sees Helena as a Goddess and swears, “The object and the pleasure of mine eye, is only Helena.

” (Act 4, Scene 1). This drastic change from his pure abhorrence towards Helena to this declaration of love exemplifies that though the love between them is now equal, Demetrius’ love for Helena is disproportionate to his true feelings, as his love for her is only the result of the love potion. Despite his remarkable popularity, Shakespeare has been criticized for numerous issues present in several plays. He has been widely condemned for choosing to have some of the most pivotal moments in his plays occurs offstage. This literary choice is characteristic of Shakespeare as it is present in multiple plays such

as Macbeth where Duncan’s murder is committed offstage. In the early days of Shakespeare’s writing he was criticized for the ambiguity of his plays because he mixed comedy and tragedy. However, in doing this, Shakespeare created more dynamic plays, 6 7 Shakespeare:

An Overview which involved both aspects of heart wrenching tragedy and comic relief. Shakespeare is currently and will continue to be the most celebrated and revered English writers of all time. The universality of his plays and sonnets have ensured their survival since they were written in the 1600s and if Shakespeare continues to be studied, his works can and will be enjoyed by many generations to come.

References Larque, T. (n. d. ). Shakespeare and His Critics . . Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://shakespearean. org. uk/ Dramatic Effects- Offstage Action. (2014, January 1). . Retrieved May 5, 2014, from 7 8 Shakespeare:

An Overview http://www. bbc. co. uk/bitesize/higher/english/macbeth/dramati c_effects/revision/5/ Ember, S. , & Klein, B. (n. d. ). William Shakespeare, 1564-1616: An English Poet and Playwright. . Retrieved October 9, 2013, from http://www. manythings. org/voa/people/William_Shakespeare-1 .html

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