William Shakespeare has become the most famous and influential author in English literature. Only active as a writer for a quarter century, he wrote thirty-eight plays, one hundred fifty-four sonnets and two epic poems that reinvented and defined the English language to such a degree that his works are required study all over the world.
Very little is known about Shakespeare's early life. He was born around 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon to a middle-class merchant family and by the age of eighteen he was married with a child on the way. He would later father two more children. By 1592 he had become a successful actor and playwright in London and was famous among Londoners for the popularity of his plays.
Shakespeare was an astute businessman as well as an artist. He recognized that he could broaden his audience by using characters and language that would appeal to both the noble and the lower classes. He mixed both bawdy and sophisticated humour to appeal to his larger audience. He also wrote about the human experience with universal themes of love, ambition and envy that are still felt and loved by modern audiences.
The plays are often categorized as tragedies, comedies or histories. Tragedies featured sympathetic protagonists who were doomed by their flaws. Comedies tended to be more upbeat, with happy endings that often led to a marriage. The historical plays were frequently politically motivated to appeal to the Elizabethan court and featured British and Scottish kings.
As an actor, Shakespeare was present during the production of his plays and therefore wrote them with very little stage direction. Dialogue was written in blank verse and iambic pentameter, meaning that each line of speech is ten syllables long and unrhymed. In his early works, lines were often stressed at the end. As his writing developed, Shakespeare gained an understanding that a more lyrical style of writing would hold the audiences interest and be more pleasing to the ear. He developed a characteristic cadence to his dialogue, stressing his lines in the second syllable to provide a rhythmic pattern to his speeches.
Shakespeare's writing developed and evolved throughout his career. Scholars often divide his work into periods based on different aspects of his writing style.
Still early in Shakespeare's career, the plays of this period tend to be less sophisticated than his later works. The plays of this period are typically set in Roman and Medieval times.
By this time, Shakespeare's writing was fully developed into the sharp, fast-paced and lyrical style of dialogue that became his trademark. His use of symbolism and social commentary became more pronounced in plays of this period, as is illustrated in The Tempest.
In 1609, Shakespeare published his collection of one hundred fifty-four sonnets. Like his plays, the sonnets encompass many aspects of the human experience. Mortality is a strong theme, explored from the perspective of youth being encouraged to procreate to extend their lives to a future generation. Mortality is also examined as he writes about the lives of lovers growing old, death and about the brief nature of existence.
The sonnets are constructed of fourteen lines, divided into three groups of four lines, called quatrains, and a final group of two lines called a couplet. Usually the mood of the sonnet changes in the third quatrain as the writer expresses a realization or sudden insight.
All of the sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and the final word in each line follows an abab cdcd efef gg rhyming scheme. To this day, any poem written in this pattern is known as a Shakespearean sonnet.
Shakespeare retired from writing in 1613 and died three years later at the age of fifty-two. Most of his works were published posthumously in 1623.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life; But what happens after you die?
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.