An Author Profile
By Faith Walessa
"They have their exits, and their entrances ..."
❧ Full name and titles: William Shakespeare [wĭł-yàm or wĭ-lē-àm shāk-spēŕ; see our pronunciation guide for details]; may have gone temporarily by the pseudonym “William Shakeshaft”; colloquially, “the Bard” or “the Bard of Avon”
❧ Dates: 23 (?) Apr. 1564-23 Apr., 1616
❧ Areas active: Stratford-upon-Avon and London, both in England
❧ Original language of writing: Early Modern English*
❧ Exemplary or important works: Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado About Nothing; Henry V; Measure for Measure; Othello; King Lear; The Tempest; sonnets
Shakespeare is a literary legend, the very definition of a household name, and an inescapable part of the high school English class experience. Yet for a man who has been discussed so often and so thoroughly, there is relatively little known about his life. Because his characters cannot be depended upon to reveal the beliefs of their author, his social position, politics, and religion** are mostly unknown. What we do know is that he was born into a mildly influential family in the small, prosperous town of Stratford-upon-Avon (around ninety miles northwest of London). He would have been educated there in a grammar school, following the tradition of the seven liberal arts. In 1582, he was married to Anne Hathaway,† and had three children with her: Susanna, and a pair of twins, Hamnet and Judith.
Over the next several years, there is a minor dark age in this already-limited history, until the name Shakespeare suddenly emerges in London as a playwright in 1592. Even this record seems almost accidental; indeed, it only exists because a previously successful playwright named Robert Greene is out of temper, and of his job, due to some “upstart crow” named Wiliam Shakespeare. (Amusingly enough, Greene’s disparaging comment has earned him a form of cranky immortality: he will forever be a man who grumbled about Shakespeare).
Shortly thereafter, an outbreak of the Black Death made large gatherings a health risk, and a temporary ban was placed on theater. However, Shakespeare’s luck turned up once more when he was made part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a professional theatrical association, in 1594. He moved to performing at the Globe Theatre in 1599, working mainly as a playwright but sometimes acting as well.
Shakespeare did achieve some fame during his own lifetime—something of a rarity for artists. However, it came not from his plays, by which we know him, but from his sonnets: fourteen-line reflections on a given theme, composed in iambic pentameter (poetic lines of five iambs, or iambic feet, which consist in an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). Though less known in the modern world, the sonnets nonetheless continue to reinforce his reputation as a genius with language. His poetic abilities transfer over clearly to his plays, also largely written in iambic pentameter. Furthermore, Shakespeare is credited with many contributions of words and figures of speech to the modern English language. Several popular examples of these include “too much of a good thing” (from As You Like It), “all that glitters is not gold” (The Merchant of Venice), “break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew), “neither rhyme nor reason” (A Comedy of Errors), and “I have not slept one wink” (Cymbeline).
However, Shakespeare’s true brilliance came not just from his style, but from the way he used it to enhance his content. One of the clearest and most specific explanations of Shakespeare’s brilliance I ever heard was given to me by an excellent teacher who held an impromptu reproduction of Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture on the Shape of Stories. When paraphrased, it goes something like this: a Shakespearean plot often mimics the plot of life, meaning a new development is typically unidentifiable as good or bad when it first appears. Vonnegut uses Hamlet as an example. When Prince Hamlet meets his father’s alleged ghost, we as the observers are left wondering with the prince. His father is back—sort of—so is this a good moment? It cannot be, because he bears a terrible story: Claudius is a murderer. So this must be a bad development after all. But surely it is better to know the truth and be prepared to face Claudius, naturally making this good news. Yet are we sure we can trust the ghost? No, so this is a bad thing—well, mostly. To find out the truth, Hamlet stages a play about murder, hoping to catch Claudius in his guilt, but the results of his test are inconclusive. Is this good because the moment of discovery is prolonged? Or is it bad because his plan failed? Really, it is just something that happened, and we cannot know for certain yet how it will affect the future.
In our lives, these moments are common enough, because we are not blessed with the ability to “step out of” our own stories to consider events. In the aftermath, we find ourselves laughing or frustrated at the foolishness of our past selves for misunderstanding the truth of our situations. Hindsight is crystal clear and incredibly judgmental. Shakespeare channels this human experience, and positions his characters in moments where they too are unaware of why something is happening, and whether or not it is a good thing at all. Most importantly, the audience often has no extra information, and has to struggle right along with the characters, limited by the same lack of knowledge that limits us in real life. We can therefore relate to these characters more closely, and sympathize with them as the truth is revealed in the end. These moments are an integral part of many of Shakespeare’s plays; even if they are only perceived subconsciously, they make his stories much more profound and his characters much more compelling. They show that on a deep level, Shakespeare is offering us truth.
To use Hamlet as an example again, it is worth noting that such moments of confusion and inner turmoil are a large factor in Hamlet’s crippling indecision, his fatal flaw. The inclusion of such fatal flaws go a step further in making Shakespeare’s plays so gloriously human. Shakespeare’s best-known tragic characters—Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello—all follow a pattern of meeting their demise through a single defect of character. This idea is common enough, and can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Greek drama; the unique twist given this by Shakespeare is that his characters consistently have flaws that take the form of a virtue in excess. In Hamlet’s case, this virtue is a love for justice. Hamlet wants to painstakingly weigh every side of the equation; he wants to be sure he is doing the right thing, no matter which angle he considers it from; accordingly, he considers every angle, including several that do not rightfully exist. In the end, his failure to act until it is too late brings about his demise, and takes a number of unfortunate members of Denmark’s nobility along with him. Macbeth illustrates the same pattern, except it is his ambition that sees him defeated. Ambition is characteristically an admirable trait, but Macbeth stretches his too far, until it drives him to madness and murder. Othello’s downfall is similar, but springs from innocent, alluring love—which turns obsessive, distrustful, and murderously jealous, and ultimately leads him to destroy the very object of this love.
Shakespeare explores the darker side of human nature, where even beautiful things can be made destructive when left unchecked. He created unapologetic tragedy, with justice turning to guilt-wracked indecision, ambition turning to incompetent madness, and love turning to poisonous jealousy. Through this corruption of virtue, he portrays the human capacity for evil in a very poignant way: by falling into the temptation to find pride and security in our greatest virtues, we expose ourselves to the possibility of being consumed by them, until something that was once good is turned to its own undoing, distorted beyond recognition. The concept of pride leading to destruction has been canvassed by literature as a whole, but the idea that a great virtue could lead to pride in itself, thereby presenting an equal danger, is thought-provoking in the extreme.
Despite the cherished belief of teenagers trapped in stuffy classrooms, there is a reason that people for hundreds of years have loved and admired the works of Shakespeare. He truly knew so much about what it means to be human. It is fitting that, bar one, the final place in our Author Profile series goes to him—the celebrated poet, playwright, and actor, taking this final bow.
*The Early Modern phase of English spanned roughly from 1500 to 1750, falling between Chaucer’s Middle English and today’s Modern English. Because of his influence on language as a whole, the prestige variety of English spoken during the Early Modern period is often called Shakespearean English (or sometimes King James English).
**Readers may have come across the claim that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic. There is some evidence in favor of, or at least consistent with, the theory: e.g., his mother was from the Arden family, well-known English recusants. However, as far as his life is now known, he and his family did conform to Anglicanism publicly; the crypto-Catholic thesis, while certainly possible, cannot be treated even as scholarly consensus, let alone established fact.
Faith Walessa is a rising senior from Ontario, Canada. She hopes to study English at Hillsdale College, write books, and someday travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy CLT’s podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate. If you want to see more from our Author Bank profile series, we recommend our introductions to Origen, John Wycliffe, John Donne, and Sojourner Truth.
Published on 22nd January, 2024. Page image of The Plays of William Shakespeare by Sir John Gilbert, painted c. 1849.