William Shakespeare 101
We know more about Shakespeare than about most people who died more than 400 years ago. We are quite sure, for example, that he grew up the son of a glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, married around the age of 18, and had three children before leaving around 1587 to pursue a career in London as an actor and a writer for the stage. His plays were popular and well attended, and his theater group performed several times for King James I. He died in 1616, likely at the age of 52; many of his plays were unpublished in book form until 1623. His work was well admired in his own lifetime—Ben Jonson’s elegy proclaimed it “to be such / As neither man nor muse can praise too much”—even though the theater in his time was far from a respected literary venue.
Of course, historians and critics wish they knew much more about his life. Though much energy has been spent making out or making up glimpses of Shakespeare the man in his plays and poems, his work says less about who he was and more about who we are. It’s more interesting and beneficial to focus on the writing itself, which displays a genius, artistry, and variety that have arguably never been matched.
Most of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry is found in the work he wrote for the stage. The 36 plays known to have been written by him exhibit a remarkable variety: from awe-inspiring histories of English kings to now timeless love stories, from riveting tragedies to mythological fantasies and bawdy comedies full of not only wit but also dirty jokes. The work of any playwright demands a deeply split personality—dividing the one voice of the author into the casts of his or her plays. Shakespeare further adds to this branching by creating nuanced, divided characters.
Some of Shakespeare’s characters have become prime examples for certain personality types: the rash, love-struck teenager Juliet, who after one encounter with her Romeo renounces her family and will “no longer be a Capulet”; the fearsome villain Iago, evil beyond reason, who drives the general Othello to kill his own wife; the articulate, double-speaking politician Marc Antony, who reminds us four times in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech that Caesar’s killer Brutus “is an honorable man” in order to insinuate the opposite; the vain fool Nick Bottom, a weaver and an amateur actor magically given the head of a donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who comically borrows and botches phrasing from the New Testament in his famous recounting of his “dream.” Favorite characters’ entrances and exits have become iconic images: the excruciating pathos of King Lear entering carrying the body of his blameless daughter Cordelia, who died as a result of his pride, or the fearless defiance of Cleopatra—no longer the powerful queen of Egypt and longing to join her beloved Antony in death—clasping poisonous snakes to her breast and arm.
Shakespeare’s plays are fairly evenly divided among comedies, tragedies, and histories of English kings. One individual play might contain significant portions of all three genres, such as the four-play sequence that charts King Henry V’s course from prodigal Prince Hal to nation-inspiring king. These are “history plays,” and we get characteristically detailed descriptions of lineage (shrewdly interpreted to put the claims of Shakespeare’s monarch and patron Queen Elizabeth in the best possible light) and depictions of historical events, such as the Battle of Agincourt, where the newly crowned Henry gives a passionate call to arms to his “band of brothers,” a speech used repeatedly in the centuries since to rouse armies and stir English pride. But we also get the comedy of the prince’s witty banter with lowlifes and prostitutes, especially the lovable scoundrel Falstaff, and we witness the heart-wrenching tragedy when the prince becomes the fifth King Henry and casts aside this close friend, saying, “I know thee not, old man.” Shakespeare also wrote four plays categorized as “romances,” including The Tempest, perhaps the last play he wrote alone, in which the shipwrecked magician Prospero heralds the “brave new world” of the fantastical Americas, with a marveling at new discovery well at home in the early 17th century. The range of the plays—from their language, characters, and story arcs—allows readers to discover new aspects with each reading.
Though a few works, such as Much Ado About Nothing, were written largely in prose, roughly three-quarters of the material in the plays is in iambic pentameter, the pulsing beat (ba BUM | ba BUM | ba BUM | ba BUM | ba BUM) being well suited to the natural rhythms of English. The meter was extremely popular at the time, but a lesser 16th-century poet might not have strayed far from this iambic regularity, whereas Shakespeare used variations in rhythm to create character and achieve dramatic effects. For example, when Hamlet contemplates suicide, he muses, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” The first three feet are iambic (“to BE | or NOT | to BE”), but this regularity is broken in the fourth foot by a change to a trochee (“THAT is”) or spondee (“THAT IS”), a variation that emphasizes the relatively late caesura (or pause) after the second comma. The abrupt change in meter here—along with the further variation of a single, unstressed syllable in the fifth foot (“-tion”)—perfectly illustrates the stops and starts of Hamlet’s thoughts and resolve.
At times, a character’s agitation is dramatized in a complete breakdown of iambic regularity. In the famous soliloquy that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Macbeth declares that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.” The line that begins “Told by an idiot” starts with an initial trochee (“TOLD by”) before normalizing with the two iambs of “an ID | i-OT.” As in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech, Macbeth emphasizes the caesura in the middle of the line by changing back to a trochaic pattern beginning with the fourth foot and continuing for a fifth and then sixth foot, the abandoned pentameter testifying to Macbeth’s unraveling. Shakespeare’s frequent deployment of such metrical variations gives him free rein to use syllabic stress to capture human emotion and character in masterful ways.
In addition to his plays, Shakespeare also wrote poems, including his famous sonnets and his lesser-known, non-theatrical poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Here’s an overview of his poems in the groupings in which they were published, presented chronologically to better understand his development as a poet.
“Venus and Adonis”
When plague forced the closure of London theaters in the early 1590s, Shakespeare turned to writing poems for wealthy patrons to earn a living. He chose to put just two characters in his first lengthy poem, a comedy in which almost every element is ironic. The Roman goddess Venus attempts to woo the mortal Adonis, who is diametrically opposed to her in every way, before Adonis is killed in a hunting accident. The central paradoxes of love—that opposites attract and that rejection only spurs more desire—feature prominently in Venus’s appeals. The goddess exclaims, using oxymoron, how “love is wise in folly, foolish-witty.” Shakespeare called this first published work “the first heir of my invention” in his dedication to a young earl, Henry Wriothesely, who later commissioned another of Shakespeare’s long poems, “The Rape of Lucrece.” The money from this patronage likely helped Shakespeare through the lean years without London theater and may have enabled him to become a part owner in his theater company when performances of plays resumed.
Shakespeare was highly indebted to his literary and historical sources. In this poem, he draws on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the likely source for perhaps 90 percent of his references to classical mythology. Like Ovid, Shakespeare diverges from the good taste and moralizing intent of the original Greek sources. Shakespeare has Adonis die in the poem not as a consequence of the sin of lust but despite a faithful chastity, and his portrayal of the lovers is more like the nearly pornographic depiction of the couple by Italian Renaissance painter Titian than that of his classical sources. Shakespeare changes Adonis from a fertility figure to a chaste boy, providing a perfect counterpoint to the sexually aggressive, “sick-thoughted Venus.” The original myth emphasizes a kind of triumph over death: when Adonis dies, Venus transforms him into an ever-blooming flower. Shakespeare’s poem ends by explaining that the failure of this affair is the reason all of us must suffer the tragic conditions of love, which “shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud.”
In his late 20s and early 30s, Shakespeare wrote a number of sonnets, 154 of which were published together in 1609. The sonnet is a 14-line poetic form, most likely descending from Sicilian popular song, that was ubiquitous among major Italian poets throughout the 1300s. It was popularized in England by the 317 sonnets written by the Italian poet Petrarch. The variation of the form Shakespeare used—comprised of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg—is called the English or Shakespearean sonnet, although others had used it before Shakespeare. This different structure allows for more buildup of a subject or problem than the Italian/Petrarchan form and uses just two lines to conclude or resolve the poem in a rhyming couplet. (Learn more about sonnet forms here). Shakespeare’s decision to not use the Petrarchan sonnet, which requires a poet to find four different endings that rhyme with one another, meant he didn’t need to be especially acrobatic in making his rhymes and could more consistently use them in meaningful ways. In Sonnet 12, by matching herd with beard (a closer rhyme in his day), Shakespeare subtly pairs these two “bristly” things.
Contrary to some assumptions, Shakespeare’s sonnets don’t depict just romantic love, and when they do, it’s not always in its purest and most joyful form. Of course, some of the most famous sonnets, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (from Sonnet 18), “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (from Sonnet 116), and “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun” (from Sonnet 130) contain some of the most quoted passages about love in the English language. But Shakespeare’s sonnets also articulate love’s tragedy (“That thou among the wastes of time must go,” from Sonnet 12), its sadness (“How like a winter hath my absence been / From thee,” from Sonnet 97), its despair (“I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,” from Sonnet 29), and the hurt of unrequited love or betrayal (“Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.” from Sonnet 139).
The speaker or speakers of the poems have few identifiable character attributes—aside from the thoughts and emotions they express—and there isn’t a discernable plot to the sonnets as traditionally ordered. Of course, the lack of clear logic or authorial intent has not discouraged some readers from interpreting them autobiographically or from reading them together as a mysterious and complicated whole. Although there seems to be some consistency of address—Sonnets 1–126 are addressed to a young man, and Sonnets 127–154 are addressed to a “dark lady”—and there are details scattered throughout of a traitorous affair between the speaker’s lover and a best friend, the relationship between speaker and beloved is often ambiguous and discontinuous from sonnet to sonnet. The speaker of Sonnet 134 claims to be “mortgaged” to the “will” of the person he addresses; is he a friend, lover, debtor, or all three? It seems that if Shakespeare had any hand in the ordering, it was to thoroughly shuffle the deck, to let the poems unfold, irrespective of role, as universal declarations.
Like the plays, the sonnets display Shakespeare’s rare facility for both highbrow and lowbrow humor and bawdy euphemism. Knowing that will was a slang word for both male and female genitalia and potentially a pun on the author’s name, it’s difficult to read will as volition in Sonnet 135: “add to thy Will / One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.”
Also like his plays, the sonnets show Shakespeare’s use of deviations from iambic pentameter to create drama and emotion. In just one example among hundreds, Sonnet 18 opens with two regular iambic lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Then, to demonstrate the violence of an early summer gust (and heighten the contrast with his clement lover), the poet interrupts the metrical pattern with two strong stresses: “ROUGH WINDS | do SHAKE | the DAR | ling BUDS | of MAY.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the sonnets is their unwavering relevance to 21st-century lives. We return to them and make new discoveries as they continue to inform our emotional intelligence and give voice to some of our most inarticulable feelings.
“The Phoenix and the Turtle”
In one of his strangest and most admired poems—likely written around 1600 just as he was finishing the sonnets—Shakespeare recounts a union between two birds—a turtledove (not turtle) and a phoenix—at the scene of their funeral. The poem tells us that in order to be forever conjoined in love, the two birds burned themselves to death. This beautiful poem is an allegory, depicting the mystical nature of love, in which “[t]wo distincts” can become one. Shakespeare uses trochaic tetrameter, but the lines generally miss the final unstressed syllable, which gives them a clipped feel and haiku-like economy.
Responses to this poem over the centuries have demonstrated Shakespeare’s remarkable ability to ignite many perspectives in his readers. His return to familiar subject matter—an intense spiritual love, complicated by life, leading to death—has drawn comparisons to his earlier play Romeo and Juliet. But he approaches the subject in a much different way here: the poetic style of the poem anticipates the Metaphysical style of poetry that came into vogue shortly after Shakespeare’s time, and it may have influenced great poets who followed Shakespeare in the decades after his death. In an essay from the 1960s, famous critic William Empson described the poem as “a wide valley brimful of an unspecified sorrow” with a “gaiety inherent in its effects of sound.” And writing more recently in 2013, Amit Majmudar placed the poem’s message in line with Eastern mystical traditions. The poem demonstrates Shakespeare’s range while he explores one of his most important, universal, and celebrated themes: the enduring and eternal nature of true love.
Kevin Barents has taught in the CAS Writing Program at Boston University since 2005. His poetry has been published on Slate and AGNI online, among other places. He earned an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and an MFA from the University of Florida. For four summers, he helped plan, direct, and teach a...