General Introduction to Shakespeare
Why study Shakespeare?
- He was, "The Sweet
Swan of Avon who was not only of an age but for all time." (Ben Johnson)
- He was the first writer
in European history to earn a living as a playwright: an entrepreneur.
- He is the most produced
playwright on stages around the world today.
- While alive,
Shakespeare wrote theatre, not literature. He didn’t even bother to publish
his plays. (There was no money in it.) He was a working playwright first, the
greatest poet in the English language second.
- Shakespeare was
extraordinarily popular in his day, not just among the intellectuals in
London who were members of Queen Elizabeth’s court, but also among the
illiterate groundlings who reveled in this new found entertainment.
High Art: a stark study of
the nature of evil and its effects on human nature
Low Art: a ripping, lurid
tale full of swordplay, sex, madness, witchcraft, and buckets of blood
High Art: a philosophical
exploration of the end of innocence and the limits of human knowledge
Low Art: a ripping good
revenge story full of ghosts, madmen, lost love, graveyards, bloody sword
fights and villains with poison
High Art: an ironic
commentary on the mortal danger of true love and a study in the nature of
Low Art: a villain
persuades his best friend that his wife has been unfaithful and convinces him
to murder her: sex, violence, and betrayal
The rapt response of
theatre-goers, critics and general readers has been consistent ever since the
plays were written. Shakespeare’s vision of human nature was not only ahead
of its time, but it has taken the world four centuries to catch up with him,
if we have.
Shakespeare was also a man
of his time period, the glorious Elizabethan age, high point of the
Renaissance. He lived in the first modern culture:
1. The City of London’s Population:
from 100,000 to 200,000 between 1580 and 1600 to over 150,000 residents,
doubled again to 400,000 by 1650.
- More astonishingly, each year over one million people
in a total population of four million in England would visit London at some
2. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588
made England a world power for the next 350 years.
3. London became a center of world trade,
one of the capitols of the rising mercantile economy in Europe
- consumers in
London had spending money in their pockets for the first time
- land was no
longer the only currency of wealth
4. The Reformation and the Scientific
lived during a time when enormous intellectual changes were taking place. The
presumptions about human nature, about God, about the universe, about the
purpose of life which had held society together for a thousand years were
- The Reformation
led by Martin Luther had split Europe into opposing ideological camps
- England herself
had become a Protestant country fifty years earlier during the reign of
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. The country since then had been rent by
political intrigue between Catholic and Protestant factions.
intellectual community also began to hold skeptical notions about religion
for the first time in over a thousand years.
- Shakespeare was
the contemporary of great innovators in the history of science: Kepler, Galileo, and the great British scientist: Sir