Literary Devotional: William Shakespeare

Few would dispute that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the world’s greatest playwright in any language.  His impact on Western culture over the past four hundred years cannot be overstated.

Despite exhaustive research, little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life.  He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where he probably had a short formal education.  After marrying a woman named Anne Hathaway, he embarked on a career as a playwright, moving to London and working as an actor and director at the Globe Theatre, which he co-owned with other shareholders in his company.  Shakespeare’s brilliance was widely acknowledged during his lifetime, and his works were immensely popular with both aristocratic and common audiences.

Shakespeare is most famous for his thirty-eight plays, which scholars traditionally group into several categories.  Histories, such as Richard II and Henry V, portray real historical figures—typically kings of England—and explore ideas of leadership and personal integrity or villainy.  Tragedies, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, explore the monumental ramifications of individuals’ flawed actions and decisions.  Comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, present alternately lighthearted and probing takes on romance, fueled by cases of mistaken identity and typically culminating in marriage.  Others, such as Measure for Measure and The Tempest, are more difficult to categorize, combining elements of different genres.  Over the centuries, these thirty-eight diverse scenarios have proved to be timeless, fruitful ground for reinterpretation by directors and actors, who use them as lenses through which to explore contemporary concerns.

Shakespeare also wrote significant poetry, including 154 sonnets about love, art, beauty, and other topics.  Beyond the stylistic and formal influences of these poems, the English words and expressions that Shakespeare coined are virtually without number.  They range from now-commonplace vocabulary, such as “lackluster” and “sanctimonious,” to more poetic turns of phrase, such as “one fell swoop” and “pomp and circumstance.”  England recognized this literary and linguistic influence immediately and, upon Shakespeare’s death, knew it had lost one of its greatest minds.  Indeed, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, it is probable that world “shall not look upon his like again.”

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


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