AVON, or SWAN OF AVONEnglish poet, dramatist, and actor, often called the English national poet andconsidered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. Shakespeare occupies a position unique in world literature. Other poets, such asHomer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, havetranscended national barriers; but no writer’s living reputation can compare with thatof Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for asmall repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often and in more countriesthan ever before. The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist BenJonson, that Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time, has been fulfilled.
It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness, but it is not sodifficult to describe the gifts that enabled him to create imaginative visions of pathosand mirth that, whether read or witnessed in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there. He is a writer of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Otherwriters have had these qualities, but with Shakespeare the keenness of mind wasapplied not to abstruse or remote subjects but to human beings and their completerange of emotions and conflicts. Other writers have applied their keenness of mind inthis way, but Shakespeare is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that hismental energy, when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorableexpression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating.
As if this were not enough, theart form into which his creative energies went was not remote and bookish butinvolved the vivid stage impersonation of human beings, commanding sympathy andinviting vicarious participation. Thus Shakespeare’s merits can survive translation intoother languages and into cultures remote from that of Elizabethan England.Next **Contents of this article:IntroductionShakespeare the manLifeEarly life in StratfordCareer in the theatrePrivate lifeEarly posthumous documentationThe tributes of his colleaguesAnecdotes and documentsPortraitsThe poet and dramatistThe intellectual backgroundPoetic conventions and dramatic traditionsChanges in languageShakespeare’s literary debtsTheatrical conditionsChronology of Shakespeare’s playsPublicationPoetic and dramatic powersThe early poemsThe sonnetsThe order of the poemsArtistic invention or real experienceHuman experience in the poemsThe early playsHenry VI, 1, 2, and 3The Comedy of ErrorsTitus AndronicusThe Two Gentlemen of VeronaThe Taming of the ShrewLove’s Labour’s LostRomeo and JulietThe historiesThe Tragedy of King Richard IIIThe Tragedy of King Richard II1 Henry IV; 2 Henry IVKing JohnHenry VThe Roman playsAntony and CleopatraCoriolanusThe great, or middle, comediesThe outsiderWit and ambiguityThe great tragediesHamletOthelloKing LearMacbethTimon of AthensThe dark comediesTroilus and CressidaAll’s Well That Ends Well; Measure for MeasureThe late playsPericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s TaleThe TempestHenry VIIICollaborative and attributed playsShakespeare’s readingUnderstanding ShakespeareSympathetic exploration of the textsCauses of difficultyQuestions of authorshipThe claims put forward for BaconOther candidatesThe case for ShakespeareLinguistic and historical problemsTextual and editorial problemsOvercoming some difficultiesThe contribution of textual criticismHistorical, linguistic, and dramatic studiesLiterary criticismLiterary critics and the theatreThe progress of Shakespeare criticismShakespeare’s influenceMajor WorksPlaysPoemsBibliographyModern editionsBibliographiesTextual studiesBiographies and background studiesCritical studiesToolsE-mail this articlePrint this articleMore About This TopicArticleImagesIndex EntryInternet LinksMaps