With a few exceptions, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his plays. Sometimes he used old stories (Hamlet, Pericles). Sometimes he worked from the stories of comparatively recent Italian writers, such as Giovanni Boccaccio—using both well-known stories (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing) and little-known ones (Othello). He used the popular prose fictions of his contemporaries in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. In writing his historical plays, he drew largely from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’sLives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for the Roman plays and the chronicles of Edward Hall and Holinshed for the plays based upon English history. Some plays deal with rather remote and legendary history (King Lear, Cymbeline, Macbeth). Earlier dramatists had occasionally used the same material (there were, for example, the earlier plays called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth and King Leir). But, because many plays of Shakespeare’s time have been lost, it is impossible to be sure of the relation between an earlier, lost play and Shakespeare’s surviving one: in the case of Hamlet it has been plausibly argued that an “old play,” known to have existed, was merely an early version of Shakespeare’s own.
Shakespeare was probably too busy for prolonged study. He had to read what books he could, when he needed them. His enormous vocabulary could only be derived from a mind of great celerity, responding to the literary as well as the spoken language. It is not known what libraries were available to him. The Huguenot family of Mountjoys, with whom he lodged in London, presumably possessed French books. Moreover, he seems to have enjoyed an interesting connection with the London book trade. The Richard Field who published Shakespeare’s two poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in 1593–94, seems to have been (as an apprenticeship record describes him) the “son of Henry Field of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwick, tanner.” When Henry Field the tanner died in 1592, John Shakespeare the glover was one of the three appointed to value his goods and chattels. Field’s son, bound apprentice in 1579, was probably about the same age as Shakespeare. From 1587 he steadily established himself as a printer of serious literature—notably of North’s translation of Plutarch (1595, reprinted in 1603 and 1610). There is no direct evidence of any close friendship between Field and Shakespeare. Still, it cannot escape notice that one of the important printer-publishers in London at the time was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare at Stratford, that he can hardly have been other than a schoolmate, that he was the son of a close associate of John Shakespeare, and that he published Shakespeare’s first poems. Clearly, a considerable number of literary contacts were available to Shakespeare, and many books were accessible.
That Shakespeare’s plays had “sources” was already apparent in his own time. An interesting contemporary description of a performance is to be found in the diary of a young lawyer of the Middle Temple, John Manningham, who kept a record of his experiences in 1602 and 1603. On February 2, 1602, he wrote:
At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, much like The Comedy of Errors, or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni.
The first collection of information about sources of Elizabethan plays was published in the 17th century—Gerard Langbaine’s Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) briefly indicated where Shakespeare found materials for some plays. But, during the course of the 17th century, it came to be felt that Shakespeare was an outstandingly “natural” writer, whose intellectual background was of comparatively little significance: “he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature,” wrote John Dryden in 1668. It was nevertheless obvious that the intellectual quality of Shakespeare’s writings was high and revealed a remarkably perceptive mind. The Roman plays, in particular, gave evidence of careful reconstruction of the ancient world.
The first collection of source materials, arranged so that they could be read and closely compared with Shakespeare’s plays, was made by Charlotte Lennox in the 18th century. More complete collections appeared later, notably those of John Payne Collier (Shakespeare’s Library, 1843; revised by W. Carew Hazlitt, 1875). These earlier collections have been superseded by a seven-volume version edited by Geoffrey Bullough as Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957–72).
It has become steadily more possible to see what was original in Shakespeare’s dramatic art. He achieved compression and economy by the exclusion of undramatic material. He developed characters from brief suggestions in his source (Mercutio, Touchstone, Falstaff, Pandarus), and he developed entirely new characters (the Dromio brothers, Beatrice and Benedick, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Paulina, Roderigo, Lear’s fool). He rearranged the plot with a view to more-effective contrasts of character, climaxes, and conclusions (Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It). A wider philosophical outlook was introduced (Hamlet, Coriolanus, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida). And everywhere an intensification of the dialogue and an altogether higher level of imaginative writing transformed the older work.
But, quite apart from evidence of the sources of his plays, it is not difficult to get a fair impression of Shakespeare as a reader, feeding his own imagination by a moderate acquaintance with the literary achievements of other men and of other ages. He quotes his contemporary Christopher Marlowe in As You Like It. He casually refers to the Aethiopica (“Ethiopian History”) of Heliodorus (which had been translated by Thomas Underdown in 1569) in Twelfth Night. He read the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding, which went through seven editions between 1567 and 1612. George Chapman’s vigorous translation of Homer’s Iliad impressed him, though he used some of the material rather sardonically in Troilus and Cressida. He derived the ironical account of an ideal republic in The Tempest from one of Montaigne’s essays. He read (in part, at least) Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostors and remembered lively passages from it when he was writing King Lear. The beginning lines of one sonnet (106) indicate that he had read Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene or comparable romanticliterature.
He was acutely aware of the varieties of poetic style that characterized the work of other authors. A brilliant little poem he composed for Prince Hamlet (Act V, scene 2, line 115) shows how ironically he perceived the qualities of poetry in the last years of the 16th century, when poets such as John Donne were writing love poems uniting astronomical and cosmogenic imagery with skepticism and moralparadoxes. The eight-syllable lines in an archaic mode written for the 14th-century poet John Gower in Pericles show his reading of that poet’s Confessio amantis. The influence of the great figure of Sir Philip Sidney, whose Arcadia was first printed in 1590 and was widely read for generations, is frequently felt in Shakespeare’s writings. Finally, the importance of the Bible for Shakespeare’s style and range of allusion is not to be underestimated. His works show a pervasive familiarity with the passages appointed to be read in church on each Sunday throughout the year, and a large number of allusions to passages in Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) indicates a personal interest in one of the deuterocanonical books.John Russell BrownTerence John Bew SpencerThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Questions of authorship
Readers and playgoers in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and indeed until the late 18th century, never questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. He was a well-known actor from Stratford who performed in London’s premier acting company, among the great actors of his day. He was widely known by the leading writers of his time as well, including Ben Jonson and John Webster, both of whom praised him as a dramatist. Many other tributes to him as a great writer appeared during his lifetime. Any theory that supposes him not to have been the writer of the plays and poems attributed to him must suppose that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were universally fooled by some kind of secret arrangement.
Yet suspicions on the subject gained increasing force in the mid-19th century. One Delia Bacon proposed that the author was her claimed ancestor Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, who was indeed a prominent writer of the Elizabethan era. What had prompted this theory? The chief considerations seem to have been that little is known about Shakespeare’s life (though in fact more is known about him than about his contemporary writers), that he was from the country town of Stratford-upon-Avon, that he never attended one of the universities, and that therefore it would have been impossible for him to write knowledgeably about the great affairs of English courtly life such as we find in the plays.
The theory is suspect on a number of counts. University training in Shakespeare’s day centred on theology and on Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts of a sort that would not have greatly improved Shakespeare’s knowledge of contemporary English life. By the 19th century, a university education was becoming more and more the mark of a broadly educated person, but university training in the 16th century was quite a different matter. The notion that only a university-educated person could write of life at court and among the gentry is an erroneous and indeed a snobbish assumption. Shakespeare was better off going to London as he did, seeing and writing plays, listening to how people talked. He was a reporter, in effect. The great writers of his era (or indeed of most eras) are not usually aristocrats, who have no need to earn a living by their pens. Shakespeare’s social background is essentially like that of his best contemporaries. Edmund Spenser went to Cambridge, it is true, but he came from a sail-making family. Christopher Marlowe also attended Cambridge, but his kindred were shoemakers in Canterbury. John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton came from similar backgrounds. They discovered that they were writers, able to make a living off their talent, and they (excluding the poet Spenser) flocked to the London theatres where customers for their wares were to be found. Like them, Shakespeare was a man of the commercial theatre.
Other candidates—William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, and Christopher Marlowe among them—have been proposed, and indeed the very fact of so many candidates makes one suspicious of the claims of any one person. The late 20th-century candidate for the writing of Shakespeare’s plays, other than Shakespeare himself, was Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. Oxford did indeed write verse, as did other gentlemen; sonneteering was a mark of gentlemanly distinction. Oxford was also a wretched man who abused his wife and drove his father-in-law to distraction. Most seriously damaging to Oxford’s candidacy is the fact that he died in 1604. The chronology presented here, summarizing perhaps 200 years of assiduous scholarship, establishes a professional career for Shakespeare as dramatist that extends from about 1589 to 1614. Many of his greatest plays—King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, to name but three—were written after 1604. To suppose that the dating of the canon is totally out of whack and that all the plays and poems were written before 1604 is a desperate argument. Some individual dates are uncertain, but the overall pattern is coherent. The growth in poetic and dramatic styles, the development of themes and subjects, along with objective evidence, all support a chronology that extends to about 1614. To suppose alternatively that Oxford wrote the plays and poems before 1604 and then put them away in a drawer, to be brought out after his death and updated to make them appear timely, is to invent an answer to a nonexistent problem.
When all is said, the sensible question one must ask is, why would Oxford want to write the plays and poems and then not claim them for himself? The answer given is that he was an aristocrat and that writing for the theatre was not elegant; hence he needed a front man, an alias. Shakespeare, the actor, was a suitable choice. But is it plausible that a cover-up like this could have succeeded?
Shakespeare’s contemporaries, after all, wrote of him unequivocally as the author of the plays. Ben Jonson, who knew him well, contributed verses to the First Folio of 1623, where (as elsewhere) he criticizes and praises Shakespeare as the author. John Heminge and Henry Condell, fellow actors and theatre owners with Shakespeare, signed the dedication and a foreword to the First Folio and described their methods as editors. In his own day, therefore, he was accepted as the author of the plays. In an age that loved gossip and mystery as much as any, it seems hardly conceivable that Jonson and Shakespeare’s theatrical associates shared the secret of a gigantic literary hoax without a single leak or that they could have been imposed upon without suspicion. Unsupported assertions that the author of the plays was a man of great learning and that Shakespeare of Stratford was an illiterate rustic no longer carry weight, and only when a believer in Bacon or Oxford or Marlowe produces sound evidence will scholars pay close attention.
Linguistic, historical, textual, and editorial problems
Since the days of Shakespeare, the English language has changed, and so have audiences, theatres, actors, and customary patterns of thought and feeling. Time has placed an ever-increasing cloud before the mirror he held up to life, and it is here that scholarship can help.
Problems are most obvious in single words. In the 21st century, presently, for instance, does not mean “immediately,” as it usually did for Shakespeare, or will mean “lust,” or rage mean “folly,” or silly denote “innocence” and “purity.” In Shakespeare’s day, words sounded different, too, so that ably could rhyme with eye or tomb with dumb. Syntax was often different, and, far more difficult to define, so was response to metre and phrase. What sounds formal and stiff to a modern hearer might have sounded fresh and gay to an Elizabethan.
Ideas have changed, too, most obviously political ones. Shakespeare’s contemporaries almost unanimously believed in authoritarian monarchy and recognized divine intervention in history. Most of them would have agreed that a man should be burned for ultimate religious heresies. It is the office of linguistic and historical scholarship to aid the understanding of the multitude of factors that have significantly affected the impressions made by Shakespeare’s plays.
None of Shakespeare’s plays has survived in his handwritten manuscript, and, in the printed texts of some plays, notably King Lear and Richard III, there are passages that are manifestly corrupt, with only an uncertain relationship to the words Shakespeare once wrote. Even if the printer received a good manuscript, small errors could still be introduced. Compositors were less than perfect; they often “regularized” the readings of their copy, altered punctuation in accordance with their own preferences or “house” style or because they lacked the necessary pieces of type, or made mistakes because they had to work too hurriedly. Even the correction of proof sheets in the printing house could further corrupt the text, since such correction was usually effected without reference to the author or to the manuscript copy; when both corrected and uncorrected states are still available, it is sometimes the uncorrected version that is preferable. Correctors are responsible for some errors now impossible to right.John Russell BrownTerence John Bew SpencerDavid Bevington
In what way do Romeo and Juliet break gender conventions? How do these roles fluctuate throughout the play?
At the beginning of the play, the young lovers' behavior reverses common gender conventions – Romeo acts in a way that his friends call feminine, while Juliet exhibits masculine qualities. Romeo is by no means an archetypal Elizabethan man; he is disinterested in asserting his physical power like the other male characters in the play. Instead, Romeo chooses to stew in his pensive melancholy. On several instances, Romeo's companions suggest that his introspective behavior is effeminate. On the other hand, Juliet exhibits a more pronounced sense of agency than most female characters in Shakespeare's time. While the women around her, like her mother, blindly act in accordance with Lord Capulet's wishes, Juliet proudly expresses her opinion. Even when she has lost a battle (like when Lord Capulet insists she consider marrying Paris), she demonstrates a shrewd ability to deflect attention without committing to anything. In her relationship with Romeo, Juliet clearly takes the lead by insisting on marriage and proposing the plan to unite them. As the play progresses, Romeo starts to break out of his pensive inaction to the point that Mercutio notices this change. Romeo also makes a great shift from his cowardly attempt at suicide in Act III to his willful decision in Act V. Overall, Romeo and Juliet are arguably a good match because they are so distinct. Juliet is headstrong, while Romeo is passive until passion strikes and inspires him to action.
Contrast Romeo's attempted suicide in Act 3 with his actual suicide in Act 5. How do these two events reveal changes in his character and an evolving view of death?
Romeo considers suicide in both Act 3 and Act 5. In Act 3, Romeo's desire to take his own life is a cowardly response to his grief over killing Tybalt. He is afraid of the consequences of his actions and would rather escape the world entirely than face losing Juliet. Both Friar Laurence and the Nurse criticize Romeo for his weakness and lack of responsibility - taking the knife from his hands. In contrast, Romeo actually does commit suicide in Act V because he sees no other option. He plans for it, seeking out the Apothecary before leaving Mantua, and kills himself out of solidarity with Juliet, not because he is afraid. While suicide is hardly a defensible action, Romeo's dual attempts to take his life reveal his growing maturity and his strengthened moral resolve.
Several characters criticize Romeo for falling in love too quickly. Do you believe this is true? Does his tendency towards infatuation give the audience occasion to question Romeo's affection for Juliet?
This question obviously asks for a student opinion, but there is evidence to support both sides of the argument. In Act 2, Friar Laurence states his opinion that Romeo does indeed fall in love too quickly. Romeo is arguably in love with being in love more than he is in love with any particular woman. The speed with which his affections shift from Rosaline to Juliet – all before he ever exchanges a word with the latter – suggests that Romeo's feelings of 'love' are closer to lust than commitment. This interpretation is supported by the numerous sexual references in the play, which are even interwoven with religious imagery in Romeo and Juliet's first conversation. However, it also possible to argue that Romeo's lust does not invalidate the purity of his love. Romeo and Juliet celebrates young, passionate love, which includes physical lust. Furthermore, whereas Romeo was content to pine for Rosaline from afar, his love for Juliet forces him to spring into action. He is melancholy over Rosaline, but he is willing to die for Juliet. Therefore, a possible reading is that Romeo and Juliet's relationship might have been sparked by physical attraction, but it grew into a deep, spiritual connection.
Examine the contrast between order and disorder in Romeo and Juliet. How does Shakespeare express this dichotomy through symbols, and how do those motifs help to underline the other major themes in the play?
The contrast between order and disorder appears from the Prologue, where the Chorus tells a tragic story using the ordered sonnet form. From that point onwards, the separation between order and disorder is a common theme. Ironically, violence and disorder occurs in bright daylight, while the serenity of love emerges at night. The relationship between Romeo and Juliet is uncomplicated without the disorderly feud between their families, which has taken over the streets of Verona. The contrast between order and disorder underscores the way that Shakespeare presents love - a safe cocoon in which the lovers can separate themselves from the unpredictable world around them. At the end of the play, it becomes clear that a relationship based on pure love cannot co-exist with human weaknesses like greed and jealousy.
Many critics note a tonal inconsistency in Romeo and Juliet. Do you find the shift in tone that occurs after Mercutio's death to be problematic? Does this shift correspond to an established structural tradition or is it simply one of Shakespeare's whims?
After the Prologue until the point where Mercutio dies in Act III, Romeo and Juliet is mostly a comic romance. After Mercutio dies, the nature of the play suddenly shifts into tragedy. It is possible that this extreme shift is merely the product of Shakespeare's whims, especially because the play has many other asides that are uncharacteristic of either comedy or tragedy. For example, Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is dreamy and poetic, while the Nurse's colorful personality gives her more dimension than functional characters generally require. However, it is also possible to see the parallels between this tonal shift and the play's thematic contrast between order and disorder. Shakespeare frequently explored the human potential for both comedy and tragedy in his plays, and it is possible that in Romeo and Juliet, he wanted to explore the transition from youthful whimsy into the complications of adulthood. From this perspective, the play's unusual structure could represent a journey to maturity. Romeo grows from a petulant teenager who believes he can ignore the world around him to a man who accepts the fact that his actions have consequences.
Eminent literary critic Harold Bloom considers Mercutio to be one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions in Romeo and Juliet. Why do you agree or disagree with him? What sets Mercutio apart?
One of Shakespeare's great dramatic talents is his ability to portray functional characters as multi-faceted individuals. Mercutio, for example, could have served a simple dramatic function, helping the audience get to know Romeo in the early acts. Then, his death in Act 3 is a crucial plot point in the play, heightening the stakes and forcing Romeo to make a life-changing decision. Mercutio barely appears in Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, which Romeo and Juliet is based on. Therefore, Shakespeare made a point of fleshing out the character. In Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, Shakespeare has the opportunity to truly delve into the bizarre and often dangerous sexual nature of love. Further, Mercutio's insight as he dies truly expresses the horrors of revenge, as he declares a plague on both the Montague and Capulet families. He is the first casualty of their feud - and because he transcends functionality, the audience mourns his untimely death and can relate to Romeo's capricious revenge.
How does Shakespeare use symbols of gold and silver throughout the play? What does each element represent?
Shakespeare uses gold and silver as symbols to criticize human folly. He often invokes the image of silver to symbolize pure love and innocent beauty. On the other hand, he uses gold as a sign of greed or desire. For example, Shakespeare describes Rosaline as immune to showers of gold, an image that symbolizes the selfishness of bribery. Later, when Romeo is banished, he comments that banishment is a "golden axe," meaning that banishment is merely a shiny euphemism for death. Finally, the erection of the golden statues at the end of the play is a sign of the fact that neither Lord Capulet nor Lord Montague has really learned anything from the loss of their children. They are still competing to claim the higher level of grief. Romeo, however, recognizes the power of gold and rejects it - through him, Shakespeare suggests a distinction between a world governed by wealth and the cocoon of true love.
Do a character analysis of Friar Laurence. What motivates him? In what ways does this motivation complicate his character?
Friar Laurence is yet another character who transcends his functional purpose. When Romeo first approaches the Friar to plan his marriage to Juliet, the older man questions the young man's sincerity, since Romeo openly pined for Rosaline only a few days before. However, the Friar shows a willingness to compromise by agreeing to marry the young lovers nevertheless. What ultimately motivates Friar Laurence is his desire to end the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, and he sees Romeo and Juliet's marriage as a means to that end. While his peaceful intentions are admirable, his devious actions to achieve them – conducting a marriage that he explicitly questions – suggests he is more driven by politics than by an internal moral compass. The fact that a religious figure would compromise one of the Church's sacraments (marriage) further suggests that the Friar wants his power to extend beyond the confines of his Chapel. He also displays his hubris by helping Juliet to fake her death, rather than simply helping her get to Mantua to be with Romeo. While Friar Laurence is not an explicit villain, his internal contradictions speak to Shakespeare's ability to create multi-faceted characters.
Should Romeo and Juliet be considered a classical tragedy (in which fate destroys individuals)? Or is it more a tragedy of circumstance and personality? Moreover, could the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet have been avoided?
In classical tragedy, an individual is defeated by Fate, despite his or her best efforts to change a pre-determined course of events. A classical tragedy both celebrates an individual's willpower while lamenting the fact that the universe cannot be bested by mankind. The tragic elements in Romeo and Juliet are undeniable - two young lovers want nothing more than to be together and fall victim to an ancient feud and rigid societal conventions. However, while Romeo and Juliet's deaths result from human folly, the immovable power of fate also has a hand in sealing their destinies. For instance, Romeo and Juliet had many opportunities to simply run away together instead of being separated after Romeo is banished from Verona. Furthermore, many of the tragic occurrences are contingent on antagonistic characters running into one another, and then choosing to pursue vengeance rather than simply walk away. Based on this evidence, it is possible to read Shakespeare's intent as suggesting that behavioral adjustment can often prevent tragic events.
How is Romeo and Juliet a criticism of organized religion? Examine the play's secularism to develop your answer.
While Romeo and Juliet does not present explicit attacks against religion, Shakespeare reveals his skepticism of Christianity in subtle ways. In many ways, Romeo and Juliet must reject the tenets of Christianity in order to be together. In their first meeting, they banter, using religious imagery to share their sexual feelings. In this exchange, the lovers acknowledge the omnipresence of Christianity, but cheekily use religious images in an unexpected context. Further, Christian tradition would have required Juliet to submit to her father's desire, but instead, she manipulates his expectations to distract him from her real agenda. Even Friar Laurence, an explicitly religious figure, uses Christianity as a tool towards his own ends. In this way, the play implicitly suggests that the rigid rules of religion often work in opposition to the desires of the heart - and to pursue true happiness, one must throw off the shackles of organized faith.