Wednesday, 25 July 2012


William Shakespeare  wrote  both  dramatic and  non-dramatic works. The  plays  attributed to him  are 38.  It  is  possible  to  divide  them  into  three  chronological  periods,  each  one  with  clear  characteristics  of  its  own. 
The  first  period (1590-1599)  includes  comedies (e.g.  The  Comedy  of  Errors, A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,  The  Merchant  of  Venice),  history  plays (Richard III) and  tragedies  (Romeo  and  Juliet,  Julius Caesar)In  this  period  Shakespeare  showed  great  sympathy  for  human  nature  and  a  positive  attitude  to  life. Even  when the  play  has  a  tragic  conclusion,  life  is  still presented  positively  as  worth  living.  Romeo  and  Juliet,  for  example,  is  a  celebration  of  love  in  spite  of  its  tragic  ending.      These  plays  are   characterized  by  complicated  plots and increasing ability  in  characterization; great  experimentation in the use of poetic  imagery  which  is  often  influenced  by  the  language of  courtly  love;  mixture  of  rhyme,  blank  verse  and  prose.  The  central  themes  are  love  and  appearance  and  reality,  especially in the  comedies,  the  restoration of  order  in  the  histories  and  tragedies.  

In the  second  period (1600-1609)   Shakespeare’s  works  gradually  reflected  a  gloomier  vision of  life.  Traditional  human  values,  such as  love,  friendship  and  honour,  collapse;   family and society  are  broken  and  destroyed   by  treachery,  violence  and  war;  man  seems  to  live  in  a  godless  chaotic  universe,  victim  to  a  cruel  fate. This can be  deduced from the great  tragedies:  Hamlet,  Othello,  King  Lear  and  Macbeth.  The  other  plays  of  this  period (Twelfth Night, Measure for  Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well), which  reveal   the  pessimistic  attitude  of the dramatist,  are in balance between comedy and tragedy, showing  the ambiguities inherent in such  feelings as love and friendship; only  their happy  endings technically  make them  comedies;  for these reason they are  often referred to as "dark comedies".
The  principal  themes  have  negative  connotations:  conflict,  disorder,  ambition,  hate,  usurpation,  madness,  death. Style  is  characterised  by a  predominance  of  blank  verse and an elaborate choice  of  imagery  and  rhetorical figures (e.g. simile, metaphor,  antithesis,  personification,  etc.)  connected  with a  troubled  nature,  which was  meant  to  reproduce  human  conflicts and sufferings  in the  texture  of  language.

Shakespeare’s last group of plays,  Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale  and The Tempest,  are  called  “romances” because  of their  features:  the  unreality of the story,  romantic love,  the  appearance  and  intervention  of  supernatural  beings  and  conclusions  emphasising  harmony  and  reconciliation.  Predominant  themes  are  magic,  love and peace.  The  language is  rich  in  evocative  imagery.  It is  used to excite  the  imagination and  move  the emotions.  Shakespeare’s most  representative  work  of this   final  period  is  The Tempest  (1612),  his  last  play,  where  the  dramatist  seems  to  have  reached  a  new  serene  and  detached   vision  of  the  world  after  a  period  of  sad  experience.  Here  Prospero's magic art does not bring  revenge upon his enemies,  but unites  the opposing  factions  in the  marriage of the young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand.

Shakespeare’s non-dramatic works  consist of three  poems  and a  sequence of  154  sonnets.  Two  poems  Venus and  Adonis  and  The  Rape  of  Lucrece   deal  with  classical  subjects,  while  The  Phoenix  and  the  Turtle  is  an allegory  on the theme  of  constant  love and  faithfulness.
The sonnets can be  divided into two sections. The  first is  addressed to a  “fair youth”, probably  Shakespeare’s  young  patron, the Earl of  Southampton;  the second  section is addressed  to  a  mysterious  “dark lady”  who,  though physically  unattractive,  is  temptingly  desirable.
The choice of the addresses  is  an  innovation  of the Shakespearean sonnets  since it breaks  with the Petrarchan  courting  tradition.  The  situations  suggested  in  the  sonnets  are  means  to  explore universal  themes  such as time, death, love, beauty, art.  The  style  is  characterized   by a  rich  and  brilliantly  descriptive language, the effective  use  of  rhyme,  the adaptation of  stress  to  the  movement  of  emotions, and  the  multitude   of  cultural  references  implied.

Sonnet 130, for example, is a pleasure to read for its simplicity and frankness of expression. It is one of the few of Shakespeare's sonnets with a humorous tone.  Its message is simple: the dark lady's beauty cannot be compared to the beauty of a goddess or to that found in nature, for she is but a mortal human being. In truth this sonnet plays an elaborate joke on the conventions of the Petrarchan love poetry common to Shakespeare's day, and it is so well-conceived that the joke remains funny today.
I hope you like this beautiful YouTube clip!  Alan Rickman's voice reciting Sonnet 130  is amazing!

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