William Shakespeare wrote thirty eight plays giving the world an insight into history as seen through the eyes of one man. His work covered three main genres: History – Tragedies – Comedies. For he was not afraid to write of romances, love and lust through his characters. These works of this one man would last for centuries, becoming a leading playwright, always remembered for his works.
So join with me as we step back in time, breaking into the world of his plays.
All That Ends Well (1602-1603)
This comedy is centred round the old age subject of love, and how obstacles can be overcome, even though there is no final resolution to the problem. It leaves the audience, believing that humanity is to blame for their inadequacy.
It tells us of Helena, the orphaned daughter of a much respected and experienced physician, raised within the household of the Countess of Rossillions, and is said to love Bertram son of the Countess.
Bertram heads off to see the King of France, who is gravely ill, with Helena in hot pursuit, looking to heal the King, and move herself up the pecking ladder so to speak.
The King is cured, and grants Helena one wish, and she choose’s Bertram as her husband, who strongly objects to any such alliance.
The story is one of seduction, and deceit by Helena until Bertram is forced into accepting her as his wife. Bertram had no choice in this, for Helena had him in her clutches, and no intentions of letting her go.
Productions of the play did not take place until the 1740’s when Peg Woffington played the part of Helena. In the early part of the 19th century, it was performed but censored in part. Then mid way through the 20th century it became popular…
Robert Atkins produced it in 1949, and then in 1953 Tyrone Guthrie produced it in Stratford-upon-Avon. There was one production that stood out, that would be Trevor Nunn’s (1981-1983) starring Peggy Ashcroft as the countess. It played first at Stratford-upon-Avon, then on to London, and finally Broadway.
Since its production on the stage, with Richard Burbage a leading actor at that time, playing the part of Hamlet in this tragedy based play. It has been recognised the world over, as one of Shakespeare’s most prominent works.
The ghost of Hamlet, former King of Denmark, appears to Horatio, long time friend of Prince Hamlet, knowing his words would reach the ears of his son.
Prince Hamlet speaks out harshly against Claudius and Gertrude’s (Hamlet’s former wife) marriage. His father’s ghost, tells how Claudius had poisoned him, seeking the hand of Gertrude, as he took his position as the new King of Denmark. Prince Hamlet promises to avenge his father’s death, for such a dastardly act.
Laertes, son of Polonius warns his sister, Ophelia against any courtship with Prince Hamlet. Yet Prince Hamlet rejects her, feigning madness to ward her off.
The death of his father affects Prince Hamlet, so much, that nothing would stand in his way, to avenge his murder. So much so, that friends Rossencrantz and Guildenstern help him perform a play, an enactment of his father’s death with Claudius watching.
Later in the play, Claudius believing he is alone and in prayer, admits his guilt, but is overheard by Prince Hamlet, who opts not to take his revenge at that point, and kill him…
Claudius, knowing that Prince Hamlet had killed Polonius, conspired with Laertes to avenge the death of his father, and the madness that had destroyed his sister; Ophelia, rejected by him and treated as a whore.
Claudius and Hamlet meet where Ophelia is buried using poison tipped swords, and poisoned wine. Osric presents the challenge between Prince Hamlet and Laertes.
Gertrude drinks from the poisoned wine in error, and Hamlet and Laertes are both wounded, Claudius is stabbed by Laertes, and forced to drink the wine, then both men collapse and die, and Prince Hamlet also dies from his wound.
Prince Hamlet receives a state funeral, and knew he had avenged his father’s life…
The part of Hamlet had been portrayed by many fine actors in the 19th and 20th centuries:
19th Century – Ira Aldridge, William Charles Macready, Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.
20th Century – John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and John Barrymore.
I am sure there are many more names we could add, but these are those who are most known for acting the part.
Richard III (1592-1593)
The historical play of Richard III has been very controversial, ever so much in recent time since the discovery of his bodily remains.
In this play Edward IV, having seized the English throne, defeats the Lancastrians, ensuring his position as King Edward IV of England.
Brotherly love doesn’t always run smoothly, as Edward has two brothers; George the Duke of Clarence and Richard the Duke of Gloucester, who sought after the throne, whatever the cost.
We see Richard as a villain, with an evil nature, plotting the death of brother George, upon the charge of treason, being sent to the tower, and executed.
Edward now an ailing King, collapses at the news that his brother George, Duke of Clarence was dead. For it was he who sent him to the tower, but at the last minute had issued a pardon, sparing his life. However, Richard Duke of Gloucester delayed issuing the pardon, waiting until he had heard that the execution had taken place.
King Edward IV names Richard Duke of Gloucester as protector after his death, and entrusts the two princes, Edward and Richard into his care.
So it was Richard the Duke of York joined his brother Prince Edward, successor to the English throne at the Tower of London.
Prince Edward V and Richard the Duke of York, having been the children of the Duke of Clarence, who had been executed for treason, were deemed illegitimate based on a rumour, which had no substance, that they be the result of the late King’s illicit affair.
The young princes disappeared never to be heard from again, it is believed they were executed on the order’s of Richard III himself, and executed by Tyrell, who was in the employ of Richard.
King Richard III’s reign was overshadowed by the constant threat of a Tudor invasion of these lands. So it was King Richard III died on the battle field at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.
The part of Richard III was played by Richard Burbage in 1590, a well known actor at that time, and the leading actor in “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” and later renamed as “The King’s Men” in honour of their patron King James I.
In 1700 Colley Cibber, re-wrote parts of the play, thus reducing it in size from the original, and this revised version was performed in New York in 1751, and ran for many years.
With the 19th century, much of the original writings were replaced.
Richard III, a play with much history content, reached the cinema screen, when four silent films were produced over a number of years, but the most remembered was Max Reinhardt’s version, released in 1919.
In 1956 Lawrence Olivier played the part of Richard III in the movie, which had been altered considerably for the screen, but designed to attract cinema goers. Since those days it has been performed as a play, on television and national theatres, along with more modern television versions.
There have been many plays written by William Shakespeare, and I have given an account of one from each category.
“The Two Noble Kinsmen play,” written in 1613, lists William Shakespeare and John Fletcher as co-authors in this work. The majority of this play was the work of Fletcher, whilst Shakespeare wrote acts one and five.
John Fletcher went on to succeed Shakespeare as the principal writer of plays for “The King’s Men.”
William Shakespeare was known to write a total of 154 sonnets, of which 126 were dedicated to a fair youth, and the remaining 28 dedicated to that of a dark lady.
So what is a sonnet? A poem consisting of fourteen lines of regular rhythm and rhyme, based on a single theme. Sonnets are normally divided up, and the first eight lines would represent the theme, and the remaining six lines would form the resolution or conclusion.
A William Shakespeare sonnet would rhyme like this:
Line 01 rhymes with line 03 Line 08 rhymes with line 06
Line 02 rhymes with line 04 Line 09 rhymes with line 11
Line 03 rhymes with line 01 Line 10 rhymes with line 12
Line 04 rhymes with line 02 Line 11 rhymes with line 09
Line 05 rhymes with line 07 Line 12 rhymes with line 10
Line 06 rhymes with line 08 Line 13 rhymes with line 14
Line 07 rhymes with line 05 Line 14 rhymes with line 13
If one uses the above we can see how it works out below:
Sonnet 18 written by William Shakespeare.
Line 01 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Line 02 Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Line 03 Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
Line 04 And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Line 05 Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
Line 06 And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
Line 07 And every fair from fair sometime declines,
Line 08 By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
Line 09 But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Line 10 Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Line 11 Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
Line 12 When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
Line 13 So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
Line 14 So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
If we observe how a sonnet is written, we can get a good idea how it has been created. So a few examples are shown below how sonnet 18 works.
The last word of line one (day) rhyme’s with the last word of line three (May).
The last word of line five (shines) rhyme’s with the last word of line seven (declines).
The last word of line ten (ow’st) rhymes with the last word of line twelve (grow’st).
This has become over time one of William Shakespeare’s most remembered and most loved sonnet. The opening line put’s forward a question which the rest of the sonnet answers.