William Shakespeare: The National Poet of England

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The English poet, and writer, William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. He is indeed great to have assumed the title “Band of Avon,” and he is most often referred to as England’s National Poet. His many works include collaborations that are made up of some thirty-nine plays and a hundred and fifty sonnets. Although Shakespeare was not deeply respected in his lifetime, he was praised by people such as Francis Meres and Ben Johnson. Meres separated him from a group of English writers and to him, Shakespeare was “excellent” in both tragedy and comedy. However, during the seventeenth century, critics often rated Shakespeare poorly even below the likes of John Fletcher and Ben Johnson. For instance, Thomas Rymer disliked the fact that he mixed both tragedy and comedy. Never the less, Shakespeare was well spoken of by John Dryden who claimed to admire and to love him. By 1800, Shakespeare had assumed his identity as the national poet all thanks to people like Samuel Johnson and Edmond Malone who spiced up his growing reputation. His fame also began to spread abroad since the likes of Voltaire, Stendhal, Goethe and Victor Hugo were championing him. His name continued to receive praise even during the Romantic era due to acknowledgments from critic August Wilhelm Schlegel and philosopher Samuel Taylor. Schlegel also translated his plays to German. Indeed, Shakespeare had almost become King as a writer. However, William Shakespeare was also in the receiving end of criticism. The attempt is therefore made in this paper to show that most probably, William Shakespeare has been criticized more than he has been receiving praise.

Three hundred and two years have passed since Shakespeare’s demise. His legend has been passed on from one generation to the next, and he lives in our mouths and minds. However, no one knows how Shakespeare looked like since all his contemporaries must be rotting in the grave. Additionally, speculating about his personality is also almost close to an impossibility. Literary scholars have tried to dig out some of these aspects from his literary works by analyzing the literary devices that he employed as well as his choice of character. Others too have questioned his identity. For example, Robert Bearman and Douglas Hamer revisit the issue of his identity in the articles “Was William Shakespeare, William Shapeshifter?” Bearman casts doubt into the identity of William Shakespeare claiming that we may have been praising and admiring the wrong person all these years. According to Hamer, William Shakshafter, one of Shakespeare’s servants may have been a musician and a player of instruments. The probability that Shakeshafter would have been keen on writing poems and comedies is very high, and maybe this quest may have been tiresome and unappealing to his master, Shakespeare himself (Bearman 89).

The importance of scholarship has been on the increase in the late 19th as well as the early 20th

centuries. Literary scholars have tried to leave no stone unturned in their quest to uncover and explore the life and works of Shakespeare. For instance, Edward Dowden analyzed the shape of Shakespeare’s career in a unique way. In his book Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C Bradley showcased how scholarly achievements could be applied to the interpretation of some of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Bradley focused much on character.

Further understanding Shakespeare’s political, social, economic and theatrical accomplishments have been on the increase in the scholarly world during the 20th century. His sources were scrutinized intensely. For instance, Elmer Edgar Stoll puts much emphasis on how to see his plays as constructs having an intimate connection with the historic environment. According to her, acting plays was much dependent on conventions that were well understood in the context of his lifetime. In essence, the choice of costume must have been meaningful to the audience at the time and so does the buildings and gestures on the actors’ part. Further, historical critics have also sought to know much more concerning the history of theatres at London, audiences and staging strategy as well (Parvini 217). Other scholars have conducted a close examination of censorship, in line with the religious controversies of the era and its effect on playwriting. Keen research on the history of ideas has analyzed astrology, Elizabethan cosmology, and philosophical ideas, the theory of humors, Machiavelli political theories and others.

The valuable historical criticism has not prevailed unopposed. Critical movements of the 1930s and 40s fought for a much more formalist approach to poetry. In effect, they called for “close reading” instead. These movements urged the replacement of historical background favoring intense and personal engagement with the language being used, the image patterns, tone, and speaker. Studying the rhetorical patterns, imagery as well as wordplay became a source of support for the movements. Certainly, in the end, close reading became the acceptable approach to analyzing the Shakespearean texts. Criticism in the 20th and 21st

centuries has led to the mushrooming of new schools of approach and thought. Psychoanalytic critics have been exploring the questions of character regarding narcissism, Oedipal complexes and the conflicting needs in relationships. The birth of Archetypal and mythological criticism has led to the scrutiny of myths of vegetation and its relation to death and rebirth and the basis of cycles in the process of creation. Christian scholars have also tried to give interpretations in this plays, seeking to find deep analogies to the story of sacrifice and redemption that is common among Christians.

Some critics have also pursued a vigorous way of interpretation. For instance, in the 1950s, post-world war two scholars have reshaped William Shakespeare as a dramatist of the absurd, antiauthoritarian ridiculing and skeptical. Some of the so-called New Historicists have learned how to analyze literary production from the point of cultural exchange, studying how the society models itself through political ceremonials (Parvini 214).

In an attempt to understand the personality of William Shakespeare, scholars have investigated his opinion on gender, politics, and psychology through a thorough analysis of his works. For instance, the theme of gender is central in his famous political play Macbeth. From the onset, this play focuses much on the importance of masculinity in gaining power. The importance of Macbeth is equivalent to the significance of Lady Macbeth and the three witches combined since they influence him in a profound manner. The character of Lady Macbeth who is feminine exhibits much more masculinity than Macbeth himself, and though the witches resemble women, they are bearded to prove the presence of masculinity in their making. Wells draws our attention to the tragedy of King Lear where the king loses both self-control and masculinity and in the tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare shows that a man can lose his masculinity and exhibit feminine traits such as fear and sensitivity. This is evident in the case of Macbeth who happens to be dominated by his wife. At times, Macbeth is also portrayed to be a warrior thus indicating that masculinity can be lost or gained. The fact that Shakespeare associates power and might to masculinity serve as evidence that he could have been a male chauvinist. But on the other hand, he shows that even women can acquire masculinity thus making it hard for us to judge about his gender biases (Wells n.p).

The issue of race in the time of Shakespeare probably meant something different than the definition we have today. Most probably, if you came across a person of color in England at the time, most likely such a person could have been more of a slave owner than a slave. However, historical evidence shows that darker people were disliked during this age, and rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth 1 expelled some darker people living in the north. Despite this fact, Shakespeare wrote his books as though he was living in the era of the slave trade. For instance, in the play Othello, it is so ironical that the main character, Othello, is black, but he is also in the forefront of the war against the Turks. Though he is portrayed essentially as sympathetic, his skin color becomes a bone of contention through Lago’s machinations. Othello ends up assuming irrational behavior and uncontrollable rage as a result of the fear of miscegenation. The issue of race also comes up in the Merchant of Venice through the character of Shylock, the Jewish money lender. Whether Shylock is an evil character or just a victim of anti-Semitism is open to discussion. Though he is an alien to the state, the economy is much dependent on people like him to facilitate trade and wealth. Shylock is also seen to be an obstacle to all marriages in the play, and his picture may come out in a bad light.

It is very difficult for scholars to know Shakespeare’s thoughts since he never communicated them directly to the audience concerning race or any other issues. Instead, he spoke through characters who represent more than one voice. William Shakespeare stands above all other dramatists. He is indeed a supreme genius impossible to characterize. The fact that he has been dead for more than three hundred years now may make it hard for he admirers to know how he looked like or to ascertain whether he did exist. In spite of all this, He has acquired more fans in death than during his lifetime. Never the less, his legend has not found a smooth passage from one generation to the next. The number of critics has surpassed the great numbers associated with his admirers and the picture that has been painted about him over the past decades is completely different. It is intriguing to see scholars such as Bearman working hard to question his identity. To Bearman, Shakespeare is an impostor who used his servant Shashafter to coin words and craft plays. Wells also portrays Shakespeare as a male chauvinist. He ascertains his claims by analyzing characters in several plays. For instance, Wells judges Shakespeare to be chauvinist because the feminine characters in his plays such as the witches in Macbeth are bearded and thus they have the right to be brave. Indeed, though celebrated and famous, William Shakespeare has had his fair share of criticism even in death.

Works Cited

Bearman, Robert. "Was William Shakespeare William Shakeshafte?” Revisited". Shakespeare Quarterly, vol 53, no. 1, 2002, pp. 83-94. Johns Hopkins University Press, doi:10.1353/shq.2002.0002.

Parvini, Neema. "The Scholars And The Critics: Shakespeare Studies And Theory In The 2010S". Shakespeare, vol 10, no. 2, 2013, pp. 212-223. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/17450918.2013.857711.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare On Masculinity. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

November 24, 2023



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