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Major themes in Shakespeares plays: history, politics, power, identity,

man and the human condition, love and gender politics



William Shakespeare, by universal consent the greatest author of England, if not of the
world, occupies chronologically a central position in the Elizabethan drama.
Shakespeare's dramatic career falls naturally into four successive divisions of increasing
maturity.
The first of the four periods thus disclosed is that of experiment and preparation, from about
1588 to about 1593, when Shakspere tried his hand at virtually every current kind of dramatic
work. Its most important product is 'Richard III,' a melodramatic chronicle-history play, largely
imitative of Marlowe and yet showing striking power.
The second period of Shakespeare's work, extending from about 1594 to about 1601, is
occupied chiefly with chronicle-history plays and happy comedies. The comedies include the
charmingly fantastic 'Midsummer Night's Dream'; 'The Merchant of Venice,' 'Much Ado About
Nothing,' 'As You Like It,' and 'Twelfth Night,' where again charming romantic sentiment is
made believable by combination with a story of comic realism. Even in the one, unique, tragedy
of the period, 'Romeo and Juliet,' the main impression is not that of the predestined tragedy, but
that of ideal youthful love.
The third period, extending from about 1601 to about 1609, includes Shakespeare's great
tragedies and certain cynical plays. In these plays as a group Shakespeare sets himself to grapple
with the deepest and darkest problems of human character and life; but it is only very uncertain
inference that he was himself passing at this time through a period of bitterness and disillusion.
'Julius Csar' presents the material failure of an unpractical idealist (Brutus); 'Hamlet' the
struggle of a perplexed and divided soul; and 'Macbeth' the destruction of a large nature by
material ambition. Without doubt this is the greatest continuous group of plays ever wrought out
by a human mind, and they are followed by 'Antony and Cleopatra,' which magnificently
portrays the emptiness of a sensual passion against the background of a decaying civilization.
The four early comedies, belonging to the years 1592 to 1595, only fitfully foreshadow the
achievement of the mature comedies that followed in the subsequent five years. The Comedy of
Errors is an adaptation of Plautuss Menaechmi and his Amphitruo.
A Midsummer Nights Dream marks the change to maturity. The workmanship is deft, the
poetry almost unfailing. Three strands of action are skilfully woven together, the first a crossed
pattern of love between two pairs of lovers who are brought together in a wood at night. Here
their story is interwoven with that of the fairy king Oberon and his queen Titania, who are
quarrelling. A misapplied fairy love-juice complicates the entanglement of the human lovers
further. The third strand in the plot is supplied by Bottom and his fellow tradesmen who are
rehearsing a play for the wedding of the
Duke of Athens.
Hamlet has its roots in the pagan ethic of revenge, so that the dualistic moral patterning
which gives a fundamentally Christian flavour to the poetic worlds of Macbeth, Othello and King
Lear is less evident, and less congruous when it is evident. The doom is laid on the hero in
Senecan fashion by a visitant from another world. What complicates the treatment is that the
moral burden of revenge is matched by an intellectual burden; the realization that one may smile
and smile, and be a villain, the evidence of total dissociation between the outer appearance and
the inner reality. This revelation of untruth obsesses Hamlet so that every relationship he has
with others is affected by the will to tear away the pretence that veils truth.
The Tempest tells a fairly straightforward story involving an unjust act, the usurpation of
Prosperos throne by his brother, and Prosperos quest to re-establish justice by restoring himself
to power. However, the idea of justice that the play works toward seems highly subjective, since
this idea represents the view of one character who controls the fate of all the other characters.
Though Prospero presents himself as a victim of injustice working to right the wrongs that have
been done to him, Prosperos idea of justice and injustice is somewhat hypocriticalthough he
is furious with his brother for taking his power, he has no qualms about enslaving Ariel and
Caliban in order to achieve his ends. At many moments throughout the play, Prosperos sense of
justice seems extremely one-sided and mainly involves what is good for Prospero. Moreover,
because the play offers no notion of higher order or justice to supersede Prosperos interpretation
of events, the play is morally ambiguous.
As the play progresses, however, it becomes more and more involved with the idea of creativity
and art, and Prosperos role begins to mirror more explicitly the role of an author creating a story
around him. With this metaphor in mind, and especially if we accept Prospero as a surrogate for
Shakespeare himself, Prosperos sense of justice begins to seem, if not perfect, at least
sympathetic.
Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. Love is
naturally the plays dominant and most important theme. The play focuses on romantic love,
specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between Romeo and Juliet. In Romeo
and Juliet, love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values,
loyalties, and emotions. In the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their entire
social world: families (Deny thy father and refuse thy name, Juliet asks, Or if thou wilt not,
be but sworn my love, / And Ill no longer be a Capulet); friends (Romeo abandons Mercutio
and Benvolio after the feast in order to go to Juliets garden); and ruler (Romeo returns to
Verona for Juliets sake after being exiled by the Prince on pain of death in 2.1.7678). Love is
the overriding theme of the play, but a reader should always remember that Shakespeare is
uninterested in portraying a prettied-up, dainty version of the emotion, the kind that bad poets
write about, and whose bad poetry Romeo reads while pining for Rosaline. Love in Romeo and
Juliet is a brutal, powerful emotion that captures individuals and catapults them against their
world, and, at times, against themselves.
The main theme of Macbeththe destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by
moral constraintsfinds its most powerful expression in the plays two main characters.
Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet
he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and
afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of
frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater
determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One
of Shakespeares most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to
kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murders aftermath, but she is eventually driven to
distraction by the effect of Macbeths repeated bloodshed on her conscience. In each case,
ambitionhelped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witchesis what drives the couple
to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use
violence to further ones quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats
to the throneBanquo, Fleance, Macduffand it is always tempting to use violent means to
dispose of them.
Julius Caesar raises many questions about the force of fate in life versus the capacity for free
will. Cassius refuses to accept Caesars rising power and deems a belief in fate to be nothing
more than a form of passivity or cowardice. He says to Brutus: Men at sometime were masters
of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are
underlings (I.ii.140142). Cassius urges a return to a more noble, self-possessed attitude toward
life, blaming his and Brutuss submissive stance not on a predestined plan but on their failure to
assert themselves. Ultimately, the play seems to support a philosophy in which fate and freedom
maintain a delicate coexistence. Thus Caesar declares: It seems to me most strange that men
should fear, / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come
Julius Caesar gives detailed consideration to the relationship between rhetoric and power. The
ability to make things happen by words alone is the most powerful type of authority. Early in the
play, it is established that Caesar has this type of absolute authority: When Caesar says Do
this, it is performed, says Antony, who attaches a similar weight to Octaviuss words toward
the end of the play (I.ii.12). Words also serve to move hearts and minds, as Act III evidences.
Antony cleverly convinces the conspirators of his desire to side with them: Let each man render
me with his bloody hand (III.i.185). Under the guise of a gesture of friendship, Antony actually
marks the conspirators for vengeance. In the Forum, Brutus speaks to the crowd and appeals to
its love of liberty in order to justify the killing of Caesar. He also makes ample reference to the
honor in which he is generally esteemed so as to validate further his explanation of the deed.
Antony likewise wins the crowds favor, using persuasive rhetoric to whip the masses into a
frenzy so great that they dont even realize the fickleness of their favor.
Shakespeares Sonnets
Modern readers associate the sonnet form with romantic love and with good reason: the first
sonnets written in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy celebrated the poets feelings for their
beloveds and their patrons. These sonnets were addressed to stylized, lionized women and
dedicated to wealthy noblemen, who supported poets with money and other gifts, usually in
return for lofty praise in print. Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to Mr. W. H., and the
identity of this man remains unknown. He dedicated an earlier set of poems, Venus and
Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, to Henry Wriothesly, earl of Southampton, but its not known what
Wriothesly gave him for this honor. In contrast to tradition, Shakespeare addressed most of his
sonnets to an unnamed young man, possibly Wriothesly. Addressing sonnets to a young man was
unique in Elizabethan England. Furthermore, Shakespeare used his sonnets to explore different
types of love between the young man and the speaker, the young man and the dark lady, and the
dark lady and the speaker. In his sequence, the speaker expresses passionate concern for the
young man, praises his beauty, and articulates what we would now call homosexual desire. The
woman of Shakespeares sonnets, the so-called dark lady, is earthy, sexual, and faithless
characteristics in direct opposition to lovers described in other sonnet sequences,
including Astrophil and Stella, by Sir Philip Sidney, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who were
praised for their angelic demeanor, virginity, and steadfastness. Several sonnets also probe the
nature of love, comparing the idealized love found in poems with the messy, complicated love
found in real life.
In Shakespeares sonnets, falling in love can have painful emotional and physical
consequences. Sonnets127152, addressed to the so-called dark lady, express a more overtly
erotic and physical love than the sonnets addressed to the young man. But many sonnets warn
readers about the dangers of lust and love. According to some poems, lust causes us to mistake
sexual desire for true love, and love itself causes us to lose our powers of perception. Several
sonnets warn about the dangers of lust, claiming that it turns humans savage, extreme, rude,
cruel (4), as in Sonnet 129. The final two sonnets of Shakespeares sequence obliquely imply
that lust leads to venereal disease. According to the conventions of romance, the sexual act, or
making love, expresses the deep feeling between two people. In his sonnets, however,
Shakespeare portrays making love not as a romantic expression of sentiment but as a base
physical need with the potential for horrible consequences.
Shakespeare portrays beauty as conveying a great responsibility in the sonnets addressed to
the young man, Sonnets 1126. Here the speaker urges the young man to make his beauty
immortal by having children, a theme that appears repeatedly throughout the poems: as an
attractive person, the young man has a responsibility to procreate. Later sonnets demonstrate the
speaker, angry at being cuckolded, lashing out at the young man and accusing him of using his
beauty to hide immoral acts. Sonnet 95compares the young mans behavior to a canker in the
fragrant rose (2) or a rotten spot on an otherwise beautiful flower. In other words, the young
mans beauty allows him to get away with bad behavior, but this bad behavior will eventually
distort his beauty, much like a rotten spot eventually spreads. Nature gave the young man a
beautiful face, but it is the young mans responsibility to make sure that his soul is worthy of
such a visage.