American Literature: Drama, literature intended for performance, written by Americans in the English language. American drama begins in the American colonies in the 17th century and continues to the present.
Most American plays of the 18th and
19th centuries strongly reflected British influence. In fact, no
Although the British repertory
dominated the American stage for so long, American drama had begun to diverge
from British drama by the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, from 1828 to
1836. British plays, which typically reflected the attitudes and manners of the
upper classes, were by then in conflict with more egalitarian American values.
Despite this growing divergence, British actors, theater managers, and plays
continued to cross the
By the end of the 19th century American drama was moving steadily toward realism, illuminating the rough or seamy side of life and creating more believable characters. Realism remained the dominant trend of the 20th century in both comedies and tragedies. American drama achieved international recognition with the psychological realism of plays by Eugene O’Neill and their searing investigation of characters’ inner lives. As the century advanced, the number of topics considered suitable for drama broadened to encompass race, gender, sexuality, and death.
Because settlement was sparse and living conditions were arduous in the American colonies, little theatrical activity took place before the mid-18th century. The first-known English-language play from the colonies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb (1665), is lost. The play’s existence is known as a result of the controversy it aroused in the Virginia Colony, where a lawsuit was filed to prevent the play from opening. Several colonies had passed antitheater laws based on a Puritan belief that the seventh of the Ten Commandments prohibited dancing and stage plays.
The oldest surviving American play
is Androborus by Robert Hunter
(1714). Hunter, the New York Colony’s governor, published the cartoonish play
as an attack on his political enemies, despite
Before more American plays had appeared,
a company of British professional actors established a touring circuit in the
1750s with an all-British repertory. By the early 1760s this group was known as
The American Company and American writers occasionally submitted plays to the
actors, though few were produced. But in 1767 The American Company staged The Prince of Parthia, a tragedy by
Thomas Godfrey, in
During the American Revolution
(1775-1783), most professional actors moved to
By the mid-1780s professional actors
were touring in
The 1700s also saw the first
American play written by a woman reach the professional stage. The melodramatic
comedy Slaves in Algiers (1794) by
Susanna Rowson reflects troubles at that time with pirates along North Africa’s
American plays, while still a
minority, began to appear in the theater repertory in the 19th century. Although
American plays were still styled after British models, their subject matter
came to be based on specifically American incidents or themes. In the
The first prolific writer of
melodramas was William Dunlap, who also translated several German plays for
production in the
Replication of local color, as in A Trip to Niagara, became the norm in
19th-century American melodrama and encompassed details of scenery, dialects,
and gestures representative of specific locations; contemporary slang, and
historical incidents. An early example is She
Would Be a Soldier (1819) by Mordecai Noah. The play depicts the military
spectacle of the War of 1812 between the
Although American drama of the 19th
century usually followed European models, its subject matter often came from
specifically American situations. Superstition
(1824), a romantic tragedy by James Nelson Barker, for example, was set in
Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) was the first professionally produced play to explore Native American characters and themes. It told the story of Pocahontas, a Native American who married an English colonist. A vogue for so-called Indian plays began in the 1820s and continued through the 1840s. While the Pocahontas story was popular in these plays, the most famous such drama was Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) by John Augustus Stone. It was written as a vehicle for American actor Edwin Forrest, who began in 1828 to offer annual awards for new plays on American themes and gave Metamora first prize. This melodrama was typical of most Indian plays in its setting in an earlier period of frontier history (the 1670s) and its characterization of the Native American hero. Metamora was viewed as natural but uncivilized—that is, living in harmony with nature but unfamiliar with what European settlers saw as civilized ways. The play put forth sentiments in harmony with white values and ended with Metamora’s inevitable death as the representative of a displaced race that cannot survive with the white man. By mid-century the waning importance of Indian plays was signaled by works that lampooned them. Irish-born playwright John Brougham, for example, wrote Metamora, or the Last of the Pollywogs (1847), a musical burlesque that made fun of the idealized and earnest original.
Also in the 1820s an African
American acting troupe called the African Theatre was organized in
American romantic plays took various forms. But without the American slant in subject matter, it would be difficult to distinguish these plays from British melodrama and romantic tragedy. What may be the best American play of the time, Francesca da Rimini (1855), is a romantic verse tragedy by George Henry Boker about an Italian noblewoman of the 14th century. It presents a villainous fool, a forbidden love affair, and a grotesque, semi-villainous hunchback in the role of the protagonist. However, nothing in the play’s characters and setting or its imitation of Shakespearean style marks the play as American.
Melodrama was the most pervasive dramatic genre of the 19th century. Melodramas were typically overflowing with emotion, set in mysterious locations, and peopled with stereotypical characters: heartless villains, heroines in distress, and strong heroes who faced almost insurmountable odds in rescuing those heroines.
Frontier melodrama enthralled audiences in the first half of the 19th century. Nick of the Woods (1838) by Louisa Medina capitalized on the spectacle, romance, and danger of the frontier—for example, when the title character escapes his pursuers by plunging over a waterfall in a burning canoe. Playwrights repeatedly glorified backwoodsmen and moved toward making Native American characters into villains. One of the most successful frontier melodramas, Davy Crockett (1872) by Frank Murdoch, featured the so-called natural gentleman. This character had developed from an earlier view of the Native American but was now white and considered a gentleman, despite his life outside society and his uncouth ways.
Another form of melodrama was the temperance play, which illustrated the evils of alcohol and supported a ban on its sale. An example is The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved (1844) by W. H. Smith. Temperance plays had American locations and were staged frequently from the 1830s until the Civil War (1861-1865), though they continued to be produced until passage in 1917 of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Most of these plays included scenes of the acute stages of alcoholism; featured protagonists who are lured into alcoholism by villains; and showed the victims losing everything until the play’s climax, when they convert to abstinence and regain their life and family. Because the formulas of the plays accommodated moral lessons important to social crusaders and reformers of the period, temperance plays attracted audiences formerly opposed to the theater.
Melodramatic comedy appeared frequently in the 1800s, while comedies of manners, so popular in the previous century, were rare. A notable exception and one of the most successful and well-written plays of the 19th century was Fashion (1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt. Yet what most tellingly distinguished Fashion from earlier American comedies, such as The Contrast, were its melodramatic subplot and its heroine in distress. In the play, a newly wealthy woman attempts to marry her unwitting daughter to a morally corrupt French count. While satirizing Americans who imitate European manners, it also prescribed a cure for this so-called disease of imitation through extended exposure to a rural environment. Like frontier melodramas, the play urged Americans to resist British cultural models.
Racial, social, and economic
tensions in American society before the Civil War period found a way into
popular drama, most successfully in stage adaptations of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Sentimental versions of the novel filled so many professional
stages that this material was performed more often than any other American play
of the time. An 1852 adaptation by George Aiken was the most enduring version.
Stage adaptations of novels proliferated from the 1850s until motion pictures
took over the tradition in the 20th century. Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), a stage adaptation
of the novel The Quadroon (1856) by
Mayne Reid, is the most well crafted melodrama on the subject of slavery and
racism in the mid-19th century. It combines local color from
A Shift Toward Realism Drama after the Civil War was
marked by greater realism. Playwrights created plays in three-dimensional
settings with characters speaking authentic-sounding dialogue. Beginning in the
late 1870s European theater reached profound levels of psychological realism,
prompted by the work of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. While melodramatic
plots still prevailed in late-19th-century American theater, several American
playwrights began to move in the direction of Ibsen. Shenandoah (1888) by Bronson Howard told the story of two friends
who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point together, fought on
opposite sides in the Civil War, and loved the other’s sister. Despite the plot
complications, the play revisited the war with realistic detail and found
enormous popularity with audiences because of its combination of melodramatic
tension and comic romance. A master of melodrama in a realistic style was actor
and playwright William Gillette, who excited audiences with his own Civil War
thrillers. In Secret Service (1896),
for example, Gillette played a Northern spy working in
Other late-19th-century playwrights
whose works marked the gradual move toward realism included Steele Mackaye and
William Dean Howells. In Hazel Kirke (1880)
by Mackaye, the title character defies her father by marrying the man she
loves, rather than the man he has chosen for her. A melodrama without a
villain, the play was also notable for its more natural dialogue. Howells, best
known as a novelist and critic, advocated realism in literature generally. Many
of his short comic plays, such as The
Mouse Trap (1889), were set in
Howells also championed the work of
other writers, including actor and playwright James Herne, whose work came
closest to Ibsen’s. However,
Realism continued to be a primary form of dramatic expression in the 20th century, even as experimentation in both the content and the production of plays became increasingly important. Such renowned American playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller reached profound new levels of psychological realism, commenting through individual characters and their situations on the state of American society in general. As the century progressed, the most powerful drama spoke to broad social issues, such as civil rights and the AIDS crisis, and the individual’s position in relation to those issues. Individual perspectives in mainstream theater became far more diverse and more closely reflected the increasingly complex demographics of American society.
Before World War I Realism reached new
levels in the prewar work of David Belasco and Clyde Fitch, both of whom
directed their own plays. Belasco’s The
Girl of the Golden West (1905) sentimentally recreated a rural
Social tensions in the
From World War I to World War II With World War I,
European developments in modern drama arrived on the American stage in force. A
host of American playwrights were intent on experimenting with dramatic style
and form while also writing serious sociopolitical commentary. From this time
One of the first groups to promote
new American drama was the Provincetown Players, founded in 1915 in
American expressionism was
distinguished from its German forebears by a searching focus on the inner life
of the central character, whose detailed depiction is in stark contrast to all
other characters. The most famous example of American expressionism is The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice,
a play that focuses on the emotional journey of the leading character, Mr.
Zero, after he is replaced at his job by an adding machine. Rice was the first
playwright to demonstrate silent film’s influence on theater in On Trial (1914), which borrowed the
flashback technique. Some of the most novel expressionist experiments employed
collage-like scenic effects and cacophonous musical and sound techniques to
explore social issues. Such plays include Processional
(1925), a depiction of a
The Glory Days The 1920s was the most prolific decade for professionally
produced plays on the
During this period O’Neill reached for greatness with vast five-hour plays. Strange Interlude (1928), a nine-act play, explored through its leading female characters the way in which hidden psychological processes affect outward actions. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1928. Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a trilogy, was a powerful adaptation of three ancient Greek tragedies by Aeschylus that told the story of Orestes and are known as the Oresteia. Set in New England after the Civil War (which replaces the Trojan War of the Oresteia), Mourning Becomes Electra recounts the moral, emotional, and physical destruction of two generations of the Mannon family, emphasizing the far-reaching consequences of adultery, incest, jealousy, and vengeance. Both plays capture O’Neill’s lifelong investigation of the human condition and the forces that plague humankind. In 1936 O’Neill became the first American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature.
Also in the 1920s and early 1930s, comedies of manners made a comeback through delightfully glib, lightly satirical plays such as Philip Barry’s Holiday (1928), about a man who decides to enjoy his newly made fortune while he is still young. In a later comedy of manners, End of Summer (1936) by S. N. Behrman, a flighty, middle-aged socialite pursues both fascist and left-wing men in an attempt to remain a player in a world quickly passing her by.
African American characters became more visible in plays of this period. In the play In Abraham’s Bosom (1926) by Paul Green, the main character, whose father is white and mother is black, works to help his black community but is defeated by the racial prejudice of both whites and blacks. In Abraham’s Bosom won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for drama. White playwrights wrote most of the plays featuring black characters from this period, while black playwrights remained on the margins of the theater world until the 1950s.
Even the musical was overhauled in the bustling theatrical activity of the 1920s and early 1930s. Most notably, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome Kern teamed up to create Show Boat (1927), a musical production adapted from a novel of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. This was the first American musical to fully integrate a musical score with meaningful and consistent dialogue and lyrics.
American theater attendance declined severely in the 1930s and after, primarily as a result of new sound technology that gave motion pictures a voice. But films were not the only drain on theater attendance. The economic collapse of the Great Depression of the 1930s closed many theaters permanently. The austerity of the 1930s inspired a new wave of hard-edged drama that tackled economic suffering, left-wing political ideologies, fascism, and fears of another world war. European agitprop techniques, which used literature and the arts for political propaganda, animated many plays about the working class. The most famous of these plays is Waiting for Lefty (1935) by Clifford Odets. In the play taxi drivers decide to go on strike, but the true concern of the play is a more abstract debate over the pros and cons of capitalism. Odets also wrote one of the finest expressions of 1930s anxieties, Awake and Sing! (1935), in which a Marxist grandfather commits suicide for his family’s financial benefit, and his grandson ultimately dedicates himself and the life insurance money to helping his community rather than seeking better opportunities elsewhere.
The plays of Lillian Hellman also displayed a social conscience. Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934), in which a child’s vengeful anger causes the downfall of a school and the two women who run it, explored the devastating effects of evil in an intolerant society. Langston Hughes paved the way for acceptance of African American drama with his successful play Mulatto (1935), about the complexity of race relations. The global scale of fears in the 1930s was reflected in the plays of Robert Sherwood, whose satirical attack on weapons manufacturers in Idiot’s Delight (1936) predicted the impending world cataclysm of World War II. It was awarded the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Postwar Drama: 1945-1960
During World War II (1939-1945) little drama of note appeared that was neither escapist fare nor wartime propaganda. With the end of hostilities, however, two playwrights emerged who would dominate dramatic activity for the next 15 years or so: Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Miller combined realistic characters and a social agenda while also writing modern tragedy, most notably in Death of a Salesman (1949), a tale of the life and death of the ordinary workingman Willy Loman. Miller’s The Crucible (1953), a story about the 17th-century Salem witch trials, was a parable for a hunt for Communists in the 1950s led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Tennessee Williams, one of America’s most lyrical dramatists, contributed many plays about social misfits and outsiders. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a neurotic, impoverished Southern woman fights to maintain her illusions of gentility when forced to confront the truth about her life by her sister’s working-class husband. Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, similarly focused on pretense and its destructiveness and destruction in an unhappy family.
The 1940s also launched lighthearted musicals, most notably a series with lyrics and score by the productive partnership of librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers. Their first collaboration, the love story Oklahoma! (1943), set the style for musicals until the 1960s with its thorough integration of text and music.
Realism continued strongly in the 1950s with character studies of society’s forgotten people. Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) by William Inge told the story of the unfulfilled lives of an alcoholic doctor and his wife. O’Neill’s painful autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), considered his masterpiece by many critics, premiered after the playwright’s death in 1953. The play chronicled a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during which family members inexorably confront one another’s flaws and failures.
In the late 1950s African American playwriting received a tremendous boost with the highly acclaimed Raisin in the Sun (1959), the story of a black family and how they handle a financial windfall. Written by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway production to be directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards. Also at the end of the 1950s the semiabsurdist plays of Edward Albee, starting with Zoo Story (1959), caught the American imagination with their psychological danger and intelligent dialogue. Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) depicted the destructive relationship of a married couple primarily through their verbal abuse.
The Mainstream Redefined The 1960s to the 1990s
The civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the mid-1960s exploded in drama as regional and experimental theaters proliferated and many talented new dramatists came to the fore. Experimental theater companies, including the Living Theater and the Open Theater, experimented with group dynamics by placing performers and audience members in the same physical space. The Serpent (1968) by Jean-Claude Van Itallie, which used this elimination of physical barriers between actors and audience, recreated Biblical stories through the depiction of modern, often politically charged, events and images, for instance the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Megan Terry’s plays, such as Calm Down Mother (1965), experimented with traditional dramatic structure through actor transformations, wherein one actor in any given piece would be playing multiple roles and would switch between characters without apparent transition. Terry, and other feminist playwrights, challenged contemporary social codes of behavior in their presentation of different points of view, giving voice to traditionally disenfranchised members of American culture—for example, lesbian women. Many African American voices had a confrontational edge. In his violent Dutchman (1964), Amiri Baraka portrayed white society’s fear and hatred of an educated black protagonist. The autobiographical Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) by Adrienne Kennedy addressed the difficulties of being an American of mixed racial ancestry. Horror stories of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) found their way into drama for several decades, most notably in Indians (1969) by Arthur Kopit, Streamers (1976) by David Rabe, and Redwood Curtain (1993) by Lanford Wilson.
Small-scale musicals, such as the modern romance The Fantasticks (1960), written by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt, and the antiwar rock musical Hair (1967), by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, became long-running hits and continued to influence plays in the late 20th century. Plays that dealt openly with homosexuality also found large audiences, starting in the 1960s. They included Boys in the Band (1968) by Mart Crowley, Torch Song Trilogy (1981) by Harvey Fierstein, and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) by Terrence McNally. Neil Simon emerged as the premiere playwright of comedies for several decades with such works as The Odd Couple (1965), about two bachelors living together, and the autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), about a lower middle class Jewish family.
Sam Shepard and David Mamet loomed large in American drama of the 1970s, much as Miller and Williams had in the 1950s. Shepard’s hard-edged drama, which explored the American family and the often-destructive myths of the American West, was most biting in Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980). Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Mamet created a darkly comic style that imitated the fragmented speech of the inarticulate and employed profanity as nearly every part of speech. Mamet’s American Buffalo (1975) used a Chicago junk shop as a symbol of American capitalism, and his Pulitzer-Prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) depicted the moral decay brought about by the win-at-all-costs ethic of the American salesman.
The movement known as postmodernism found expression in the American theater chiefly through staging and direction, rather than through the plays themselves. Postmodern staging and design tended toward the minimal and sometimes incorporated images from earlier plays and productions. Postmodern directors sought to uncover multiple layers of meaning in a play. Feminist playwrights sometimes effectively appropriated these approaches. Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and The Conduct of Life (1985), both by Maria Irene Fornés, used spatial experiments, such as moving the audience from room to room instead of changing stage scenery. Wendy Wasserstein more safely explored the complex social issues raised by the women’s movement in Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and The Heidi Chronicles (1988), which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
In the late 1970s Lanford Wilson had success with realistic ensemble pieces, which had large casts and no one central character. His works, such as The Fifth of July (1978), perpetuated the ensemble tradition of Odets, Williams, and Inge. American musicals also enjoyed experimental developments in the work of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His romantic A Little Night Music (1973) was written entirely in three-four times, and his Into the Woods (1987) refashioned traditional fairy tales for adults.
By the 1980s many American playwrights found themselves tied to topics of current interest. The Normal Heart (1985) by Larry Kramer confronted the devastation wrought by the AIDS crisis. ‘Night Mother (1983) by Marsha Norman discussed the question of when suicide might be justifiable. In his M. Butterfly (1988), David Henry Hwang artfully examined the famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904), by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, and the ways in which Western civilization feminizes Eastern civilization.
In the 1980s two new playwrights repeatedly took audiences into new territory, while expressing themselves in language as far apart as their subject matter. August Wilson set about creating a history of the African American experience in the 20th century in narrowly focused domestic dramas. Fences (1983) portrayed conflicts between father and son as the result of their coming of age in different eras. The Piano Lesson (1990) focused on conflicts between a brother and sister over selling a family heirloom to buy the land that they work and that their ancestors worked as slaves. Both plays won Pulitzer Prizes. Eric Overmyer harnessed sophisticated language, satire, and vibrant theatricality to dissect a corrupt social and political infrastructure in On the Verge (1986) and In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe (1988).
A central event in drama of the 1990s was the two-part Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The two parts, titled Millennium Approaches (1991) and Perestroika (1993), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993; Tony Awards for best play followed in 1991 and 1994. Angels in America follows eight characters over a six-year period, chronicling the effects of AIDS on their lives. Through its subject matter, bright humor, and visual theatricality Angels in America inspired audiences across the country.
The 1990s also saw the return of exciting domestic drama by playwrights assumed by many to have finished their careers: Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass (1994) and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994) received popular and critical acclaim. Younger established playwrights continued to challenge audiences, mostly in small or regional theaters. Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) investigated sexual harassment. Overmyer’s Dark Rapture (1992) combined crime, greed, and sex in the style of motion-picture thrillers. Wilson’s Seven Guitars (1995) revisited the black experience in 1940s America. Wasserstein’s An American Daughter (1997) looked at gender politics in Washington, D.C. Sondheim’s musicals became darker in his treatment of presidential assassination in Assassins (1990) and out-of-control love and guilt in Passion (1994).
Recent Trends The direction of American drama presented troubling questions as the 20th century drew to a close. Economic woes of regional and experimental theaters resulted in a multitude of plays with a single setting and no more than two or three characters, which made them less expensive to produce. The aging of American theater audiences and competition from other forms of entertainment also endangered drama’s future. Theaters were rejecting many large-scale plays as too risky and unlikely to draw big enough audiences to cover production expenses. Consequently, musicals, which were reliable crowd-pleasers, and revivals dominated Broadway theater seasons. Almost all nonmusical plays originated in regional theaters. The expense of touring productions meant that most new plays reached a geographically diverse audience only if they were adapted to motion pictures or television. Many playwrights appeared to write with a film or television adaptation in mind, a tendency accentuated by the fact that motion-picture companies owned many theaters and producing organizations.
Although experimentation continued and poignant subject matter was still addressed in some quarters, many playwrights worried that American theater had become too conservative in its mainstream and too specialized in its smaller venues. The chief concern as the 20th century ended was whether the 21st century would provide enough opportunities for strong new dramatic voices.
Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), English playwright and poet, recognized in much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists. Shakespeare’s plays communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behavior, revealed through portrayals of a wide variety of characters. His use of poetic and dramatic means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions and actions is recognized as a singular achievement, and his use of poetry within his plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in individual, social, and universal situations is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in literary history.
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare’s life is lacking, and thus much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. It is commonly accepted that he was born in 1564, and it is known that he was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was probably educated at the local grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed to his father’s shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the business, but according to one account he was apprenticed to a butcher because of declines in his father’s financial situation. According to another account, he became a schoolmaster. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a daughter in 1583 and twins—a boy and a girl—in 1585. The boy did not survive.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript form) established his reputation as a gifted and popular poet of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century). The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet’s friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight. Shakespeare’s modern reputation, however, is based primarily on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his time, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men, and its two theaters, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatist. It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, when his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II“ at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy.
After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford, where he had established his family in an imposing house called New Place and had become a leading local citizen. He died in 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and (4) the period after 1608. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his writings, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a convenient framework in which to discuss his development. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious construction and by stylized verse.
Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works (see England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings). These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1592-1593?), deal with evil resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The four-play cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly (through such dramatists) or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, especially in the bloodiness of many of their scenes and in their highly colored, bombastic language. The influence of Seneca, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (1592?), a farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on mistaken identities in two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not as strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) concerns romantic love. Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594?) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of English novelist and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his colleagues.
Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two of his major tragedies. In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period historical plays include Richard II (1595?), Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?), and Henry V (1598?). They encompass the years immediately before those portrayed in the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays a responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity subsequently became one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices.
Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595?), which interweaves several plots involving two pairs of noble lovers, a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation of atmosphere, of the sort that characterizes this play, is also found in the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice (1596?). In this play, the Renaissance motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love are portrayed in opposition to the bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. The character of the quick-witted, warm, and responsive young woman, exemplified in this play by Portia, reappears in the joyous comedies of the second period.
The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599?) is marred, in the opinion of some critics, by an insensitive treatment of its female characters. However, Shakespeare’s most mature comedies, As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and beautiful, charming, and strong-minded heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside is drawn in a rich and varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex orchestration between different characters and between appearance and reality and used this pattern to comment on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of love is illustrated by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically conceived and clowning characters in the subplot. Another comedy of the second period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?), a farce about middle-class life in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim.
Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (1595?), famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Julius Caesar (1599?), on the other hand, is a serious tragedy of political rivalries, but is less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed it.
Shakespeare’s third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are considered the most profound of his works. In them he used his poetic idiom as an extremely supple dramatic instrument, capable of recording human thought and the many dimensions of given dramatic situations. Hamlet (1601?), perhaps his most famous play, exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world of horror. Confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality of his mother, he exhibits tendencies toward both crippling indecision and precipitous action. Interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be a subject of considerable controversy.
Othello (1604?) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist, Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello’s evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King Lear (1605?), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and of his councillor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of their giving power to their evil children, rather than to their good children. Lear’s daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic conclusion a vindication of goodness. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal of evil as self-defeating, as exemplified by the fates of Cordelia’s sisters and of Gloucester’s opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra (1606?) is concerned with a different type of love, namely the middle-aged passion of Roman general Mark Antony for Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by some of Shakespeare’s most sensuous poetry. In Macbeth (1606?), Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man who, led on by others and because of a defect in his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of any amoral act.
Unlike these tragedies, three other plays of this period suggest a bitterness stemming from the protagonists’ apparent lack of greatness or tragic stature. In Troilus and Cressida (1602?), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare’s plays, the gulf between the ideal and the real, and both individual and political, is skillfully evoked. In Coriolanus (1608?), another tragedy set in antiquity, the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon of Athens (1608?) is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to misanthropy by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because of the uneven quality of the writing, this tragedy is considered collaboration, quite possibly with English dramatist Thomas Middleton.
The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood and are sometimes called problem plays because they do not fit into clear categories or present easy resolution. All’s Well That Ends Well (1602?) and Measure for Measure (1604?) both question accepted patterns of morality without offering solutions.
The fourth period of Shakespeare’s work includes his principal romantic tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays that, through the intervention of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest redemptive hope for the human condition. These plays are written with a grave quality differing considerably from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but they end happily with reunions or final reconciliation. The tragicomedies depend for part of their appeal upon the lure of a distant time or place, and all seem more obviously symbolic than most of Shakespeare’s earlier works. To many critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare’s own outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change in fashion in the drama of the period.
The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of
Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the products of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (1613?) was probably written with English dramatist John Fletcher (see Beaumont and Fletcher), as was The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?; published 1634), a story of the love of two friends for one woman.
Until the 18th century, Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more than a rough and untutored genius. Theories were advanced that his plays had actually been written by someone more educated, perhaps statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron. However, English writer Ben Jonson and others who saw in him a brilliance that would endure celebrated him in his own time. Since the 19th century, Shakespeare’s achievements have been more consistently recognized, and throughout the Western world he has come to be regarded as the greatest dramatist ever.
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