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The most famous British dramatist is Shakespeare.He was born in 1564 in Stratford upon Avon River and dies at the age of 52 in 1616. When he was young, he left Stratford for London and he became an actor. His literary carrier began around 1587, when he started writing a history called King Henry the VIth - part one. In the following years he wrote part 2 and part 3. But the third part is three plays. There is a play about the 100 years war. The play King Henry the VIth takes action at the end of the 100 years war. When the 100 years war is over it is followed by the war of the roses. The war of the two royal houses: York and Lancaster. At the end of this first period Shakespeare wrote the famous play King Richard the IIIrd. The three plays about King Henri the VIth and the play about King Richard the IIIrd form a loose feudal tetralogy. King Henry the VIth is about feudal and intestine wars and about chaos.
The play King Richard the IIIrd is similar to the play Macbeth. This is the story of a usurper who murders his way to the throne. He has hypnotic power. This is a demonic character who is also a great actor as a chameleon. At the end he is killed in a battle, but he died gratefully and bravely. King Richard is defeated and overthroned and his death marks the end of the middle Ages in England. He was defeated by Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry the VIIth. Henry the VIIth starts the Tudor House which rules during the Renaissance.
In his first period form 1587 till 1592(3) Shakespeare also wrote four experimental comedies. These are: "The Comedy of errors", "The taming of the shrew" and "The two gentlemen of Verona". "The comedy of errors" is based upon the most famous Plautus' roman - "The twins". Shakespeare complicates the situation further because his main characters are not only identical twins but they also have two identical servants. This is a comedy of misunderstanding. The other famous play from this period is "The taming of the shrew" and it is based upon an old English farce. The play is set in Italy. It is about two sisters, one of which is shrew and the other is a model one. At the end the one which was shrew becomes a model one and the one which was liked by everybody becomes shrew. In the third play: "The two gentlemen of Verona" Shakespeare experiments with a conflict between two friends. In his first period Shakespeare wrote also one tragedy: "Titus Andronicus". It is a bloody tragedy influenced by Seneca.
At the end of 1582 the Great Plague, when all the theatres were closed, puts an end of Shakespeare's first period.
Shakespeare's second period begins in 1593(4) and covers the years till the end of 16th century. Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest poetical plays in his second period. First is the romantic comedy of love- "Midsummer night dream". Here Shakespeare contrasts rational versus blind love. The play is set in Athens, in a wood where the prince Theseus is getting married. He represents rational love- love guided by reason. By contrast the love which several young people feel is irrational and blind. In this play Shakespeare introduces several groups of characters: the characters mentioned above, the Fairy kingdom- represented by the King and the Queen of the Fairies, by other spirits and by immature lovers and the third group of characters, represented by the craftsmen.
Before Shakespeare English fairies were represented as being the size of children. Fairies were short creatures. They were very mischievous, they specialized practical jokes. But Shakespeare enriches English Folklore by writing highly poetically and by presenting fairies as creatures that live among the flowers. Shakespeare created many little stories about the fairies. Thus Shakespeare enriches English folklore and creates more poetical image of it.
The world of the fairies is romantic and poetic. This one of the craftsmen is utterly prosaic and literal-minded. Craftsmen have no head for poetry. Shakespeare shows the limitations of the romantic and poetical world of the fairies and of the prosaic world of the craftsmen. None of them is sufficient. These both worlds are complementary.
Other comedies which Shakespeare wrote in his second period are "The Merchant of Venice", which is a gloomy comedy and "Twelfth night". Shakespeare also wrote his greatest histories in his second period. These are the plays: "King Richard the second", two plays about king Henry the fourth and one play about king Henry the fifth. Shakespeare first wrote about the later kings and after that he wrote another tetralogy about the earlier kings. The play "King Richard the second" is a story about a weak king who is forced to abdicate. There is a famous scene in which Richard has to give up the crown and Henry to take it. Richard holds on the crown but the pretender is also anxious to have it. So we have two kings and one crown. Richard is a king for life but at the end he is killed and the pretender is left as the only king (a king and a non-king). The problem is solved by the killing of Richard and the pretender becomes King Henry the fourth. Shakespeare wrote two plays about King Henry the fourth, the most famous of which is Falstaff. The play Falstaff is based on the character of the bragging soldier. Falstaff is a braggart, a comic hero. Falstaff and his friends like to drink to be up to mischief. One of them is Prince Henry- Henry the fourth's son. The prince and his merry companions upset the king, who is worried about his son. At the end of the play the prince is crowned and becomes King Henry the fifth. He gives up his former companions and ways of life and becomes a model king. Then Shakespeare wrote a play about this new king- King Henry the fifth. Shakespeare presents King Henry the fifth as an idealized figure. He is Shakespeare's ideal for a king. King Henry the fourth and King Henry the fifth represent two opposite characters. Henry the fourth is villain and unscrupulous, whereas Henry the fifth is represented as a people's man. But this is not true because in Henry the fifth's time there were a lot of cruelties. These plays about King Richard the second, Henry the fourth and Henry the fifth represent another loose tetralogy. These are Shakespeare's greatest histories.
In his second period Shakespeare wrote also two tragedies. The first one is Romeo and Juliet. At that time tragedies had to be about kings and queens or about individuals placed very highly in society. Shakespeare introduces characters who belong to the middle classes, who are not a king and a queen. The tragedy Romeo and Juliet is about actions which are seen as inevitable. Professor Minkoff says that "not all the actions in Romeo and Juliet are inevitable" (Minkoff, A History of English Literature Part I).Juliet is asleep, she has taken some drug. Romeo sees her and thinks she's dead. He kills himself. Juliet sees him in her turn and she kills herself. These are some misunderstandings which violate the fact of inevitability. However from the very beginning Shakespeare prepares us for the tragic outcome. There are images of disease and infection ( the rose eaten by a worm).
The second tragedy was written ate the end of Shakespeare's second period. This is 'Julius Caesar". This is a tragedy of lost ideals. The main character is not Caesar but Brutus.
The third period of Shakespeare is from 1600 till 1607. This is the period of Shakespeare's great tragedies. The first play Shakespeare wrote in the new century is "Troilus and Cressida". This is a tragic-comedy. The beginning of the seventeenth century was a time of disillusionment with the ideals of the high Renaissance. This period is known as the revolt and many satirical authors emerge at that time. Troilus is one of the sons of king Priamus. He is a petrarchistic lover. Troilus is in love with Cressida but she is sent to a Greek camp where she quickly forgets him. In this tragedy we find the most cynical attitude to love represented by Cressida's uncle.
Shakespeare's next play is "Hamlet"-1601. Hamlet is disillusioned with the ideal of the high Renaissance. He suffers from melancholy. Nowadays we would call it a depression. In Shakespeare's day melancholy was considered to be the first step to madness. This shows that there is something wrong with Hamlet. Part of his problem is due to the fact that he has a vivid imagination, which paralyzes his ability to act. We see Hamlet in many roles. We see him as a beautiful son, we see him as a lover, as a friend, as a soldier, as a Renaissance scholar. Shakespeare contrasts Hamlet with other characters in a similar situation. Laertes also loses a father - Plonius. Ofelia is Laertes' sister and Hamlet's true love. Laertes is in a similar situation as Hamlet but he thinks little and acts rushly. Laertes is a man of action and Hamlet is a man of inaction.
In 1603 died Queen Elizabeth. She died and a new dynasty started ruling over England. The house of Stuart came to throne. The first of them is King James the first. At that time England and Scotland became one country. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in order to please the new king. The characters in Macbeth are Scottish. There are Scottish witches, Scottish king and so on. The story of Macbeth is similar to that of King Richard the third. We have an usurper who murders his way to the throne. Shakespeare shows us Macbeth's deteriorization. At first Macbeth is noble but he is too ambitious and murders the king Dunkan. Shakespeare shows the impact of crime on the originally noble Macbeth who subsequently becomes a butcher and a harden criminal. Macbeth is the second of Shakespeare's great tragedies. The third is King Lear. This is the story of a king who has three daughters. At the beginning of the play Lear acts like a madman in his anger but later in the play he really goes mad. He starts speaking wisdom in his madness. So we have reason in madness. Shakespeare shows Lear's regeneration trough suffering. The culmination of the play is the famous store scene, in which Lear prays for all poor people.
Othello is the fourth of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Othello is a successful general but he is only half-civilized and he is a moor. The main conflict is between Iago, who hates Othello and seeks to destroy him and Othello. Iago is like a devil. His hatred to Othello is irrational. He is very witty. He is devilish, demonic. His opposite is Othello's young wife Desdemona, who stands for Christian goodness and virtue. Iago and Desdemona struggle for Othello's soul.
The fourth tragedy is "Anthony and Cleopatra", where Shakespeare presents mature lovers.At the end of the play Anthony dies and Cleopatra kills herself. They both are contrasted with the cold world of Rome.
" These five tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra represent the greatest achievement in the History of Drama. They are tragedies of the Unique Individuality and this makes them characteristics of the Renaissance" (Minkoff, Studies in English Renaissance Drama)
Shakespeare's last period is from 1602 till 1612. In his last period he wrote Romances. The most famous of them are the "Winter tale" and the "Tempest". In his Romances Shakespeare often writes about a father-daughter relationship. These plays are different from Shakespeare's great tragedies and they end in reconciliation. Old enemies become reconciled.
In the "Tempest" Shakespeare returns to the beautiful poetical creatures the elves and thus he tells to his audience goodbye. Shakespeare returns to Stratford where in 1666 he died and he is buried in the church of Stratford.