"All the world`s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts..."
As You Like It
William Hazlitt once said, “If we wish to know the force of human genius, we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators.”
Be that as it may, in the cannon of English literature, William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564-23April 1616) is acknowledged as the greatest poet-playwright of the language. A prolific writer, the oeuvre of Shakespeare includes thirty eight plays, one hundred and fifty four sonnets and scores of poems, which offer a rare insight into the intuitive imagination, profundity and richness of this Renaissance artist.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, hailing from a poor family, Shakespeare could ill afford local grammar school or university. In the words of Ben Johnson, Shakespeare knew “small Latin and less grammar”.
Married at the age of eighteen to twenty-six-years-old Anne Hathaway, during 1585-1592, Shakespeare enjoyed a flourishing career as an actor and playwright in London. However, before becoming the famous poet and playwright of Elizabethan era, it is widely believed that Shakespeare spent most of his time at deer-poaching and school mastering.
By 1592, Shakespeare not only established himself as a major playwright, but a literary revolution as well. A playwright whose work is mainly categorised into comedies, tragedies, histories and poems, Shakespearean opus is both classic and timeless.
‘As You Like It’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘The Merchant of Venus’, ‘Taming The Shrew’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Henry IV’, ‘Henry VI’, ‘Henry VIII’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ are cult classics which enjoy huge popularity even today, as it did during the Elizabethan age.
Though much has been said and written about Shakespeare, yet, what made William Shakespeare the ‘William Shakespeare’ is worth observing. Like any Renaissance artist, Shakespeare was the product of his age, who occupied a unique position in his times, a world which was caught between the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth, patronage system, market, religion and society. Writing in an age that saw huge military conquests and capitalist expansions, Shakespeare was a deeply-conscious artist, whose prose subverts and contains the prevalent power structures of his age.
Shakespeare not only obeyed the whims and fancies of the Queen but also catered to the prevailing tastes of the Elizabethan audiences, something which he couldn’t afford to defy or else, would have faded away into oblivion. Thus, the work of Shakespeare is a glaring example of linguistic compromise. His literary output showcases a strong undercurrent of ideology, class struggles and political power. Be it his sonnets on ‘Dark Lady’, or plays like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, one finds the concepts of desire, obedience, patriarchy, subversion and reconciliation at the core of his prose and verse.
Let’s us take two plays of Shakespeare, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘King Lear.’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a comedy, which opens with rebellious females who challenge patriarchal hierarchy. Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius as she loves Lysander. Similarly, Titania shares an estranged relationship over the Indian changeling with Oberon, whom the latter wants as his ‘knight.’ As the drama unfolds, one finds that a play which began with the subversion of authority finally ends in a reconciliatory comedy, where contradictory forces are neutralised as Hermia gets Lysander and Titania and Oberon reconcile amicably.
Similarly, in ‘King Lear’, one of the finest tragedies by Shakespeare, the figure of old retiring King Lear portrays the patriarchal-political order, that faces dissent from his plain, yet truth speaking daughter Cordelia. As the play progresses, King Lear disinherits Cordelia and divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, who finally reduce him to a pauper. In these trying times, it is Cordelia who comes for the help of Lear and together with Kent, helps in reinstating the crown to King Lear. Again, ‘King Lear’ presents stubbornness, authority and vanity through King Lear, and its demystification through Cordelia. Shakespeare knew the dangers of challenging sovereignty, which he ensures that it is not subverted and the contraries are reconciled.
For conscientious readers, William Shakespeare remains a deeply ideological artist, whose keen perception of socio-political realities of his day percolate into his oeuvre, thereby making him a great artist of his age.