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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
As we might expect from the range and vitality of Shakespeare's writing, Elizabethan England was an exciting and changing place. Though we know little of Shakespeare's own life, we know much about his world. For England, the sixteenth century was a period of growth and exploration, contributing to a renaissance in cultural and economic life. Under the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603- 1625), London became one of the artistic and mercantile centers of Europe. We can still see the beauty of its half-timbered houses, its bridge-towers and churches. But above all, the literature of the period continues to excite the minds of readers, offering great riches of imagination and language.
For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the English language was changing and growing. Dictionaries had not yet solidified spelling and meaning, and sometimes Elizabethan poetry seems to be possessed of a great unrefined power. Poets and playwrights- among them Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, as well as Shakespeare- reveled in the riches of this emerging language and created a brilliant new drama.
It is well to remember that in Shakespeare's time theater was a popular pastime (something like movies are today), attended by both commonfolk and royalty. It was not merely the province of an intellectual few. Folk traditions of ballad and song, as well as the Christian miracle and mystery plays, had accustomed the people to poetic drama, its speeches cast in rhyme and meter. And the Elizabethan theater highlighted the spoken word. It used few stage properties and almost no scenery. Its outdoor circular theaters surrounded a bare apron-shaped stage. The characters came and left at a fast pace, and what they said indicated who and where they were. The Elizabethan audience was attentive to the spoken word. A playwright might as easily present his ideas and actions in the form of poetic images or narrative speeches, for the theater was a place in which the ear, not merely the eye, was dazzled. And this was the kind of environment especially well suited for William Shakespeare.
You will see in A Midsummer Night's Dream how appropriate this poetic method is. The fairy world comes alive not from stage tricks, elaborate costumes, and airy sets, but through poetry. Detailed fantastic descriptions, cascades of named flowers, images of a powerful and mysterious natural world- these are what make the fairy world vivid. The magic lives in Shakespeare's language.
The world of his writing is filled with cultural riches, extraordinary characters, and historical events. But of Shakespeare's own life we know little. He was born in the small town of Stratford in 1564, around the 23rd of April. His baptism certificate tells us that. His father was a somewhat well-to-do merchant and councilman whose fortunes seemed to slip as Shakespeare grew older. In all probability he saw to it that William took advantage of the public education available to all the sons of Stratford's citizens. But most of what we know about Shakespeare in this early period is conjecture. The only other certain information we have is his marriage, in 1582, to Ann Hathaway, a woman eight years older than he. Since a child Susanna was born six months later, the bride was already pregnant at the time of the wedding. In 1585, the twins Hamnet and Judith were born.
For the rest- at least regarding Stratford- there is only legend. Some say Shakespeare was booted out of town for poaching at a neighboring estate; others say he taught school. We do know that around 1587 Shakespeare left Stratford for the creative opportunity to be found in the big city of London. Its lure would be the same as that of any metropolis today: a rich and varied cultural life, political power-broking, history in the making, pageantry, and the good life. Perhaps he apprenticed himself to one of the local theater companies right away. But in truth we don't know how he became such an accomplished writer so quickly. By 1592 he was already being attacked by a local playwright, Robert Greene, for being an "upstart crowe," an actor who would be better off leaving the writing of plays to real playwrights. The furor that followed this famous accusation shows that Shakespeare had established a considerable reputation by the time it was written. No one bothers to attack an unknown writer. And the accusation, importantly, also reminds us that Shakespeare was an actor as well as a writer. All his life he combined these two vocations, giving him special entry into the world of theater, its nuances, and the interplay between the acted and written word. By 1593 he'd also proved himself a commanding poet with the publication of the poem Venus and Adonis, followed the next year by The Rape of Lucrece.
For the next eighteen or twenty years Shakespeare produced a succession of plays that mark him as the premier poet and playwright of his age- perhaps the finest the English language has seen. Through comedies, histories, and tragedies he speaks of his time and world with an authority that makes them seem, generation after generation, completely contemporary. He was fortunate to have a company of actors throughout his writing life with which he could work, gaining from the traded insights and from the ability of seeing his work produced. He was able to benefit from the resources of the finest Elizabethan outdoor playhouse, the Globe, so that his work had a state-of-the-art theater in which to be performed. He had noble patronage to help him at the beginning (the Earl of Southampton) and even royal favor when his patron became embroiled in an unsuccessful coup d'etat and was imprisoned. Instead of trouble, Shakespeare found grace: by the time James I assumed the throne in 1603, Shakespeare's players, formerly associated as the Chamberlain's Men, were now called the King's Men, receiving royal patronage and favor.
Around 1611 Shakespeare retired from London and the theater, to return to his family at Stratford. He presumably lived out his life peacefully, dying in 1616. But once again legend obscures fact. A famous tombstone inscription, ascribed to him, seeks to gain him a peaceful death as well; it reads, "Blest be the man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones." No one has moved them.
Shakespeare was unique among the world's great dramatists in his ability to create the finest examples of both comedy and tragedy. That the same writer could produce both King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and The Tempest, has been a source of wonderment to millions of readers. Also, his complex English-history plays, with their multiple plots and points of view, have influenced the way we think of history itself. The wide range of Shakespeare's achievement was boldly set forth in the first edition of his complete dramatic works in 1623 when the publishers divided what has come to be known as the "First Folio" into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies.
Despite this variety, there are ways in which King Lear could only have been written by the author of A Midsummer Night's Dream. One way is that in both plays no character's perspective is sufficient to judge everyone else's. Also, merely understanding a human problem will not solve it without a transformation of another sort, a genuine change of heart. And throughout his comedies, this most witty writer kept vivid the sense that wit alone is not an adequate response to people and situations.
An early comedy, almost overflowing with witty wordplay, is Love's Labour's Lost. The lesson learned by its principal characters is that words and wit must be tempered by concern for others' feelings. And as with most of his comedies, part of the play is set in a special place where transformations can take place more freely, outside the busy world of court or city. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the lovers expend great energy speaking in witty romantic repartee. And the fairies' forest is the magical place that surrounds their transformations. In The Merchant of Venice, another early comedy, Belmont, where Portia lives, is the special place; in As You Like It it is the forest of Arden.
In the so-called "dark" comedies (All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure) the magic place where people can be revealed and healed almost disappears. Lechery, spitefulness, and selfishness are exposed rather than transformed. But in the later comedies, sometimes called the "romances," healing magic returns: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. In fact, the whole of The Tempest takes place on a magic island ruled by a sorcerer who has the knowledge and power to transform the rational forces that had exiled him years before. Prospero is a wiser, more mature Oberon, and his attendant Ariel is a more spiritual Puck.
A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably written around 1594. Some scholars suggest it was written to be performed at a noble wedding ceremony, perhaps that of William Stanley, Earl of Denby, to Elizabeth Vere in 1595. This is pure speculation, however, fueled by the importance of marriage to the play. Its similarity in language and theme to Romeo and Juliet also helps date the play. Though one is a comedy and the other a tragedy, both deal with the nature of love, its impulsive judgments and vows. Romeo and Juliet are tricked by their fate, ending in death. But fate, in the form of Oberon, interferes on behalf of the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and their trials end in marriage.
Though it comes early in Shakespeare's career, A Midsummer Night's Dream shows his command of the different strands that combined to make great Elizabethan drama. In his courtly subplot of Theseus and Hippolyta, Shakespeare demonstrates his familiarity with classical subjects. He interweaves mythic and historical material to give his characters an imposing royal stature. With the lovers, Shakespeare shows his command of romantic poetry, the formal language of love developed centuries earlier by the troubadors of France. Though he is mocking in tone with the lovers, he gives romantic poetry a free reign with Oberon and Titania, who draw on folk ballads and pastoral traditions to create the magic of high poetry. And with Bottom and his rustic comrades, Shakespeare develops a realism based on Christian folk plays that enables him to bring all kinds and classes of people into his art. A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a unique blending of styles, characters, and realms of experience into a unified work of art.
Shakespeare's life in London was filled with a similar mix of people and types. It was a throbbing metropolis for its time, bursting the bounds of its medieval walls. But its modernity was tempered by the folk traditions and beliefs of the people who streamed to its streets. In the life of the English countryside the mythic, legendary fairies and elves- known from centuries of ancient Celtic traditions- still had a place. Shakespeare was able to combine this magic imaginary world with the contemporary urban landscape of London. Watch the ways in which he is able to include all kinds of people, and different dimensions of experience, to paint a picture that in the largest possible sense parallels the world in which he lived.
[A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]