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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
The red-bearded man holds the knife high, poised to strike at his victim's heart. The spectators are paralyzed with fear.
Can anything prevent him from gaining his bloody revenge? The powerful Duke of Venice has already tried and failed. The only remaining hope lies in a beautiful heroine, who has no weapons to draw upon except a quick wit and a courageous spirit.
This suspenseful scene from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare has been reenacted thousands of times since the play's first performance in the 1590s, and it never fails to keep audiences enthralled. Along with the tragedy of Hamlet, it is one of the more popular and frequently revived of Shakespeare's plays. It is also one of the most controversial. Some readers and playgoers find in the play an eloquent plea for tolerance; others feel uncomfortable with its reliance on what they regard as anti- Semitic stereotypes. The critics, meanwhile, cannot even agree on whether the mood of the play is happy or sad. Some describe it as a light, witty comedy with no social message whatsoever. Others have called it more tragic than comic in spirit. In spite of all this disagreement, The Merchant of Venice remains as compelling today as it was four centuries ago because it comments so eloquently on universal themes- the drive for revenge and the power of love. As the British essayist William Hazlitt wrote in 1817, "This is a play that in spite of the change in manners and prejudices, still holds undisputed possession of the stage."
Just about everyone agrees that The Merchant of Venice's author was a genius, the most skillful and profound dramatist in English literary history. Yet very little is known about the personal life and character of this uniquely talented man.
Indeed, the documentary evidence concerning the life of William Shakespeare is so meager that for generations amateur detectives, and a few serious literary historians, have been tempted to theorize that the works of Shakespeare were really written by one of his more illustrious contemporaries. Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth I, have all been named at one time or another as the true authors of Shakespeare's plays. A recent theory, which appeared in a 1984 book called The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn, contends that a nobleman named Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote all of Shakespeare's works- but pretended not to have done so because authorship would have hurt his chances to shine at court!
Everyone loves a mystery, and so the speculation continues. The real reason for the belief that Shakespeare was a mere front for some other author is the snobbish prejudice that only a person of aristocratic breeding and wealth could have produced such great writing. The story of Shakespeare's life, sketchy as it may be, demonstrates that genius may appear anywhere, even in a country village and an undistinguished family tree.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April of 1564, William Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and storekeeper, and Mary Arden. (It has become traditional to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday on April 23, the same date as the anniversary of his death. Like so much in Shakespeare's biography, this, too, is speculative.) William was the third of eight children. The Shakespeares were not wealthy, at least not by the standards of the London aristocracy, but they weren't poor either.
If Shakespeare was like most sons of prosperous tradesmen, he attended a local grammar school where he would have studied the Latin classics. The plots of Shakespeare's plays, which borrow freely from other sources, suggest that he was well read in both ancient and modern literature. However, he never attended a university.
The only documented episode in Shakespeare's life which provides any raw material for gossip was his marriage in 1582. Shakespeare's bride, Anne Hathaway, was seven or eight years older than he, and records show that the marriage license was issued on November 28. The engagement was announced in church only once- not three Sundays in a row as was the usual custom. Some five months later, in May 1583, Anne Shakespeare gave birth to a daughter, who was named Susanna. Some scholars conclude from this that Shakespeare had gotten Anne pregnant and had to marry her. This position is challenged by other scholars who either claim that it was not unusual at the time for an engaged couple to sleep together or that the documentary records are simply unreliable.
Two years later, Anne Shakespeare gave birth to twins, a girl, Judith, and a boy, Hamnet. At some time during the 158OS- we're not sure exactly when- Shakespeare went off to London to make his fortune in the theater.
We do know that by 1592 William Shakespeare had earned a reputation in London as an actor and playwright. In 1597, when Shakespeare was only thirty-three years old and still had some of his greatest work ahead of him, Francis Meres, a preacher and scholar, was already praising the "mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare" as the equal of the great Roman dramatists Seneca and Plautus.
The theater was a very popular form of entertainment in Elizabethan times, so named for Queen Elizabeth I, England's monarch. It was enjoyed by all classes of people from the most educated to the illiterate. Shakespeare's acting troupe sometimes performed before the royal court, and as he became a shareholder in the company it is likely that he earned a comfortable living. Nevertheless, many Elizabethans felt that the acting profession was not quite respectable. (For this reason, no actresses were allowed on the stage. All the female parts were played by young boys.)
The Shakespeare plays we know today were written over a period of some twenty years, beginning in 1592 or a little earlier and ending with the playwright's retirement about 1612. The Merchant of Venice belongs to the early part of Shakespeare's career. It was first performed in 1596, which places it after such early plays as Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but before his foremost tragedies- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth- and such later dark comedies as Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
Shakespeare lived during one of the most prosperous and exciting periods in his nation's history. England was in the process of becoming a great naval power and a leader in international trade. Elizabeth I, who reigned for 45 years until her death in 1603, was a much-admired and extremely shrewd ruler. She survived many threats to her power, including plots aimed at overthrowing her in favor of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and an attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588.
There was a great deal of interest in history and in the lives of the great men and women of past generations. Playgoers took it for granted that they could draw inspiration and moral lessons from events of the past. Even the comedies, like The Merchant of Venice, were often based on stories and themes drawn from older literary works or from folklore. No one considered such borrowing to reflect a lack of originality.
The Merchant of Venice is exceptional among Shakespeare's plays because it may have been inspired, at least indirectly, by a contemporary scandal. In 1594 the Queen's personal physician Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was tried and executed for treason. The Lopez case inspired a wave of anti-Jewish feeling, and was probably responsible for the appearance of several dramas dealing with Jewish characters, including a revival of Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. If the Lopez affair did serve as Shakespeare's inspiration, only a few hints of this remain in the text of The Merchant of Venice. (One of these is that the hero of the play may be named for Don Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese throne, who was associated with Dr. Lopez.) In Shakespeare's hands, the Jewish villain became a complex character whose drive for revenge many playgoers can understand and even sympathize with. And the elements of treachery and suspense are balanced with lighthearted romance, creating a drama which many audiences find more satisfying than Shakespeare's farcical early comedies.
We do not know the exact date of The Merchant of Venice's first performance. Most likely it was in 1596. It was revived during Shakespeare's lifetime, for a performance at court before King James I in 1605.
After his retirement in 1612, William Shakespeare moved back to his hometown of Stratford where he lived the quiet life of a country gentleman. He died in 1616, survived by his widow and two daughters. (Hamnet, the only son, died in childhood.) Although Shakespeare had a certain reputation as the author of the Sonnets and several narrative poems, no one had any reason to anticipate at the time that his plays would be the basis of lasting literary fame, much less become celebrated as masterpieces of English literature.
Shakespeare does not seem to have taken any interest at all in preserving his works for posterity. As was traditional at the time, the rights to Shakespeare's plays belonged to his theater company and were not considered his personal property. In fact, Elizabethans did not usually think of contemporary plays as being serious literature.
A few of Shakespeare's plays were published in his lifetime in cheap editions. These versions contained a good many errors. Sometimes stage directions or comments written in by the prompters got mixed up with Shakespeare's lines. Sometimes the actual speeches were based not on what Shakespeare wrote down, but on what an actor who had played the part happened to remember.
It was only after Shakespeare's death in 1623 that some members of his acting company set out to produce an accurate edition of Shakespeare's dramatic works. This edition, called the First Folio, still contained some errors. One play which we now attribute to Shakespeare- Pericles- was not even included. A real detective mystery for Shakespeare scholars has been the effort to separate the words Shakespeare actually wrote from the many mistakes and alterations that crept into the texts of the plays over the years. Even today, scholars continue to debate over which is the correct version of some lines in Shakespeare's plays. But we can count on the fact that the plays as we know them are quite close to what Shakespeare wrote. We can be even more sure there are no "new" Shakespeare plays waiting to be discovered- though this does not stop some people from dreaming about finding a dusty manuscript of a long-forgotten masterpiece.
As for Shakespeare the man, he will probably always be a mystery. We know who he was. But we can only guess what inspired him to write as he did, or how his plays were related to the events and concerns of his personal life.
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