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Introduction to Shakespeare - Literature Notes
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (William Shakespeare)
- Born in 1564 and died 52 years later, in 1616.
- Married Anne Hathaway in 1582.
- Unfortunately, any understanding of Shakespeare’s childhood is speculative because children did not often appear in the records that scholars used to attempt to reconstruct Shakespeare’s life.
- People in Shakespeare’s time looked at science and the universe very differently from the way we do.
- An example of this is that they believed that the Earth stood at the center of the universe.
- They believed in the ‘chain of being’ – where all creation was organized in an order.
- God was at the top, then angels, men, women, animals, plants and rocks.
- Therefore, they can be viewed as archaic in our eyes, but their knowledge must still be appreciated because many of their discoveries form the foundation of today’s modern science.
- The Protestant Reformation was in progress.
- Elizabeth I was on the throne.
- She was succeeded by James I .
- Many of Shakespeare’s plays were influenced by the happenings of this people’s reign.
- England was divided into two social classes: the aristocrats (nobility) and every-one else.
- The aristocrats possessed wealth, power and ancestry, while others outside of this class were viewed as peasants.
- Women were not allowed public or private autonomy.
- Men were the head of their homes.
- The society practiced primogeniture – a system where all the family’s wealth was passed down through the first male child.
- Women could not inherit their family’s wealth and titles, upon marriage, they lost all their limited legal rights.
- Queen Elizabeth is an exception to this, and it is speculated that if she had married, she would have lost much of her power and authority.
- The mortality rate was high, especially among infants.
- Infections and diseases were common place because doctor’s did not realize the importance of antiseptics and sterile equipment.
- There were two major outbreaks of the bubonic plague during Shakespeare’s lifetime, from 1592-1594 and in 1603.
- London, during Shakespeare’s time, was overcrowded, without a sewage system
- The lack of a sewage system facilitated health epidemics.
- Theatres were not located in the city of London, but along the banks of the Thames River.
- This was to avoid the censorship and regulation that it was placed under (they were not suppose to reflect socially or politically sensitive material.
- Many of Shakespeare’s plays were staged at Globe theatre in London, which still exists today.
- All actors were male in Shakespeare’s time, young boys , whose voices were high, played female parts.
- Scenery was not employed in the plays, but great emphasis was placed on costumes.
CONVENTIONS OF A TRAGEDY
- The tragic hero - There is always a central character, who meets a tragic end, around whom the plot is based.
- The fatal flaw - The hero has a weakness that leads to his/her's downfall.
- External pressures - The hero often falls victim to fate, evil spirits or manipulative characters.
- Contrasts - The hero undergoes an extreme reversal of fortune, for example, the hero goes from happiness and glory to suffering and calamity.
- Hero is of high social status - His/her's fate affects the welfare of a nation or empire.
- Psychological issues - There are often abnormal conditions of the mind, such as insanity and hallucinations.
- The supernatural - The presence of ghosts etc.
- Inner conflict - The hero is conflicted about a decision.
- Action - Action is created when thoughts become reality, war is usually the result.
- Cycle of a tragedy - good = evil = chaos = death = reassertion of good.
CONVENTIONS OF A COMEDY
- The main action is about love.
- The lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union.
- The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.)
- Frequently (but not always), it contains elements of the supernatural, or the miraculous.
- There is usually a happy ending, which is, at times, facilitated through supernatural / divine intervention, or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
- Complex plot (as much as four), main plot and sub-plots.
- Mistaken identities
Contributor: Leisa Samuels-Thomas
Lamb, Sydney (editor). Shakespeare's Macbeth (Cliff's Complete).New York NY: Hungry Mind's, 2000.