William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-upon-Avon. He is widely considered the greatest playwright who ever lived.


His father, John Shakespeare, was successful in the leather business during Shakespeare's early childhood but later met with financial difficulties. During his prosperous years his father was also involved in municipal affairs, holding the offices of alderman and bailiff during the 1560s. While little is known of Shakespeare's boyhood, he probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have been educated in the classics, particularly Latin grammar and literature. Whatever the veracity of Ben Jonson's famous comment that Shakespeare had “small Latine, and less Greeke,” much of his work clearly depends on a knowledge of Roman comedy, ancient history, and classical mythology.

In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. They had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585. Nothing is known of the period between the birth of the twins and Shakespeare's emergence as a playwright in London (c.1592). However, various suggestions have been made regarding this time, including those that he fled Stratford to avoid prosecution for stealing deer, that he joined a group of traveling players, and that he was a country schoolteacher. The last suggestion is given some credence by the academic style of his early plays; The Comedy of Errors, for example, is an adaptation of two plays by Plautus.

In 1594 Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company that later became the King's Men under James I. Until the end of his London career Shakespeare remained with the company; it is thought that as an actor he played old men's roles, such as the ghost in Hamlet and Old Adam in As You Like It. In 1596 he obtained a coat of arms, and by 1597 he was prosperous enough to buy New Place in Stratford, which later was the home of his retirement years. In 1599 he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe theatre, and in 1608 he was part owner of the Blackfriars theatre. Shakespeare retired and returned to Stratford c.1613. He undoubtedly enjoyed a comfortable living throughout his career and in retirement, although he was never a wealthy man.

The Plays

Chronology of Composition

The chronology of Shakespeare's plays is uncertain, but a reasonable approximation of their order can be inferred from dates of publication, references in contemporary writings, allusions in the plays to contemporary events, thematic relationships, and metrical and stylistic comparisons. His first plays are believed to be the three parts of Henry VI; it is uncertain whether Part I was written before or after Parts II and III. Richard III is related to these plays and is usually grouped with them as the final part of a first tetralogy of historical plays.

After these come The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus (almost a third of which may have been written by George Peele), The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, and Romeo and Juliet. Some of the comedies of this early period are classical imitations with a strong element of farce. The two tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, were both popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime. In Romeo and Juliet the main plot, in which the new love between Romeo and Juliet comes into conflict with the longstanding hatred between their families, is skillfully advanced, while the substantial development of minor characters supports and enriches it.

After these early plays, and before his great tragedies, Shakespeare wrote Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Parts I and II of Henry IV, Much Ado about Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The comedies of this period partake less of farce and more of idyllic romance, while the history plays successfully integrate political elements with individual characterization. Taken together, Richard II, each part of Henry IV, and Henry V form a second tetralogy of historical plays, although each can stand alone, and they are usually performed separately. The two parts of Henry IV feature Falstaff, a vividly depicted character who from the beginning has enjoyed immense popularity.

The period of Shakespeare's great tragedies and the “problem plays” begins in 1600 with Hamlet. Following this are The Merry Wives of Windsor (written to meet Queen Elizabeth's request for another play including Falstaff, it is not thematically typical of the period), Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens (the last may have been partially written by Thomas Middleton).

On familial, state, and cosmic levels, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth present clear oppositions of order and chaos, good and evil, and spirituality and animality. Stylistically the plays of this period become increasingly compressed and symbolic. Through the portrayal of political leaders as tragic heroes, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra involve the study of politics and social history as well as the psychology of individuals.

The last two plays in the Shakespearean corpus, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, may be collaborations with John Fletcher. Shakespeare also may have had a small part in writing the play Double Falsehood, first published in 1727 and thought to be mainly the work of Fletcher. The remaining four plays—Pericles (two acts of which may have been written by George Wilkins), Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest—are tragicomedies. They feature characters of tragic potential, but resemble comedy in that their conclusions are marked by a harmonious resolution achieved through magic, with all its divine, humanistic, and artistic implications.

Appeal and Influence

Since his death Shakespeare's plays have been almost continually performed, in non-English-speaking nations as well as those where English is the native tongue; they are quoted more than the works of any other single author. The plays have been subject to ongoing examination and evaluation by critics attempting to explain their perennial appeal, which does not appear to derive from any set of profound or explicitly formulated ideas. Indeed, Shakespeare has sometimes been criticized for not consistently holding to any particular philosophy, religion, or ideology; for example, the subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream includes a burlesque of the kind of tragic love that he idealizes in Romeo and Juliet.

The strength of Shakespeare's plays lies in the absorbing stories they tell, in their wealth of complex characters, and in the eloquent speech—vivid, forceful, and at the same time lyric—that the playwright puts on his characters' lips. It has often been noted that Shakespeare's characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and that it is their flawed, inconsistent nature that makes them memorable. Hamlet fascinates audiences with his ambivalence about revenge and the uncertainty over how much of his madness is feigned and how much genuine. Falstaff would not be beloved if, in addition to being genial, openhearted, and witty, he were not also boisterous, cowardly, and, ultimately, poignant. Finally, the plays are distinguished by an unparalleled use of language. Shakespeare had a tremendous vocabulary and a corresponding sensitivity to nuance, as well as a singular aptitude for coining neologisms and punning.

Editions and Sources

The first collected edition of Shakespeare is the First Folio, published in 1623 and including all the plays except Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (the latter play also generally not appearing in modern editions). Eighteen of the plays exist in earlier quarto editions, eight of which are extremely corrupt, possibly having been reconstructed from an actor's memory. The first edition of Shakespeare to divide the plays into acts and scenes and to mark exits and entrances is that of Nicholas Rowe in 1709. Other important early editions include those of Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), and Samuel Johnson (1765).

Among Shakespeare's most important sources, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) is significant for the English history plays, although Shakespeare did not hesitate to transform a character when it suited his dramatic purposes. For his Roman tragedies he used Sir Thomas North's translation (1579) of Plutarch's Lives. Many times he rewrote old plays, and twice he turned English prose romances into drama (As You Like It and The Winter's Tale). He also used the works of contemporary European authors. For further information on Shakespeare's sources, see the table entitled Shakespeare's Play.

The Poetry

Shakespeare's first published works were two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In 1599 a volume of poetry entitled The Passionate Pilgrim was published and attributed entirely to Shakespeare. However, only five of the poems are definitely considered his, two appearing in other versions in the Sonnets and three in Love's Labour's Lost. A love elegy, The Phoenix and the Turtle, was published in 1601.

Shakespeare's sonnets are by far his most important nondramatic poetry. They were first published in 1609, although many of them had certainly been circulated privately before this, and it is generally agreed that the poems were written sometime in the 1590s. Scholars have long debated the order of the poems and the degree of autobiographical content.

The first 126 of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a young man whose identity has long intrigued scholars. The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, wrote a dedication to the first edition in which he claimed that a person with the initials W. H. had inspired the sonnets. Some have thought these letters to be the transposed initials of Henry Wriothesley, 3d earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; or they are possibly the initials of William Herbert, 3d earl of Pembroke, whose connection with Shakespeare is more tenuous. The identity of the dark lady addressed in sonnets 127–152 has also been the object of much conjecture but no proof. The sonnets are marked by the recurring themes of beauty, youthful beauty ravaged by time, and the ability of love and art to transcend time and even death.

Critical Opinion

There has been a great variety of critical approach to Shakespeare's work since his death. During the 17th and 18th cent., Shakespeare was both admired and condemned. Since then, much of the adverse criticism has not been considered relevant, although certain issues have continued to interest critics throughout the years. For instance, charges against his moral propriety were made by Samuel Johnson in the 18th cent. and by George Bernard Shaw in the 20th.

Early criticism was directed primarily at questions of form. Shakespeare was criticized for mixing comedy and tragedy and failing to observe the unities of time and place prescribed by the rules of classical drama. Dryden and Johnson were among the critics claiming that he had corrupted the language with false wit, puns, and ambiguity. While some of his early plays might justly be charged with a frivolous use of such devices, 20th-century criticism has tended to praise their use in later plays as adding depth and resonance of meaning.

Generally critics of the 17th and 18th cent. accused Shakespeare of a want of artistic restraint while praising him for a fecund imagination. Samuel Johnson, while agreeing with many earlier criticisms, defended Shakespeare on the question of classical rules. On the issue of unity of time and place he argued that no one considers the stage play to be real life anyway. Johnson inaugurated the criticism of Shakespeare's characters that reached its culmination in the late 19th cent. with the work of A. C. Bradley. The German critics Gotthold Lessing and Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel saw Shakespeare as a romantic, different in type from the classical poets, but on equal footing. Schlegel first elucidated the structural unity of Shakespeare's plays, a concept of unity that is developed much more completely by the English poet and critic Samuel Coleridge.

While Schlegel and Coleridge were establishing Shakespeare's plays as artistic, organic unities, such 19th-century critics as the German Georg Gervinus and the Irishman Edward Dowden were trying to see positive moral tendencies in the plays. The 19th-century English critic William Hazlitt, who continued the development of character analysis begun by Johnson, considered each Shakespearean character to be unique, but found a unity through analogy and gradation of characterization. While A. C. Bradley marks the culmination of romantic 19th-century character study, he also suggested that the plays had unifying imagistic atmospheres, an idea that was further developed in the 20th cent.

The tendency in 20th-century criticism was to abandon both the study of character as independent personality and the assumption that moral considerations can be separated from their dramatic and aesthetic context. The plays were increasingly viewed in terms of the unity of image, metaphor, and tone. Caroline Spurgeon began the careful classification of Shakespeare's imagery, and although her attempts were later felt to be somewhat naive and morally biased, her work is a landmark in Shakespearean criticism. Other important trends in 20th-century criticism included the Freudian approach, such as Ernest Jones's Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet; the study of Shakespeare in terms of the Elizabethan world view and Elizabethan stage conventions; and the study of the plays in mythic terms.


For about 150 years after his death no one seemed to doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. However, in the latter part of the 18th cent. questions began to arise as to whether or not the historical William Shakespeare was indeed the author. Since then the issue has continued to be a subject of often heated debate, albeit mainly in academic circles. Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works (sometimes called “anti-Stratfordians”) generally assert that the actor from Stratford had a limited education; some have even claimed that he was illiterate. Many of the questioners maintain that such a provincial upstart could not have had the wide-ranging worldly and scholarly knowledge, linguistic skills, and fine sensibilities evinced by the author of the Shakespearean canon. Such qualities, they assert, could only have been possessed by a university-educated gentleman, multilingual, well-traveled, and quite possibly titled. Critics further contend that playwriting was a lowly profession at the time and that the “real” author protected his reputation by using Shakespeare's name as a pseudonym. Over the years, many other arguments, some involving secret codes, some even more abstruse, have been offered to cast doubt on Shakespeare's authorship.

On the other hand, traditionalists (“Stratfordians”) who believe that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of the plays and poems, point out that his probable education at the Stratford grammar school would have provided the required knowledge of the classics and classical civilization as well as of Latin and at least some Greek. They also maintain that what can be assumed to be his broad reading of historical sources along with his daily involvement in the lively worlds of Elizabethan London—artistic and intellectual, ordinary and aristocratic—would, when transmuted by his genius, have provided Shakespeare with the necessary background to create his dramatic and poetic works. Moreover, they say, Shakespeare was known to his contemporaries, as attested to by a number of extant references to him as a writer by other notable men of his time.

Anti-Stratfordians have suggested a number of Elizabethans as candidates for the “real” author of the works. From the late 18th through the 19th cent. the individual most often cited was Francis Bacon, who had the requisite aristocratic background, education, courtly experience, and literary talent. Others claimed that Bacon was one of a group that collectively wrote the Shakespearean oeuvre. In the 20th cent. a new candidate emerged as the authorial front runner—Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. His proponents, the Oxfordians, cited correspondences between events in his life and those in some of the plays, apparent similarities in the two men's language, and Oxford's proved skills as a dramatist and poet. Prominent among the many reasons to doubt de Vere's authorship is the fact that he died in 1604 and that some of Shakespeare's greatest works were written well after that date.

More than 50 other names have been put forward as the “real” Shakespeare, ranging from the implausible, e.g., Queen Elizabeth I, to the somewhat more possible, e.g., Christopher Marlowe; William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby; and Roger Manners, 5th earl of Rutland. Still others have suggested that the works were the result of a collaboration by two or more Elizabethan writers. In 2005 a new candidate, Sir Henry Neville, a courtier, diplomat, and distant relative of Shakespeare, was proposed. Even as studies and biographies of Shakespeare proliferate, the authorship controversy shows few signs of subsiding, and books, scholarly essays, and, more recently, websites continue to be devoted to the question. Scholars have also suggested that some of the plays were cowritten. The New Oxford Shakespeare (2016) identified 17 plays as cowritten, crediting Marlowe as coauthor of the Henry VI plays.


See also biographies by E. K. Chambers (2 vol., 1930), G. E. Bentley (1961), S. Schoenbaum (1970 and 1975), S. Wells (1974), R. Fraser (2 vol., 1988), P. Levi (1988, repr. 1995), E. Sams (1995), P. Honan (1998), A. Holden (1999), I. L. Matus (1999), and P. Ackroyd (2005); A. Nicoll et al., ed., Shakespeare Survey (1948–) and, as author, Shakespeare: An Introduction (1952); G. Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare (1989); J. Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (1997); H. Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997); H. Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998); D. S. Kastan, ed., A Companion to Shakespeare (1999); S. Orgel, Imagining Shakespeare (2003); B. Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author (2003); S. Wells, Shakespeare for All Time (2003) and Shakespeare, Sex & Love (2010); S. Greenblatt, Will in the World (2004) and Shakespeare's Freedom (2010); J. Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005), Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), as ed., Shakespeare in America (2014), and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015); M. Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (2008); J. Knapp, Shakespeare Only (2009); J. Bate, Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare (2009); C. Beauclerk, Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom (2010); T. Tanner, Prefaces to Shakespeare (2010); G. Wills, Verdi's Shakespeare (2011); G. Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (8 vol., 1957–75); O. J. Campbell and E. G. Quinn, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966); M. R. Martin and R. C. Harrier, The Concise Encyclopedic Guide to Shakespeare (1972); M. Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare (6 vol., 1970) and The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (1973); bibliographies ed. by G. R. Smith (1963), E. Quinn et al. (1973), and L. S. Champion (1986).

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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The works of Shakespeare contain many references to witches, witchcraft, and magic. Best known, perhaps, are the witches of Macbeth (1605-06). Their appearance in act 1, scene 3 of the play demonstrates a variety of acts and beliefs of the time that concerned witches and witchcraft: conjuring winds, sailing in sieves, and causing someone to be unable to sleep. Later in the play (act 4, scene 1), the three witches are presented stirring a cauldron and throwing in an assortment of gruesome-sounding ingredients, many of which are no more than local herbs. Also in Macbeth is the statement, "witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate's offerings."

The fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96) are presented with obvious knowledge, on Shakespeare's part, of fairy folklore and magic. In the play, Puck is also called Robin Goodfellow. Margaret Murray points out that Robin Goodfellow was not a fairy but the God of the Little People and often depicted as the God of the Old Religion. She says in The God of the Witches, "The most alarming of all the fairies was Robin Goodfellow until Shakespeare made him subordinate to Oberon."

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-01) also contains fairies but, importantly, fairies who were acknowledged to be the same size as humans; Shakespeare has Mistress Page, a full-grown woman, not only dress as a fairy but expect to be accepted as one.

In Cymbeline (1609-10) we find the words sung by Guiderius and Arvuragus: "No exorciser harm thee!" "Nor no witchcraft charm thee!" In Othello (1604-05), there is also talk of magic and of witchcraft.

The Tempest (1611-12) is replete with magic. Prospero has many books of magic in his study, and the very island on which he and his daughter Miranda live is bewitched by the witch Sycorax.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The plays of William Shakespeare have many instances of ghosts, prophesy, and spirit communication. Best known, perhaps, are the witches of Macbeth. When they first meet Macbeth in Act I Scene III of the play, they immediately prophesy that he will be Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and king. Later in the play (Act IV, Sc. I), they conjure up materializations of spirits of the dead to speak to Macbeth. In Hamlet, there is the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. In Cymbeline there are words sung by Guiderius and Arvuragus, “No exorciser harm thee!” “Nor no witchcraft charm thee!” The Tempest is replete with magic, Prospero having many books of magic in his study and the very island on which he and his daughter Miranda live is bewitched by the witch Sycorax. Ariel is a spirit who appears clairvoyantly only to Prospero.

The fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are presented with obvious knowledge of fairy folklore and magic on Shakespeare’s part. The Merry Wives of Windsor also contains fairies but, importantly, fairies who were acknowledged to be the same size as humans; Shakespeare has Mistress Page, a full-grown woman, not only dress as a fairy but expect to be accepted as one.

Julius Caesar has examples of prophesy, dreams, and the use of omens—for example when a soothsayer warns Caesar about the Ides of March, based on omens he has witnessed. There is also Act I, Scene III, in which Casca meets with Cicero in a street late at night in a raging storm. Casca comments on the many strange omens that are occurring. Dreams also feature in the play, with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia herself dreaming of a variety of dire things which bode no good for her husband (Act II, Sc. II).


Buckland, Raymond: Witchcraft From the Inside. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1995
Shakespeare, William: The Complete Works. London: Odhams Press, 1938
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Shakespeare, William


Born Apr. 23, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon; died there Apr. 23, 1616. English playwright and poet.

Shakespeare’s father was John Shakespeare, an artisan and merchant. As a grammar school student, Shakespeare learned Latin and the fundamentals of ancient Greek. Beginning in the late 1580’s, he worked in London as an actor (until approximately 1603) and as a playwright. In 1594 he became a shareholder in the theatrical troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which in 1603 was renamed The King’s Men. In approximately 1612, Shakespeare returned to Stratford.

Because of the scarcity of biographical information, Shakespeare’s works have been attributed to others, including F. Bacon, the earls of Rutland and Oxford, and the playwright C. Marlowe. But careful study of the cultural life of the period and of Shakespeare’s work shows these hypotheses to be scientifically unfounded.

As a poet, Shakespeare gained renown with his narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594), which were in the tradition of the philosophical poetry of the Renaissance. Between 1592 and 1600 he wrote 154 sonnets, which were published in 1609. They are apparently autobiographical in content, expressing the poet’s feelings toward a friend (sonnets 1–126) and toward his beloved (sonnets 127–152). The sonnets’ themes and motifs are typical of Renaissance poetry, but their more complex perception of life and man foreshadows Shakespeare’s dramatic work.

The Shakespearean canon includes 37 plays, 18 of which were published in Shakespeare’s lifetime; 36 of the plays were in the first edition of his collected works, published in 1623 (only Pericles being excluded). Attempts to establish the chronology of Shakespeare’s works began in the second half of the 18th century. The following list of his plays indicates the year in which they were written and classifies them by period and genre according to the accepted practice in Shakespearean scholarship.

First period (1590–94). Early chronicle plays: Henry VI, Part 2 (1590), Henry VI, Part 3 (1591), Henry VI, Part 1 (1592), and Richard III (1593). Early comedies: The Comedy of Errors (1592) and The Taming of the Shrew (1593). Early tragedy: Titus Andronicus (1594).

Second period (1595–1600). Chronicle plays in the tragic vein: Richard II (1595) and King John (1596). Romantic comedies: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), and The Merchant of Venice (1596). First mature tragedy: Romeo and Juliet (1595). Chronicle plays in the comic vein: Henry IV, Part 1 (1597), Henry TV, Part 2 (1598), and Henry V (1598). Comedies (representing Shakespeare’s mastery of the comic genre): Much Ado About Nothing (1598). The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598), As You Like It (1599), and Twelfth Night (1600).

Third period (1600–08). Tragedies (representing a turning point in Shakespeare’s work): Julius Caesar (1599) and Hamlet (1601). “Bitter comedies,” or “problem plays”: Troilus and Cressida (1602), All’s Well That Ends Well (1603), and Measure for Measure (1604). Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces: Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1606). Tragedies based on ancient history: Antony and Cleopatra (1607), Coriolanus (1607), and Timon of Athens (1608).

Fourth period (1609–13). Romantic tragicomedies: Pericles (1609), Cymbeline (1610), The Winter’s Tale (1611), and The Tempest (1612). Late chronicle play: Henry VIII (1613), possibly written in collaboration with J. Fletcher.

The following plays are not considered part of the Shakespearean canon: Edward III (1594–95), whose authorship is uncertain; Thomas More (1594–95; one scene); and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), written with J. Fletcher. Some Shakespearean scholars, including A. A. Smirnov of the Soviet Union, divide Shakespeare’s work into three periods, combining the first and second periods (1590–1600).

Shakespeare’s work incorporated all the major influences in the age of the Renaissance—both aesthetically, by synthesizing the traditions and motifs of popular romantic genres, Renaissance poetry and prose, folklore, and humanist and popular theater, and ideologically, by reflecting the entire edifice of contemporary thought, including traditional notions about the world order, defense of the patriarchal feudal system and of political centralization, Christian ethics, Renaissance Neoplatonism and Stoicism, sensualism, and Machiavellianism. This eclecticism, ranging over the full spectrum of life and human nature, was responsible for the all-encompassing vitality of Shakespeare’s work. His reality, however, was presented under different facets and in different lights at various stages of his creative development.

The ideology of humanism, combined with popular ideals and aspirations, always remained the basis of Shakespeare’s plays. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare’s genius found its fullest expression in the theater, which by its very essence can convey life’s drama more successfully than other forms of art. The socioeconomic processes that brought about the cultural upheaval known as the Renaissance began later and developed more rapidly in England than they did on the Continent. The contradictions and contrasts that marked this period were sharper and more pressing in England; the signposts marking the development of humanist thought—the belief, followed by disbelief, in the imminent triumph of humanist ideals; the hope, followed by disillusion—were separated by centuries in Italy, for example, whereas in England they were part of the experience of a single generation. Shakespeare, better than anyone else, was able to grasp and expose the contradictions of his time; hence the dynamic and dramatic character of his works, filled with struggle and conflict. His profound understanding of contemporary trends was also a factor in his dynamic view of reality; this, together with his growing craftsmanship, defines the evolution of his work.

The works of his first period show that even at this early stage Shakespeare was acutely sensitive to the comic and tragic absurdities of life, although he depicted them in a largely traditional manner, presenting the tragic as dreadful and the comic as farcical—the one being isolated from the other. Shakespeare was still learning, attempting to master both the national tradition of Marlowe’s “bloody tragedy” and the European tradition in general; his work was based on ancient models—on Plautus in the case of The Comedy of Errors, on Seneca in Titus Andronicus, and on Italian humanist comedy in The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s humanist position, too, was still to assume definite form. The positive heroes of the chronicle plays gravitate toward antiquity, and the comedies are clearly influenced by patriarchal morality.

The dramatic nature of life remains the basis of Shakespeare’s work during his second creative period. The general tone and the endings of his plays testify to his faith in the harmonious resolution of life’s contradictions. The ambience of these works is defined by characters who uphold harmony in government and in social and personal relationships, such as Romeo and Juliet, Viola, and Henry V. The bearers of evil, such as Tybalt, Shylock, and Malvolio, are solitary figures. The plays of this period are characterized by the organic merging of comedy and tragedy, the unconditional triumph of the principles of humanism, the ability to present ideas by means of stiuations and complex images, and the effort to create full-fledged characters as embodiments of ideals. All these qualities attest to Shakespeare’s mature and independent mastery of his craft.

Shakespeare’s writings in the 1590’s consisted primarily of the chronicle plays and comedies. Eight of the chronicle plays, forming two cycles, cover the history of England from 1397 to 1485. The earlier cycle (made up of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III) depicts the Wars of the Roses and the fall of the House of Lancaster and shows the breakup of the state owing to feudal rapaciousness. The second cycle (consisting of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V) is devoted to the preceding period; it includes the rise of the Lancasters and England’s victories in the Hundred Years’ War, representing the progression from anarchy to the unified state. King John and Henry VIII, which stand apart, portray the country’s internal conflicts engendered by the struggle between the English monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.

The state, considered from the point of view of its historical destiny, constitutes the main subject of the chronicle plays. The principal conflict is the clash between the interests of the state and of the individual; this theme is developed in the struggle of entire social groups as represented by individual characters—the latter appearing as relatively sketchy figures in the early chronicle plays, while coming to life as individuals (such as Hotspur and Falstaff) in the later ones. Reflecting humanist ideology, the chronicle plays focus on the rightful victory of centralized authority (that is, absolutism) over willful anarchy. In conjunction with popular notions about good and bad rulers, such humanist views are also reflected in the portrayal of the ideal king, Henry V, and of his opposite, Richard III. In fact, the personalities of most of the monarchs in the chronicle plays show that Shakespeare recognized how far actual rulers were from the ideal and how illusory was the ideal of absolute monarchy as a general concept.

If the chronicle plays deal with man and the state, the comedies that Shakespeare wrote in the 1590’s are concerned with man and nature—nature being considered in the universal and optimistic sense ascribed to it by the humanists, who saw it as an all-beneficent and omnipotent force encompassing man and society. In Shakespeare’s comedies the ideal, which is identified with the natural, is dominant; hence the kinship between the comedies and romantic literature. As in the latter, the subjects are steeped in folklore, adventure, and pastoral motifs; the major themes are love and friendship, and the heroes and heroines are basically poetic and romantic figures.

The unique source of the comic in Shakespeare is life in motion, interpreted as the movement of unfettered nature in all its fullness and abundance; this explains why his comedy, in contrast to all subsequent European comedy, is not noticeably satirical in nature. The duels of wits, the jesters’ pranks, the drollness of the simpletons (who make up the comedies’ secondary group of characters), and the elements of festiveness, recalling ancient rites and carnivals—all this freewheeling natural playfulness contributes to the cheerful and optimistic atmosphere of Shakespeare’s comedies. The world appears as a harmonious whole, life is seen as a joyous holiday, and people are represented as essentially noble and good.

Shakespeare’s comedies contain dramatic complications as well—for example, Proteus’ treachery in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Shylock’s intrigues in The Merchant of Venice—but whatever is inimical to genuine humanity is easily overcome and, as a rule, is not attributed to social factors. In the comedies of the 1590’s, Shakespeare has no interest in actual social relationships; the comedies of the 1600’s, on the other hand, present a different picture. Here Shakespeare raises important social and moral questions, such as the problem of social inequality in All’s Well That Ends Well and questions of law and morality in Measure for Measure. The elements of satire and the grotesque are more noticeable; the action approaches tragedy, the happy endings are purely formal, and the tone no longer expresses the joy of living.

The gloominess of the “problem comedies” reflects Shakespeare’s frame of mind during his third period, when tragedy became his predominant genre. The contradictions of bourgeois progress and of the entire transitional stage of social development between feudalism and capitalism are now interpreted as the tragically unresolvable conflicts of life in general; they are seen to represent the divergence of humanist ideals from mankind’s entire past, present, and immediate future. Shakespeare’s social base is nowhere so evident as it is in Timon of Athens (which deals with the essential nature of money) or in Coriolanus (which shows the people in opposition to the ruling clique). Social conflict is usually presented as moral or family conflict (as in Hamlet and King Lear), as personal conflict (Othello), or as the struggle of conflicting ambitions (Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra).

The basic theme of Shakespeare’s tragedies—man and society—is developed primarily in the clash of individual personalities. Nevertheless, the conflict encompasses the entire chain of being; it assumes a universal or even cosmic character, and at the same time it is projected into the hero’s consciousness. In King Lear, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens, the emphasis is on the former; in Othello, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, on the latter; and in Hamlet the two aspects of the conflict are given equal weight.

Independently of the theme of conflict, the essence of Shakespeare’s tragic humanism is revealed most fully in the figure of the main hero. The heroes of the tragedies are titanic heroes, both in strength of character and in the ability to perceive the social and universal aspect of personal misfortune. In giving his heroes the capacity for spiritual growth, Shakespeare was the first in world literature to offer a profoundly perceptive portrayal of character development; such development takes place in the course of the hero’s gradual understanding of the nature of society—and of his own nature. Some heroes (such as Richard III, Romeo, Juliet, and Coriolanus) retain the integrity of their own nature during this process. Others (such as Brutus, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony) realize their own duality and the dual nature of man in general. For all of them, however, comprehension of reality and self-knowledge give rise to tragic suffering (often intensified by the realization of their own fateful mistakes, as in the case of Antony, Macbeth, and especially Othello and Lear) and lead to spiritual change, or at times to complete transformation of the personality (as in Lear). The very greatness of their merits—the qualities of mind in Brutus and Hamlet, the intensity of feeling in Romeo and Othello, the strength of character in Macbeth—is what leads the heroes to their downfall.

In spite of the significant role played by chance in leading to a tragic denouement (thus adding a hint of the mysterious to the tragic), the hero’s downfall follows inevitably from the incompatibility of the hero and his world; it confirms—as does the play’s entire action—the greatness of the individual, leaving no aftertaste of hopelessness. The denouement of Shakespeare’s tragedies always entails a return to some sort of originally existing equilibrium. In thus uniquely structuring his tragedies, Shakespeare the humanist reveals his belief in a certain standard without which life would be impossible.

Shakespeare’s fourth period reflects a new and more complex view of the world, associated with the deepening crisis of humanism and expressed in the genre of romantic tragicomedy, which is the characteristic genre of mannerism and of the baroque. The plays’ tragic conflicts and happenings reflect the same clear perception of the tragic aspect of life, while faith in the humanist ideals is now primarily expressed in the happy endings—which, incidentally, are clearly Utopian in character. The abundance of folklore and fantasy, the improbable and intricate plots, the simplification of character, and the markedly conventional mode of representation (especially in the denouements) all contribute to the romantically unreal atmosphere of Shakespeare’s last plays.

Despite the differences between the various periods in Shakespeare’s creative development, one senses the unity of artistic method in all his plays. Goethe noted that “truth and life itself are the great foundation of [Shakespeare’s] works” (Sobr. soch., vol. 10, Moscow, 1937, p. 585). Shakespeare’s fidelity to life, however, differs from that of late realism; it is based on the playwright’s poetic view of the world, which is evident even in his choice of subjects. With the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor— the only three plays by Shakespeare whose plots are based on unknown sources—the subjects of all his plays were taken directly from history (for example, from R. Holinshed’s chronicles) or drawn from legends, tales, and narrative poems. Because the subjects are traditional, the plots acquired an epic quality by presenting some important turning points in the development of the state and in the political history of mankind and by capturing the most essential aspects of life. Furthermore, the traditional character of the subjects added authenticity to the fictional situations and made it unnecessary to adhere to verisimilitude of detail or to justify certain events or actions—for example, to explain Lear’s renunciation of power. Finally, Shakespeare’s use of traditional subjects allowed him to introduce fairy-tale motifs, accompanied by the characteristic mode of reasoning of folk poetry.

Shakespeare’s approach to reality, which he represents by means of poetic imagery, is manifested in his abundant use of anachronisms (such as the presence of a duke in ancient Athens or of billiards in ancient Egypt), in the arbitrary location of the action (places being sometimes precisely defined and sometimes not indicated at all), in the arbitrary treatment of time (as exemplified by the use of dramatic characters from different time periods, sometimes called double time), in other “inaccuracies” (which may also be attributed to the demands of the stage, where the primary consideration is the effect produced in performance), in the use of the fantastic and the supernatural, in the blend of dramatic convention and naturalism, and in the general reconciliation of contrasts.

Another indication of Shakespeare’s poetic view of the world is the presence of two or more plot lines in a single play. Parallel stories (such as those of Lear and Gloucester or of Hamlet and Laertes) convey an image of life governed by certain objective laws; in the absence of such parallelism (as in the portrayal of British and Roman relations in Cymbeline), the play as a whole turns into a poetic model of the world.

Shakespeare’s poetic method is also evident in his representation of history in the chronicle plays and in the tragedies. He boldly transforms historical material, making it the foundation of his overall picture of life and blending the distinctive features of the past with contemporary understanding of human relations. Dramatizing history, Shakespeare portrays it through the conflict of individuals. Man is the focus of Shakespeare’s dramatic art; the peak of the playwright’s artistic achievement is the portrayal of the human personality in all its diversity, in its grandeur and significance, and in the complexity and dynamics of its spiritual development.

The changeable and many-faceted nature of the human personality, as presented by Shakespeare, is dramatic in its essence, since personality changes are associated above all with changes in the hero’s actual situation—his role in life, his environment—and take place in spurts. In showing the many-sided nature of man’s character, Shakespeare often sacrifices logic for the sake of dramatic intensity. Furthermore, his heroes’ thoughts and feelings are clothed in poetic metaphors; indeed, many speeches are poems in their own right. Shakespeare makes the fullest use of poetic imagery. His series of images correspond to the evolution of the Shakespearean hero’s character; for example, the images by which Othello expresses lofty ideals at the beginning of the play are later interlaid with meanspirited images that recall Iago’s speech, and Othello’s “purification” is accompanied by a similar purification of his language. Shakespeare’s images serve as leitmotifs that correspond to the overall tone of the plays. The expressiveness and variety of his poetic and dramatic devices have placed his work among the world’s supreme artistic achievements.

Among his contemporaries, too, Shakespeare was held in high esteem (for example, by F. Meres and B. Jonson). In the age of classicism and during the Enlightenment, although credited with the ability to be “true to nature,” Shakespeare was criticized for his ignorance of “the rules.” Voltaire called him a “barbarian of genius.” English Enlightenment critics praised Shakespeare for being true to life. In Germany, J. Herder and Goethe raised him to the loftiest heights (Goethe, Shakespeare und kein Ende, 1813–16). During the romantic period, various writers contributed to a better understanding of Shakespeare’s work—specifically, A. W. von Schlegel, G. Hegel, S. T. Coleridge, Stendhal, and V. Hugo.

The question of Shakespeare’s evolution as an artist was first raised in the mid-19th century by G. Gervinus of Germany. The cultural-history school of Shakespearean studies includes works by H. Taine, E. Dowden, M. Koch, and G. Brandes. G. Riimelin and, to some extent, G. B. Shaw were among the positivist critics who opposed the “canonization” of Shakespeare the artist. In the 20th century, the works of E. K. Chambers represent a very important contribution to factual knowledge of Shakespeare and his work.

In Russia, Shakespeare was first mentioned by A. P. Sumaro-kov in 1748, but he was still relatively unknown there even in the second half of the 18th century. It was only in the first half of the 19th century that Shakespeare was given a place in Russian culture; references to Shakespeare are found in various writers of that period, including W. K. Küchelbecker, K. F. Ryleev, A. S. Griboedov, and A. A. Bestuzhev, who were all associated with the Decembrist movement, and A. S. Pushkin, for whom Shakespeare’s chief virtues were his objectivity, truthful portrayal of character, and faithful representation of his time. The Shakespearean tradition was developed by Pushkin in his own tragedy Boris Godunov.

Another writer who turned to Shakespeare in the struggle for realism in Russian literature was V. G. Belinskii. Shakespeare became increasingly important in Russia from the 1830’s through the 1850’s. A. I. Herzen and I. A. Goncharov were among those who, projecting Shakespeare’s images onto contemporary events, promoted a more profound understanding of the tragic nature of their age. A notable event was the staging of Hamlet in 1837 in N. A. Polevoi’s translation, with P. S. Mochalov playing the title role in Moscow and V. A. Karatygin in St. Petersburg. V. G. Belinskii and other progressive people of the time saw Hamlet’s tragedy as a reflection of the tragedy of their own generation. Hamlet’s attraction was also felt by I. S. Turgenev and F. M. Dostoevsky. Turgenev drew a parallel between Hamlet’s image and certain distinctive traits of the “superfluous people” (see Turgenev’s article “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” I860). In the acute social struggle of the 1860’s, attitudes toward Shakespeare became, on the one hand, more academic (as in the works of N. I. Storozhenko, founder of the Russian school of Shakespearean scholarship) and, on the other, more critical (for example, in L. N. Tolstoy’s Shakespeare and the Drama, 1903–04, published 1906).

The growing body of interpretation of Shakespeare’s work in Russia was paralleled by increasing knowledge of and familiarity with the works themselves. In the 18th and early 19th centuries translators of Shakespeare into Russian worked primarily from French adaptations of his works. In the first half of the 19th century, translations of Shakespeare were either too literal (for example, M. Vronchenko’s translation of Hamlet, 1828) or too free (Polevoi’s translation of Hamlet). Various translations published between 1840 and 1860, including those of A. V. Druzhinin, A. A. Grigor’ev, and P. I. Veinberg, reveal a scientifically oriented approach to the problem of literary translation—for example, by applying the principle of linguistic adequacy. The first Complete Collection of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works Translated by Russian Writers, edited by N. V. Gerbel’, was published in 1865–68. The second complete collection to be published in prer-evolutionary Russia, edited by S. A. Vengerov, appeared in 1902–04.

Based on the profound generalizations of K. Marx and F. Engels, the Soviet school of Shakespearean scholarship carried on and developed the traditions of progressive Russian thought. A. V. Lunacharskii lectured on Shakespeare in the early 1920’s. The primary focus of Shakespearean studies (for example, by V. K. Miuller and I. A. Aksenov) is on the artistic aspects of his work. Published works include historicoliterary monographs (such as A. A. Smirnov’s) and studies dealing with specific problems (such as M. M. Morozov’s). The works of A. A. Anikst and N. Ia. Berkovskii, as well as a monograph by L. E. Pinskii, represent major contributions to modern Shakespearean scholarship. The motion-picture directors G. M. Kozintsev and S. I. Iut-kevich have presented their own original interpretations of works by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s work has been translated into 28 of the languages of the USSR. In addition to separate editions of the plays and selected works, complete collections of Shakespeare’s works were published in Russian in 1936–50 and 1957–60. A particular school of Soviet translators, including M. L. Lozinskii, B. L. Pasternak, V. V. Levik, T. G. Gnedich, and S. Ia. Marshak, has specialized in the close reading and interpretation of works by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has occupied an important place in the Russian theater repertoire since the mid-1830’s. Two Russian actors who gained renown for their Shakespearean roles were P. S. Mochalov (for his Richard III, Othello, Lear, and Hamlet) and V. A. Karatygin (for his Hamlet and Lear). In the second half of the 19th and in the early 20th century, the Malyi Theater of Moscow created its own school of Shakespearean interpretation, combining stage realism with elements of romanticism; among its outstanding Shakespearean interpreters were G. Fedotova, A. Lenskii, A. Iuzhin, and M. Ermolova. Beginning in the early 20th century, Shakespeare was included in the repertoire of the Moscow Art Academic Theater, or MKhAT (which presented Julius Caesar in 1903, directed by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko in collaboration with K. S. Stanislavsky, and Hamlet in 1911, directed by H. Craig, with V. I. Kachalov in the respective title roles).

Early Soviet productions of Shakespeare’s plays were experimental and sometimes formalist in nature, as in the case of A. Tairov’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Kamernyi Teatr in 1921; they also included, however, such important productions as the second MKhAT’s Hamlet (1924), with M. Chekhov in the title role.

The year 1935 was marked by three memorable productions that sought to convey the wide-ranging sociohistorical and philosophical significance of Shakespeare’s tragedies by means of heroic images—namely, Othello (directed by S. Radlov at Moscow’s Malyi Theater, with A. Ostuzhev in the title role), King Lear (directed by Radlov at the Moscow Jewish Theater, with S. Mikhoels playing Lear), and Romeo and Juliet (directed by A. D. Popov at the Theater of the Revolution, with M. Astangov playing Romeo and M. Babanova in the part of Juliet). These were followed by a series of successful Shakespearean interpretations, presented throughout the country in the various national languages (for example, by A. Khorava, A. Vasadze, V. Vagar-shian, and V. Tkhapsaev). Productions that were particularly successful were those in which colorful staging and a festive spirit were combined with lofty humanism and psychological subtlety; such were the productions of Twelfth Night (directed by S. Giatsintova at the second MKhAT, 1933), Much Ado About Nothing (by S. Rapoport, Vakhtangov Theater, 1936), and The Taming of the Shrew (by A. D. Popov, Central Theater of the Red Army, 1937).

A new era in Soviet Shakespearean theater was opened in 1954 with two productions of Hamlet—by the Leningrad Academic Drama Theater (directed by G. Kozintsev) and by the Moscow Mayakovsky Theater (directed by N. Okhlopkov)—which had broad public reverberations. The new era was marked by productions that plumbed the depths of Shakespeare’s tragic motifs, by rejection of the romanticized approach to Shakespeare (particularly in the productions of the 1960’s and 1970’s), by the primary role often assumed by the director in shaping the stage action, and by the increasing number of Shakespearean plays actually performed. Every Shakespearean play staged in the USSR is an outstanding event in the theatrical life of the country.

Film versions of Shakespeare’s plays (including Soviet ones) have been produced in a steady flow that began with The Taming of the Shrew, filmed in 1929 and starring M. Pickford and D. Fairbanks.


The Works. Edited by A. Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson. Cambridge, 1921–66 (The New Shakespeare).
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–8. Edited by A. A. Smirnov and A. A. Anikst. Moscow, 1957–60.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1976.
Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, fasc. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Storozhenko, N. I. Opyty izucheniia Shekspira. Moscow, 1902.
Morozov, M. M. Izbr. stal’i i perevody. Moscow, 1954.
Morozov, M. M. Shekspir, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1956.
Smirnov, A. A. Shekspir. Leningrad-Moscow, 1963.
Anikst, A. A. Shekspir. Moscow, 1964.
Anikst, A. A. Remeslo dramaturga. Moscow, 1974.
Shvedov, Iu. Evoliutsiia shekspirovskoi tragedii. Moscow, 1975.
Urnov, M. V., and D. M. Urnov. Shekspir: Dvizhenie vo vremeni. Moscow, 1968.
Pinskii, L. Shekspir. Moscow, 1971.
Shekspirovskii sbornik VTO, vols, 1–4, 1948–68.
Chambers, E. K. W. Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1930.
Knight, G. W. The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed. London, 1949.
Bullough, G. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vols. 1–7. London-New York, 1957–73.
Spurgeon, C. Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us. Boston, 1958.
Barber, C. L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. Princeton, 1959.
Muir, K. W. Shakespeare: The Great Tragedies. London, 1961.
Wilson, J. D. The Essential Shakespeare. Cambridge, 1964.
Richmond, H. M. Shakespeare’s Political Plays. London-New York [1967].
Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York [1967].
Hartwig, J. Shakespeare’s Tragicomic Vision. Baton Rouge, 1972.
Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, vols. 1–4. London-Boston, 1974–76.
Farnham, W. Shakespeare’s Tragic Frontier. London, 1973.
Shakespeare Survey, vols. 1–28—. Cambridge, 1948–75—.
Shakespeare Quarterly. New York, vols. 1–26—, 1950–75—.
Levidova, I. M., comp. Shekspir: Bibliografiia russkikh perevodov i kriticheskoi literatury na russkom iazyke, 1748–1962. Moscow, 1964.
Howard-Hill, T. H. Shakespearean Bibliography and Textual Criticism: A Bibliography. Oxford, 1971.
A Shakespeare Bibliography, vols. 1–7. London, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The Bard—William Shakespeare—took a lesson from his Greek playwright predecessors and used dreams in his dramas to help advance plot and develop characters.

Shakespeare, William


In the English Renaissance, various playwrights made use of dreams as a favorite channel of communication between the human and the divine. Dreams, which were generally regarded in popular belief as the most intelligible form of supernatural warning, represented a useful dramatic device for the Elizabethan playwrights, since they foreshadowed events of plot, provided the audience with needed information, and imparted a vivid atmosphere of mystery to the play. Concepts of the dream world were derived from various sources, such as classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, the native heritage of English folklore, and the medieval tradition of the dream vision, which culminated in England with the works of Chaucer. Among the Elizabethans, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) made selective use of these sources, transforming and refining the material in accordance with his literary purposes.

In dramas the frequent use of dreams has many dramatic purposes. Even in Shakespeare’s earliest plays, besides being a form of presentation and a predictive device of plot, dreams are a way of presenting the process of the mind at work in memory, emotion, and imagination. This is the case of the dramatic action of Richard III, in which omen, apparitions, narrated dreams, and long soliloquies define the play’s world, creating a reality both inside and outside Richard. When Clarence tells Blackenbury the dream foretelling his assassination in the first scene, the images used are some of the archetypes usually associated with death, such as crossing the sea, the unsteady deck, stumbling, and drowning.

In the last act of the same tragedy, parallel dreams are experienced by King Richard and his rival, Richmond, who will face each other in their last battle in Bosworth. The personages of these dreams appear among the tents as the ghosts of murdered princes, such as Edward, King Henry’s son, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Hastings, who try to make Richard yield to remorse, while encouraging his rival to fight and conquer. Thus, in Richard III Shakespeare uses the dream also for moral ends, presenting the opposition of good and evil.

The dream is usually the preferred vehicle for premonitions of death, as in Henry VI, where the death of the duke of Gloucester is preceded by a dream by the cardinal of Winchester, and in Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo dreams that his lady comes and finds him dead, and Balthazar dreams that his master fights and kills another man. In Hamlet and in Macbeth, on the other hand, the dream world is closely related to the entire realm of witchcraft, omen, and the supernatural.

In Julius Caesar the dream is also vital to the plot and is opportunely inserted into the development of the tragedy, which deals with the conflict between monarchical and democratic parties in the political world of Rome. Julius Caesar is full of omens and dreams, such as Calpurnia’s dream, the dream of Cinna the poet, and the advice of the augurers, which are misinterpreted, making tragedy inevitable. The dream imagery of this tragedy, in which a primary emphasis is placed on the potential ambiguity of interpretation, also constitutes a means of examining character and consciousness, and, as in Richard III, divides men into two categories: those who attempt to control dream and destiny, and those who are controlled by them.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which deals full force with dreaming—the categories of reality and illusion, sleeping and waking, reason and imagination, are reversed, and the central theme of the dream is presented as truer than reality. Thus, by regarding facts as if they were dreams and dreams as if they were facts, Shakespeare shows how closely dreams skirt the truth, and how fascinating is the attraction of the false.

The subject of The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest is the confrontation that humanity experiences with the irrational and complex role of the dream world in life. The dream world represents the entire world of The Winter’s Tale, which is fundamentally a play of metamorphosis based on the images of time and change, and on the possibility for things that have already happened to happen again. In The Tempest, on the other hand, things happen on an enchanted island which represents the dream world—in order that they need never happen again. The poles of sleeping and waking, and vision and reality are deliberately explored in this play, in which the theme of losing and finding achieves its ultimate expression.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.