Shakespeare’s influence on English literature has been unsurpassed. His influence did not confine itself to the intricate detailing of his stories alone, but extended to all aspects of storytelling, namely mellifluous prose, evolved characterization and varied settings. All of these contributed in making his stories memorable and through primarily these three elements together with the sheer variety and breadth of his storylines, he continues to exercise a dominant influence on English literature and captivate and enthrall. Beyond anything, his life is an example of complete dedication to his craft.
His life is marked by a focused devotion to English literature and language through his Tragedies, Comedies and Histories, cumulatively known as the First Folio, Second, Third and Fourth Folios. Whatever is known of Shakespeare is drawn primarily from two sources, his literary texts and remnants of church and legal records from which one can trace the significant aspects of his life, though much of it is conjecture. Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, was the daughter of Robert Arden of Stratford. John, his father, was a leather merchant whose life witnessed tumultuous financial highs and lows. There is a probability that Shakespeare attended grammar school during his early years, though his parents were in all probability illiterate. At the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than him.
Till 1592, no other record alludes to his life. In 1592, Robert Greene referred to Shakespeare when he wrote in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance about “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well as able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johan-nes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country” (Alexander, xvi). This remark only serves to reiterate that Shakespeare had gained significant recognition through his plays by 1592 and inspired sufficient rivalry in literary circles though Greene’s is the only known enmity.
Even this remark is a travesty of Shakespeare’s own lines from Henry VI, Part Three; “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” Johannes fac totum referred to here means the jack of all trades. This observation was partly correct, for Shakespeare was multifaceted. Apart from being a writer, and starring in his own plays, he was also associated with a theatrical group comprising of Richard Burbage, a noted stage performer and they were known after their patron as Lord Chamberlain’s Men and after King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth, they were known as “the King’s Men”. It was to this company that Shakespeare directed his unswerving attention by composing all his plays solely for their enactment.
In 1593-94, Shakespeare, to much critical acclaim, published his poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucerne. Shakespeare was diffident about the publication of his plays and took no interest in their printing, being interested only in their faithful and dramatical reproduction. This is responsible for the problems in establishing the accuracy of his texts and in dating them. Shakespeare’s first tragedy was Titus Adronicus, (C. 1592-94) in which Ovid’s influence was profound though it did not gain much prominence because of its implicit violence. It has, of late, been revived. During this period, he wrote Henry VI (c. 1588) and Richard III (c. 1593), Henry V (c. 1599).
Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 were also composed during this time. According to the Lexicon, the principal Comedies written during this time were Love’s Labour Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. He devoted himself principally to Tragedy after 1599. These include- Julius Caeser, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. There were some plays that were difficult to categorize such as Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. The end of his writing career was marked by four plays- Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles.
Shakespeare’s supremacy was not confined to English literature alone but extended to the English language as well. The strength of Shakespeare’s influence can be ascribed to his riveting and compelling storylines, his evolved characterization and the mellifluous language. Through his plays, he for the first time in English literature created believable, expressive characters. He delved into the psyche of his protagonists and imbued them with life. What perhaps makes these characters lasting and unforgettable is that they are neither wholly evil nor wholly good, but real. Hamlet fascinates readers with his complexity. Emotional and daring, lackadaisical about revenge and shades of insanity are traits that render him complex.
Othello, initially portrayed as courageous and proud, reveals that he is in fact flawed, like all of Shakespeare’s characters, when his implicit trust in Iago betrays him to act upon his jealousy and kill Desdemona. Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice sins as much as he is sinned against, as much a hero as a villain. It has been argued that Shakespeare’s characters stoop to melodrama, but one has to remember that he was, above all a consummate dramatist. It has been said that a compulsive and insightful reading of all of his plays serves to make one a better judge of human character, its motivations, conflicts, passions and fallacies. (“Bartleby”).
His thoroughness in the execution of his characters served to inspire generations of writers. In fact, Herman Melville’s main antagonist in Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, is believed to be a classic Shakespearean character, whose downfall and doom are brought about by his own weakness. According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare’s resonant prose also reverberates through time, through the writing of Charles Dickens, on whom Shakespeare’s influence was profound, and William Faulkner. He also helped develop the English language. English, before the times of Shakespeare was impulsive and unstructured. Shakespeare enhanced the beauty of the language by adding to its vocabulary and gave it depth by the beauty of his prose.
Many of the phrases that his characters used have become common parlance. He freed the English language. Successive generations have interpreted and reinterpreted Shakespeare’s plays and will continue to do so for posterity. The vividness of his imagination helped unify the thought and action of his characters and gave them force and passion, so much so that these characters inspire hatred and love, but never indifference. In Othello, for instance, it is the language which defines the play. Othello’s prose is mellifluous in the true sense of the term, so much so that a critic on remarking about the language of Othello has called it “Othello’s music”. (“Geocities”).
However, the language of Othello gradually breaks down, as consumed by jealousy his character slowly disintegrates. In the Act I, Scene III, Othello states “And little of this great world can I speak/ More than pertains to feats of broil and battle” (Shakespeare, 1118). The Duke also expresses his opinion that Othello would also win his daughter’s heart. Othello also says “Yet I’ll not shed her blood/nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (Shakespeare, 1149), As his character becomes darker, his language crumbles, he stoops to words to communicate instead of sentences, “Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (Shakespeare, 1153). This was one of the first plays in which the language evocatively moves in tandem with the plot.
Another way in which Othello was revolutionary was that the main protagonist was one of the first or colored black heroes in the history of English literature. Inspite of his race and also despite the fact that he was a foreigner in conventional Venice; he rises to a position of influence and marries a white woman, a circumstance unthought-of during Elizabethan times. Othello also has to overcome considerable racial discrimination. Shakespeare imbues Othello with all heroic and noble characteristics, save for one tragic flaw, jealousy. With this Othello’s fate was sealed. He became the embodiment of the ‘perfect tragic hero’ in English literature.
Also unique among Shakespearean tragedies, Othello was mostly a tragedy of character, while all the other Shakespearean tragedies were set amongst political backdrops, Othello was propelled and instigated by his self doubt, jealousy and by the diabolical wickedness in the character of Iago. The language, the setting, the characterization and the taut plot makes Othello the most heartrending and memorable of Shakespeare’s tragedies. This power to captivate and enthrall readers through delving into Othello’s psyche helped redefine psychological realism. With only three principal characters, Othello, Desdemona and Iago, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most centered plays in which the action concentrates around these three characters.
Again, for Romeo and Juliet, the primary element of the play that resonates through time is the language. Romeo says “Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs” (Shakespeare, 904). This is more poetry than prose. The characters, besides using poetry in speech, also use metaphors, oxymorons, allegories and paradoxes. Shakepeare also uses sonnets in the scenes between Romeo and Juliet to express their depth of love to each other. In these scenes, the language imbues their emotions with a rich texture. There are also a lot of action words used. It is this poetry of language that was to have a tremendous influence on the romantic poetry of Keats and also of Coleridge.
Thomas Carlyle has this to say about Shakespeare’s influence on literature This King Shakespeare does he not shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs; indestructible; really more valuable in that point of view than any other means or appliance whatsoever? We can fancy him as radiant aloft over all Nations of Englishmen, thousand years hence. From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever, under what sort of Parish-Constable soever, English men and women are, they will say to one another, ‘Yes, this Shakespeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him. (Bernard Levin. From The Story of English. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Viking: 1986)” (“Shakespeare Online”). Thus, Shakespeare’s impact on literature is lasting. The range of his genius defies imagination. It will continue to stir future generations till eternity.