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Bard's Style Evolved Over
William Shakespeare altered his
writing style significantly between his first
play (1590-92) and his last (1613). For example,
the Shakespeare style of 1590 was somewhat rigid
in its adherence to established rules, though it
did contain flashes of brilliance that astounded
and delighted audiences. The style of the early
1600's, on the other hand, was more creative and
free because Shakespeare had learned to listen
more to his inner voice and less to the dictates
of literary convention. In his later years—in
particular when he wrote The Tempest—Shakespeare
mastery that confirmed what earlier masterpieces
such as Hamlet
and King Lear
suggested: that he was one of the greatest
writers in history.
Scholars generally assign
each of his plays to one of four periods,
depending on the quality and maturity of the
writing and characterization. Textbooks classify
these as the Early Period, the Balanced Period,
the Overflowing Period, and the Final Period.
Not everyone agrees on which plays belong to
which period. For example, some scholars place Hamlet
in the Balanced Period while others place it in
the Overflowing Period. Scholars also differ on
the period to which The Merchant of
Venice belongs. Some place it in the
Early Period and others in the Balanced Period.
Plays of questionable authorship, such as Edward III and
The Two Noble Kinsmen,
generally are omitted from placement in any of
the four periods.
Following is a listing of
the plays according to their periods, as well as
a description of the characteristics of
the four periods.
with boldfaced titles are listed in more than
one period, reflecting the disagreement among
scholars on the period to which they belong.
The Comedy of Errors,
Henry VI Part I,
Henry VI Part II,
Henry VI Part III,
King John, Love's Labour's Lost,
A Midsummer Night's
Dream, Richard II,
Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew,
Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of
Verona, The Merchant of
in General: Technically rigid; somewhat
immature. The plots generally are well
Often superficial or shallow compared with the
characterization in later plays. Romeo and
Juliet, in which characterization is strong, is
Sometimes stilted, unnatural. Shakespeare tries
hard—maybe too hard—to be consistent in
the structure of his lines, making his words fit
established conventions rather than making them
express the mercurial, inner voice that guided
him in later plays. Puns and other rhetorical
devices abound, making the wording clever but
not always profound. In Richard II, John
of Gaunt makes puns even as he is dying. When
the king asks how he is, Gaunt uses his name
(the same as the adjective gaunt,
meaning thin, bony and haggard) in a "punny"
how that name befits my composition!
Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,
me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
are listed in more than one period, reflecting
the disagreement among scholars on the period
to which they belong.
All's Well That Ends
Well, As You Like
Henry IV Part I,
Henry IV Part II,
Henry V, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure,
The Merchant of
Merry Wives of Windsor,
Much Ado About Nothing,
Othello, Troilus and Cressida,
in General: Less technically rigid; more
creative. The plots are generally well designed.
Shakespeare demonstrates his range by writing
outstanding works in three genres: comedy (As
You Like It, Twelfth Night),
tragedy (Hamlet, Julius Caesar)
and history (Henry IV Part I, Henry V).
In addition, he presents a highly tragic
character, Shylock, in a comedy (The Merchant
Strong and rounded, reflecting deep insight into
human nature. Among the magnificent character
portrayals of this period are those of Hamlet,
Macbeth, Shylock, Othello, Iago, and Brutus. In
Henry IV Parts I and II, Shakespeare
achieves a wonderful balance between the comic
(represented by Sir John Falstaff) and the
serious (represented by Hotspur and
A mixture of verse and prose. Shakespeare also
uses the soliloquy as more than a device to
disclose the direction of the plot, to present
pretty poetry, or to deliver long-winded asides.
In Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius
Caesar, for example, soliloquies plumb the
depths of the characters' souls, revealing
doubt, indecision, fear, and ambition. The "To
be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet,
perhaps the most famous passage in English
literature, reveals all of these emotions.
Buys on the Following Items
Phones and Accessories
King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra,
Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens.
in General: Highly creative; bursting with
insight. Shakespeare ignores many rules to allow
his genius to "overflow." The plots of this
period sometimes twist and turn, challenging the
reader with their complexity.
Superb, deeply insightful.
Often highly suggestive of the speaker's state
of mind and suffused with memorable metaphors,
similes and other figures of speech. Many
passages are in prose. The following prose
passage in the storm scene in King Lear
reveals all of these characteristics. Lear is
addressing Edgar in the presence of the Fool.
After speaking the lines, Lear tears off his
thou wert better in thy grave than to answer
with thy uncovered body this extremity of the
skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him
well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no
hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha!
here's three on 's are sophisticated! Thou art
the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no
more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou
art. Off, off, you lendings! Come unbutton here.
Fool then rejoins in prose with a surprising touch
of humor and more of the same type of imagery:
nuncle [Lear], be contented; 'tis a naughty
night to swim in. Now a little fire in a wild
field were like an old lecher's heart; a small
spark, all the rest on 's body cold. Look, here
comes a walking fire. [Gloucester enters with a
Cymbeline, Henry VIII, Pericles, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale.
in General: Masterly. Shakespeare has just
the right mix of technical skill, creativity,
and wisdom while exhibiting hope for flawed
humanity. Shakespeare tends to prefer times and
places far removed from Elizabethan England—as in The Tempest,
Pericles, and Cymbeline—although Henry
VIII is certainly an exception here.
Superb, deeply insightful. Several plays of this
The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline—introduce characters
who suffer loss, then regain what they have
Highly creative, with many memorable passages in
both verse and prose. The following passages,
the first in verse and the second in prose, are
from The Tempest:
fathom five thy father lies;
his bones are coral made;
are pearls that were his eyes:
of him that doth fade
doth suffer a sea-change
something rich and strange.
hourly ring his knell (1.2.457)
to Ferdinand and Miranda, Act IV, Scene I
revels now are ended. These our actors,
I foretold you, were all spirits and
melted into air, into thin air:
like the baseless fabric of this vision,
cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
solemn temples, the great globe itself,
all which it inherit, shall dissolve
like this insubstantial pageant faded,
not a rack behind. (4.1.160-168)..