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In the complete works of Shakespeare, there are:

884,667 words
680,775 words in verse
203,892 words in prose

118,406 lines composed
91,464 lines in poetry
26,942 lines in prose

31,959 speeches
21,726 speeches in poetry
10,062 speeches in prose
171 speeches have both prose and poetry

...AND about 90% of the words Shakespeare uses have the same meaning as today; yet interpretation remains a problem for many students. In his A Reader's Guide to William Shakespeare, Alfred Harbage recalls Mark Twain's comment that "...a classic is something everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read..." (p.2) and notes that with qualification, Shakespeare's works often go unread. Part of this is the age of expediency in which we live. Why, we might argue, should a student today spend hours reading a play when Cliff Notes seem to work nicely? Arguments like appreciating the beauty of the language or firsthand exposure to the great truths of human nature frequently fall on deaf ears. Paradoxically Shakespeare might agree! He wrote plays for the same reason Lucas directs movies--to earn a living, which meant both in the Renaissance and today, the stuff had to sell. Audiences won't pay unless they are entertained. Undoubtedly Shakespeare would be flattered but horrified and perhaps amused if he saw a whole academic industry based on his plays, with ten lines of footnotes for every line in the textbook. Stone did not appeal to an audience by selling copies of his scripts, and neither did Shakespeare: both The Phantom Menace, and Hamlet (recall Mel Gibson) were meant to be viewed. Seeing a production makes all the difference. Even showing a film in class engages the interest of students who might otherwise not be entertained.

That is why we will watch several productions, hoping to encourage enjoyment by sustaining Bloom's hypothesis in SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN that Shakespeare indeed invented personality. In so doing, we need to avoid the equation that: Shakespeare = confusion = Cliff Notes = an A or B on a test (hopefully). Generations of students have sworn by that equation, and honestly, some have met with success or the companies that publish them would not be in business. Any study guide is useful, and some are better than others. The material on this web page frequently contains bibliographical references, but at best all of these are like baby food or training wheel on a bike. Sooner or later, they should become less how? The best way is to see a production live or on film. Once upon a time, I enjoyed a performance of Richard III, done in quasi-NAZI uniforms. My delight with the production grew as I relied more on the stage and less on trying to identify every figure of speech and motif in the play. Certainly knowing them helps, but Shakespeare did not write to burden readers with literary analysis. BELIEVE IT OR NOT, HE WROTE TO MAKE MONEY SO WHAT HE DID HAD TO ENTERTAIN!

This course seeks to provide you with the social, political, historical, philosophical, and literary background needed to make Shakespeare intelligible. Coupled with the eyewitness experience of seeing a play, either live or watching it on TV, the result will hopefully be enjoyment. Several of the sections contain exercises that reinforce what has been presented. Work on them carefully; they are designed to enhance your comprehension of the plays and sonnets.


  1. WEB SOURCES: Student curriculum links: Renaissance
  2. CONTENT SOURCES: British Literature Home Page


Look at this Prologue (Introduction to one of the history plays, Henry V,) and note what quality of mind is needed for understanding and appreciation: The actor is on an empty stage speaking to a large audience:

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vast fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt!
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined tow mighty monarchies...
Think when we talk of horses. that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs in th' receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings...
Turning th' accomplishment of many years Into an hourglass...



When you examine a text, assume you are a director. What would you do? How would you stage the action? We rely today on special effects. On what did Shakespeare's audience rely? Remember that much of Shakespeare is poetry--blank verse. defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter, and therefore is based on inference, and a knowledge of the traditional figures of speech: simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, paradox, and irony -- among many others.

I. Diction: connotation and denotation (implied contextually) and (literal dictionary meaning). There are several dictionaries available for Shakespearean research, chief of which of course is the OED, The Oxford English Dictionary. Others include editions by Onions and Schmidt. The OED provides entomologies, with prolific historical examples, many of which are from Renaissance sources.

II. Common figures of speech:
A. metaphor and simile: links the abstract to the concrete; the macrocosm and microcosm)
B. alliteration--repetition of a consonant sound in succeeding words
C. personification--giving human characteristics to the non-living
D. paradox--an apparent contradiction, but logical in context
E. irony--implying the opposite of what is intended: dramatic--audience knows more than the character verbal--what the character says is different from what is meant; either intentional or unintentional situational--the dramatic context evolves in a way different from what the actions of the characters intend. [NOTE: for IRONY--recall Aristotle's reversal and recognition]

III. Imagery:
A. creating mental pictures that can dominate a scene or a whole play
B. motifs--images that unify a scene or an entire play--disease in Hamlet, blood, fair is foul in Macbeth, for example Common motifs: blood garden macrocosm/microcosm animal disorder symbols unnatural happenings sexual imagery storms-thunder etc. nature

IV. Patterns within a line of verse:
A. repetition of key ideas using parallel syntax patterns
B. antithesis--opposite ideas are syntactically balanced...see examples below

V. Dramatic devices:
A. soliloquy--character alone on stage reveals his/her inner thoughts to... himself, audience, another character? function: dramatization of consciousness.
B. aside--a mini-soliloquy--other characters on the stage who "suspend disbelief" and pretend not to hear.
C. manipulation of time--foreshadowing, flashback devices may occur by using figures of speech and/or motifs

[NOTE: In Shakespeare, several of the above devices may be used simultaneously.]

VI. Creating character:
A. actions? speech? relationship to others? degree of deception? use of irony? Reaction of character to his/her situation? Course of action? What frustrates action?
B. dramatization of consciousness

VII. Themes and central ideas: A Shakespeare play generally has what is called a theme passage. Its purpose is to define the meaning of the play in a single group of lines. The imagery, motifs and figures of speech in the passage will be echoed throughout the play. When this happens, we have a motif. The theme passage is usually in the first act and is spoken by a major character. By doing a comparative study of the theme passage it is possible to determine the evolution of Shakespeare's art as developed from period to period, especially regarding the treatment of common thematic material such as ...

love - hate - revenge - passion vs. reason - death - murder - growth - decay - honor - courage - cowardice - the supernatural - witches/ghosts - devils - order and degree in the universe - insanity - psychology of leadership - ambition - terror - fear - compassion...

[Note: Other than the BIBLE, it is difficult to imagine any other material besides the works of Shakespeare that dramatize so fully what it means to be human.]

EXERCISES from the Early Period: (1538-1597) comedies and histories--few tragedies

1588-1593 --- Comedy of Errors --- comedy
1588-1594 --- Love Labour's Lost --- comedy
1590-1591 --- 2 Henry VI --- history
1590-1591 --- 3 Henry VI --- history
1591-1592 --- 1 Henry VI --- history
1592-1593 --- Richard III --- history
1593-1594 --- Titus Andronicus --- tragedy
1593-1594 --- Taming of the Shrew--- comedy
1593-1595 --- Two Gentleman of Verona --- comedy
1594-1596 --- Romeo and Juliet --- tragedy
1595 --- Richard II --- history
1594-1596 --- Midsummer Night's Dream --- comedy
1596-1597 --- Merchant of Venice --- comedy

Shakespeare could vary the style to suit the occasion: look at both of these passages, and determine which is formal (called rhetorical style) and which informal (colloquial style):

(Compare these passages to the ones from Hamlet cited below:)


I call thee coward! I'll see thee damned ere I call thee coward, but I would give a thousand pounds I could run as fast as thou canst. You are straight enough in the shoulders, you care not who sees your back; call that backing of your friends. A plague upon such backing...

2. RICHARD: (speaking to Ann):

More wonderful when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe. divine perfection of a woman.
Of these supposed crimes to give me leave
By circumstance but to acquit myself.

3. ANNE: (replying to Richard):

Vouchsafe, diffused infection of a man,
Of these known evils, but to give me leave
By circumstance t'accuse thy cursed self.

What is the motif in the following passages? Notice how the same one will be used in plays of the mature period.

1. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn our tiring house.

2. As in a theater the eyes of men
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious,
Even so, or with much more contempt men's eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard.


What themes are expressed below and how stylistically?


The uncle to the king, Gloucester, speaks;

...These days are dangerous
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour's hand.
Foul subordination is predominant...


Friar Laurence is speaking:
...For not so vile that on earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor ought so good but , strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied
And vice sometimes by action dignified.,
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power...
Two such opposed kings encamp them still,
In man as well as herbs, grace, and rude will
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

(This could serve as the theme passage for all of the tragedies. Why?)

What themes are expressed below and how stylistically?


A servant talks with Richard's Queen. [Remember that Richard will soon be deposed:]

sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up.
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars [metaphor for false flatterers]

King RICHARD says to his wife:

...Join not with grief fair woman, do not so,
To make my end too sudden. Learn, good soul,
To think our former state a happy dream,
From which awakened, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this.

Read this passage from Romeo and Juliet--we will compare to one cited below from Antony and Cleopatra:

Alas that love. whose view is muffled still.
Should without eyes see pathways to his will.
Where shall we dine? O Me! What fray was here
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then. O brawling love! O loving hate!
Of anything, of nothing first create!
Of heavy lightness! Serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, could fire, sick health

Exercises from the Balanced Period: (1597-1604) histories and development of tragedies

1597 --- 1 Henry IV --- history
1597-1598 --- 2 Henry IV --- history
1598-1600 --- Much Ado About Nothing --- comedy
1598-1599 --- Henry V --- history
1599-1600 --- Julius Caesar --- tragedy
1599-1600 --- As You Like It --- comedy
1599-1600 --- Twelfth Night --- comedy
1600-1601 --- Hamlet --- tragedy
1597-1601 --- The Merry Wives of Windsor --- comedy
1602-1609 --- Troilus and Cressida --- problem comedy
1602-1604 --- All's Well that Ends Well --- comedy

In this period, Shakespeare often uses more concentrated images to achieve whatever intent he wishes. Examine the passages below, and indicate how:

This passage is an analysis of a how a politician managed to achieve his subject's loyalty:

I stole all courtesy from heaven
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men.

Theme Passages:


King Henry reflects on the eve of battle what it means to be a king...

...Oh, hard condition
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool...What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
...Wherein thou art less happy being feared
Than in fearing.
What drink'st thou, oft instead of homage sweet,
But poisoned flattery?...
No, not all these thrice gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest...


Brutus speculates about killing Caesar:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then,
The nature of an insurrection.


(Compare to Richard III cited above:)

KING CLAUDIUS: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,--

HAMLET [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.

KING CLAUDIUS How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

HAMLET Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

Passages from the Mature Period: (1603-1609) the major tragedies:

1603-1604 --- Othello --- tragedy
1604-1605 --- Measure for Measure --- problem comedy
1605-1606 --- King Lear --- tragedy
1605-1606 --- Macbeth --- tragedy
1606-1607 --- Antony and Cleopatra -- tragedy
1605-1608 --- Timon of Athens --- tragedy
1607-1609 --- Coriolanus --- tragedy
1608-1609 --- Pericles --- tragedy




FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning or in rain?
SECOND WITCH: When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
THIRD WITCH: That will be ere the set of sun.
SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.
THIRD WITCH: There to meet Macbeth.
FIRST WITCH: I come Graymalkin.
ALL THREE: Paddock calls--Anon!
Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

React to the passage on an emotional level. Imagine the special effects that a Hollywood director could use. What image comes to mind? How does the style--figures of speech etc,--contribute to meaning, but do you really need to know all of the figures of speech to understand the emotional intent.

Theme Passages:

(Comment as above, noticing any changes in style...)


Note in terms of form and content, how the above passages come together to mirror what Shakespeare writes in one of his greatest plays...

Exercise: This passage by Macbeth follows the witches' scene quoted earlier that introduced the play: Act I, scene i. Here, later in the play, Macbeth is reacting to the prophecy that he would not only be promoted to Thane of Cawdor for winning a battle, but that he one day would become king of Scotland. Compare the passage to the others and note the difference in style, especially how the figures of speech relate to character development:

...This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why to I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought whose murder is yet but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Lady Macbeth advises her husband:

...To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye
Your hand, your tongue. Look like the innocent
But be the serpent under it

Macbeth after he kills the king:

...Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth doth murder sleep"---the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast...

This passage is a description of Cleopatra: \

(Compare to Romeo and Juliet cited above.)

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold.
Purple the sales, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them. The cars were silver
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which to the beat to follow faster
As amorous of their strokes..

Exercise: What images are used in these passages? Even if you do not identify all of them, what overall impression is created in each case? How do the passages create mental pictures and of what?

How does the motif in this passage compare to its same use in the earlier plays?

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps into this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Plays of the Final Period (1609-1613) comedies and romances:

1609-1610 --- Cymbeline --- comedy
1610-1611 --- The Winter's Tale --- comedy
1611-1612 --- The Tempest --- romance
1612-1613 --- Henry VIII --- history

Comment on the style of this passage from The Tempest:

MIRANDA Never till this day
Saw I him touch'd with anger so distemper'd.

PROSPERO You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.

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