One man in his time plays many parts • First Folio, William Shakespeare - Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

One man in his time plays many parts • First Folio, William Shakespeare
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800




The Bard


1560 Published in an English translation, the Geneva Bible is one of the major reference sources used by Shakespeare.

1565 The Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Arthur Golding, is published and is a major literary source for Shakespeare.

1616 Works, by English writer Ben Jonson, is the first published collection of a popular dramatist’s plays.


1709 English writer Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works is published by Jacob Tonson. This is the first major attempt to re-edit Shakespeare’s plays since the First Folio. Rowe modernized spelling and punctuation, and added scene divisions.

When William Shakespeare died, his friend and rival playwright Ben Jonson wrote that his works would prove “not of an age, but for all time”. The prediction proved true: Shakespeare’s name is known across the globe, and he continues to be regarded as one of the most iconic writers of all time. His works have been translated into more than 80 languages; his dramas have been transformed into movies, animations, and musicals; and his words have inspired politicians, artists, and advertisers around the world.



William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564. Aged 18 he married Anne Hathaway, already pregnant with the first of their three children. Records reveal that Shakespeare was in London in the early 1590s, working as an actor. The first reference to him as a playwright in 1592 is somewhat unflattering: fellow dramatist Robert Greene labelled him an “Upstart crow, beautified in our feathers”.

Shakespeare’s History plays about King Henry VI had proved very popular by the late 1590s, and his reputation was such that in 1598 Francis Meres described the “mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare”.

The pre-eminent writer for the King’s Men acting troupe and a shareholder in the Globe theatre on Bankside, he was able to buy a house in Stratford-upon-Avon, to which he returned in his later years. He died on St George’s Day, 23 April, 1616.

Other key works

1593 Venus and Adonis

1594 The Rape of Lucrece

1609 Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Enduring appeal

In 1999 Shakespeare was voted “Man of the Millennium” in the UK, and speeches from The Tempest were used in the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games. He is one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports, and each year around 800,000 visitors make the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the houses where his life story began.

Why should Shakespeare, a man who died in 1616, continue to be so relevant for readers and theatre-goers today? Much of his appeal lies in his ability to capture in words what it feels like to be human. His mastery of language allowed him to convey complex emotions with great impact and economy. The fact that Shakespeare’s audiences represented a cross-section of society, from cobblers to courtiers, encouraged the playwright to develop a poetic voice that spoke across social rank, education, and age. His plays had to appeal to those who had paid one penny to stand in the yard, while also on occasion satisfying the tastes of the monarch and the court. It is little wonder then that the works of Shakespeare remain accessible to a broad audience; Shakespeare’s imaginative tales have the capacity to delight schoolchildren as well as veteran playgoers.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em."

Twelfth Night


Shakespeare was born in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. He lived in this house on Henley Street into adulthood, including the first five years of marriage to Anne Hathaway.

A writer for all worlds

Shakespeare’s genius lies in his talent for holding a mirror up to nature and reflecting his audience in it; people recognize themselves and others in his works. His most effective technique for engaging his audience was through use of soliloquy. It is in these moments when a character is left alone on stage, and begins to reveal the core of their being, that a strong connection is built between the world of the play and that of the onlookers. Soliloquy allows characters to share their innermost fears, disappointments, dreams, and ambitions. In moments of privacy, Shakespeare’s characters can appear fragile and vulnerable; they can also be revealed to be duplicitous and villainous. By allowing them to speak in private to the audience, Shakespeare created the illusion that the spectators were privy to every thought. His characters moved beyond being mere vehicles for plot development, and appeared to be individuals living in the moment, making decisions from scene to scene.

Shakespeare’s plays were designed to be enjoyed in the theatre, but readers could also experience some of them in print after they had appeared on stage: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry V were printed as individual works (known as quartos) during Shakespeare’s lifetime. However, other plays such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night do not seem to have been printed before the dramatist died, and would have disappeared completely had it not been for the publication in 1623 of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, otherwise known as the First Folio.

"All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

As You Like It

The First Folio

There are only some 240 copies of the First Folio still in existence and it has become one of the world’s most valuable books, with a price of around US $6 million at auction. Were it not for this book, many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces would have been lost forever.

In the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods there was no guarantee that a play would be published simply because it had been performed. Publishers tended to think that dramas had a “fashionable” rather than “enduring” appeal, and they preferred to put their energies (and finances) into publishing Bibles, sermons, and chronicles of English history. Ben Jonson was the first dramatist to have his works collected together and published as a whole. His Works appeared in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, and its popularity inspired others to consider similar volumes.

Two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and close friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, oversaw the mammoth task that went into producing the First Folio. This would have been a difficult job and their first priority was to locate the play texts. The playwright’s original manuscript was either used, or transcribed, by the company, and then served as the text from which “cue scripts” were created: each actor would have their own lines transcribed with just a line or more to listen out for as their cue. Over time manuscripts disappear, or are altered, revised, and covered in ink. Today there are no Shakespearian manuscripts in existence, although there are 147 lines in a play called Sir Thomas More that are thought to be in Shakespeare’s own hand. The First Folio serves as a monument then to Shakespeare’s memory; it proved so popular that it had to be reprinted (with revisions) just nine years later, and it has continued to be republished in differing formats ever since. It is little wonder that the First Folio is regarded as such an important book today, given the vision and determination that went into ensuring its publication.


A threefold division

The First Folio divides the plays of Shakespeare into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. The division into three genres is somewhat arbitrary, and is more reflective of the publisher’s desire than it is suggestive of the way in which Shakespeare viewed his plays. Julius Caesar, for example, is listed as a tragedy when it could just as readily be a history play; similarly, Richard III is listed under the Histories when it could also be under the Tragedies.

Shakespeare did not necessarily think in terms of writing for one particular genre. As an innovative writer he would frequently blend characteristics associated with different genres to create variety in his own work. At moments of great sorrow, for example, he occasionally injects an element of black humour, which serves to alter the pervading mood: the gravedigger sings as he digs a grave in Hamlet; the Porter jokes with the audience as Macbeth and his wife leave the stage to wash their hands of blood; and Cleopatra is moved to mirth as she contemplates her own suicide in Antony and Cleopatra.

Similarly, Shakespeare’s comedies, which one might expect to be light and frivolous in tone, can sometimes prove dark and dangerous: Isabella is sexually harassed by Angelo in Measure for Measure; Oberon enchants Titania’s eyes with a potion that will lead her to fall in love with the first thing she sees in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Malvolio’s puritanical streak in Twelfth Night leads to a very public humiliation.


The Egyptian queen Cleopatra, here played by Harriet Walter, clasps the “worme” and succumbs to its bite, like a “lover’s pinch”, during the passionate, deadly climax to Antony and Cleopatra.


The Globe theatre, co-owned by Shakespeare, opened in 1599 on the south bank of the Thames, but by 1644 it had been demolished. A re-created Globe opened at the site in the 1990s.

Relationships tested

While Shakespeare’s comedies share many similarities, they also differ markedly from one another. They almost all end with the prospect of marriage, which helps to unite individuals and communities simultaneously; it also brings a celebratory, festive quality to the play’s close and distances the memory of any misunderstandings that have thwarted the merriment beforehand. Love’s Labour’s Lost is unusual among the comedies, because the play ends not with a marriage, but an agreement between the couples to meet again after a year spent apart.

While the comedies ordinarily end in harmony and reunion, the tragedies are altogether more destructive in their dramatic trajectory. Relationships are tested, put under stress, and eventually broken, often resulting in a tableau of death to close the play. The same trajectory can be followed in some of the history plays as well. Tales of kingship, government, and rule are often driven by conflict, feud, and rivalry. Despite the differences, Shakespeare’s plays are connected through the dramatist’s desire to give voice to a socially diverse cast of characters: pimps, bawds, and prostitutes rub shoulders with the future king of England in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2; Bottom the weaver encounters the fairy world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and the monarch listens to the thoughts of a fool and a beggar in King Lear.

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors … Are melted into air."

The Tempest


The torment of the tragic

Of the plays included in the First Folio there are certain works that have acquired the status of Shakespearian masterpieces. People do not always need to have read or seen Hamlet in performance to be familiar with the words, “To be, or not to be; that is the question”. Hamlet’s association with melancholy and deep thought is now famous the world over. In him, Shakespeare created one of the most poetic voices of all time, and the literary illusion of a troubled conscience. Shakespeare walks listeners through the twists and turns of Hamlet’s imagined mind as he struggles with issues of morality and mortality. Hamlet is troubled with the idea of “what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”; as countless poems, novels, and dramas suggest, Hamlet is not alone. King Lear is another of the tragic creations that speaks directly to Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition. In old age Lear’s understanding of himself and the world around him is at odds with the views of a younger generation. His pride leads him to make rash judgements, which serve to ostracize him from friends and family, leaving him to reflect upon his actions and his relationships with other people. Lear, like so many of Shakespeare’s other tragic figures, is tormented by his own thoughts, and it takes the duration of a play for him to reassess his situation and “see better”.


Prince Hamlet of Denmark, here portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1948 film version he also directed, is a psychologically complex character who feigns madness to exact revenge.

Questions of identity

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and Bottom one of his most memorable creations. When rehearsing in the woods, Bottom’s head is magically transformed into that of an ass by the knavish sprite Puck. Visual effects have a much stronger impact on the stage than on the page. The hilarity of seeing an actor alter their whole being to convey this metamorphosis can only really ever be fully appreciated in performance, but readers will appreciate that Bottom’s experience of life has been overturned, and for a brief moment he gets to feel life as someone other than himself. This technique is repeated in some of Shakespeare’s other comedies where disguise allows characters to alter their identity: Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night both cross-dress as young men; and in The Comedy of Errors two sets of twins are mistaken for one another to great comic effect.


The enchanted Bottom the weaver, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose head has been replaced with that of an ass, becomes desirable to Titania, who is under the spell of a love potion.

Perils of power

Shakespeare’s history plays are filled with duplicitous characters. In Richard III, Richard of Gloucester disguises his intentions to murder his way to the throne and becomes arguably Shakespeare’s greatest villain. Set apart by his misshapen body, the hunchback Richard is forcefully charismatic from his first soliloquy, which opens the play. He informs the audience that he is “determined to prove a villain”, and proclaims that he is “subtle, false, and treacherous”. The soliloquies, as well as the symbolism of his deformity, cast Richard as the vice figure of the drama: audiences love to hate him. And yet, as is the case in all of Shakespeare’s history plays from Richard II to Henry VI, power is shown to be fragile. Shakespeare notes in Henry IV Part 2, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”: those in power are never free from danger. This is a lesson that Richard III learns to his surprise. Having murdered his way to the throne he has to continue killing until he feels that all threats to his crown have been wiped out.

Works for the ages

The First Folio stretches to over 900 pages, contains 36 plays, and features the best-known portrait of Shakespeare on its title page, but it does not include Pericles or The Two Noble Kinsmen, which can be found in most copies of Shakespeare’s complete works today. The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale are often referred to as romances in modern editions, while Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra are sometimes spoken of today as his “Roman plays”.

Shakespeare’s works have burst beyond the generic confines in which they were first published, but it is thanks to the First Folio that Shakespeare’s works have survived at all.

The authorship debate

Various conspiracy theories have circulated since the late 18th century claiming that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author behind the works published in the First Folio.

There is a long catalogue of alternative candidates, and it continues to grow. The list includes figures such as Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, and even Queen Elizabeth I, all of whom died a decade before Shakespeare’s last plays were staged or published. How could the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe have written the plays when he was murdered in 1593? One story goes that Christopher Marlowe did not really die in a tavern brawl in 1593, but went into hiding and continued to supply the public theatres with plays under the pseudonym “William Shakespeare”. The arguments for the other contenders are equally improbable.

See also: Oedipus the KingMetamorphosesThe Canterbury TalesDoctor FaustusMoby-DickUlysses