Does the life of an author have a significant influence on his work? Do the author’s experience and surrounding wield influence on his writing? How much does an author’s life impact his work? The effect of an author’s life experiences on his writing is often unquestionable. The impact Shakespeare’s life had on his work is important to understand as it will help us to ascertain the socio-cultural condition of the Elizabethan era, especially that of court life. The life of the author is known as fragmentary. It seldom appears that life has little influence on the work of the author. However, one should not neglect the idea that life incidents are often not used as the main plot, but are scattered around as subplots or incidents. This essay is an exposition into the life of William Shakespeare and the effect it had on his literary work.
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It posits that biographical elements from Shakespeare’s life left a deep impact on the plays he had written. The essay is divided into three parts. The first one explains experiences with the law of the land and its impact on his work. The second part reflects on the influence of his religious experiences. Finally, the third part discusses how experiences from Shakespeare’s life and environment are demonstrated in his plays.
Experience with Law of Elizabethan England
The impact Elizabethan England had on Shakespeare’s work is unquestionable. In order to make his plays more acceptable and understandable to his audiences, Shakespeare made abundant references to the laws of the land in his plays. Usually, the business dealings that were shown in the plays were with land, and court cases attain a primary position in the Shakespearean plays. In Elizabethan England, the land was not simply a measure of wealth but also a source of political, economic, and social power (Senn 1). The use of politics and laws in the plays, like the court scene in The Merchant of Venice or the laws implied in As You Like It, demonstrates the impact the then laws of the land had on Shakespeare. Thus, Shakespeare penned his experiences through these plays.
The question that arises is how Shakespeare has influenced his own work. Shakespeare was a dramatic biographer, one who would engage in a dramatized description in his historical plays rather than a historical biographer, like his literary idol Plutarch, who believed in writing the lives of people in his historical biographies rather than just the historical events. Hence, the possibility of Shakespeare narrating his inner life through his plays cannot be rejected. For instance, in his book Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt points out that the influence of Shakespeare’s Catholic upbringing is unavoidable (Greenblatt 54).
René Weis, in her article, Was there a Real Shakespeare, argues that Shakespeare’s work presents vivid imagery of his life that previously has been neglected (218). Shakespeare affiliated with the Catholics of England, and this affiliation arose from his upbringing. His mother, Mary Arden, was a devoted Catholic, and he was educated under a Catholic schoolmaster in Stratford (Weis 218). The will that John Shakespeare, his father, left in Hanley Street, which was founded in 1757, only adds to this speculation. Thus arose the religious conflict, observable in Hamlet, between a Catholic father and the Protestant Hamlet while leaving Purgatory. The impasse demonstrated between Rome and Wittenberg in the play may be representative of Shakespeare’s family’s predicament (Weis 218).
Weis points out that in many of the sonnets written during the time, the direct use of the author’s first name as a character was prevalent. For instance, Ben Johnson has often written about “Ben” in his poem, and so has Shakespeare penned characters in his sonnets named “Will” (220). For instance, in Shakespearean Sonnets, the author often uses Will as a character, as has been observed in sonnets 135: “Will will fulfill the treasure of thy love, / Ay, fill it full with wills, and mu will one” (Shakespeare 45). Again in sonnet 136, he says: “Make but my name thy love, and love that still; / And then thou lov’st me, for my name is Will” (Shakespeare 45). Such infusion of the self in literary work of Shakespeare is not only confined to his poetry, but also to his plays. In plays like As You Like It and Henry IV, Shakespeare has penned characters named William.
These two plays are often considered as the most autobiographical ones (Weis 220). Both plays are set in a location, which may demonstrate private Shakespearean life. The geographic settings of these plays are in locations with which Shakespeare may have been familiar with in his childhood. For instance, the forest of Arden in As You Like It and the rural location of Gloucestershire in Henry IV. Shakespeare may have seen these areas while growing up in the Midlands. The great Forest of Arden still covered most of the part of the Midlands in sixteenth-century England. The forest reached up to the village of Wilmcote, which was close to Stratford, the home of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother.
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In a similar fashion, Shakespeare placed the setting of the play Taming of the Shrew in Wilmcote (Weis 220). Hence, clearly, Shakespeare set most of his plays close to the area where he grew up, combining youthful imagination into his dramatic scenario.
It is true that there are not enough sources to validate the biographical influence of Shakespeare’s life on his work due to the absence of any correspondence or memoir written by the bard. However, the sheer volume of work that he produced makes it impossible to have been immune to nay life experiences that may have affected it. However, even if we have no knowledge about Shakespeare, even then, his plays would have been enough sources to build the author in our imagination. From his plays, one can intuitively deduce that Shakespeare was greatly influenced by countryside and nature. No other literary figure of the time has made such a detailed description of the wild thyme growing on the riverbank or the idle and romantic English woods near Athens. Shakespeare’s closeness to nature is evident from the plethora of similes and metaphors scattered all across his works. Thus, one can even imagine Shakespeare to be a nature poet.
Most of the plays have a homoerotic subtext running under most of the Shakespearean plays like The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night that clearly demonstrate the relationship between men and women of the period. The plays demonstrate traditional gender norms. For instance, The Merchant of Venice ends with the word ‘ring’ which symbolically means vagina and a closed circle, hence demonstrating the harmony and pleasures of a normative relation between characters of the play. Hence, traditional gender roles are reinstated in Shakespearean plays. The plays that maintain the traditional genre of a romantic comedy end in the sexual harmony of men and women. A similar ending has been found in other comedies of Shakespeare like Comedy of Errors and As You Like It.
The use of disguise has been a trope often employed in Shakespearean plays. Shakespeare has often made his female characters disguise as a youth. This has often played a pivotal in setting the dramas. Further use of names in Shakespearean plays is important. If Hamlet was Shakespeare, then the use of names in plays of Shakespeare gains severe importance. For instance, in Othello, none of the names have any significant effect on the plot except for the name of Desdemona, which has a Greek root meaning the one who is unfortunate:
Quite how important names are for Shakespeare can be gleaned from Othello, since the source of the play is completely silent on names except for that of Desdemona or rather Disdémona. Shakespeare invented all the rest, and though one may wonder about Desdemona and Othello, there is little doubt that Shakespeare ran with a strong hint in the Disdémona source which laid the blame for the tragedy at her father’s door, for giving her a Greek name that means ‘the unfortunate one’ (Weis 222).
This demonstrates the Shakespearean style to give a slight hint and let the train of thought take its own course. In the case of Othello, the train of thought made the character into something demonic. Thus, names play an important part in Shakespearean place and the locations such as those in Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, and As You Like It. The names of characters in many Shakespearean plays were adapted from real-life acquaintances and relations.
There are many instances in the Shakespearean names and plays that relate to the dramatist’s life. Three names are important in making the connection between Shakespeare’s works and life – Susanna, Hamlet, and Richard Field. The first two names are his children’s names. Richard Field was the publisher and a close associate of Shakespeare who published his work Venus and Adonis and printed Rape of Lucrece. The field was probably a few years older than Shakespeare and was educated in the same grammar school as Shakespeare. In one of the later, and lesser-known plays, Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses Richard as a character called Richard du Champ. Further, Shakespeare may have named one of his best-known works, Hamlet, after his son, Hamnet or Hamlet. Shakespeare started writing Hamlet after his father’s death in 1601, when Hamnet or Hamlet may have been dead for over five years.
In this play, Shakespeare demonstrates the conflict between a dead father and a living son, caught up in-between a living remarried mother. Hamlet Shakespeare plays the central character in this play; however, his twin sister, who lived a few more years, is not mentioned in this play. However, the play that Shakespeare wrote immediately afterward, Twelfth Night is a play about a girl-boy identical twin. The miraculous recovery of the twins in the play is believed to have stemmed from Shakespeare’s desire to reunite his family. Thus, he wrote a play that reunified the separated twins, due to their father’s efforts, which definitely reveals a hidden desire of the author to reunite his twins who were permanently separated by death.
Shakespeare’s works are reminiscent of his life, experience, feelings, and perception about politics, religion, personal life, social life, and economic condition. The influence family and friends had on his work is evident. The nature and his surroundings from the time of childhood have left a deep-seated imprint on his work. This essay confirms the presence of biographical elements in the works of William Shakespeare.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.
Senn, Mark A. “Shakespeare and the Land Law in his LIfe and Works.” Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Journal 48.1 (2013): 1-85. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Poems. London: E. Moxon, 1840. Print.
Weis, Rene. “Was there a real Shakespeare.” Textual Practice 23.2 (2009): 215–228. Print.