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William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is probably the most famous writer in the world, but relatively little is known about his life. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and he was probably educated at the local grammar school. Records indicate that in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, had a daughter, Susanna, and twins, Hamnet and Judith. Nothing is known for certain about how he began his career as writer and man of theatre, but it’s known that London became the centre of his professional life. In 1592 he was already a well-known playwright. He later became a member of the syndicate which built the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare died when he was 52 years old. As a poet he wrote a collection of 154 sonnets and two long poems; as a playwright he composed 37 plays which were, and still now are, very popular.

The Tempest (comedy)

The Tempest is a complex play where magic and reality intermingle. Indeed, one of its main themes is magic: in the play there are two types of magic represented by the witch Sycorax (black magic) and by Prospero (white magic). But another crucial theme in The Tempest is power, in all its forms: the power of European culture over non-European cultures, the power of language and the power of the artist to create illusions.

Prospero, Duke of Milan, deposed from his throne by his brother Antonio, has been shipwrecked on an island with his daughter Miranda. Thanks to his knowledge of magic, Prospero releases the spirit Ariel, who was imprisoned by a witch named Sycorax and becomes Prospero’s servant like Caliban, the witch’s monstrous son. The Tempest begins with the storm raised by Prospero to destroy the ship of his brother and his group. Prospero has to defeat various conspiracies against him and, at the end of the play, he unites all characters and forgives them. Ariel and Caliban are freed.

The relationship between Prospero and Caliban reflects the power of the colonists over colonised people, while Ariel represents the powers of arts and language. The ultimate meaning of The Tempest is that art and language have a life of their own, beyond the author.

Romeo and Juliet (tragedy)

Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s first romantic tragedy: it represents the perfect example of adolescent love, pure and absolute, in contrast with other forms of love, that are embodied by other characters.

Romeo, son of Lord Montague, falls in love with Capulet’s daughter Juliet and discover that she loves him too. However, they have to face many obstacles because they belong to two rival families who hate each other. Destiny will lead their love to a premature end.

Romeo and Juliet are married with the help of Friar Laurence, but the same day Romeo is unfortunately involved in a fight between his family and the Juliet’s one. Meanwhile, Lord Capulet wants Juliet to marry another man. She asks the Friar for advice and he suggests she should drink a potion which will give her the appearance of being dead for 42 hours. The friar will warn Romeo of the trick. But the Friar’s message fails to reach him in time and Romeo, believing Juliet is dead, decides to kill himself, just a moment before Juliet awakes. When it happens, she find his lover dead and she kills herself too.

Hamlet (tragedy)

When Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, dies, Hamlet’s mother marries the dead king’s brother, who takes the throne; Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, who tells him that he was murdered by his brother and asks to take revenge for this. In order to prove that his father was murdered, Hamlet organizes a play about a similar fratricide, which is performed in front of Claudius, the new king. After the play, Claudius rushes out in a guilty fury, Hamlet accuse his mother of having betrayed his father and kills the king’s counsellor thinking he was Claudius. Hamlet is sent to England by the king, who wants to execute him, but he escapes and comes back to Denmark. There the tragedy ends with a duel between Claudius, Hamlet and Laertes, the counsellor’s son. They all die, murdered or poisoned.

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s most debated play: it produced an astonishing number of different interpretations. Among the themes explored in Hamlet are revenge, debt, power, honour, justice and the nature of human beings. Hamlet is a modern character, he’s radically isolated and cut off both from society and from any kind of religious or moral certainty. It can be argued that Hamlet is the first character in literature who possesses full self-consciousness. In his soliloquies Hamlet teaches us how to speak to ourselves. Hamlet is free to decide for himself, but his actions produce a chain of tragic consequences, which are out of his control, leading to the death of almost everyone in the play. Hamlet’s act of revenge is a little compensation for the damage he caused and he is forced to ask himself if what he did was right, destroying a human community in the name of a higher, abstract ideal of justice.

Macbeth (tragedy)

Macbeth fits perfectly the general features of Shakespearean tragedy, as it shows the working of a dominant passion and ambition on a remarkable and ill-fated human being.

At the beginning, Macbeth, a Scottish general, appears to be a noble-hearted man whose only fault is ambition: indeed he allows himself to be persuaded by his wife to murder the king. His words and behaviors show clearly that he is overcome by horror and remorse for this awful crime. On the other hand, Lady Macbeth appears determined, fearless and cool, and she even reproaches her husband for his fears. However, at the end of the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s roles are exchanged: she takes her own life while Macbeth, hardened by his crime, becomes disillusioned with his ambitions.

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