A General Introduction to Shakespeare


Why study Shakespeare?

  • He was, "The Sweet Swan of Avon who was not only of an age but for all time." (Ben Johnson)
  • He was the first writer in European history to earn a living as a playwright: an entrepreneur.
  • He is the most produced playwright on stages around the world today.
  • While alive, Shakespeare wrote theatre, not literature. He didn’t even bother to publish his plays. (There was no money in it.) He was a working playwright first, the greatest poet in the English language second.
  • Shakespeare was extraordinarily popular in his day, not just among the intellectuals in London who were members of Queen Elizabeth’s court, but also among the illiterate groundlings who reveled in this new found entertainment.


High Art: a stark study of the nature of evil and its effects on human nature

Low Art: a ripping, lurid tale full of swordplay, sex, madness, witchcraft, and buckets of blood


High Art: a philosophical exploration of the end of innocence and the limits of human knowledge

Low Art: a ripping good revenge story full of ghosts, madmen, lost love, graveyards, bloody sword fights and villains with poison



High Art: an ironic commentary on the mortal danger of true love and a study in the nature of absolute evil

Low Art: a villain persuades his best friend that his wife has been unfaithful and convinces him to murder her: sex, violence, and betrayal

The rapt response of theatre-goers, critics and general readers has been consistent ever since the plays were written. Shakespeare’s vision of human nature was not only ahead of its time, but it has taken the world four centuries to catch up with him, if we have.


Shakespeare was also a man of his time period, the glorious Elizabethan age, high point of the Renaissance. He lived in the first modern culture:     


1.      The City of London’s Population

      • doubled from 100,000 to 200,000 between 1580 and 1600 to over 150,000 residents, 
      • and doubled again to 400,000 by 1650. 
      • More astonishingly, each year over one million people in a total population of four million in England would visit London at some point.

2.      The Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 made England a world power for the next 350 years.

3.      London became a center of world trade, one of the capitols of the rising mercantile economy in Europe

  •  consumers in London had spending money in their pockets for the first time
  •  land was no longer the only currency of wealth

4.      The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution:

  • Shakespeare lived during a time when enormous intellectual changes were taking place. The presumptions about human nature, about God, about the universe, about the purpose of life which had held society together for a thousand years were crumbling.
  • The Reformation led by Martin Luther had split Europe into opposing ideological camps
  • England herself had become a Protestant country fifty years earlier during the reign of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. The country since then had been rent by political intrigue between Catholic and Protestant factions.
  • The intellectual community also began to hold skeptical notions about religion for the first time in over a thousand years.
  • Shakespeare was the contemporary of great innovators in the history of science: Kepler, Galileo, and the great British scientist: Sir Francis Bacon.