Free Essay On Shakespeare's History And Comedy Plays
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William Shakespeare’s early plays were published seven years after his death, in 1623 (“The First Folio of Shakespeare”). The Folio edition included thirty-six plays and consisted of a compilation by Shakespeare and two of his contemporaries, Henry Condell, and John Heminges. Of these, the plays were categorized into three primary groups, tragedies, comedies, and the histories, also referred to as the ‘English history plays.’
What is a Shakespeare history play?
Historic plays date back to Athenian theater, when historical facts merged with mythical elements (Colette Hemingway). Shakespeare’s historical plays, although primarily based on historical information, used considerable poetic license. Shakespeare’s earlier plays included King John and Henry VIII and helped comprise a sequence of eight ‘Wars of the Roses.’ These plays were written in two series. The first group, composed in the early part of the 1590s, includes all of Henry VI and Richard III. The second group, completed around 1599, included Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V (“The First Folio”).
The second group, including Henry V, is often referred to as the ‘Henriad’ and relates directly to Prince Hal, who became Henry V. Henry V represents an excellent example of a Shakespearean history play. Written around 1599, the play portrays the life of England’s King Henry V. It focuses on the circumstances that took place prior to and following the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, during the Hundred Years' War. Originally titled Henry the fift, or The Chronicle History of Henry the fift, it evolved into the Folio text as, The Life of Henry the Fifth, and represented the final piece of the Henriad. By this time, Henry’s character was already widely recognized by the Elizabethan audience as the unruly ‘Prince Harry’ from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. By the time Henry V was performed on stage, the audience witnessed Prince Harry’s transformation into the successful ruler who led England to a defeat over France.
As with many of Shakespeare’s historical plays, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, second edition (1587) provided much of the historical material (Lawson). The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York, by Edward Hall, provided additional critical historical information, as did Samuel Daniel's civil war poem and The Famous Victories of Henry V.
Elements from Shakespeare’s historical plays often merge with his tragedies (i.e. Macbeth). These occurred through a combination of historical fact and poetic license. Likewise, the staging also required artistic modifications. Henry V, as with William Shakespeare’s other historical plays, were scripted in such a way that the audience was asked to use their imagination, as directed by the Chorus. The combination of dramatic elements and actual events serves to provide as lively a production today as it did at the end of the 16th Century.
Historical events continue to be interpreted in countless ways, with Henry V’s invasion into France representing a victorious military effort as well as an anti-war statement. Moreover, it is believed that Henry V was the first play within any of the three categories to be performed in the New Globe Theatre in 1599(“The First Folio”). By the early 17th century, Shakespeare’s plays moved toward romance-comedies, ‘problem plays’ and tragedies that combined historic elements. Moreover, although the play clearly falls into the category of a history play, Shakespeare made use of several comic elements, such as innuendos and witty (minor) characters, as he did with his romantic comedies, to add a lighter dimension to the otherwise serious historical context.
What is a Shakespeare comedy play?
During the Elizabethan times, a ‘comedy’ was viewed differently than it is today. Shakespeare’s comedies concluded with a successful ending where the main characters often married. Shakespearean comedies were far lighter than the historical plays and tragedies. While conflicts occur on internal and external levels, the greatest emphasis tended to be situational, rather than character-based. This allowed the audience to enjoy the action while maintaining emotional separation. Actions that could be viewed as unfortunate become enjoyable, even laughable. Most Shakespearean comedies also included many of the following elements, the difficulties of young lovers, mistaken identities, adroit servants, the re-unification of characters, family disputes, unexpected twists and turns, mixtures of humorous styles, pastoral settings, and complex, interwoven plots (Schwartz).
The Comedy of Errors is classified as one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. Not only is it short in length, it uses absurdity in a way that was typical during his lifetime. The humor was derived from a combination of mistaken identity, slapstick, plays on words and the use of puns. Similar to The Tempest, it merged the classical unities of action, place, and time. Over the centuries, The Comedy of Errors has been modified for the opera, theater, and movies. This comic play depicts two identical sets of twins who were inadvertently separated at the time of birth. From there a series of events unfold, built upon their mistaken identities, and culminating in a favorable ending.
As a prime example of romantic comedy, it is believed that A Midsummer Night Dream was written somewhere between the early and mid-1590s. This colorful comedy depicts the circumstances encompassing a marriage. Included are the escapades of a small group of lovers from Athens and amateur actors. The actors are manipulated by various fairies that live in the forest where the majority of the action takes place. A Midsummer Night Dream continues to be amongst Shakespeare’s most popular plays worldwide, as well as one of the favorite Shakespearean comedies.
Other comedies by Shakespeare, such as All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure combine non-standard elements of tragedy and humor, causing them to fall into other categories such as ‘problem’ and ‘revenge plays’ (Spens). A question remains as to Shakespeare’s rational behind the complex nature of these plays. Regardless, they do fall under the category of comedies and are included amongst the seventeen comedies that William Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime. Moreover, while the play Cymbeline was originally included in the First Folio as a tragedy, the story contains many of the attributes that define Shakespeare’s comedies, including the happy ending.
Clearly, William Shakespeare’s plays are as complex as the personal nature of the play-write. Shakespeare lived at a time where theater was in a state of transition. It was moving from open-air productions to indoor theatrical performances, much like today. Additionally, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the focus of theater was moving from more scholarly, moralistic productions to livelier forms of secular entertainment. This changing tide appears to have strongly influenced Shakespeare’s writings, as his tragedies, comedies, and histories attest. Throughout the ages, the nature of human beings from cultural, historic, political, moral, and romantic standpoints has always been complex. Within these contexts, Shakespeare’s plays provide some of the best examples of the human condition from both historic and comic perspectives.
Blayney, Peter W. M. “The First Folio of Shakespeare.” Folger Library Publications. 1991. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. Jan. 2015. <http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=930>
Hemingway, Colette. "Theater in Ancient Greece". Heilbronn. Timeline of Art History. [New York] 2000. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. Jan. 2015. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/thtr/hd_thtr.html>
Lawson, Rich. “Historical Sources and Shakespeare's Henry V” Shadowed Realm, Medieval History Resources. 2004-2015. Rich Lawson. Web.2015. <http://www.shadowedrealm.com/medieval-articles/exclusive/historical_shakespeare_sources_henry_v>
Spens, Janet. “Elizabethan Drama.” Shakespeare Online. [London] 19 Aug. 2009. Metheun & Co. 1922. Web. Jan. 2015. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/playanalysis/tradegyvscomedy.html >
Schwartz, Debora B. “Shakespeare's Plays: Comedy.” English Department, California Polytechnic State University. Debora B. Schwartz. 1996-2002. Web. Jan. 2015. <http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl339/comedy.html>
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