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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

English Literature: Shakespeare and Poetry: Background

Guide for Library Research on the works of William Shakespeare and Poetry

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare by John Taylor

William Shakespeare, born April 26 1564 and died April 23 1616, was the greatest English writer in history. Also called the "Bard of Avon" (Bard is a poet and Avon is the town he lived in), his works have been translated and performed in every language on earth. Shakespeare's plays can be divided into a few types: comedies and histories he wrote early in his career, tragedies he wrote in the middle of his career, and romances he wrote (sometimes in collaboration with other writers) at the end of his career. Most of his work was not published in his lifetime but only after his death, with the earliest publication being done by his friends in 1623. He and his works remains very popular and relevant to this day.

Folios and Quartos

Folios and Quartos

Folios are tall volumes made from a long sheet of paper folded over. Quartos are smaller volumes, usually half the size. Folio format was usually intended only for important and expensive works, not ordinary literature or popular plays. The first works of Shakespeare were printed in quartos format. The first folio versions of Shakespeare were not published until after his death in 1616, first by his friend the poet Ben Johnson and then later by John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors in Shakespeare's acting company.

Acting and Reputation

Acting and Reputation

David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth (1745)

The period in which Shakespeare wrote and worked was largely during what we call the Elizabethian period. In this era, actors were known as theives and low-lifes who could not be trusted. Actors and acting troops which would travel the countryside were subject to license and travel regulations. In addition plays were regulated and subject to censorship.

Poems

Poems

In the 17th century writers who sought to be famous would focus on writing poetry.  Besides the dramas that Shakespeare created for the stage, he also wrote a variety of poems including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, A Lover's Complaint, and The Phoenix and the Turtle.

Sonnets

Sonnets

Composed between 1593 and 1601 and published in 1609, the Sonnets were a collection of 154 poems that Shakespeare wrote for a private audience. The sonnets are a series of meditation on love, sex, birth, death, beauty and eternity.

Globe Theater

Globe Theater

The Globe Theatre, originally built by Shakespeare's company, was the stage he was most associated with during his career. The original theater burned down in 1613.  The current Globe Theatre opened in 1997.

John Fletcher

John Fletcher

John Fletcher by C. H. Midforth

John Fletcher was a playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare who collaborated with him to write several of Shakespeares later works including Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and a lost Shakespeare play called Cardenio. On his own Fletcher was a popular and respected playwright of the period who focused mainly on tragicomedy and comedies of manners type of writing. He has largely been forgotten by modern times. He died of plague in 1625.

The Dark Lady

The Dark Lady

Mary Fitton (1578-1647) A Possibly for Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"

In Shakespeare's Sonnets, particularly in the second half of them (sonnets 127-152), Shakespeare makes many references to a "Dark Lady" who the author is passionately attracted to and in love with but who seems to constantly tempt and reject him. The "Dark Lady" is called that because she is described as having black hair and a dark nature. A number of women have been suggested as having been the Dark Lady by scholars including Mary Fitton.

Falstaff

Falstaff

Falstaff with Wine Jar and Cup by Eduard Von Grutzner (1896)

Sir John Falstaff is one of the most famous characters in Shakespeare's historical plays. He is the constant companion to Prince Hal who becomes King Henry in the two Henry IV plays and also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a play written explicitly because Queen Elizabeth wanted to see more of Falstaff on stage. Falstaff is comic relief in the Henry plays, leading the future King into trouble and is ultimately rejected and banished once Prince Hal becomes King Henry.

The Father of Modern English Literature

The Father of Modern English Literature

William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the father of modern English Literature. It is not just his popularity and influence on modern writers that allows for this title to be attributed to him but because of the massive contributions he made to the development of the English language. There are a multitude of words and phrases that Shakespeare invented that we still use today.