Research Proposal: Shakespeare's Success as a Playwright While Playwrights

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¶ … Shakespeare's Success as a Playwright

While playwrights have come and gone over the centuries, perhaps the most famous has been William Shakespeare. Although some modern authorities attribute his works to others, most agree that the Bard of Avon was in fact the prolific playwright responsible for numerous classic works such as "Hamlet," "Othello," "Romeo and Juliet," "King Lear," "Measure for Measure" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" among many other famous plays. A virtual superstar during his era, Shakespeare remains enormously popular today, which given the vernacular in which he worked is firm testament to his enduring success and ability as a playwright. To gain some further insights concerning what attributes contributed to his success, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning Shakespeare, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

On the one hand, a staggering body of research has been devoted to Shakespeare and his works over the years that provide modern scholars with a few tantalizing glimpses into his life and times. In fact, just 7 years after his death in November 1623, the First Folio containing 36 of Shakespeare's most famous plays (but not all of them) was published in London and received a popular reception (Blayney 1991). In this regard, Blayney emphasizes that the ". . . 39 plays now accepted as either wholly or partly by Shakespeare, 18 have survived only because the First Folio was published" (1). On the other hand, though, much of what has been written about Shakespeare and his works in the years since his death has been based on mere conjecture and speculation rather than empirical or documentary evidence. Indeed, Matthews (1913) emphasized early on that, "Probably we are now in possession of more information about him than about any other man of his time who did not take part in public affairs. And yet all that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare is, that he was born at Stratford-on-Avon, married and had children there; went to London where he commenced actor and wrote poems and plays; returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried" (1). Likewise, Julius (1998) notes that, "We know very little about Shakespeare's life; or to be more precise, we know very little that is remotely interesting" (41). According to Cox (2006), of the little that is known that is in fact interesting concerning Shakespeare, historians have determined with some degree of certainty that, like his older sister, Joan, he was a Christian, which indicates that, "First, Shakespeare was a believer, and second, he was a traditional believer" (Cox 2006:529). Although Cox maintains that the former assertion is most likely accurate, the latter assertion remains a source of controversy even today. Beyond the foregoing, though, the historical record is largely silent concerning Shakespeare in ways that have contributed to the type of controversy that characterizes the debate even over such mundane factors as his religious beliefs.

Notwithstanding the paucity of reputable and confirmable evidence concerning Shakespeare's life and his works, the scholarship that has been devoted to his works over the course of 4 centuries suggests that his works have an enduring quality that set them apart from most other playwrights before and since. For instance, according to Cahn (1996), part of Shakespeare's success as a playwright that set him apart from others was his focus on the relationship between ordinary people and the larger society in which they lived. In this regard, Cahn notes that in his tragedies, "One essential part of Shakespearean tragedy is that the primary conflict of the central figure is with aspects of the social order. In this respect Shakespeare's figures differ from the tragic heroes and heroines of Greek drama, who battle against divine forces" (1).

Moreover, the Bard was also capable of using humor to good effect by highlighting the vagaries of the human condition within the larger social sphere in which people lived. In this regard, Cahn writes of Shakespeare's comedies, "Shakespeare's comedies dramatize a remarkable variety of moods and characters. The tones range from the farcical to the gentle to the satirical, and the casts encompass royals, buffoons, and legions in between. Furthermore, all the plays have multiple plot lines in which events at one stratum of society reflect events at another" (525). Although the comedic elements used by Shakespeare and the settings in which they took place differed, they shared a common element. According to Cahn, "The works also have one unifying theme: love in all its myriad facets. In every play we watch men and women struggle with their own drives and emotions: sometimes trying to resist, sometimes trying to gain control, sometimes trying to understand" (525).

During a period in European history when the Roman Catholic Church held sway, it is little wonder that plays that focused on what was truly important to ordinary people would be well received provided they were well written and well acted and this was the case with Shakespeare's comedies. For instance, Cahn adds that in Shakespeare's comedies, "We see love in its purest, most spiritual form. And we hear about love in its lustiest, most physical aspects. Virtually all the plays conclude with marriages that not only maintain the social and political order, but that also exalt human passion" (525). Some of Shakespeare's detractors argue that he stole as much as he invented, and while scholars have in fact identified elements from previous works in Shakespeare's plays, most authorities agree that he produced sufficiently original works to avoid charges of outright plagiarism. In this regard, Julius notes that, "The great poet comes to value his memory equally with his invention. He doesn't much mind where his thoughts come from: whatever the source, they are equally welcome" (41). In fact, Wilson (1932) maintains that the charges of plagiarism leveled against Shakespeare by his contemporaries were in fact "unwilling tribute at once to Shakespeare's success and his versatility" (44). Yet other indications of Shakespeare's success as a playwright can be discerned in the fact that charges of "mimicry" and plagiarism are the direct result of his "audience growing more numerous with the passing of time and, presumably, more critical, since it has included such minds as Beethoven and Goethe" (Alexander 1939:9).

In this regard, Alexander maintains that Shakespeare did in fact rely on some well-known themes in his works but emphasizes that he was not alone in this approach during his time or in the years since. For example, Alexander notes that, "It is true that Shakespeare adapted these situations, sometimes from Roman history, sometimes from a half legendary British past" (10). Nevertheless, Alexander also points out that the Greek dramatists also incorporated familiar themes into their works and that Shakespeare's approach provided fresh interpretations of these themes to the extent that they could no longer be recognizable in their original forms. In sum, Alexander argues that, "Shakespearean criticism, however elementary, must attempt to realize in intellectual terms what the enthusiasm and study of every generation of Shakespeare's readers and spectators have implied, that Shakespeare lives because his works are indeed fictions in form but in their substance truths" (11). Shakespeare's financial success is all the more remarkable because of his reported lack of a formal education as well as the absence of any copyright protections for his works during his day that would protect his interests in his works. As Alexander points out, "It is impossible not to sympathize with [Shakespeare], who at that time had none of the copyright protection that now enables him to bargain for a share of any profits that his plays may bring" (52).

According to Wilson, Shakespeare also enjoyed more than his fair share of luck during a period in European history that witnessed the untimely deaths of many of his literary competitors in ways that contributed to his success at the time and in the years since his death. For instance, Wilson note that, "It must be remembered too that by a strange fate the principal dramatists who had hitherto entertained London -- Lyly, Greene, Kyd, Peele, Lodge, Marlowe -- all either died or left the stage, for one cause or another, about this time" (48). As a result, Shakespeare remained one of the more prominent playwrights during the late 16th century simply by process of attrition, but it is apparent he took advantage of the situation in ways that would keep his name alive in perpetuity. In this regard, Wilson adds that, "Thus luck as well as genius contributed to Shakespeare's success; the critical years 1592-1594, so unkind to his rivals, were his opportunity both as a dramatist and also as a poet" (48). As the "only ballgame in town," Shakespeare enjoyed a unique set of circumstances that contributed to, but was not entirely responsible for, his success as a playwright. After all, it is reasonable to suggest that a less worthy playwright might have been able to crank out… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Shakespeare's Success as a Playwright While Playwrights.  (2009, December 9).  Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

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"Shakespeare's Success as a Playwright While Playwrights."  9 December 2009.  Web.  20 May 2019. <>.

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"Shakespeare's Success as a Playwright While Playwrights."  December 9, 2009.  Accessed May 20, 2019.