William Shakespeare (born in 1564, died in 1616) was a poet and playwright whose surviving work consists of around 40 plays and over 150 poems. There is some debate among scholars as to whether Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him, but no evidence has been found to support this theory, and his authorship was never questioned until over 200 years after his death.
The majority of Shakespeare’s plays fall into one of the following categories:
- Tragedies, which generally involve a lot of death, deception and manipulation. The protagonist is usually a good but flawed person with whom the audience can empathise. Aristotle proposes that one of the most important aspects of a dramatic tragedy is the cathartic or ‘soul-cleansing’ effect it has on the audience. The most famous Shakespearean tragedies are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear.
- Histories, which are based on the lives of English kings and are all eponymous (meaning that the plays are each named after their protagonist). Examples include King John, Richard II and Henry IV
- Comedies, such as Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. The word ‘comedy’ meant ‘light-hearted’ in Elizabethan times, and Shakespearean comedies generally have a happy ending and include slapstick humour.
Shakespeare also collaborated with other playwrights in his later years.
Where poetry is concerned, Shakespeare favoured a type of poem called a sonnet. A typical sonnet is 14 lines long, and can be recognised by its strict rhyming scheme and iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets include Sonnet 18 ('Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?'), Sonnet 116 ('Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments') and Sonnet 130 ('My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun').