William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is widely acknowledged as the greatest English language playwright. He was born and raised to a middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (Cohen, 6). He wrote masterpiece poems, plays, short stories and books about 400 years ago and his works have been timeless. Two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works are the play titled Macbeth and the novel titled Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s upbringing in a middle class family and lack of adequate education predisposed him to a challenging life which motivated him to write as a way to express to future generations the turmoil and tragedies of the ancient times.
Real life events in his country inspired Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare wrote the play Macbeth between 1603 and 1607. The play is the shortest tragedy that tells the story of a Scottish general called Macbeth who received a prophesy from some witches that he would become King of England (William & Braunmuller 23). Consumed by ambition and he murders King Duncan and takes over the throne. He becomes a tyrant and kills many people in order to retain power. The story mirrors actual events of king Macbeth of Scotland, Duncan and Macduff. The story told in Macbeth also bears close resemblance to the relationship that Shakespeare had with James VI of Scotland when he took over the throne in 1603. As such, Shakespeare could have been jealous to take over power and by writing the play; he was simply reenacting his thoughts (Cohen, 21).
Shakespeare also brings out the theme of “good” vs. “bad” kingship shown by King Duncan and Macbeth would have been reenacted in a royal court because James VI was at that time busy developing his version of the theory on divine right which contradicted the views of Shakespeare. James had been a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company and the play Macbeth captures the relationship that James had with Shakespeare (William & Braunmuller 23). The two were great friends but their imminent rise to fame; James to power as king of Scotland and Shakespeare to the helm of English literature were set to place the two on a collision path.
The novel Merchant of Venice mirrors the contemporary Italian story collections. The story was probably written between 1596 and 1597 after Shakespeare had already written plays such as Richard III and Romeo and Juliet but some years before he wrote the great tragedies such as Macbeth. The story features a fair lady, a merchant, a villainous Jew and a poor suitor. Many Italian short stories bear this combination of these characters.
The Italian setting and marriage plan are used elsewhere in Shakespeare’s comedies but the exemplary heroic of Portia who is the fair lady in the story elevate it to a new level.
The portrayal of the Jew raises issues of Shakespeare endorsing anti-Semitism views in England as he paints the Jew in bad light. In 1590s and the early 1600, Jews were a marginalized group and it is possible that Shakespeare’s presentation of the Jew as being a subject of mockery and as a villain was an affirmation that indeed Jews deserved their lowly place in Shakespeare’s society (Shakespeare & William, 27). Shylocks’ words to the Jew “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (Shylock, 1.3.37) explain great deal of how Jew were treated in the place and context that Shakespeare wrote the book.
The play was also written at the time when gender roles were gaining ground. Lady Macbeth manipulated her husband when she questioned his manhood claiming that she herself ought to be unsexed (William & Braunmuller 23). She does not also contradict Macbeth by stating that a woman of her stature should give birth only to boys. There are other instances where masculinity of some characters such as Banquo is questioned and they are murdered. In one instance Lady Macbeth says to her husband “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature” (Act 1, scene 5). In this case, masculinity is used for selfish ends because men were obsessed with being the supreme authorities in their families and the society. Shakespeare had a looming masculinity challenge with his friend James VI regarding the ruling of the land and the superiority in play writing.
The story Merchant of Venice was written at a time when the depiction of Jews in literature was almost similar. Many authors presented Jews as monied, cruel, avaricious and lecherous outsiders who were tolerated because of their golden hoard. Shakespeare manages to paint this picture through Shylock who was unscrupulous and had all the stated character traits. Shakespeare wrote the book at the time when the English agrarian and industrial revolutions were looming and as such, merchants used what was deemed as unfair tricks to amass wealth.
The book Merchant of Venice was also written at a time when women had not been liberated and appreciated as equals of men. At Shylock’s trial towards the end of the play, Portia acts as the judge when she had no right to try that. Shakespeare through his literary works presents subtly this aspect of his immediate English society during the early 1600s.
In the play Macbeth, three witches emerge and prophesy to the Scottish general (Macbeth) that he would become King of Scotland. The witches are portrayed as powerful and their prophecy could not be doubted. According to Cohen, witchcraft and sorcery were very rampant in Britain in the 1600s (24). Science and education had not advanced and so people were heavily reliant on witchcraft to foretell and predict the future there were many diseases and catastrophes that posed grave danger to the people. As such, Shakespeare in this case, is merely presenting an account if the crucial role that witchcraft played in his land at that time.
There is no denying that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is the greatest English language playwright. Shakespeare’s writings were a reflection of the events, culture and beliefs of his time and place in the ancient English empire. The play Macbeth presents a tragic story that mirrors the relationship between Shakespeare and James VI in which both men were close friends but whose friendship was threatened but their rise in careers. The story also mirrors the power of witchcraft over the community in which Shakespeare lived. The story Merchant of Venice perfectly captures the presentation of Jews and their placement in the Shakespeare’s society in the early 1600s. The story also presents the lowly place of women in the society. In all, the two stories show that much of what Shakespeare and other literature personalities wrote about was inspired by the events and culture of their place at the time they wrote their pieces.
Cohen, Stephen. Shakespeare and historical formalism. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and William Lyon Phelps. The merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and A. R. Braunmuller. Macbeth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.