Every work of art deserves to be enjoyed and evaluated on its own merits. When we consider an artist of stature, however, the temptation to see each effort as part of an entire oeuvre is irresistible. Such is the case especially with William Shakespeare, author of the greatest, most influential body of literature that one person has ever written.
This volume is devoted to Shakespeare’s dramatic output, which he created over a period of approximately two decades, beginning about 1590. The thirty-seven plays encompass tragedies, histories, comedies, and romances. Few dramatists have achieved remotely comparable success in any one of these genres, and none has triumphed in so wide a range of forms, nor has any matched Shakespeare’s linguistic imagination and beauty of expression. He stands alone, the pinnacle of Western literature.
Perhaps most remarkable is the popularity of his plays, which remain in continual production around the world, often as a part of annual festivals devoted solely to Shakespeare. In addition, new filmed versions of his works are offered with amazing regularity. He is also a pervasive presence in literature classes at every level, and rare is the college or university that does not have at least one course devoted exclusively to his works. Clearly something in his plays reaches audiences universally, something beyond the glorious language, the skill at stagecraft, and the stories that reflect the extraordinary world of the Renaissance, both in England and across Europe.
That “something” is Shakespeare’s understanding of our experiences throughout life. Over the centuries, individual societies have changed profoundly, but the fundamental conflicts and crises that human beings must resolve have not. Thus although almost all of Shakespeare’s plots are borrowed from other sources, written in verse or elevated prose, and set in cultures far distant from those of our own time, the social, moral, and political issues that his characters face still touch us profoundly.