Throughout this guide to the themes of Shakespeare’s plays, attention has been focused on the characters and how they reveal themselves through language and action. That study has also led to conclusions about Shakespeare’s presentation of so many aspects of life. Another issue, however, has pervaded every chapter: Does such discussion bring us closer to the playwright himself, to his beliefs and values? Can we really understand what Shakespeare thought and felt? At first blush, the answer might seem to be “No.” After all, we have comparatively few details of Shakespeare’s own life, nor have we substantial material from diaries, letters, and other firsthand accounts, by either the playwright or his contemporaries, that might reveal more details of the man himself. Given such limitations, how can we actually “know” Shakespeare?
Upon reflection, however, we realize a remarkable truth: that through his writings, we have almost limitless access to Shakespeare’s mind and heart.
True, most chapters in this book end with some confession of puzzlement as to Shakespeare’s ultimate judgment on many subjects. In most other literary and dramatic works, we detect one voice that we assume belongs to the author. The plays of Shakespeare, however, offer multitudinous voices on virtually every subject. Yet that very complication is intrinsic to both our fascination with him and our understanding of him.
For instance, Shakespeare clearly valued the institution of marriage, but he offers both happy and unhappy examples. He presents numerous female characters who demonstrate admirable independence of spirit and intellect, but he frequently leaves them in relationships where they must subordinate their wishes to those of less than stellar partners.
Shakespeare dramatizes the skillful use of political power, but he also shows how figures who exert authority may easily fall into abuse of their jurisdiction. He presents not only the consequences of the failure to wield