We often hear terms such as ‘Platonic’ and ‘Aristotelian’  and ‘Einsteinean’, but what does it mean when we talk about ‘Shakespearean?’

At its most basic level, in the dialogue of his plays Shakespeare used the language of his time. It is a language (Early Modern English) that has evolved to the English language that we use today. Elizabethan English was very much the same as the English we speak today, However, there are some expressions and words that we don’t use today or which have changed somewhat in their meaning.  For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says: ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ ‘Wherefore’ sounds like it should mean ‘where’ but, in fact, it means ‘why.’ She’s not saying ‘Where are you?’ She is asking why the young man she has fallen in love with has to be a Montague, a family with which she may not dare even to talk. We don’t use the word ‘marry’ to mean ‘indeed.’ We say ‘indeed.’ ‘Marry’ in that sense, is obsolete in modern English. Words like ‘fain,’ meaning gladly, and ‘fie,’ expressing disgust, and many other Elizabethan terms, have passed out of the modern language.

The use of such language is not Shakespearean, it’s Elizabethan, and used by all Elizabethan writers. So what is ‘Shakespearean’ – things unique to Shakespeare? What do we mean when we refer to something as ‘Shakespearean?’

If we take was is called ‘the Shakespearean sonnet’ for example, we are talking about the way Shakespeare used the mediaeval fourteen line poem that expressed a single idea about one of life’s great themes – love and death. It was the form the Italian poet Petrarch used to express his feelings about an idealised woman. It was taken up by English poets, and by the time Shakespeare adopted it to write his cycle of personal poems it had been modified. And then Shakespeare, adapting it to his purposes, put his own stamp on the form.

Shakespearean sonnets, fourteen lines with a tight rhyming pattern, written in iambic pentameter, are divided into three quatrains (four lines) and end with a couplet (two lines). The Italian sonnet has an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Shakespeare took firm control of the form, to make a stunning observation at the end in a rhymed couplet. Shakespeare’s couplets are often punchy and memorable, and very assertive. Couplets like ‘If this be error and upon me proved/I never writ nor no man ever loved’ and ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this and this gives life to thee’ are among the most memorable couplets in English poetry. A modern sonnet with three quatrains and a punchy couplet would be described by critics as ‘Shakespearean.’

We talk about ‘Shakespearean tragedy’ and ‘Shakespearean comedy.’ In both cases we are talking about the things Shakespeare did with those ancient forms. Let us take Shakespearean tragedy for example.

Tragedy is a form of drama developed by the ancient Greek dramatists. The philosopher, Aristotle, read a great number of tragedies then wrote a book about tragedy. He analysed the plays and came up with a set of rules for tragic drama. It wasn’t prescriptive, in that he wasn’t telling his readers what tragedy should be but rather what tragedy is, based on his study of hundreds of dramas. He found that they had some very important elements in common, which produce the tragic effect. His analysis explained how tragedy works.

The Elizabethans wrote some very fine tragedies. They were influenced by the humanist climate that was sweeping through Europe. Whereas the Greek tragedies were plot-driven and somewhat mechanical, we now had plays populated with real human beings with whom Elizabethan audiences could identify. Characterisation was one of Shakespeare’s great strengths. While his tragedies had to conform basically with the Aristotelian model in order to work as tragedies, Shakespeare added an emotional dimension. One of Aristotle’s conditions was that the tragic protagonist’s predicament should evoke pity. Shakespeare’s character-building enhances that effect. Shakespeare’s tragedies have the required Aristotelian condition that the protagonist should be like ordinary people but elevated in his status. And so we have kings, generals, etc. as tragic protagonists in Elizabethan plays, just like in the Greek dramas. That cannot be avoided, and in Shakespeare we also have that character, basically noble, making a big mistake that brings him crashing down, eventually to his death, but at the point of death gaining some insight into that mistake and understanding what the flaw in his character is that has brought him down. That’s the Aristotelian model.

In Shakespearean tragedy, however, we have much more. In Hamlet, for example, one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, the protagonist’s weakness or tragic flaw– his introspective nature – is explored in minute detail. Although the Aristotelian tragic pattern is still there that humanist exploration becomes the main interest. Unlike Greek characters like Oedipus, Hamlet is memorable as a living person. The character, Oedipus, has very little human interest and his dilemma and its resolution, acted out mechanically, is the only interest. So the fleshing out of characters in tragic drama is Elizabethan, and if done in the highly memorable, quotable, way that is unique to Shakespeare it’s ‘Shakespearean.’

A master of dramatic structure, Shakespeare, in some of his tragedies, has a double tragic protagonist, as in Romeo and Juliet.  In Aristotle’s model everything is concentrated in a single protagonist but in Shakespeare tragedy works equally well for two protagonists. That double tragedy is uniquely ‘Shakespearean.’  Antony and Cleopatra is also a double tragedy. That it works as a tragedy is miraculous. It achieves the tragic effect but how Shakespeare does that is difficult to explain because he departs almost completely from the Aristotelian model. Instead of the unswerving concentration on a protagonist that produces the tragic effect according to Aristotle, Shakespeare uses a comic structure. There is no concentration on a single protagonist, or even on the two, protagonists. The play is made up of short scenes that depict the social world around the protagonists and those scenes feed into the protagonists’ predicament, although the protagonists are only two elements of that tapestry. It is the intensity of the protagonists’ feelings about each other and how they act that out, and their loss of each other, that produces the tragic effect. No other playwright had done that before Shakespeare. Antony and Cleopatra is unique to Shakespeare and therefore ‘Shakespearean.’

Shakespeare’s poetic technique is comprised of countless poetic and dramatic devices that he used and transformed in a way that has become unique to him. That is what ‘Shakespearean’ is. Later writers have echoed Shakespeare’s approach in some of their work and when we recognise that we describe those elements as ‘Shakespearean.’

  • Shakespearean...What Exactly Is Shakespearean? 1 Gary phillips says:

    Very insightful. Thanks

  • Shakespearean...What Exactly Is Shakespearean? 2 Gabrielle Piola says:

    It’s a good thing to know that the term ‘shakespearean’ is a unique one. I found out how Shakespeare has been a great part of our lives. It’s what made him unique. He has a trademark. It will bring people to remember him. The way he wrote his stories, poems and sonnets made him a person who greatly influences people.