Some of the most famous lines in the history of literature come from the writings of William Shakespeare. As well, some of the most famous literary devices also come from William Shakespeare. He produced many highly-praised stories of human drama, comedy, and romantic sonnets and his work continues to influence writers to this day.
Shakespeare created the majority of his popular plays and stories in the late 16th century. For many years he enjoyed writing comedies and historical plays until he found his true love: writing tragedies and dark dramas, such as Hamlet and Macbeth.
The playwright, poet, and actor, William Shakespeare, was born in Elizabethan England in the 16th century. He wrote plays that appealed to both the commoner and the queen, and he wrote as well as performed in his plays. His plays were performed in London at the Globe Theater and in Stratford at The New Place Theater. He is referred to as William Shakespeare, Shakespeare, or the Bard by countless fans of his work around the world.
Shakespeare wrote his earlier plays in the traditional style of the time. He relied heavily on using drawn out—sometimes extravagant—metaphors and narcissisms. His style often sounded pompous and pretentious. Shakespeare’s first original comedy called “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1590) shows an undeveloped and conflicting writing style.
Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter. The results were plays and sonnets that had ten syllables per line and with his plays, these lines were unrhymed. The simplest way to describe the rhythm of iambic pentameter is to liken it to a heartbeat, which means a series of stressed words, then unstressed words. In the case of the heartbeat, it would sound like bump BUMP, bump BUMP. Using an example from Shakespeare’s sonnets, this would be:
When I do count the clock that
tells the time
This style of writing lent itself to the theatricality of a play, which was as much about using the language beautifully as it was about telling a good story or furthering the plot.
While writing such classics as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II in the late 16th century, Shakespeare gradually developed and changed his writing style from the traditional form to a more self-expressive style. He progressively used his metaphors and tropes to the desires of the melodrama itself.
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
These famous lines from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” are the opening lines to his most famous—although not the only—soliloquy. The soliloquy or monologue was a common device that the famous playwright used to tell his stories. This monologue served to reveal the character’s thoughts—as in the “Hamlet” example—as well as to create the play’s setting or advance the plot. It serves to bring the audience into the story and let it in on secrets that the rest of the characters in the play may not know.
The narrator character in the play “Our
Town” by Thornton Wilder uses monologues extensively to let the audience in on the secrets of the town and to set the stage since typically this play features a mostly empty stage with the actors creating the settings with their words. This shows Shakespeare’s strong influence as his plays relied on the same devices and often through the soliloquy of a single character, although not always.
After completing Hamlet, Shakespeare adopted a more centered, swift, distinct, and non-repetitive writing style. He began to use more run-on lines, uneven pauses and stops, and excessive alterations in sentence length and structure. Macbeth, his most darkest and dynamic plays, shows this refined writing style in which Shakespeare used wording that sprinted from one unconnected analogy or metaphor to a different one, forcing the reader to complete the “sense” and subliminal meaning.
Depth of Character
Shakespeare wrote about people who seemed real instead of using stock characters as was common in the theater during his days and in the generations that came before it. This literary device allowed him to make characters like MacBeth or Hamlet sympathetic even though they did some terrible things throughout the course of the play. It is because the Bard made them seem real and human, but flawed that he was able to do this. This influence can be seen in works from the 20th and 21st centuries in both movies and plays by writers like Sam Shepard or Arthur Miller.
Additionally, Shakespeare’s work deviated from that of his contemporaries in that he wrote for every type of person who came to the theater or read poems, not just for the upper class as was common. His plays like “Henry the 4th, part 1” featured not only a king and prince, but also one of the Bard’s most famous comedic characters, Falstaff, which brought a comedic and common touch to the play and appealed to the members of the lower class who attended the plays—often sitting in the same theater as the nobles of the day and during the same performance.
Romeo and Juliet shows Shakespeare’s witty writing style and his creative mastery. At this point in his life (around 1595), he favored a more theatrical structure, such as changing between comedy and tragedy to increase suspense. He expanded minor characters and developed sub-plots to amplify the story. Shakespeare also associated various poetic styles to different characters, occasionally evolving the style as the character developed.
William Shakespeare was the most influential writer of all-time, bringing a lyrical element to plays about great kings and poor paupers alike. His iambic pentameter verses utilized a natural rhythm of the English language and his themes as well as his literary devices continue to inspire and influence writers even now in the 21st century.
Read more about Shakespeare in “How Shakespeare Might Have Used Twitter“.