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8.1: The World of Shakespeare

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  • While realism remains the dominant mode of performance today, William Shakespeare remains, by far, the most-produced playwright in the world. He has had the most significant, if not overriding, presence in English-speaking theatre since his work as a playwright, actor, and theatre company eo-owner in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many consider Shakespeare to be the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language. In English-speaking countries and the West, experience with Shakespeare signals a kind of “mastery” of theatre, for both companies and practitioners; in many places, performing or seeing a Shakespearean production means one is participating in the most essential or highest form of theatre.

    In addition to being a major theatrical presence, Shakespeare is also an object of great cultural fascination, whether part of a high school curriculum, a slate of shows at a local theatre, or the subject of a major Hollywood film. In many respects, he represents a kind of ideal about what it is to use language, make art, create story, and invent character —all expressions we value as part of the way we express ourselves in theatre and culture.

    Of course, Shakespeare’s influence and permanence can also be problematic: Shakespeare was male, white, and Anglo and has come to represent, for some, a kind of colonial takeover of Western cultures and values. For better or worse, Shakespeare’s emergence as a cultural icon —a great writer who has come to represent the good and bad values in English- speaking societies and the West—means that by looking at Shakespeare and his plays, we are looking at ourselves and our roles in Western life. Therefore, we can consider Shakespeare in two main ways: one, as a historical presence, a master of the predominant dramatic form prior to the twentieth century, and two, as a contemporary presence, a figure whose work sits at the heart of today’s theatrical and cultural practices.

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    Shakespeare the man represented by art, film, and theatre, (center) Title page of Heminge and Condell's 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare's work, engraving by Martin Droeshout, considered the closest representation of William Shakespeare, (bottom left and right) The Chandos and Cobbe portraits, e. 1610. Named for the painting's owners, both works are believed to be Shakespeare by some, disputed by others, (top left) Joseph Fiennes as the bard in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, a fictional love story set during the writing of Romeo and Juliet, (center left) Rate Spall in the 2011 film Anonymous plays an illiterate Shakespeare who is a front for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This imaginary account is derived from the "authorship question," a position taken by some who believe that only someone with aristocratic ties and education could have penned Shakespeare's plays, (top right) Patrick Stewart in the 2012 revival of Edward Bond's play Bingo, where an unhappily retired Shakespeare deals with his personal life, (center right) Simon Callow's 2010 performance in Jonathan Bate's play The Man from Stratford creates a picture of the playwright through snippets of his plays. Sources: Cobbe portrait ® Corbis. Chandos portrait ® National Portrait Gallery. Shakespeare in Love ® Bureau F.A. Colleetion/Sygma/Corbis. Anonymous ® Sony Pictures. Bingo and The Man from Stratford® Robbie Jaek/Robbie Jaek/Corbis.

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