“All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.” So go the famous lines from the comedy “As You Like It” by poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The notion that the world that Shakespeare created in the theater was a version of the world in which his audience lived was typical of “reasoning by analogy” a form of logic common during the Renaissance. It was believed that life was ordered in the same way from the largest forms such as the universe to the that of the smallest insect. However, Shakespeare's works were more than mirrors for Renaissance thought. He also influenced the development of that historical epoch.

Making the Foreign Native

Though Vergil was an influential poet for Renaissance scholars, Shakespeare popularized his work by writing in English rather than Latin.
Though Vergil was an influential poet for Renaissance scholars, Shakespeare popularized his work by writing in English rather than Latin.

When the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch wrote sonnets addressed to a distant beloved, he popularized a genre that writers across Europe would emulate for centuries (some still do). Although poets such as Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser would adapt the Italian sonnet into English forms, it was Shakespeare who endowed it with the rhyme scheme and sharp final “volta” (“turn”) recognized today. Within Shakespeare’s plays and poems are a wealth of references to works in languages both ancient and modern. Shakespeare imported plots from the Italian romancer Ludovico Ariosto and classical writers including the Roman poets Vergil and Ovid.

A Distinctly "English" Renaissance

Shakespeare’s influence on Renaissance culture was not simply a matter of incorporating works written in foreign languages and times past into his present. Shakespeare arguably invented a uniquely English version of the Renaissance, for he wove together the plots of ancient tragedies with the histories of medieval England so masterfully that it was difficult to disentangle them. Moreover, Shakespeare imbued some of his characters with a distinctly '‘medieval'’ way of reasoning. By making such logic seem antiquated, Shakespeare defined Renaissance modes of thought -- and their distance from the medieval past -- more persuasively

Defining "Self" in New Ways

Though Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet is ordered to revenge his father's death, his continual hesitations and moments of self-doubt imply a distinctly modern sense of self.
Though Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet is ordered to revenge his father's death, his continual hesitations and moments of self-doubt imply a distinctly modern sense of self.

Many have proclaimed that the Renaissance was a period when people recognized their own individuality and discovered that their own personal, subjective experience stood in contrast to an impersonal, objective one. The awareness that people exist, joy and suffer in isolation from peers is an unsettling Renaissance conception of the self. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters: the villainous Iago of “Othello,” the indecisive Hamlet or the ambitious Lady Macbeth make strong cases for the notion that Shakespeare did not simply reflect a new kind of self-awareness; he fostered it.

Popularizing the Renaissance

Shakespeare's plays were originally performed in London's Globe Theater.
Shakespeare's plays were originally performed in London's Globe Theater.

To make poetic forms and stories in classical Greek and Latin as well as in Italian, Spanish and French into expressions of English Renaissance literary triumph was Shakespeare's accomplishment. However, “The Bard” accomplished something else supremely “Renaissance” in its ambitions. Shakespeare did not perform his plays for the selective courts of princes. “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard III,” and “Hamlet” may sound like high cultural marks today, but in the 16th century, those plays were ways of making otherwise unattainable cultural experiences available to relative commoners who would watch the plays while standing, talking and even cursing at the actors. Shakespeare might have helped make the English Renaissance; he also managed to make it available to a wide audience.