Those of us who speak English as our native tongue can count a number of blessings. It is a widespread language that is understood by more people in more parts of the world than any other [Chinese has more speakers than English, but it is understood on a large scale only in eastern and southeastern Asia] and it is therefore the language that is most nearly an open door to all peoples.
Its enormous vocabulary and its relatively simple grammar give it un-equaled richness and flexibility and more than make up for its backward spelling. Its hospitality to idiomatic phrases and to foreign words gives it a colorful and dramatic quality that is without peer.
But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived-in any language.
Indeed, so important are Shakespeare's works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought. Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms. (There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first tune and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.")
I have a feeling that Shakespeare has even acted as a brake on the development of English. Before his time, English was developing so rapidly that the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, written shortly before 1400, had become unreadably archaic, two centuries later, to the Englishmen of Shakespeare's time. Yet now, after three and a half centuries, Shakespeare's plays can be read quite easily and with only an occasional archaic word or phrase requiring translation. It is almost as though the English language dare not change so much as to render Shakespeare incomprehensible. That would be an unacceptable price to pay for change.
In this respect, Shakespeare is even more important than the Bible. The King James version of the Bible is, of course, only a translation, although a supremely great one. If it becomes archaic there is nothing to prevent newer translations into more modern English. Indeed, such newer translations exist.
How, though, can anyone ever dream of "translating" Shakespeare into "modern English"? That would do, perhaps, if one were merely interested in the contents of Shakespeare. (It is, by analogy, in the contents of the Bible that we are interested, not in its exact syllables.)
But who can bear to have nothing more than the contents of Shakespeare's plays? What translation, even merely from one form of English into another form, could possibly reproduce the exact music and thunder of Shakespeare's syllables, and without that-
Yet in one respect Shakespeare recedes from us no matter how faithfully we follow the very syllables he uses. He wrote for all time, yes (whether he knew it or not), but he also wrote for a specific audience, that of Elizabethan Englishmen and -women. He gave its less educated individuals the horseplay and slapstick they enjoyed, and he gave its more educated individuals a wealth of allusion.
He assumed the educated portion of the audience were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Roman mythology and history, since that was part (and, indeed, almost the whole) of the classical education of the upper classes of the time. He assumed, also, that they were well acquainted with England's own history and with the geography of sixteenth-century Europe.
Modern Americans, however, are for the most part only vaguely aware of Greek mythology or Roman history. If anything, they are even less aware of those parts of English history with which Shakespeare deals.
This is not to say that one cannot enjoy Shakespeare without knowing the historical, legendary, or mythological background to the events in his plays. There is still the great poetry and the deathless swing of his writing. -And yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?
This is what it is in my mind to do in this book.
It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction.
What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.
In the process, I will, in some places, spend many pages on a single short speech which requires a great deal of background knowledge for its proper total appreciation. I may, in other places, skip quickly through whole acts which require nothing more than an understanding of a few archaic words to be crystal clear. (On the whole, I shall make no attempt to translate simple archaisms. This is done, quite adequately, in any briefly annotated edition of Shakespeare.)
In dealing with the plays, I will quote whatever passage inspires an explanation, but I will quote very little else. If the reader is reasonably familiar with a particular play, he will be able to read through the chapter devoted to it without needing to refer to the play itself. If he is not familiar with a particular play, it would probably help to keep it at hand for possible reference.
One matter over which I hesitated for a considerable length of time was the question of the order of presentation of the plays. The traditional order, as found in most editions of Shakespeare's collected works, groups the comedies first, then the histories, then the tragedies. This traditional order is very far removed from the order in which the plays were written. Thus, The Tempest, which is the first play in the ordinary editions, is the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is next, is one of the earliest.
It is possible to prepare an edition in which the plays are presented roughly in the order of their writing, something of value to those who study Shakespeare's developing techniques and ideas. This order can only be rough because it is not always certain in exactly which year a particular play was written. Worse yet, placing the plays in the chronological order of writing disrupts the histories and places them out of order as far as the historical events they deal with are concerned.
Since I am chiefly interested in this book in the historical, legendary, and mythological background of the events described in the various plays, I have decided to place the plays in the chronological order of those historical events as far as possible.
To begin with, I divide the plays into four broad groups: Greek, Roman, Italian, and English.
The Greek plays will include those that have their basis in Greek legend, as for instance, Troilus and Cressida; or in Greek history (however faintly), as Timon of Athens. It will also, however, include pure romances, with no claim whatever to any historical value, except that the background is arbitrarily set in a time we recognize as Greek-as The Winter's Tale.
The Roman plays include those that are based on actual history, as Julius Caesar, or on utterly non-historical, but Rome-based, inventiveness, as Titus Andronicus. (As it happens, even historical fiction such as The Winter's Tale and Titus Andronicus can be faintly related to actual historical events. No fiction writer is an island and no matter how he tries to draw on his imagination alone, the real world will intrude.)
The Italian plays are those set in a Renaissance Italian setting (or in nearby places such as France, Austria, or Illyria) which cannot be pinned down to any specific period of time. I will present the plays in this section in the order in which Shakespeare (as best we can tell) wrote them.
The English plays include not only the sober historical plays such as Richard II or Henry V, but also those which deal with the legendary period of English history before the Norman conquest or even, in the case of King Lear and Cymbeline, before the Roman conquest.
There is some overlapping. The Greek plays set latest in time are later than the earliest Roman plays; and the latest Roman plays are later than the earliest English plays. The radical difference in scene, however, makes it convenient to ignore this slight chronological inconsistency. With that out of the way, the order of plays and narrative poems in this volume will carry us through some twenty-eight centuries of history, from the time of legendary Greece before the Trojan War, to Shakespeare's own time.
To make a reasonably even division of the book into two volumes, the Greek, Roman, and Italian plays-in that order-will be grouped into Volume One. This will leave the English plays, to which I have devoted a little more than half the book, to form Volume Two.
In preparing this book, I have made as much use as I could of all sorts of general reference books: encyclopedias, atlases, mythologies, biographical dictionaries, histories-whatever came to hand.
To one set of books, however, I owe an especial debt. These are the many volumes of "The Signet Classic Shakespeare" (General Editor, Sylvan Barnet, published by New American Library, New York). It was, as a matter of fact, while reading my pleasurable way through these volumes that the notion of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare occurred to me.