William Shakespeare and the Fitzgerald Rule
What was Shakespeare's first great play? I'm not talking about his first popular play. I'm talking his first world-changing play. Henry IV part II? Hamlet?
The argument for Midsummer Night's Dream is weak. We all love it, but it's not the reason why he's 'not for an age but for all time'. I am a great fan of Mozart's piano sonata No. 8. It's not the reason he's Mozart though.
The earliest it is possible to say Shakespeare becomes Shakespeare is 1597/8. After that he produces all of his great works. The four big tragedies. The major comedies like Twelfth Night and the romances like A Winter's Tale.
Here's a list of the play's he produces in the decade between 1597 and 1607.
Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–1598)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)
Henry V (1599)
Julius Caesar (1599)
As You Like It (1599–1600)
Twelfth Night (1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1600–1602)
Sir Thomas More (1592–1595; Shakespeare's involvement, 1603–1604)
Measure for Measure (1603–1604)
All's Well That Ends Well (1604–1605)
King Lear (1605–1606)
Timon of Athens (1605–1606)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
That's quite a decade. Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It (1599–1600), and Hamlet (1599-1601) all within a year or so.
That means something changed for him that year. And it means he was about 45 before he started writing what we think of as Shakespeare.
Yes, he had earlier produced Romeo and Juliet and other plays of that ilk. But if that's all he had done he would be our most popular Elizabethan dramatist, like Christopher Marlowe on stilts. The Comedy of Errors is not why Harold Bloom used to say 'There is only one God and that is God and his name is William Shakespeare.'
Shakespeare is not a pure example of the rule. His sonnets are exceptional and were produced early. But from his school days learning Ovid to he time as a young actor, his presumably middling marriage and his litigious dealings, up to the horror of losing a child, he was persisting.
What happened in 1599 is not just that Shakespeare wrote four genre defining plays, but that he wrote about four modes of life so different they somehow sit together as a quartet. Power, love, illusion and identity are the key themes of this time. From Henry to Julius to Rosalind to Hamlet we have a single protean character. Shakespeare reinvented the everyman as four inimitable individuals.
The plays are also about formative moments. Each of those heroes is an adolescent. As You Like it is the foundational teenage drama, misread as a gender play. When Rosalind has stopped experimenting with her identity in a playful spring time pastoral mode, she migrates to Denmark and starts playing the antic fool. Hamlet is her dark side. They are opposites and inherently linked. Men are Rosalind when they woo, Hamlet when they grow middle-aged and become lunatics.
Their innocent counterpart is the idealistic Henry V, a heroic adventurer who becomes the proud and bloated emperor. Caesar is the surviving version of Hal, just like the aged Edward III was no longer the warrior king of his youth but a failure and a rapist.
We don't know much about Shakespeare but we know he was a shape shifter. He was Ovidian. He moved, he took up new professions, he mourned, he was bisexual. He may have abandoned his wife, at least temporarily.
Shakespeare became Shakespeare because he persisted at living and shape shifting. He wrote those four asatonishing characters in one year because he had lived and seen enough to be those characters.
He persisted at this. Falstaff, Benedict and Beatrice, and Shylock all came soon before this monumental year. The early works show some promise of this genius. The Taming of the Shrew has Katherine, Love's Labour's Lost has Berowne.
Shakespeare was a master of poetry and dialogue and dramatic structure, but really he was the ultimate Lord of Misrule. His plays capture the festive spirit of abandonment. Literary theory cannot adequately explain his work because the entire message of his work is negative capability. His theory is pluralism.
The imaginative capacity needed to do this is huge. The real effort of persisting at life, persisting against obstacles, against being called an upstart crow, against the competition of Marlowe, is what made Shakespeare great. He is the Lord of Misrule, the author was can never find behind the work.
He was great because he persisted at being not himself.