During the decade-long period from roughly 1595 to 1605, Shakespeare’s art continued to mature, allowing him to produce some of the greatest plays in the English language. Between 1595 and 1600 Shakespeare experienced numerous adversities. Although he wrote two important tragedies during this time, namely Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, more striking is the fact that this period of great difficulty produced several of Shakespeare’s sunniest comedies, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream,The Merry Wives of Windsor,Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It. He also wrote the strangely ambivalent comedy The Merchant of Venice during this time. Between 1600 and 1605 Shakespeare continued to produce comedies, including three of his very best: Twelfth Night,Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well. However, perhaps overshadowing these works are Shakespeare’s immense achievements in tragedy. In a stunning feat of creative production, Shakespeare wrote seven important tragedies, including most especially Hamlet,Othello,King Lear and Macbeth.
Several conditions enabled Shakespeare’s art to mature to such a considerable degree. For one thing, during this period he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Not only did he have personal relationships with his actors, but this situation also allowed him to develop his scripts in close collaboration with them. For another thing, competition with other theater companies increased dramatically during this period. In addition to two splendid companies of boy actors, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men competed with the Lord Admiral’s Men. This competition required Shakespeare to keep pushing his art further and keep audiences coming. But what exactly changed in Shakespeare’s approach to his art during this time? One significant change involved his use of the soliloquy to develop rich characters. Whereas his use of this technique felt a bit mechanical in the early play Richard III, Shakespeare had perfected it by the time of Hamlet, a play dominated by the soliloquys of a single character. Another significant change found Shakespeare increasingly refusing to provide his characters—and especially his villains—with clear motives. Removal of a clear motive afforded Shakespeare new opportunities to explore the contradictions of human nature.
In addition to his refinement of the soliloquy and the removal of clear motives, Shakespeare’s most famous plays from this period also incorporate personal experiences and political happenings in more complex and unexpected ways. Hamlet, for instance, appears to express Shakespeare’s grief over the loss of his son, Hamnet, yet the play does so by telling a story about the death of a father. With regard to Macbeth, Shakespeare incorporated unsettling echoes of the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes conspired to blow up King James and the Parliament. Shakespeare’s treatment of the witches in this play also relates closely to known reports of King James’s anxiety about occult experiences. Perhaps most complex of all is King Lear. The plot of this play comes from the old legend of King Leir, whose daughter Cordell saves him from the evil plotting of her sisters. But the details of the play also correspond to a real-life story of a man named Sir Brian Annesley, whose daughters, one of whom happened to be named Cordell, tried to get him certified insane. Yet King Lear also gives form to other personal and political anxieties, such as the problem of inheritance and royal succession, all without compromising the play’s central, dramatic force.