Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616)- Two Great English Writers

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Chaucer was born in London and as a boy he was a page at the English Court. His earliest work consisted of translations and imitations of the French court poetry then fashionable among the ruling classes in England. He fought in the war with France and afterwards travelled as a diplomat in Italy, where he became interested in Italian Renaissance literature. He borrowed stories from Bocaccio and Petrarch for some of his tales in verse. In later life he held an official position in London and during that time he worked at his unfinished masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories supposed to be related by a band of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. The Prologue, in which Chaucer describes the pilgrims, is inspired by direct observation of English life and types.

The language spoken in Chaucer`s time was different from modern English, as it retained traces of the inflexions of the earlier Anglo-Saxon and contained many French words because French was the language spoken by the ruling classes in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. These words have since been modified and the inflexions almost entirely lost. The pronunciation, too, has changed, as will be seen from the phonetic transcription, which gives the pronunciation of Chaucer`s day, as far as it can now be established.

William Shakespeare was born, educated and married in the provincial town of Stafford-on-Avon; but he spent much of his life in London as a member of a company of actors and as a writer. At first he corrected and re-wrote existing plays for the use of the company. Then he himself began to write plays about English history and romantic comedies. For the former, he obtained his material from old chronicles and earlier plays, and for the latter he got many themes from classical literature, from the works of the Italian Renaissance and from the writings of his contemporaries. A Midsummer Night`s Dream, Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and As You like It were written during this period, as was Romeo an Juliet, Shakespeare`s first tragedy.

The great tragedies appeared between 1601 and 1609, their subjects being taken from the classical biographies of Plutarch, Italian romances, and British and other historical legends. Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth belong to this period. They are not primarily concerned, as are the comedies, with a love story, but are studies of character in thought and action. In each tragedy we see a great man, whose virtues we admire, ruined by some vice or failing. Thus Macbeth, a brave and loyal general, was ruined by his and his wife`s ambition, which led him to murder the king and his own best friend.

In the last years of his life, Shakespeare returned to Stratford and there wrote a small group of plays, including The Tempest, which are sometimes known as “romances”. They are comedies, though less gay than the earlier ones, but they contain tragic elements, and all develop the idea of the forgiveness of wrongs, and end on a note of harmony and peace.

Shakespeare wrote his plays mostly in blank verse, though he often used rhymed verse and prose to produce special effects. The dialogue is sometimes broken by monologues expressing philosophical views on human life and destiny.

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