Frontispiece of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, 1623.

          The most acclaimed dramatist of the English language is William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the genius of Elizabethan theater.  Shakespeare cared so little about the literary value of his plays that he retired to Stratford-upon-Avon without publishing them.  The first complete edition appeared seven years after his death.

          As a dramatist, Shakespeare disdained the Classical rules of form; and, instead of imitating Latin poetry, he shaped Elizabethan speech into blank verse, using the five-stressed poetic line, or pentameter. The play that best reveals his bond to the Renaissance is the tragedy Hamlet, the tale of the brooding Prince of Denmark, a gentleman fashioned in the mold of Castiglione’s courtier.  But Hamlet is also touched by the darker Renaissance skepticism of Montaigne, who questions whether humanity is much superior to the animals.  Hamlet's famous praise of human nobility turns suddenly to pessimism and disgust:

What a piece of work is a man!  how noble in reason!  how infinite in faculties!  in form and moving, how express and admirable!  in action, how like an angel!  in apprehension, how like a god!  the beauty of the world!  the paragon of animals!  And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  man delights me not . . .

          Shakespeare may not have been a humanist; but to his contemporaries he was a poet of great humanity.  One can detect the ideal love of Platonism in the follwing sonnet.

        Sonnet 116

        Let me not to the marriage of true minds
        Admit impediments.  Love is not love
        Which alters when it alteration finds,
        Or bends with the remover to remove:
        O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
        That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
        It is the star to every wandering bark,
        Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
        Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
        Within his bending sickle's compass come:
        Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
        But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

        If this be error and upon me proved,
        I never writ, nor no man ever loved.