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The chances are that as Shakespeare matured in his craft he came to view the "Tudor myth" (as E. M. W. Tillyard has termed this official dogma) with a degree of skeptical detachment; but even so, he seems to have found in its clear, broad sweep a pattern that served quite well as a way of organizing the disparate materials he chose to dramatize. It gave him a theme of epic proportions, not altogether unlike the "matter" of Greece and Rome that had inspired such classical authors as and Virgil in narrative genres and , , , and Seneca in dramatic genres. It accorded with the biblical treatment of human destiny that Shakespeare's age had inherited from earlier generations, an approach to historical interpretation that had been embedded in such didactic entertainments as the Morality Play (allegorizing the sin, suffering, repentance, and salvation of a typical member of mankind) and the Mystery Play (broadening the cycle to a dramatization of the whole of human history, from man's fall in the Garden of Eden to man's redemption in the Garden of Gethsemane to man's bliss in the Paradise of the New Jerusalem). And it provided a rationale for Shakespeare's use of such powerful dramatic devices as the riddling prophecy and the curse--projecting retribution for present crimes, as the Old Testament would put it, to the third and fourth generations.

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To a far greater degree than with most sonnet sequences, Shakespeare's have "the ring of truth." This is partly because, like all his works (from his earliest plays onward), they portray humanity so convincingly. But it is also a consequence of the extent to which they seem to go beyond, or even to disregard, convention. Thus, instead of praising a lady by cataloging all the attributes that make her lovely, Shakespeare turns Petrarchan tradition on its head by denying his "dark lady" any of the expected beauties and virtues. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," he says in Sonnet 130; and far from being ethereal and inaccessible in her idealized spirituality, the woman described in Shakespeare's is sensual, coarse, and promiscuous. Petrarch's Laura may have inspired that earlier poet to Platonic transcendence, but Shakespeare's mistress leaves only the bitter aftertaste of "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame," "A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe" (Sonnet 129). And what is more, she alienates the affection of the fair young man to whom most of the first 127 sonnets in the sequence are addressed: the friend who occasions some of the deepest verses in English on such themes as fidelity, stewardship (Shakespeare seems to have been preoccupied with the Parable of the Talents, as rendered in Matthew 25: 14-30), and man's struggle against "never-resting time."

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But it is risky to inquire too curiously into the supposedly "confessional" aspects of the . Like Shakespeare's other writings, they employ the artifice of "fictions," and they may have been but another form of story telling--different in kind from the plays and narrative poems, to be sure, but similar to them in being "about" something quite other than (or in addition to) the poet's own experience. If we examine them in the context of earlier sonnet sequences--Petrarch's lyrics of Laura in fifteenth-century Italy, for instance, or such late-sixteenth-century English sequences as those by , , , and Michael Drayton--we discover that they are quite "conventional" in many respects. They display the speaker's wit and attest to his originality; they imply a deeply felt personal situation and hint at a coherent narrative, but they usually stop short of connecting their emotional peaks and valleys into a fully textured autobiographical landscape; they assert the immortality of verse and claim its sovereignty over the ravages of time and change; and usually they deal with themes of truth and beauty in the context of love and friendship and all the circumstances that life arrays in opposition to such values.

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Given this context, it must have seemed entirely fitting that sometime in the late 1580s or early 1590s an enterprising young playwright began dramatizing a sequence of historical developments that were almost universally regarded as the "roots" of England's current greatness. Most of the material for the four history plays with which Shakespeare began his career as playwright he drew from 's (1548) and 's (1587 edition). Here he found narratives of late-medieval English history that began with the reign of King Richard II (1377-1399), focused on Richard's deposition and execution by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), described the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) that were the eventual consequence of Bolingbroke's usurpation, and concluded with the restoration of right rule when Henry Richmond defeated the tyrannical Richard III (1483-1485) and acceded to the crown as Henry VII, inaugurating a Tudor dynasty that was to last until the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Here he also found a theological reading of political history that treated England as a collective Everyman--falling into sin, undergoing a terrifyingly bloody punishment for its disobedience, and eventually finding its way back to redemption through the emergence of Henry VII.

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The last of the great romantic comedies of Shakespeare's mid career, probably composed and performed in 1601 though not published until the 1623 First Folio, was . Possibly based, in part, on an Italian comedy of the 1530s called , is another play with implicit theological overtones. Its title comes from the name traditionally associated with the Feast of Epiphany (6 January, the twelfth day of the Christmas season), and much of its roistering would have seemed appropriate to an occasion when Folly was allowed to reign supreme under the guise of a Feast of Fools presided over by a Lord of Misrule. In Shakespeare's play, the character who represents Misrule is Sir Toby Belch, the carousing uncle of a humorless countess named Olivia. Together with such companions as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the jester Feste, and a clever gentlewoman named Maria, Sir Toby makes life difficult not only for Olivia but also for her puritan steward Malvolio, whose name means "bad will" and whose function in the play, ultimately, is to be ostracized so that "good will" may prevail. In what many consider to be the most hilarious gulling scene in all of Shakespeare, Malvolio is tricked into thinking that his Lady is in love with him and persuaded to wear cross-gartered yellow stockings in her presence--attire that he believes will allure her, but attire that persuades her instead that he is deranged. The "treatment" that follows is a mock exercise in exorcism, and when Malvolio is finally released from his tormentors at the end of the play, he exits vowing revenge "on the whole pack" of them.