Romantic comedy, satire, farce—all flowed from his pen at the outset of his career. They concerned relationships among lovers, friends, families, but they didn’t plumb the depths overlapping the production of these comedies were his earliest history plays.
Toward the end of the 16th century Shakespeare produced the series of four great historical works that remain the pinnacle of his achievement in that type of theater—Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V. As the years wore on, Shakespeare turned from his interest in politics and the glorification of England to more profound comedies. Two of the best known, Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, show an interest in darker human behavior. It’s not surprising, then, that the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies were also written during this period, the first decade of the new century. Now the poet-playwright was at the absolute height of his powers, and one brilliant drama followed the next—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, all written and performed within a few short years.
Shakespeare was still relatively young, but he had matured. He was a playwright of some repute, and also an actor who performed both in his own plays and in plays by others. He could very well afford to look around and question why everything in life wasn’t perfect and rosy. King Lear examines a broad range of philosophic ideas. There’s a somber tone and not much frivolity in the play. But the playwright in Shakespeare knew he couldn’t simply stage a dull discussion of abstract notions. And so he told a story in order to hold the audience’s attention and to get his points across. The play explores more profound themes than any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it also offers a central figure of such heroic proportion that our attention is riveted to him and his fate.