The Theatrical Scene
Early one morning in 1600 or 1601, boys ran around London sticking up bills announcing that if you went to the Globe playhouse on the south bank of the River Thames that afternoon you could see a new play called Hamlet
. They pasted the bills on the doors of taverns and houses, and on pissing-posts provided for the convenience of those who walked the streets. The lads pulled down out-of-date bills announcing earlier performances and chucked them away. Hastily printed, these pieces of paper were of the moment. They brought profit to printers such as William Jaggard, later to be one of the publishers of the collected edition of Shakespeare's plays known as the First Folio, which appeared in 1623. From 1602 Jaggard held a monopoly on the production of playbills. Not a single one survives, but at least we have a transcript of one that was displayed by traveling players in Norwich in 1624; it read: 'Here within this place at one of the clock shall be acted an excellent new comedy called The Spanish Contract
by the Princess' servants; vivat rex
The new bills named the play to be performed, with a few words of description and commendation such as 'the right excellent conceited tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
'. They told you that it was to be acted by the Lord Chamberlain's company at the Globe. They did not necessarily say who wrote it: the company's reputation was high, whatever it played. It frequently performed before the Queen and her courtiers, as publishers were proud of boasting on the title pages of the relatively small number of plays that got into print.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet
his name, as well as that of the company for which he exclusively wrote, was becoming an attraction both to readers and to theatregoers. Born in 1564, and therefore 37 years old in 1601, he was best known to readers as the author of two popular narrative poems, the immensely successful, rather saucy Venus and Adonis
(1593) and its tragic successor, The Rape of Lucrece
(1594). He had already written or co-written more than twenty plays. Indeed by this date he had completed both his cycles of English history plays, most of his romantic comedies, and his tragedies from Titus Andronicus
through Romeo and Juliet
to Julius Caesar
. A founding member as both actor and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, established in 1594, he was now a prosperous and admired member of his profession. Though he lived in modest lodgings when he was in London, he owned a fine house and garden in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife and his two daughters, Susanna and Judith, remained - his only son, Hamnet, had died in 1597. There he was a prominent householder and landowner: in 1602, not long after writing Hamlet
, he paid £320 for land in Old Stratford, as well as buying a cottage close to his home, presumably for one of his servants. And only three years later he made an even bigger investment of £440 in a lease of the Stratford tithes. These were large sums. Theatre was a profitable business. And it brought fame as well as money. Several of his plays had appeared in print, at first anonymously, as was common enough, but increasingly since 1598 with his name on their title pages, which in appearance and wording resembled playbills. So those who wrote the advertisement for the first performance of Hamlet
may well have included its author's name among its attractions.
The most theatrically and dramatically ambitious as well as the longest play yet written for the English stage, Hamlet
represented a high-water mark in Shakespeare's rapidly developing career. It was and remains the most continuously entertaining tragedy ever written, brilliantly theatrical yet also intellectually and emotionally challenging, a demonstration of technical prowess and linguistic skill beyond that possessed by any of Shakespeare's contemporaries. It was rapidly recognized as a masterpiece that appealed equally to intellectuals and to the theatregoing populace at large. Soon after it took the town by storm the Cambridge scholar and controversialist Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631) - an intellectual snob if ever there was one - scribbled in his copy of Chaucer's poems a note to the effect that 'The younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis
, but his Lucrece
, and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
, have it in them to please the wiser sort'.
But numerous allusions in plays written for the popular theatre soon after the tragedy appeared show that it pleased the younger as well as the wiser sort, the groundlings as well as the cognoscenti. After this, Shakespeare could not avoid becoming a classic. He was to die in 1616 at the age of 52; in a poetic tribute published in the First Folio, seven years later, his colleague Ben Jonson was to write that he was 'not of an age, but for all time'. Thiswas prophetic. At least since the later part of the eighteenth century, Shakespeare has been accorded semi-divine status and his reputation has spread world-wide. The period in which he wrote is constantly referred to as 'the age of Shakespeare'. His plays have eclipsed those of his contemporaries in theatrical popularity and in critical esteem. His status has become iconic.
For all Jonson's hyperbole, however, Shakespeare was
'of an age', and it was an age rich in theatrical and dramatic talent and achievement. He worked within the same intellectual and theatrical environment as his contemporaries, was subject to the same commercial and social pressures, and interacted with fellow dramatists and actors throughout his career.
At the time of his birth, in 1564, professional drama was in its infancy. There were no public playhouses. Plays, mostly lasting no more than an hour each, were acted by amateurs and by small professional groups attached to households of the aristocracy. They performed in the halls of great houses, in guildhalls and inns, even sometimes in churches. The first London playhouse, the Red Lion, went up in 1567, when Shakespeare was 3 years old, and it survived for only a few months. He was 12 when, in 1576, the construction of the Theatre in Shoreditch, well north of the City of London walls, heralded the golden age of English drama. Acting companies rapidly grew in size, plays became more ambitious in scope, and the first great generation of English poetic dramatists emerged.
As a writer, Shakespeare seems to have been a late starter. It is impossible to date the beginning of his career with any precision, but he married at the age of 18, in 1582, his last children - twins - were born in Stratford in 1585, and he is first heard of as a writer in 1592, when he was 28. By then he had probably written several plays. In the earliest of them, including TheTwoGentlemen of Verona
, the three parts of Henry VI
, The Taming of the Shrew
and Titus Andronicus
, he was responding to the work of immediate predecessors and early contemporaries such as John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene and above all Christopher Marlowe. This was the Elizabethan generation of dramatists. All except Lyly had died before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet
As his career developed, he faced challenges from the emerging talents of playwrights who included George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, John Marston, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton and Francis Beaumont - the Jacobean generation. Towards the time of his death in 1616 other names appeared on the scene, most notably John Webster; the playwriting careers of Philip Massinger and John Ford still lay ahead. With Middleton and Fletcher (as well as with George Wilkins, who died in 1618) he collaborated; all of the men in the second and third groups named outlived him (except Beaumont, who predeceased him by only six weeks) and learnt from him. Shakespeare's work helped to shape theirs, and their work in turn influenced his.
Shakespeare worked exceptionally closely too with his fellow actors the theatrical scene - exceptionally, because no other dramatist of the period had so long and close a relationship with a single acting company. And that company, which started off as the Lord Chamberlain's Men and earned the ultimate accolade of being named the King's Men when King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603, was recognized both in England and on the Continent as the finest in the land, with leading actors who would have been stars whenever they were born.
This book aims to place Shakespeare within his theatrical context, to chart his relationships with his fellow actors and dramatists, and to sketch the shifting reputations and lasting achievements of his fellow playwrights. First, let us try to imagine ourselves into the theatrical world inhabited by Shakespeare and his colleagues. What would have been the experience of London citizens who picked up those playbills advertising the first performance of Hamlet
Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. She and her courtiers loved to see plays, but the government was keenly aware of the need to control the activities of players and playwrights in the interests of law and order. Some of their regulations had far-reaching consequences for the content of plays and for the overall conduct of the profession. As early as 1559 a proclamation forbade the performance of plays treating of 'matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the Commonwealth', since these are topics that should be discussed only by 'men of authority, learning and wisdom', not 'to be handled before any audience but of grave and discreet persons'.3 This prohibition had
a profound effect on the content of plays, inhibiting direct dramatic treatment of religious and political subjects. Dramatists often attempted to evade it, and it was difficult to enforce, but a patent awarded toEdmundTilney for the office of Master of the Revels in 1581 required all plays to be performed before him or his deputies before being offered to the public; he was to hold this office until he died in 1610. (The patent is summarized in Documents, pp. 233-4 below.)
Other regulations affected the social status of players. An Act of Parliament of 29 June 1572 concerned with 'The Punishment of Vagabonds' and 'the relief of the poor and impotent' attempted to define 'rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars' who will be punished for their 'lewd manner of life'. They include 'all fencers, bearwards, common players in interludes, and minstrels not belonging to any baron of this realm' who are not licensed by at least two Justices of the Peace. The qualification is important: not all actors are rogues and vagabonds. The Queen herself in 1583 awarded her patronage to a group of actors, the Queen's Men, cherry-picked from other companies to tour the country.
Initially they also played in London, but they concentrated on touring from 1594. From that year the long-established Lord Admiral's Men played mainly at the Rose playhouse in Southwark, south of the river, the only playhouse of the period of which substantial remains survive. The year 1594 also saw the establishment of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare as one of their first shareholders. They played initially at the Theatre, before building the Globe close to the Rose in 1599. The Queen's Men's repertory included four surviving plays, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth
, The Troublesome Reign of King John
, The True Tragedy of Richard the Third
and King Leir
, all of unknown authorship, on topics that Shakespeare was to take up later, and it is quite possible that he belonged to this company before moving to the Lord Chamberlain's Men. After Elizabeth died, in 1603, only members of the royal family awarded their patronage to playing companies. As the King's Men, Shakespeare and his colleagues would have worn the royal livery, at least on formal occasions such as the Coronation procession in 1604, for which the company's leaders were each awarded four and a half yards of scarlet cloth.
There were no playhouses in the provinces, and even in London the City authorities frowned on dramatic performances. The Puritans among them regarded playhouses, in which boys impersonated women on the stage, and where serious matters might be lightly treated and comedy was often lewd, as hotbeds of sin. And they feared, reasonably enough, that large assemblies of people would attract rogues and whores and would spread infection in time of plague. As a result, they usually permitted public theatres to be built only outside the boundaries of the City. The Globe had stood since 1599 not far from the southern river bank, in the parish of Southwark. Close by were the Rose, built in 1587, the Swan, of 1595, and other places of public entertainment such as inns, bull- and bear-baiting rings - some of which doubled as playhouses - and brothels. Easily the theatrical scene visible from the City, the Globe, along with the tower of the church of St Mary Overy's, now Southwark cathedral, reared over its neighbours. A three-tiered, thatched structure, it was topped by a little hut. Here the raising of a flag indicated that a performance was in the offing, and as the time for its start approached closer a trumpeter blew once, then again, and then for the third and last time. (Audiences must have been reminded of this when they heard the trumpet calls of Edgar's three challenges within the play of King Lear
, 5.3.5) It was early afternoon: as the theatres were open to the air, they could operate only in daylight hours.
Thus informed and summoned, men, women and young persons - even children streamed into the theatre from all quarters. Although then, as now, theatre audience numbers fluctuated, they could be large. When it was packed tight, as at the sensational performances of Middleton's A Game at Chess
in 1624, the second Globe, built in 1614 on the foundations of the first, is reported to have held well over three thousand spectators at once. Many playgoers came across the river over London Bridge, some walking, some riding on horseback, a few travelling with servants in their carriages. Others arrived by water, ferried across the busy river in one of the small wherry boats that plied their trade there. Best remembered of the water men is John Taylor, a colourful character who wrote and published reams of doggerel verse recounting his exploits and venting his complaints against, among others, theatre owners and proprietors of hackney carriages which threatened his trade. As he ferried theatregoers across the river he may well have regaled them with samples of his versified wit such as:
The woman, spaniel, the walnut tree.
The more you beat them the better they be.
Excerpted from Shakespeare & Co. by Stanley Wells. Copyright © 2008 by Stanley Wells. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.