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8.2: Who Was Shakespere?

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  • William Shakespeare, a product of the English educational system and a middle-class family, spent his career as a professional playwright, poet, actor, and company sharer, or co-owner of a theatre company, from the late T580S until at least гбг2. Born on or around April 23, T564, he was the son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and sometime city official, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a landowner. He grew up in Stratford- upon-Avon, a town in the vast countryside of Warwickshire, a county well to the northwest of London and Oxford. Few records exist of Williams early life, but scholars believe that he benefited from the economic and cultural engagement resulting from Stratford-upon-Avon’s status as a market town and from a robust curriculum at the grammar school in town. Shakespeare received no other formal education of which we are aware. At age eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, about eight years his senior.

    A few years later in the early T590S, he appeared in London having recently written at least a small handful of plays. The historical record is unclear about the reasons for Shakespeare’s departure from Stratford- upon-Avon, his decision to seek a trade outside the family business, and his apparent choice to leave his wife and children to pursue a career in London. There is evidence that Shakespeare was surrounded by personal and family dramas such as his father’s descent into debt and loss of his city office, his own marriage to a then-pregnant Anne Hathaway, and his coming of age in a time of great political and religious upheaval in and around England.

    Though it is not known when exactly he started writing, scholars widely acknowledge his arrival on the London theatre scene in T592 when another playwright, Robert Greene, referred to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,” possibly referring to Shakespeare’s lack of a university education. Shakespeare’s writing career began modestly with plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew but seemed to hit commercial success —and gain the attention of Greene—with a string of plays about the English civil wars of the prior century. These plays, the three parts of Henry’ VI, catapulted Shakespeare to the top of the London theatre world. By Г594, his reputation as a playwright made him such a commodity that he formed a company with Richard Burbage, one of London’s leading actors, and several other stars of the London stage. This company was co-owned by Shakespeare and his fellow sharers and sponsored by the Lord Chamberlain, a highly placed government official responsible for Queen Elizabeth’s household. Such patronage indicates the high level of attainment the company and its chief playwright, Shakespeare,
    had reached by the mid-T59os.

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    The house in Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare was born and spent his childhood years. Photo by Richard Towell.

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    Kelly Kilgore (Lavinia) and Justin Baldwin (Bassanius) In the background; Greg Jackson (Sattumus) and Jean Tafler (Tamora) In Orlando Shakespeare Theater's 2013 production of Titus Andronicus. Photo by Tony Flrrlolo.

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    The 2012 production of The Taming of the Shrewat the Globe Theatre (featuring Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day; directed by Toby Frow). ® Robbie Jaek/Robbie Jaek/Corbis.

    By 1599, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had relocated its operation to the Globe Theatre in the south suburbs of London and was performing new plays like Hamlet and As You Like It. In f603, after Elizabeth’s death, the company received a royal patent, a kind of official license and recognition reserved for achievement with special value to the crown, from Elizabeth’s successor, King James. The company was now the King’s Men, and this heightened status, along with plays like Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, cemented Shakespeare’s and the company’s legacy at the top of the London theatre.

    In t6o8, the company established a second theatre, this one indoors in London’s Blaekfriars district, which allowed them to perform at a higher ticket price and for a typically wealthier clientele. The company performed at both Blaekfriars and the Globe after r6o8. Between this time and т6т2, Shakespeare undertook several collaborations with other writers, most notably John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the chief playwright upon Shakespeare’s retirement. Shakespeare died on or around April 23, тбтб, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon- Avon. After his death, the King’s Men remained the leading company in London until the closure of the theatres in Г642. In f623, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and sharers, John Heminges and Henry Condell, collected his plays, some never before published, into a Folio meant to represent and honor Shakespeare’s work.

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    Detail from The Long View of London from Bankside, 1647. This etching by Czech artist Weneeslaus Hollar provides an Invaluable representation of London before the Great Fire of 1666. However, the labels of the Globe Theatre and the "Beere baytlng" ring (also known as the Hope Theatre) are reversed. Bearbaltlng was a popular sport In which a bear was chained to a post and attacked by bulldogs. Gamblers placed wagers on the winner.

    We often overlook many of the conditions that created Shakespeare — or rather that allowed Shakespeare, the son of a glove maker, to become Shakespeare, the successful playwright and cultural icon. He began his writing career at a time when theatre enjoyed an especially prized position in English society. In the century before Shakespeare’s birth, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, a German invention that allowed for movable type and mass printing of all kinds of writing, made its way to England. A society that had been largely illiterate —outside the nobility, the church, and some in the merchant class, most citizens could not read —suddenly had access to printed texts of all sorts. This access to the printed word created an atmosphere of excitement and interest in the English language among the many social classes that could now afford the printed word and the education necessary to read it. As part of this atmosphere, writers were inventing new words, style, and grammar. New verse forms were emerging. Readers were soaking up the novelties of the language and a sense was growing about what it meant to speak, and be, English.

    This cultural identity was emerging in other areas of English life as well. The political landscape in England in the half-eentury or so prior to Shakespeare’s theatrical career had changed radically as the English church split off from the governance and authority of the Catholic church, headed by the pope in Rome. Henry VIII, the English king who instituted the split and made himself the head of the church in England, set off a decades-long reimagining of English spirituality and religious life that began to further shape England’s cultural identity and put it at odds with the rest of a largely Catholic Europe. In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada in what was widely regarded as a major military upset. Catholic Spain was the chief foreign threat to England; as a result, England’s reaction to the victory was profound. After England had spent more than half a century discovering its Englishness, the defeat of Spain cemented the English national identity.

    The theatre was a place where the English theatre language, still in flux, could be experimented and played with, and it was accessible to all —both those who could and could not read. English playwrights thrived during this time and together created one of the most vibrant and productive periods in theatre history. Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, and a host of other playwrights, along with Shakespeare, produced dozens of new plays each year, written predominantly in verse, that were performed at playhouses in and around the city of London. These new plays were ostensibly “read” for the audience — notice the audio part of audience — each with new words, turns of phrase, or rhetorical flourishes that made each playhouse a kind of spoken printing press. These spoken presses were cheap —it cost one penny to see a play on the ground floor of the Globe —and one did not need to be able to read to appreciate the play or its language.

    The plays also focused on what it meant to be English. As mentioned, Shakespeare’s first commercial successes were plays about the English civil war. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote similarly about events in English history. Many others focused their work even more locally, in what we now refer to as “city comedies”—plays set in and around London proper. Virtually all playwrights referred to or used current events within their English and London society as material for their plays, from the latest ballads sung on London street corners to the exploits of noteworthy Londoners to both significant and insignificant bits of news. In this regard, playhouses in England at this time were not merely spoken presses; they drew upon London, the entire country, and the emerging national identity as they presented plays to the audiences of London.

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    In this marketplace primed for theatre, playing companies of the period built sophisticated enterprises aimed at negotiating the challenges of making theatre in London while making a profit. All companies in this period used a repertory model when producing plays, which meant that a different play was performed each day, with repeated performances of the same play coming days, weeks, or even months apart. The rapid shift from show to show meant that companies did not have time to build elaborate sets or costumes, which helped keep costs down, and could not rehearse more than a few hours on a single play. With no sets, plays were performed largely on a bare stage, possibly with a couple of doorways, an upper-level balcony, and perhaps only a few props, such as a throne or a bed —used when needed. Sensitive to the cost of paying actors, companies kept their east size relatively small —usually only twelve to twenty actors for a single performance, with several actors playing more than one role in the course of the performance. Companies, composed exclusively of men because of a combination of aesthetic and cultural preferences and common theatre practice that eliminated women on the stage, used young boys to play women’s roles. In the absence of meaningful copyright laws, playing companies kept only one complete copy of the script for a play, fearing that an actor might take a full copy of the script and have it published for profit. Instead, actors learned their lines using “parts” or “sides” with only their lines written. Without electricity and effective lighting, companies performed either outdoors during the daylight hours or indoors under candlelight.

    The playing conditions of the time —repertory, actor doubling, limited rehearsal time, bare stages, minimal props, men and boys playing all roles, working from sides —presented unique challenges to the playwrights and audiences of the period and allowed Shakespeare to emerge both uniquely English and theatrical. As he responded to the atmosphere of writing and culture around him, Shakespeare likewise responded to the conditions around him in the playhouse. With a bare stage, he is able to shift from Egypt to Rome, or from Sicilia to Bohemia, or England to France with simple word craft. With a balcony, he writes the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. With boys playing women’s roles, he invents lasting characters like Rosalind in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night—women who disguise themselves as young men in the course of their respective plays. This adaptability and creativity enabled him to cement a career, along with his playing company, at the top of the theatre world.

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