FOR THE LAST two years I have been part of a group meeting to study Shakespeare. While focussing on the plays and the poems, we spend almost as much time discussing the circumstances which constrained his work and influenced his creative choices. What we have learned has filled us with respect for the way in which he achieved such wonderful results while working within such a complex environment and with so many factors to consider.
In 2017 I wrote an article for The Whistler entitled The Shakespeare Question. It was a criticism of some people I meet and even some writers in the main media. Without ever having studied Shakespeare seriously and without any understanding of poetry, they claim that his plays were written by Christopher Marlowe or, even more ridiculous, by the Earl of Oxford. The kind of in-depth study which we are making in our group, where we carefully consider the dates when the plays were written, the theatres where they were performed, the dates on which they were presented, the style of acting and preparation, the actors who were in the company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men) and, above all, the need to make MONEY, simply fills us with admiration for Shakespeare.
That is the explanation for my title. It comes from a silly joke/story which I invented. Remember that Shakespeare was an actor in the company, a shareholder, a provider of plays (sometimes in collaboration with others) which were often being written and rehearsed at the same time. So I asked the group to imagine him, perhaps after a performance, sitting down in his favourite tavern for a drink with one of his fellow actors. He has with him some sheets of paper with the text of the play he is working on. He begins the conversation by saying, “There’s a nice part for you in this one . . .” Silly, but probably something that sometimes happened.
The Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre (1577-1642) had much in common with Hollywood as the film industry began to develop in the 20th Century. There was an increasing demand for new plays, new actors, new venues – and there was a lot of money to be made.
Let me finish by giving you two contrasting examples of the constraints and opportunities which someone writing a play for this wonderful new London entertainment could expect. Unlike today, a play was not presented day after day. At the Globe Theatre several different plays were presented in the course of a week because there was a limited London audience; a new play had to be presented to bring them back later in the week. So Julius Caesar on Monday might be followed by Ben Johnson’s Every Man in his Humour on Tuesday which might not return until the following week! This created a serious memory challenge for the actors. To overcome this they appear to have used a form of type-casting called ‘Lines’. This meant that the minor actors would specialise in certain stereotypical roles. They would know what their character might be likely to say. Thus, if they could not remember a line they should be able to improvise something appropriate. However inspired or imaginative the playwright might be, he would have to bear in mind that several of his characters must conform to standard acting types. This was quite a constraint.
But there could be opportunities. Recently, in our studies, we chose to move from Julius Caesar to As You Like It, plays that Shakespeare wrote almost simultaneously in 1599. In the first play we noticed that although the two female parts were limited, they involved quite long speeches which could only have been performed by two very intelligent boys (or young men). But two females are the stars of As You Like It and the taller of the two has more lines than any other female in a Shakespeare play. We realised that two females are also very important in Much Ado About Nothing (1598) and two very strong performers were required for Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet (1601). Whoever these actors were, and sadly we do not know their names, Shakespeare must have been delighted by their talents. He surely gave them a special reward in As You Like It.
Shakespeare was a great genius. As the studies of our group progress, it is fascinating to discover how he went to work in the collaborative creative enterprise which made theatre in his time so wonderful. And he did make a lot of money.