In a flamboyant age and a notoriously flamboyant profession - he was an active member of a theatre company for at least 20 years - Shakespeare was abnormally reticent. As a result, researchers have had painstakingly to piece together the story of his life from surviving scraps of evidence.
He was born in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where his father was a prosperous glover and one of the town's 14 principal burgesses. In 1565, John Shakespeare was promoted to the rank of alderman, and he became Chief Alderman in 1571. It is a reasonable assumption that such a man would send his son to the local grammar school, though there is speculation that the boy did not complete his course there, owing to the decline in his father's fortunes after 1576. The years before Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 are blank. Within six months of the wedding, the couple had a daughter. She was the Susanna who later married John Hall, a local physician, and lived prosperously in Stratford. The family was completed with the birth of twins, Judith and Hamnet, in 1585. Hamnet died in 1596 and was buried in Stratford, where Judith remained until her death in 1662.
Virtually nothing is known of Shakespeare's life from 1585 to 1592. It may be that he left home and family to tour with a group of London players. Certainly his name was sufficiently familiar in the London theatres by 1592 to invite Robert Greene's jibe at him as an ‘upstart crow’. Greene was one of the university men who resented the rivalry of the new breed of professional playwrights, and he had probably in mind Shakespeare's part in the writing of the three Henry VI plays. This early collaboration suggests that Shakespeare served his apprenticeship alongside some of the growing number of dramatic aspirants seeking advantage in the demand for plays from the emergent professional theatre. Other surviving texts from the 1590s, however, suggest that Shakespeare preferred to work alone. Only in Sir Thomas More (c. 1595) has his collaborative hand been confidently detected. We do not know how Shakespeare came by the money to purchase a share in the newly formed Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594. His likeliest patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was in financial straits of his own at this time, but he cherished the role of Maecenas and may have helped the young man who had already dedicated to him his narrative poem.Venus and Adonis (1593). By 1594 Shakespeare had also written at least three comedies, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew, and two corpse-laden tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Richard III, the latter of which provided a brilliantly original conclusion to the three parts of Henry VI, as well as a second narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece. The Lord Chamberlain's Men must have perceived in him not simply an actor, but also a potential resident writer for their London base, the Theatre in Shoreditch.
Living close to Bishopsgate and the Theatre, Shakespeare continued to write plays at the rate of approximately two per year. The period 1594-8 may have seen the first productions of King John (sometimes dated as early as 1589); the middle comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (scholars continue to argue about Love's Labour's Won, ascribed to Shakespeare by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598), A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice; the outstandingly popular tragedy Romeo and Juliet; and the cycle of English history plays comprising Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V. That Shakespeare also had aspirations as a gentleman, and sufficient means to support them, is apparent in the application, on his father's behalf, for a coat of arms. The award was made in 1596. In the following year, Shakespeare bought New Place, one of the finest houses in Stratford. Early in 1598 he made a small investment in malt (malting was Stratford's principal industry). The London theatres were under threat of permanent closure at this time, and he may have been contemplating the life of a country gentleman. If so, the plan was shelved when, at the end of 1598, the company responded to the landlord's threat of eviction from the Theatre by transporting its timbers to the south bank of the Thames and re-erecting them as the GLOBE.
Shakespeare wrote most of his greatest plays during the first decade (1599-1608) of his company's occupation of the Globe. They include the mature comedies, Much Ado About Nothing (which may shortly pre-date the move), As You Like It and Twelfth Night; the darker comedies, sometimes called ‘problem plays’, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida; a pot-boiler, The Merry Wives of Windsor, written in response to demands for more of Falstaff; and the major tragedies, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. It was a period that saw the Lord Chamberlain's Men honoured by the new monarch with the title of King's Men and confirmed in their ascendancy at court.
Shakespeare had moved his London lodgings to Southwark, in closer proximity to the new theatre, and maintained his financial interests in Stratford. A small investment in land (1602) was followed by a larger one (1605). He may have feared the continuing insecurity of his profession, threatened by authority, by the regular outbreaks of plague and by the faddish interest in boy actors. Facile younger dramatists, Beaumont and Fletcher in particular, were challenging his supremacy by the readiness of their response to Jacobean taste for sensation and spectacle. It was a taste more easily satisfied in the indoor Blackfriars, which the King's Men added to the outdoor Globe in 1608. Shakespeare's last plays, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (on which he collaborated, probably with George Wilkins), Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, take account of the revived interest in romance, magic and improbable resolutions whilst giving scope to a new ‘indoor’ fondness for scenic spectacle. At the end of his career, Shakespeare returned to the collaborative composition with which he had begun, working with Fletcher on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. By 1613, when the Globe was destroyed by fire, his hold on the London theatre was slipping. He had just purchased the upper floor of one of the Blackfriars gatehouses and may not have wished to contribute more to the rebuilding of the Globe. It is possible, though not certain, that he relinquished his share in the old theatre, now under reconstruction, and spent his last years in Stratford.
Less than half of Shakespeare's plays were published during his own life, and this is not at all surprising. Not only were plays held in low esteem as literature, but also acting companies were unwilling to make their possessions available to others and to the public at large. The single known example of a playwright's contract, Richard Brome's with Queen Henrietta's Men at the Salisbury Court Theatre (1635), specifies that Brome shall publish none of the plays written for the company. Authorized publication of plays often followed unauthorized, ‘pirated’ publication of unreliable texts, like the famous ‘bad’ Quarto of Hamlet (1603). It was, then, an act of singular homage when two of the King's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, oversaw the publication in lavish Folio form, of 36 plays by their late colleague. The First Folio (1623, reprinted 1632, 64 and 85) includes 20 plays which might otherwise never have been published. It was, by any reckoning, a remarkable printing achievement. Various facsimiles have been subsequently published. Subsequent editors, even of the 16 plays published in earlier Quartos, have always to refer to the Folio.
The first critical edition was that of Nicholas Rowe (1709), who used the Fourth Folio as his authority. Himself a playwright, Rowe respected Shakespeare's text more than was common in the theatre of his time, but he sought to regularize the plays' division into scenes and acts in a way that the Folio editors had considered unnecessary. Later 18th-century editors, including Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1734), Samuel Johnson (1765) and Edmond Malone (1790), followed Rowe's pattern. Malone's exemplary scholarship is commemorated in the reprints of dramatic texts and documents by the Malone Society (founded 1907). Modern editors are served, not only by the textual studies of W.W. Greg and his successors, but also by the Variorum editions pioneered by H.H. Furness in 1871. Reliable single-volume collections include those edited by Peter Alexander, W.J. Craig and C.J. Sissons. Untroubled by the anxieties that led Thomas Bowdler to produce an expurgated ‘Family Shakespeare’ (1818), 20th-century editors seek to establish as perfect a text as possible, explaining their decisions in copious notes. Even so, discrepancies remain, and no two editions of the same play will ever be identical. Outstanding among 20th-century series are the variously edited Arden, New Cambridge, Penguin and Oxford Shakespeares.
Shakespeare in performance
There can be little certainty about the conditions in which Shakespeare's plays were first performed. We know that Richard Burbage's acting was greatly admired and that he played Richard III, Hamlet, Lear and Othello, but we do not know how he played them, nor even how well he knew his lines. There is some contemporary evidence, particularly in the case of comic roles, that Elizabethan actors sometimes substituted their own words for the playwright's. We cannot assume that Shakespeare's own company performed his plays ‘straight’ and word-perfect. What we can say is that the actors walked out on to the platform to deliver their part of a story, since it was as a storytelling art that the drama made its bid for audiences. It is a mistake of which many scholars have been guilty to suppose that there was a single style of playing - formal and rhetorical, say some, natural and direct, say others. On the contrary, the variety of verbal styles in which the best Elizabethan plays were written indicates the expectation of a variety in the acting. Play days in the open-air theatres were probably boisterous and certainly colourful - an extravagant delight in clothes was shared by actors and audiences. Rich gowns turned boy actors into acceptable women, one of many conventions on which effective staging relied. The Elizabethan theatre was not a haven for purists, and the more ‘correct’ taste of the late 17th century found fault with it. Even Shakespeare's admirers, like Davenant and Dryden, admitted the need to improve him.
From the early days of the Restoration theatre until well into the 19th century, it was normal practice to hack, reshape and plunder Shakespeare's texts to suit prevailing tastes or to ease the task of leading actors.Nahum Tate's King Lear (1681) and Colley Cibber's Richard III (1700) are only the best-remembered of the cobbled versions in which the plays reached Restoration audiences. Thomas Betterton, whose playing of such contrasting parts as Hamlet and Falstaff brought Shakespeare's name into a new prominence, did his own doctoring of the texts, setting a precedent which would be followed by later actor-managers from David Garrick through John Philip Kemble, W.C. Macready, Charles Kean and Henry Irving to Beerbohm Tree and the 20th century. The manifest leader of his profession, Betterton unwittingly established the rule that the greatness of English actors would be measured by their achievement in Shakespearian roles. His versions had to take account of the new delight in changeable scenery, a sophistication which ran counter to the fluidity of scene changes on the bare Elizabethan stage. The re-ordering of scenes may not be the most offensive of the alterations of Shakespeare, but it is one of the most enduring. The director of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1977 revival of the Henry VI trilogy, Terry Hands, for example, laid stress on the decision ‘not to do even our own usual reshaping of a few corners’. A programme note for the same company's 1974 King John confessed that ‘the text for this production incorporates lines from The Troublesome Reign and Bale's Kynge Johan, and some additions by John Barton’. It would be a mistake for 20th century audiences, confident of the respect in which Shakespeare's text is now held, to neglect the continuing theatrical urge to bend what cannot easily be made to fit.
Betterton's formally cadenced delivery of Shakespeare's lines was copied by James Quin. They stood, probably firm footed and facing front, on the proscenium in the full light of the candelabra, enacting through gesture the passions expressed in their lines. Garrick's memorable debut as Richard III (1741) was an energetic, and eventually decisive, challenge to the old-school conventions, as, earlier in the same year, was Charles Macklin's vividly serious Shylock. But Shakespearian acting was changed also by external forces. The increasing size of the major London theatres throughout the 18th century demanded a broad der style. Only a presence as imposing as that of Sarah Siddons or as charismatic as that of Edmund Kean could command an audience of over 3000. With the development of gas lighting during the second decade of the 19th century came another significant change. The greater visitbility allowed actors to play inside, rather than in front of, the scenery. One significant outcome was the increasing hold of ‘pictorial Shakespeare’, to which designers contributed almost as much as actors. The various regimes of Macready, Madame Vestris, Charles Kean, Irving and Tree brought the visual elements of Shakespearian production into parity with the aural. The splendour of the crowded 19th-century stage was a new convention which few actor-managers - Samuel Phelps outstandingly at Sadler's Wells (1844-62) - were bold enough to challenge before William Poel began his sequence of bare-stage productions for the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1894.
It is the replacement of the actor-manager by the director that distinguishes 20th-century Shakespearian production. Granville Barker's innovatory work at London's Savoy (1912-14) demonstrated how the text could be released by the clearing of the cluttered stage. The new approach was further strengthened during Lilian Baylis's years at the Old Vic, where the young Tyrone Guthrie was one among many directors who dared radically to reinterpret Shakespeare's plays. At the rebuilt Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (opened 1932), Komisarjevsky (Komissarzhevsky) offended purists with a series of unconventionally designed productions (1933-9), bringing Stratford into new prominence as a centre of Shakespearian performance. That prominence was firmly established by 1960, when Peter Hall became the managing director of the newly named Royal Shakespeare Company. Most of the major English actors and directors have worked at Stratford, or at the company's London bases, the Aldwych (1960-82) and the Barbican (since 1982). The conventions of modern Shakespearian production - that the director should discover the leading idea or ideas of a play and reinforce them through design (see theatre design) and costume on a stage that permits the free flow of scenes - have been authorized by the Royal Shakespeare Company.PT
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