William Shakespeare and Company

Plays are performance media. But when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays we commonly examine them as texts, and this causes endless confusion. Look at them as performances and we can see some at least of the band of collaborators who helped bring his plays to life for Elizabethan audiences. Here is some information about 24 of these collaborators.

William Shakespeare wrote plays: that means that, as with all plays, director, producer and actors all had a part in the eventual content of the plays as well, and the audience too, in the sense that audience reaction influenced what was left in and what was taken out (no actor wants to be hit with a dead cat or a rotten tomato, all actors respond to applause). Plays should never merely attempt to realise a given text. Unlike literary texts which are fixed permanently by publication, they continue to evolve in rehearsal and performance, and so authorship is often ill defined. Attend any play in rehearsal and performance and you will be convinced this is the norm, and was as true in Elizabethan England as it is today or was in ancient Athens.

Shakespeare’s plays then, necessarily, must have been of composite authorship simply because they were performed works. But when we talk of “Shakespeare” today we mean, usually, printed texts. Shakespeare’s texts, in this sense, are of unknown provenance: we don’t know (but can only surmise) if they are derived from his own original manuscript, were adapted by him from other works, were the fruit of authorial collaboration (the norm for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights) or were the edited plays as they evolved after successful performance. This is because we don’t know at what point in their evolution the plays (performances) became texts. As a result it is impossible to say definitely that Shakespeare (alone) composed any of the plays, nor to what extent he did so. This is actually true of all plays (and film scripts) though today a measure of definition of authorship is maintained under the Copyright Act. Of course there was no Copyright Act in Shakespeare’s day. As well, several play texts (“bad quartos”) are derived from the memory of actors. Some later plays contain masques and songs, and another collaborator then is a musician.

This explains why Shakespeare himself didn’t publish the plays. The plays were actually owned, and created, by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who did publish some of them, but were reluctant to publish many more because other companies could then offer them in competitive performance. It was members of his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, who did so after Shakespeare had died. They saw that the plays were good. They also realised they were being forgotten, as audience tastes changed over the years. In their judgment Shakespeare was chiefly responsible for the play texts they included in the First Folio, though the same might not be the case in other versions existent of the plays, or of other plays not included in that volume.

We are so used to the literary value of Shakespeare’s plays that it comes as a shock to realise that to Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries, the plays had no literary value. Shakespeare wrote only two works of literary value, the long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plays were mere public entertainment, by various hands. The great majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays have either been lost, nobody having thought them worth publishing, or survive without an author’s name attached.

Shakespeare has been celebrated as the author of his plays for centuries (with a bit of competition from Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere, Viscount St Albans Francis Bacon and others). But about a quarter of Shakespeare’s plays are thought to have been collaborations with other playwrights. In addition almost all of them are based on the work of other writers, another form of collaboration. Who were those other authors, and did they contribute anything significant to the plays we value so highly?

The Writers
The earliest collaborator, or member of William Shakespeare and Company, that we know about is Robert Greene. Greene was about six years older than Shakespeare, and one of his greatest works, the romance Pandosto of 1588, was published by Richard Field, Shakespeare’s boyhood friend from Stratford, who could have introduced the two men on Shakespeare’s arrival in London about 1590. Greene was a low life specialist, a purveyor of scandalous tales about criminals and rogues, often claiming to be autobiographical. Greene was flamboyant in his dress and appearance, lived in defiance of all the rules of the day, and died an early death in 1592, aged 34 years. The eight plays Shakespeare had a hand in 1590-92, before the closure of the theatres on the outbreak of plague, are likely the work of up to five playwrights writing in tandem for rapid production. Greene’s hand has been seen in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VI part 1 and part 2, Edward III and Titus Andronicus. Greene’s most successful play was Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay of 1589, and some scholars think that Shakespeare may have added his contribution to the text we have. In his deathbed repentance pamphlet called A Groatsworth of Wit Greene makes fun of Shakespeare’s vanity in thinking his contributions to plays were worth more than they were. His theme is “vanity, all is vanity” so the mention should not be seen as an attack. The two men were probably friends, even though for a short while. Most people who knew William Shakespeare seem to have liked him. The reference in Groatsworth is likely to have brought a smile to Shakespeare’s face when he read it.

George Peele was another man whom Shakespeare worked with when he first came to London. Peele was about eight years older than Shakespeare, a friend of Robert Greene, who championed Peele against Marlowe’s tremendous reputation. Peele began auspiciously by making a highly commended translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia, took to a dissolute life, and died “of the pox” in 1596 aged 40 years. He is best remembered for The Old Wives’ Tale of 1595 and other comedies, but had another reputation as a writer of gory revenge plays. Peele is a main contributor to Titus Andronicus, the first two parts of Henry VI and Edward III and many other plays. As authorship of plays was usually anonymous the extent of Peele’s work is not known, but is likely to have been significant, both in the evolution of the iambic pentameter line of blank verse, and in the realistic humour of the “clowns” that makes a counterpoint in many Elizabethan plays.

Another friend of Robert Greene was Thomas Lodge (1558-1625) who led an uncharacteristic long life for the period. He was the same age as Greene, about six years older than Shakespeare. Although he wrote plays together with Greene, Lodge is of interest as the author of books Shakespeare may have read (Shakespeare could have known Lodge as both had a friend in common, Greene). In 1593 Lodge published the novel Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It. He contributed along with Greene and Shakespeare to Henry VI part 2. Lodge is also thought to have written plays that were early versions of King John and King Lear. He eventually turned Catholic, lived in Europe and in his later years made many translations from Latin and Greek.

Henry Chettle was born in the same year as Shakespeare, 1564, and died ten years before him, about 1607. He is caricatured as entering heaven: “in comes Chettle sweating and blowing by reason of his fatness”. It was Chettle who published Robert Greene’s Groatsworth pamphlet. He also published a faulty edition of Romeo and Juliet together with his own interpolations though whether these extra lines come from a performance or were added at the printing stage no one knows. The author of more than 50 plays, Chettle was known as the best writer of comedies of the day, and thought of as the equal or superior of Shakespeare in that genre.

Probably the two playwrights who most influenced Shakespeare were Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. These were the authors who wrote the most popular and most influential dramas of the day. It’s likely that from seeing Tamburlane or The Spanish Tragedy, both written in the late 1580s, Shakespeare conceived the ambition of travelling to London and embarking on a literary career. Spenser’s Fairie Queen was being circulated in the same period, as was Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella and his Arcadia. These poems may have inspired the writing of Shakespeare’s two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Thomas Kyd was born in the same year as Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene, 1558. He was famous in his day, and considered the best writer of tragedy. The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most influential plays of that time, so influential it changed the development of drama. Shakespeare seems to have been a big fan, and it is hard to imagine he would have written Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth or even Othello in the way he did had it not been for Thomas Kyd’s work. Most of Kyd’s work is lost or unidentified, but he is considered to have written Arden of Feversham, and to have had a hand in Edward III. Kyd was a friend of Marlowe, and was swept into the ruthless investigation that led to his murder. He was examined and tortured by government agents in 1593, released, but died the next year, aged 36.

The most popular of playwrights of Elizabethan times was Christopher Marlowe (or Marley, which was how he spelt it and probably pronounced it). He was born in 1564, a few months before Shakespeare. Marlowe wrote five enormously successful plays: Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II and Massacre at Paris. Most of these examine the hubris and consequent fall of outsize tragic characters, and show influences from classical Greek drama. The verse is some of the earliest and accomplished iambic pentameter blank verse that survives, and it’s exultant and full of energy and passion. Both Kyd and Marlowe were masters of dramatic construction. Though we think the plays are rather exaggerated and somewhat bombastic now, they turned the heads of audiences and playwrights of the time. Shakespeare admired and imitated Marlowe more than any other contemporary. Marlowe’s influence can be seen in Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Richard II. Marlowe also translated Ovid’s Amores, which may have given ideas to Shakespeare for what resulted as Venus and Adonis. Also innovative, and an influence on Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, was that Marlowe wrote his plays for The Admiral’s Men, who made a fortune from them, and based his main characters on the performance style of Edward Alleyn, one of the most admired actors of the day. Marlowe, from his university days onwards, had a second career as a double agent in Walsingham’s secret service, whose main business was to stop seditious Catholic and pro Spanish activities. Marlowe’s cover was good, which resulted in his arrest on more than one occasion as a Catholic spy, and may have resulted in his murder, designed to keep his activities secret from the secular authorities. Marlowe was 28 when he was murdered: among his papers was the long narrative poem Hero and Leander, which Shakespeare so admired. It was a tragic death of someone who looked like becoming England’s greatest poet and dramatist, but who was certainly one of its most influential.

Thomas Middleton was a writer, poet and playwright who worked with Shakespeare, and later adapted some of his plays to later fashions. He was born in 1580, and so 16 years younger than Shakespeare. He was prominent in most genres, but was most successful as a satirist. His best known plays include A Trick to Catch the Old One, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Roaring Girl, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. One of the most accomplished of Jacobean dramatists, Middleton is of interest because he is thought to have had a main hand in writing Timon of Athens, and in parts of Macbeth and Measure for Measure Middleton is thought to have adapted Shakespeare’s plays for later performances.

George Wilkins was known to Shakespeare when William was living in Silver Street late in his career. Both men were witnesses in an inheritance case involving Christopher Mountjoy, Shakespeare’s landlord. There are indications that Wilkins may have persuaded Shakespeare to revise, or make additions, to a play he had written called Pericles, which survives only as a “bad quarto” perhaps written down and printed from an actor’s memories of the spoken text, though usually included with Shakespeare’s other plays. Some scholars see Wilkins hand in Timon of Athens as well.

Philip Massinger and John Fletcher were Jacobean dramatists who collaborated with one another and many other dramatists of the time. Of interest in the context of Shakespeare’s plays is that they apparently lured William out of retirement in Stratford to contribute to two of their plays, Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare’s contributions are not seen to be significant.

The Actors
No matter how sketchily or finished the writing of a part may be, an actor transforms and alters it, merely by their physical appearance and the timbre of their voice, then by their presence and acting style. An actor may be so identified with the performance of a successful part that audiences find it disconcerting to find another actor in another production doing the role. Rehearsal is a kind of fitting, whereby the author’s original concept is modified so that the actor can interpret it.

In Shakespeare’s case, the actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men altered his plays, or made their contribution to them, in two ways. In the first case, the actors were literally in the front line, interacting with the audience. Many of them were well known to the audience, who expected certain things from them and were restive till they got it. The actors, especially the comedians, improvised, and played the gallery, expertly gauging the audience’s mood and playing off it. Probably this at times distorted the play, crowded some other parts, and there are signs that Shakespeare found this the case with the famous clown Will Kempe, and didn’t really like it (see the comments in The Mousetrap or The Murder of Gonzago). In the second case, because Shakespeare worked with much the same company for his entire career, he would have written certain parts for certain actors, capitalising on their strengths or physical peculiarities. The actors, in turn, would have known what to expect from Shakespeare’s writing, and would have been at ease with it.

This contribution made by Shakespeare’s actors might well have included some of the greatest lines in his plays, but we’ll never know, for an actor’s art, and their contribution to a play, is an ephemeral one. It lasts for a performance, sometimes for an entire career, and then vanishes, and no one remembers later what it was.

The company that Shakespeare bought a share in in 1594 was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men, which had a career lasting almost 50 years, 1594-1642. Shakespeare wrote for this company between his abandonment of a career as a court poet in 1594 until his retirement in 1610, 17 years.

James Burbage, an ex-actor with 20 years experience, was producer and manager of the company; he built two of the theatres the company used, provided props and costumes, employed actors, and had a main say in what plays were produced. James probably decided on the shareholder structure of the business, an early form of a co-operative company. James was about the age of Shakespeare’s father John, and died four years after William joined the company, in 1597. His son Cuthbert carried on this role after James’ death.

Another son, Richard Burbage, was one of the most famous and popular actors of the day; he was the first to play the roles of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, which were written with his physique, voice and delivery in mind. Richard would have had a controlling say in what went into the plays, would have been free to improvise, add lines, call for a re-write, and order scenes he thought ineffective to be deleted. He may have dictated sections of the plays we have to Shakespeare, and could be a co-author of a proportion of them. Much the same goes on today in Hollywood, where director, producer and actor have the power to alter the writer’s concept of a script. Burbage created a phenomenally large number of leading roles, for many of the dramatists of his time. He was four years younger than Shakespeare, and was acting until the year he died, 1619. His epitaph reads simply, “Exit Burbage”.

William Kempe was a famous comedian who had been popular for 10 years before he joined the Chamberlain’s Men as an original shareholder. He represented an earlier kind of humour than the kind Shakespeare was evolving, which was based on character. It was a little like vaudeville, and Kempe, to the crowd’s delight, created impromptu sketches which were full of obscene humour and which held up the play he was performing in. He is thought to have been the original Dogberry and Bottom, and may have played Falstaff. Kempe left the company after the new accession of James I, and slowly lapsed into obscurity, a relic of older, less sophisticated days.

Shortly before Kempe left the Chamberlain’s Men another actor, Robert Armin, joined the group. He was about Shakespeare’s age, a published author, and apparently had a great power to express character through conceit, or obsessive behaviour. Feste, Touchstone, the Fool in Lear were all written for him, and he therefore had a great influence on Shakespeare. The two men would have been in agreement in their focus on portrayal of character. Armin had the ability to supply script additions to Shakespeare on occasions.

Thomas Pope, along with William Sly and Augustine Phillips, was an original shareholder in the Chamberlain’s Men, all successful actors for ten years by the time that company was formed. They were about Shakespeare’s age. Nothing is known about their roles save their high level of expertise.

Henry Condell was about ten years younger than Shakespeare and seems to have started his acting career as a boy player (who played the female roles). He joined the Chamberlain’s Men, though not an original member, and seems to have been highly thought of. He and his friend John Heminges seem to have been close to Shakespeare within the company, and may have been personal friends. Both men worked to assemble reliable texts of their friend’s plays for the First Folio of 1623. As they worked closely with Ben Jonson also they may have got the idea from him (Jonson published his collected works in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, then an extraordinary thing for a playwright to do).

Elizabethan actors, it should be noted, were expected to be expert acrobats and fencers, musicians, and to have the ability to play multiple roles in a production and improvise comic “business” whenever necessary. All of the actors in the Chamberlain’s Men, actors whom Shakespeare trusted both professionally and personally, would have had a strong influence on what he wrote, and the plays may well contain some of their performed contributions. Shakespeare was one of these men, and they worked closely as actors and creators. The plays, it should not be forgotten, were created in the theatre. Lastly, a word for the invisible “business” of acting: gesture, expression, pauses, double takes, pratfalls, much of it adding to the on stage experience, all of it often forgotten when considering Shakespeare’s achievement.

The Composers
Music is an integral part of Shakespeare’s plays. He came from a culture where most people read music and played at least one instrument. His actors were all expert musicians, and it is no surprise to find there are well over 100 songs quoted in the texts of the plays. Many of these are traditional songs, or quotations from other authors such as Marlowe. So traditional music and its unknown composers are another member of Shakespeare and company, contributors to the plays we have, and to the experience of original audiences for them.

Of contemporary musicians, Thomas Morley, six years older than Shakespeare, is known to have composed music for his plays (“It was a lover and his lass” from As You Like It). Morley, the chief Elizabethan composer of madrigals, may have known Shakespeare. Although there is no evidence, it is quite possible Morley composed incidental music for several plays of Shakespeare.

Robert Johnson was lutenist and composer for the courts of James I and Charles II, and one of the major composers of the day. He provided music and song settings for The Tempest (“Full Fathom Five”, “Where the Bee Sucks”), and may have done so for other plays of Shakespeare.

The lutenist John Wilson also composed for The Chamberlain’s Men. And a performance of the lutenist Robert Jones’ song “Farewell Dear Love” occurs in Twelfth Night. These composers, as well as men such as Anthony Holborne, John Dowland, Thomas Greaves and William Byrd, may have provided music used in performances of Shakespeare’s plays, though no evidence of contemporary settings exists.

The Editors of the First Folio
Despite Shakespeare’s work, it is the editors of the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues Henry Condell and John Heminges, who created the Shakespeare texts we have today. They are the most important of Shakespeare’s collaborators, and without them most of the plays would not now be in existence. They diligently collected what prompt books that survived. These were the Chamberlain’s Men’s production copies of the texts, and were the most complete versions, the closest to the plays as performed, and contained many of the contributions made by Shakespeare’s collaborators in the company. However scholars think only seven of the 36 plays published in the edition came from this source. Other texts held by the Chamberlain’s Men are of uncertain provenance: there is a supposition among scholars that another seven plays held by the company were transcribed by a professional writer and tidied up for publication. Whether these were working copies or manuscripts is unknown. Condell and Heminges then had recourse to plays already printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in quarto editions, a further 13 plays. These early editions could have represented the plays in any stage of their evolution from manuscript to performed script. It is conjectured that Shakespeare himself kept a fair manuscript copy of each play, re-written from his working script, which were called “foul papers”. Condell and Heminges had access to papers left behind by Shakespeare, and the nine remaining titles derive from these, either “fair” or “foul”.

The First Folio therefore represents neither the plays as first conceived by Shakespeare (interesting that the editors only found nine plays among his papers, showing he wasn’t concerned about preserving them). Neither does it represent the company’s copies of the plays as they were finally performed (only seven come from this source). The remaining 20 come from sources representing the plays in transit between manuscript and production scripts.

The Shakespeare text we have today thus survives without the acknowledgment of the contribution made by Shakespeare’s collaborators, within the Chamberlain’s Men and outside it. It represents neither his intention for the script nor his company’s final evolution of it. And to confuse the issue even further, the volume has the usual compositors errors and omissions. Both the author’s version and the company’s version have proved to be ephemeral.

But what Shakespeare meant is discernible. It emerges while a play is in production, a logic that determines what characters are likely to say, and how. Directors and actors need to be intuitive, not prescriptive, in following the texts of the plays.

A final word should be said about Shakespeare’s audiences, the groundlings who stood in the hot sun in an inn yard for two hours, fending off prostitutes (or not, perhaps) and cutpurses, worried about plague infection, calling out abuse or applause, laughing uproariously at rude gestures and Elizabethan fart jokes, calling out for favourite actors, throwing things at what they considered poor performers. And the more affluent, sitting nonchalantly on stage and risking everyone’s lives by smoking their pipes. The noise and the smell would have been overwhelming. The actors would have had to roar at times to be heard. Yet what an ear these audiences had! Shakespeare wouldn’t have poured out the lyrical poetry of Romeo and Juliet had he not known how the audience would have loved it. They understood Hamlet’s doubts and Macbeth’s bloody ambition. All the songs they probably knew by heart and would have sung along to. There was no Bardology in that day. If you were good they loved you unreservedly, if you were bad they hated you and let you know it. Shakespeare was good: they flocked to almost all his plays. He knew his audience.

The nature of the collaboration
These members of Shakespeare and Company were an uneven bunch of writers, actors, composers and editors, and all, including Shakespeare, wrote under pressure and without full control over their material. The novice plays, written before 1592, can be disregarded. Shakespeare had not a lot to do with them, and nothing as frigid or contrived as The Two Gentlemen of Verona was subsequently his work. Timon and Pericles, of his later work, can also be forgotten about, as well as the two final works, Henry VIII and Kinsmen. That leaves 27 plays of 39 to be considered. Shakespeare first showed what he could do in Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Though he learned much about construction and versification from Kyd and Marlowe, and Peele and Greene taught him how to handle comic and humble characters, much of what Shakespeare learned from his contemporaries was how to write crowd pleasing material such as patriotic tub thumping verse or dirty jokes. When it comes to the essential Shakespeare, the 12 plays that are still worth reading and viewing today, Shakespeare is alone, one of the world’s greatest lyric poets whose insights into character deepened in the production of a handful of plays at the summit of dramatic art. Without his collaborators Shakespeare would have produced much less: without his unfortunate association with the conspiracy of Essex he may very well not have written plays at all. In the end we have to thank his patrons, the thoughtless Southampton and the haughty Essex, for everything.

Shakespeare’s Plays
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589-1591) Robert Greene
The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1594)
Henry VI, Part 2 (1590-1591) Robert Greene
Henry VI, Part 3 (1590-1591)
Henry VI, Part 1 (1591) George Peele & Robert Greene
Titus Andronicus (1591-1592) George Peele & Robert Greene
Richard III (1592)
Edward III (1592-1593) Robert Greene
• Venus and Adonis (1593)
• The Rape of Lucrece (1594)
The Comedy of Errors (1594)
Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-1595)
Richard II (1595)
• Romeo and Juliet (1593-1595)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)
The Life and Death of King John (1596-1597)
• The Merchant of Venice (1596)
Henry IV, Part 1 (1596)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)
Henry IV, Part 2 (1596-1597)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
• The sonnets (1590-1598)
Henry V (1599)
• Julius Caesar (1599)
As You Like It (1599)
• Twelfth Night (1601)
• Hamlet (1599-1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1601)
Measure for Measure (1600-1603) Thomas Middleton
• Othello (1602-1603)
• King Lear (1603-1606)
Timon of Athens (1605-1606) George Wilkins & Thomas Middleton
• Macbeth (1603-1606) Thomas Middleton
• Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
All’s Well That Ends Well (1606-1607)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608-1609) George Wilkins
Coriolanus (1608)
• The Winter’s Tale (1594-1611)
Cymbeline (1610-1611)
• The Tempest (1610-1611)
Henry VIII, or All is True (1613) John Fletcher & Philip Massinger
The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) John Fletcher & Philip Massinger

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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