Shakespeare and company

The new Globe TheatreThis post may turn out to be a hastily written mish-mash of literary potato salad, but I’m all fired up with Renaissance zeal after reading a Penguin paperback called Shakespeare and Co. by Stanley Wells.

The book takes an indirect look at the Bard, by discussing the life and times of the people he would have worked with on plays like Timon of Athens (an unfinished piece), eventually leaving us with a very good idea of what the rigours of theatrical life would have been like in Elizabethan England.

I had no idea, before reading this, that dividing plays up into five acts would have been an alien concept in Shakespeare’s early career. It seems that plays were originally performed all the way through (imagine rushing to the ‘jakes’ for a pee!), and that five act divisions were introduced to enable candle wicks to be trimmed.

As for the rigours of performance, professional actors had to remember vast swathes of scripts in time for doing around 4-5 plays a day. The potential for cock-ups must have been huge. Acting was, and is, intensely physical – and Wells’ book tells us that actors had to be able to fence, fight, dance, sing, remember lines, (perhaps) play a musical instrument and generally be a Jack of all trades.

The towering genius of Ben Jonson emerges from this book, reminding us that Shakespeare wasn’t the only kid on the block when it came to writing gargantuan plays. Jonson was an accomplished classical scholar, a roaring self-publicist and, but for his decision to collect his life’s works into a single volume, we could well have lost Shakespeare’s entire back-catalogue of plays forever. The idea of compiling an entire literary output in this way was Jonson’s alone – it was, after all, a time of firsts and experimentation.

I will not list all the people mentioned in this wonderful little book, because that would be both tedious and beyond the scope of my blog. However, I’ll pause to mention that Thomas Middleton’s plays deserve more attention than they currently receive, and we must not forget the influence of Christopher Marlowe.

What a strange man Marlowe was! By turns a brawler, contrarian, forger and spy, the man managed to write some mighty fine plays which, I must admit, I’ve barely looked at. Doctor Faustus? Certainly – but I have yet to read (or see) Tamburlaine the Great or The Jew of Malta. Blame sheer indolence or, perhaps, a sneaking feeling that plays are meant to be heard rather than read… and I can’t always make it to Stratford.

When I finished this book I was all over YouTube looking for further Shakespearian nuggets – because once you’ve got the bug it’s hard to stop! I found a handful of broadcasts by the historian, Michael Wood who once went in search of the elusive Swan of Avon and his career.

Particularly interesting were theories around Shakespeare’s early ‘missing’ years… about a decade between becoming a parent at the tender age of 18, and appearing as a fully fledged London playwright at 28. Ideas abound, but it’s quite possible he lived in Lancashire for a while, working as a school teacher. This is probably more likely than it sounds.

Time to visit a theatre and experience some of this for myself. Shakespeare and Co. is a timely reminder that no artist exists in isolation, and that creativity reflects the world around us. It is not some floaty, abstract thing loosely associated with reality, but rather an interpretive reflection of our present day life and times.

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