When Shakespeare turned up in London in the late 1580s, the Elizabethan theatre was fully fledged. The biggest name in the business, Kit Marlowe, was writing Tamburlaine and in Shoreditch the Burbages had already built the playhouse known as the Theatre. Shakespeare did not invent the drama of his age. Others got there before him, collaborated with him from time to time, and continued to write after his death. Too often, the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries have been short-changed by the critics because of the long shadow cast by his supreme achievement.
Stanley Wells's enjoyable book makes us want to look again at some of them, particularly as scripts for the theatre, since time and again, and against the odds, many of them have been successfully revived on the stage. Wells writes with clarity and precision and this book will appeal to lay audiences as much as to his peers in the field.
The chapters are skilfully woven into an elegant narrative while offering discrete discussions of some of Shakespeare's principal fellows and collaborators, notably Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher. Others are included, among them Robert Greene (who infamously accused Shakespeare of plagiarism) and the vile George Wilkins, who collaborated with Shakespeare on the late Pericles. The book's coda consists of a useful 10-page appendix of key documents.
Wells shows that, as actor and playwright, Shakespeare was so deeply embedded in his troupe that he wrote parts for particular players. Will Kemp, who may have been the first ever Falstaff, played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and the famously thin actor John Sinklo was a walking cartoon who undertook minor lanky parts. Richard Burbage acted the teenage Romeo when he was 27 and, 10 years later, the octogenarian King Lear before returning, shortly after, to the middle-aged part of Macbeth.
The great female roles of Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Volumnia all suggest that the company must then have enjoyed the services of an outstanding boy actor, since women were not allowed to perform. Similarly with As You Like It and Twelfth Night: both feature transvestite heroines, young women playing young men inside the fiction of the plays while, in reality, being boys all along. Wells ventures several guesses at parts that Shakespeare may himself have played, roles in which "his own voice seems to sound most clearly": notably, the chorus in Henry V, the Duke in Measure for Measure, or Prospero in The Tempest.
Shakespeare can no more be uncoupled from his fellow playwrights than his art can be divorced from the real people in his company. He collaborated intermittently all his working life, from early plays like Titus Andronicus to later ones including Timon of Athens, Pericles, Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. He also famously contributed the May Day riot scene to Sir Thomas More, although, as Wells reminds us, the fragment only loosely connects with the main plot of the play.
The extant evidence suggests that Shakespeare was not the most enthusiastic or scrupulous of collaborators, but neither did he occupy a rarefied space outside his time. Joint authorship is a hot issue in Shakespeare studies, and the question of Middleton's alleged contribution to Macbeth, at least to the version that has survived in the 1623 Folio, is among the trickiest. The play is demonstrably contaminated, or enriched (depending on one's point of view), by the Hecate songs, which first appeared in a Middleton play called The Witch in 1616. Wells endorses the latest theories supporting Middleton's hand in Macbeth. These are not necessarily right, but his reader knows that they can trust this author to have weighed up the best thinking on the topic.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read is Wells's unerring eye for the kind of detail that renders the drama of Shakespeare's contemporaries more than fringe entertainment hitching a lift from the bard. The sheer Dickensian vitality of the London drama of Dekker and Jonson is both rhetorical and physical. No holds are barred.
In Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, the housemaid Cicely Bumtrinket annoys her master by her unfortunate habit of farting in her sleep, while Jonson's Alchemist, one of the greatest farces in the language, starts with a fart.
Bodily functions loom large in the drama of the period. They make for good comedy, and above all they are safer than politics - which caused serious trouble to several of Shakespeare's friends and collaborators. Also, they help to demonstrate that Shakespeare and Co were not that different from us. Wells's lively book serves as a timely reminder of this.
René Weis, professor of English at UCL, is writing a biography of Shakespeare for John MurrayReuse content