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November 18, 2011 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Shakespeare was not a full-time writer without other responsibilities, like O’Neill or Williams. But what might look like a distraction for such authors—acting in his own and other people’s plays, coaching fellow players, helping manage the ownership of the troupe’s resources (including its two theaters, the Globe and Blackfriars)—was a strength for Shakespeare, since it made him a day-by-day observer of what the troupe could accomplish, actor by actor. [...]

'According to Pacini,' Julian Budden writes in The Operas of Verdi, 'it was the custom at the San Carlo theatre, Naples, for the composer to turn the pages for the leading cello and double bass players on opening nights.' The composer had to change his score to fit new voices if there were substitutions caused by illness or some other accident. In subsequent performances, he was expected to take out or put in arias for the different houses, transposing keys, changing orchestration. He was not a man of the study but of the theater.
Shakespeare and Verdi in the Theater.
posted by shakespeherian (48 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
But what might look like a distraction for such authors—acting in his own and other people’s plays, coaching fellow players, helping manage the ownership of the troupe’s resources (including its two theaters, the Globe and Blackfriars)—was a strength for Shakespeare, since it made him a day-by-day observer of what the troupe could accomplish, actor by actor.

Bingo.

The process of writing a play is incredibly collaborative, and the best playwrights get this. You have to take feedback from non-writers into account -- if only so you know whether the technical stuff you want to happen is even possible.

The company I work with predominantly does play development rather than full-on plays. The development process, including the workshop, is something that I've come to understand is vital to a play's success - and there are a hell of a lot of people other than the playwright that have to weigh in. The contest we do every year offers a workshop -- a quick-and-dirty production that comes earlier than the full-on opening -- as its grand prize, which may sound kind of wimpy; but it's actually a chance for playwrights to work with a really good director, some really good actors, and a really good technical staff, and to see first-hand how their play can work with all that.

What's supposed to happen is that the playwright writes a final draft of their work, based on what they saw when the play got 'on its feet' for the first time, and incorporating feedback from the whole company. The smart playwrights we've worked with have done just that, and their works have gone on to world premieres in L.A., in London, in New York; one's even been published. Some playwrights, though, balk at the feedback and don't go on to another draft -- their plays are great as is, but they don't get that it could be even better, and the feedback is designed to make it even better. Those plays, sadly, never get much further than the workshop.

Shakespeare may not have done anywhere near as well if he hadn't been so tied into what Robert Armin or William Kempe was able to do, or if he hadn't been so familiar with Italian commedia, or into what actually is going through actors' heads when they have to say things like "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?" or "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew," or "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." And doing some acting yourself is a fantastic way to learn that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Brilliant, fascinating article!

I especially liked the parts about the staggeringly busy schedule of Elizabethan theatre. I think it helps to understand that Shakespeare lived in a kind of whirlwind of words.
In the month of January, 1596…the Admirals’ Men played on every day except Sundays and presented fourteen plays. Six were given only one performance in the month, and no play was presented more than four times. The shortest interval between the repetition of any single play was three days, and the next shortest five. Although all except one were old plays, this record represents an achievement that would almost certainly be beyond the capacities of actors in the modern theatre.
We can only be stunned at the memory powers of the actors on such a schedule. The opera houses of Verdi’s time were just as bustling with new works and crowded seasons...

...The trickiest job was to write for that rare commodity, the boy actors who played women. These were hard to come by and train in the brief time before their voices broke. That is why women’s parts make up only thirteen percent of the lines in the plays. The playwright had to know what stage of development each apprentice had reached. There were usually just two or three boys in the public plays (though more were available from choristers when a play was given at court or in a great family mansion). The boys’ memories were such that Shakespeare wrote shorter parts for them than for adult actors—an average of three hundred or so lines to the adults’ 650 or so lines per play. But when he had a spectacular boy like John Rice, he was able to write as big a role for him as that of Cleopatra (693 lines). Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman’s part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it. Only Shakespeare, who knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice, knew what he could do and how to pace him from play to play.
The book Squeaking Cleopatras: The Elizabethan Boy Player has a lot of information on that subject, fascinating if you're sufficiently interested.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:44 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


(I didn't know you were associated with Reverie, EmpressCallipygos. A play of mine got a reading from y'all back in 2005.)

And I agree with everything you've said -- and will add that not only acting aids writing; I've actually attempted to take every theater position at least once, just so I know what it entails. Directing, and working with lighting, sound, costumes, sets, props, etc. helped me learn to think about use of space, movement, timing, visual stage picture ... everything that goes on outside the performers' heads as well as inside.
posted by kyrademon at 8:09 AM on November 18, 2011


A play of mine got a reading from y'all back in 2005.

....Holy crap. Which one?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:18 AM on November 18, 2011


(Play called "Man On Dog". It was a finalist in the contest you mentioned. Looking at your MeFi profile and connecting the dots, I've got a couple of e-mails from you from back then. Theater is a small world?)
posted by kyrademon at 8:35 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


MAN ON DOG. Yes. I remember. Reiterating in public what I emailed you in private - that yeah, that year was a tough one to judge for the contest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:44 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


kyrademon, EmpressCallipygos, I have to confess that the two of you just lived out a MeFi fanboy fantasy for me.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:04 AM on November 18, 2011


...and this is why the whole Earl of Oxford thing is ridiculous. Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare just because he writes beautiful poetry. He creates dramatic moments—meant to live on a stage, in front of an audience that sees a common humanity with the actors on it. He's clearly knew what worked up on a stage, what drew paying audiences, and how to work with limited resources. How would a nobleman and a professional courtier know all that?
posted by PlusDistance at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This article points out one of the real problems with modern operatic composing. Starting, I'd guess, with Wagner, it became less and less often the case that operatic roles were composed with specific singers in mind -- or by composers who really knew all that much about singing.

Nowadays, it's commonplace that new operatic scores are composed by those with little understanding of singing or of how the writing will work vocally. This manifests in a variety of ways, but most often in singing line and lyrics that are simply not vocal, and these are often compounded by orchestrations that are ridiculously unhelpful. Composers and librettists who wrote for singers, understood singing and how it works, and were grounded in a tradition of writing for the voice knew how to combine vocal lines and lyrics in a way that would be felicitous for singers and assist the performers in making the appropriate expressions. These composers understood how to place the moments of thick orchestration and loud playing in between the places where singing takes place, and to lighten the texture and dynamic for the singers.

This fundamental lack of knowledge as to how singing works and experience in how best to write for the singing voice is one major factor in the dearth of good vocal operatic writing in the present era. This is compounded by the fact that modern-era composers also seem to want to reject established and proven notions of how opera works. There is a failure to understand and appreciate that patrons of the opera want to hear (and performers want to perform) some version of "nice-sounding singing." This is what has characterized opera for hundreds of years. There is also a seeming rejection of what one might call "operatic subjects" by many present-era composers. Things like The Great Gatsby and the life/death of Harvey Milk simply aren't subjects that lend themselves to operatic treatment.
posted by slkinsey at 9:25 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please suffer me the derail of translating this work into my world...

One of my favorite engineering companies is Renishaw, Ltd., which makes the world's most successful brand of touch probes for robotic measuring machines. What they do, though, isn't important...

A Renishaw engineer designs a new part in 3D CAD format. He then must convert this drawing into CNC computer language, and then use this program to cut a working prototype. Then he must design the measurement program that tests his part. Only after a prototype is qualified as matching the drawing can he release it to production... by which point (possibly crude and inefficient) CNC and CMM programs are already written and debugged.

Also, by that time, the engineer will have noticed that 29 screws may be a bit excessive to hold the circuit board down (true story), or that the one electrically important screw (for ground) isn't exactly well marked as such (same story).

There is always benefit in the designer having to suffer through the grime of production.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman’s part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it. Only Shakespeare, who knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice, knew what he could do and how to pace him from play to play.

This is complete supposition. There is not a shred of evidence that Shakespeare "knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice" or that he even acted at all in more than a handful of plays. The Earl of Oxford ran an acting troupe - so an Oxfordian might use just such an argument to support their candidate for the authorship of the plays. And just as weakly.

I don't personally believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. I do think the evidence for Shakespeare writing the plays attributed to him is shaky (forgive the pun) at best. In any case you'd hope Stratfordians would have better arguments up their sleeve than this.
posted by iotic at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Marlowe is generally considered Shakespeare's equal up until his "fearful end" (and by some, beyond) but he may not have been an actor at any point. Likewise Jonson, Fletcher, Dekker, Middleton etc.

To suggest that a playwright can't produce a play without being an actor is as bad as saying ... well that a composer can't write a symphony without being a violinist, say. It's as bad, if not worse, than saying Shakespeare must have gone to Italy to write about it. The thing about great writers is they have an imagination.
posted by iotic at 10:16 AM on November 18, 2011


Who said 'can't'?
posted by shakespeherian at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just watched Zeffirelli's version of Verdi's Otello last night. I'm half way through this article now and loving it!

Thanks for such a lovely post!
posted by chatongriffes at 11:00 AM on November 18, 2011


Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman’s part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it

That's almost worse than "can't". Although despite semantic trickery I suppose it doesn't actually contradict the idea that the Earl of Oxford, or anyone else who'd seen a play put on by The King's Men, might have known "whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it"
posted by iotic at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2011


Great post - enhanced by IAmBroom's metacomment. It's not that a player's plays are better (though in Shakespeare's case they are), it's that they are different. There is a different quality to art and design creates by those who know the stuff of production. You don't have to like it, but I enjoy when someone acknowledges it.
posted by mumimor at 11:28 AM on November 18, 2011


Great post. As someone working on a dissertation arguing that the material conditions of early modern performance were so idiosyncratic and demanding that the plays were written, at least in part, to accommodate (lack of) rehearsal practices, it was heartening to see like-minded work and to remember that other theatre practices would have left similar traces in the work of other practitioners.

In terms of the connection between these ideas and the question of authorship, I think iotic raises a good point: to suggest that a non-theatrical agent couldn't become familiar enough to write for the theatre is likely as troubling as the suggestion that someone outside of the court couldn't have become familiar with court customs, etc. That said, the specifics iotic raises -- that the 17th Earl of Oxford may have seen the King's Men performing enough to know the talents of its boys -- is worth investigating. The Early Of Oxford died in the summer of 1604; the King's Men had only been the Kings Men for roughly a year; for much of that year, the theaters were closed due to plague. This doesn't really bother me; you see a talented boy once, you know he's there. However, I much more bothered by the fact that seeing a boy once would not have made it easier to continue to write lengthy women's parts from the grave. Most scholars think Shakespeare continued writing until 1610-ish. In fact, The Tempest contains large chunks of language directly corresponding to an eye-witness report of a ship that sunk five years after the death of Edward de Vere. The 17th Earl of Oxford may have known enough about the theatre to have written the plays, but he simply did not live long enough to try.

Further, I think it is worth pointing out that knowledge of the theater's performances is not the same as knowledge of its day-to-day workings. Beyond the fantastic and previously-mentioned evidence of the busy schedule, early modern players simply lived different theatrical lives than players and actors of later centuries. There simply were not the resources for collective rehearsals; plays were sundered into parts to be learned privately (often including gesture under the "direction" of the playwright) and reassembled as hastily as possible with almost no rehearsal. A player playing Hamlet was not given the rest of the play. In fact, he only knew his lines and the cues (one to three words that were otherwise unmarked) that would allow him to deliver each of his 346 (in the second Quarto edition of the play) speeches at the right time. More to the point, there is a good chance that many of the scenes were not run more than once (if at all) before the play opened. [See the work of Tiffany Stern for more about rehearsal, cues, and parts.] The life of a player wouldn't just have provided Shakespeare with empathy but a very particular understanding of methods that are not obvious in the watching of a play. For evidence of how well hidden these methods were, I submit the fact that they took scholars nearly 400 years to identify. Not for nothing, most of the enduring "truths" about Shakespeare taught in honors classes were "discovered" in the period before anyone really bothered to look for evidence theatre practices.

The point I would like to make is that a hands-on knowledge of the working conditions of the theatre does not detract from the poetic quality of Shakespeare's play texts anymore than it might the musical qualities of the operas of Verdi. In the context of a working theatre, poetic composition and artistic enterprise are not, as they have often been painted, engaged in a zero-sum game. If anything, the fact that the plays contain the poetry they do, while inviting performance in conditions that were anything but ideal, adds to the poetic accomplishment.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 12:12 PM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I had to peek at the comments to see what people were saying about the link before I read it, and the discussion of Shakespeare's identity more than justified my decision. Fascinating topic and great thread, and the link looks awesome too.
posted by immlass at 12:44 PM on November 18, 2011


Far be it for me to argue for De Vere's authorship of the works, as mentioned I don't believe he did. I think it's important to realise that some aspects of Shakespeare's plays also don't relate to good stagecraft: Hamlet, for instance, runs to over four hours if unabridged - and thus it almost always is abridged in production.

Another thing that is worth considering is that The Bard may not have been writing only for the actors of the time, but also for posterity. Hence Hamlet's length (for reading) and perhaps, female roles beyond the abilities of any boy player. As Jonson said, he was "not for an age, but for all time". That the author himself considered posterity important (against the fact that Shakspere of Stratford seems to have had a hand in very few publishings of his own work - despite being a prudent businessman and social climber) read this powerful sonnet. Note that while he predicts his verses will be read and spoken for generations, his name will be forgotten.
posted by iotic at 12:49 PM on November 18, 2011


This recent BBC Radio 4 In Our Time episode, SHAKESPEARE'S LIFE, is still available on-line and is worth a listen.
posted by NailsTheCat at 1:15 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


To suggest that a playwright can't produce a play without being an actor is as bad as saying ... well that a composer can't write a symphony without being a violinist, say.

No one is saying that you CAN'T produce a play without being an actor, though. Only that having a better understanding of what actors actually do, and what the stage craft actually entails, will help you make a better play. There are the rare few plays where the writing itself is just so innately good that it's already all set, but those plays are very few and far between.

Some playwrights get that understanding by doing a little acting themselves, and others get that understanding by talking to actors. As long as they have that understanding about the kind of work they're doing, rather than just saying "well, feh, I'm the writer so what I say goes", it's all good.

This is also the reason why some writers who are good in one area aren't quite so good in another -- a fantastic novelist whose plays suck, a screenwriter whose books suck, a poet whose prose sucks, etc. It's not that they're bad writers, it's that these are all different kinds of writing, and what works in one field doesn't always translate. Like, a pianist and a guitarist are both musicians, but a super pianist won't also automatically be an awesome guitarist without taking lessons in how the guitar just plain works.

Part of what helps playwrights write good plays is a thorough understanding of how theater works, and part of understanding how theater works is understanding what all the different moving parts do. For some people, the best way to get that understanding is to try it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:23 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


First, Hamlet's earliest printed incarnation is much shorter than the edited version we are familiar with. Secondly, the most commonly accepted estimates of speed (roughly 20 lines a minute) put Hamlet's longest version at 3:30. Recent thinking holds that most theatrical events ran four hours including interludes and other entertainments. Accordingly, many scholars believe Hamlet's longest version to have been performed uncut on the public stage. While it is absolutely longer than nearly every other early modern play, the idea that it is Ill-suited to performance is potentially more true today than it may have been in 1604 when the second and longest quarto was printed. Further, even if we are wrong about public attention spans, there is good reason to believe court performances were routinely lengthy, what with the money for indoor light, etc. While many, many critics have made and continue to make the argument that Shakespeare's lengthiest plays were too long for performance, my point is that many critics have found reason to disagree. Again, hundreds of years saw Shakespeare studied by literature professors who loathed the theater. This absolutely matters in terms of how we think about his work.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 2:19 PM on November 18, 2011


Without wanting to detract from your point about performance lengths, which is certainly interesting, I find it curious you should appeal to the first quarto of Hamlet as evidence. If any document suggests memorial reconstruction, or some other faulty means of transmission, it is this. Let's look at the first quarto version of the famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, aye there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge ...
No wonder it's short if that's the best that could be made of some of the best lines!

For me, the power of Shakespeare lies in his incredible use of language, his universality, and remarkable plotting and action. Whilst the last of these certainly speaks to a great facility with the realities of performance, I fear any arguments concerning his ability to do so coming from being an actor, and any conclusions about the realities of Elizabethan/Jacobean performance, based presumably on the plays themselves, must be somewhat circular in nature.

I don't want to take up too much space discussing this in response to what is an interesting article. However, I do think it is relevant - the article is based on a lot of assumption. The facts known about Shaksper of Stratford - despite an enormous amount of historical detective work over the years - can be easily perused in an afternoon, and shed woefully little light on the man presumed to be the author of these great works. We simply don't know much about this man - especially about any of the sorts of things we'd like to know about him. The amount of baseless speculation offered by respectable scholars on the subject - as in this post's linked article - is quite shocking.
posted by iotic at 3:05 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The "who wrote Shakespeare" question is utter nonsense, not because the evidence for Shakespeare is so overwhelming but because there is not a shred of evidence for any of the other contenders. If you posit as a serious proposition that almost anyone from the 16th or 17th century was actually a front for someone else it will be impossible to 'disprove' the contention. You aren't going to find "the making of" documentaries in which you get to see Will (of Frances or Kit or Phillip) actually setting pen to paper, and what else would suffice?

That said, Wills's arguments here are almost entirely circular. He deduces from the plays that Shakespeare was writing for some particular strength of the company and then marvels over how well he tailored the play to fit that strength. Take "Midsummer Night's Dream"--Shakespeare "must" have had a dark/fair, tall/short duo of boys and that is why he played up those differences between Helena and Hermia. Well, maybe. On the other hand I've seen the play cast with almost identical actresses and had the whole point of the joke be that they're snatching at meaningless differences in order to insult each other. It's also possible they put one of the boys in lifts and the other not. The point is that we just don't know.
posted by yoink at 3:22 PM on November 18, 2011


Agreed on Wills' arguments. I disagree on this, however: The "who wrote Shakespeare" question is utter nonsense. For me there is one candidate for the authorship for whom the case is remarkably strong, including the known ability to write in Shakespean style - in fact who is credited with more or less inventing the whole form and style of Shakespeare's plays, as well as many of the plots and themes. Who would have had a very good reason for needing a "front". Who is generally seen as being Shakespeare's greatest contemporary influence. And after whose disappearance, Shakespeare's writing carries on from in an unbroken continuation and development of style. Most would dismiss this candidate - it does require a certain leap of faith to begin to investigate him as a possibility. However, once one takes in all the relevant facts, I believe he emerges a stronger candidate than the Stratford man. However, since most are not willing to learn enough of the facts to see the strength of the argument, I am happy not to preach overly on the subject.
posted by iotic at 3:51 PM on November 18, 2011


Why is a shorter, less polished version of a play evidence of theft rather than a first draft? The answer is simple: critics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (who literally invented the theory of memorial reconstruction) needed a narrative that allowed Shakespeare to be more or less infallible. The narrative holds that, in every case, folio texts printed up to 30 years after an individual play was performed to be more authentic than quartos printed within a few years of performance. To suggest that Shakespeare had a hand in the so-called bad quartos directly confounded that narrative. But please, keep in mind, those critics didn't want a "man of the theatre" responsible for the greatest plays in the western tradition. And if he was, he needed to be a native genius, capable of writing "To be or not to be..." in its nearly perfect form on his first attempt. The methodology of the New Bibliography has been widely discredited (though I like them a lot): this, this, and this all configure the notion of memorial reconstruction as dubious. Right now, if critical consensus exists at all, it holds the first quartos to be performance texts (as opposed to the longer, literary ones). I think that's not right either; my work suggests that every text (except Timon of Athens, oddly) was written to make parts and cues easier by providing patterns that made it easier for players to know when to deliver lines. Q2 Hamlet is especially helpful.

Obviously, I am too close to this argument to respond logically to your suggestion of tautological thinking regarding the link between the texts as printed and the texts as performed. I don't mean to suggest, with any certainty, that we know how the plays were performed. However, we do know much more than previous critics have held about the process by which they would have been produced. For what it's worth, I think Shakespeare was what Lukas Erne has called a Literary Dramatist; while Erne and I disagree radically about what that means, I absolutely concede that his work succeeds in ways that go beyond his having been an actor. I agree that Shakespeare is timeless. However, part of that has to do with British imperialism and later centuries filled with critics, including Johnson, who are really hard to strip away from the corpus itself. The original post here is a useful tool to at least start, in an accessible way, to think about the texts in an original context that doesn't pit Shakespeare's literary and theatrical ambitions against each other.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 4:08 PM on November 18, 2011


If you mean Marlowe, you have the inconvenient facts that A) there's very little similarity between his versification and Shakespear's and B) he was dead for the majority of the period in which Shakespeare's plays were written--and we know more about his death than about those of most of his contemporary's so it is really perverse to try to hand wave it away.

But you miss the force of my argument, I think. The real problem with the "who wrote Shakespeare" question is that you have to start from the premise that this is a mystery that needs answering (an idea that didn't occur to anyone until some lunatic non-scholar dreamt it up in the late 19th century). Sure, if we entertain the possibility that this is a real problem then we can conjure up all kinds of possible candidates and explain why they are plausible fits with the known facts of Shakespeare's output (why people keep picking candidates who died too soon, I can't imagine).

The problem is that the mistake was made when you accepted the premise. You just can't do history on this basis. We have remarkably few hard facts in history. We have to be conservative in our approach to their interpretation, or we just end up with arbitrary romance. Hiw do we now that Marlowe was really Marlowe? We actually know remarkably little about him. How do we now that Greene was Greene or that Philip Sydney wasn't ghost written by Spenser? If you entertain those as serious possibilities for a second then you immediately realize that they can't be disproven--and the human mind's desperate tendency toward pattern matching will immediately start seeiNg ways in which it ALL MAKES SENSE--there'll be some line in Sydney that sounds just like something in Spenser and some obscure expertise in Marlowe that would have fit perfectly with some obscure contemporary of his etc, etc. It's the eqivalent of those people who find coded messages in the Bible--meaning and significance are cheap, if you go looking for them, you'll find them. History just falls to pieces if you don't constantly emply Occam's razor. Before you go trying to show that X was really Shakespeare, don't ask yourself "does this fit the known facts" or "does this seem plausible"--ask: do I have a compelling reason to doubt the most obvious story?

And guess what--you don't.
posted by yoink at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The above is a response to iotic, of course.
posted by yoink at 4:17 PM on November 18, 2011


Incidentally, those cue sheets -- pages which contain only your lines and a few words before -- are actually still used in some productions, these days mostly large-cast shows where printing full scripts for everyone is deemed too expensive.

They are universally hated and despised. I wonder if that has been the case, in an unbroken chain, for hundreds of years.
posted by kyrademon at 4:39 PM on November 18, 2011


yoink:

A) Read Marlowe next to Shakespeare's early drama and tell me specifically why you think their versification is not similar. They are, extremely so.

B) Yes, that is the one big problem with the Marlovian theory. But consider that many scholars have questioned the official story of his death. The most recent scholarly biography of Marlowe leaves open the possibility that he did not die when he was supposed to have. A wealth of excellent historical research suggests the most probable reason for Marlowe's "final" meeting at Deptford was to fake his death. Occam's razor actually works in Marlowe's favour.

As for reasons for doubting the most obvious story, there are several - each of which is serious: Shaksper's parents and children being illiterate is quite extraordinary. The utterly pedestrian will, unlike any contemporary literary will. The complete lack of evidence of anyone referring to the Stratford man as a writer during his lifetime. Jane Cox of the Public Records Office's assessment of the signatures (see this link, scroll down to point 4). There really is little linking Shakesper to the works. For a good summation of the case for him however, I'd very much recommend this page - though I disagree with its conclusions, it's a thorough presentation of the case for Stratford.

Regarding the authorship not being doubted until the 19th century (by Delia Bacon, a greatly admired female writer of her time, who has unfairly been derided as a lunatic due to her unfortunate infirmity in later life) - firstly this is possibly debatable anyway. Secondly, no one thought the Sonnets were worthy of study until the 19th century either. Thirdly the dubious account of Marlowe's death was not discovered until 1925 - when it started to become clear that all the people in that Deptford room were involved in the intelligence services and most likely were convened to "disappear" Marlowe.

Dromio_of_Columbus - thanks for the links. I'm aware that there are arguments against the concept of "bad quarto", and against the taking of the first folio as the sacrosanct and only source of the true versions of the plays - and I am sympathetic to this view. However, in some cases it seems clear (as in the soliloquy quoted above) that some of the contents of these quartos is weaker than we would expect from the author at the corresponding stage in his career.
posted by iotic at 4:56 PM on November 18, 2011


You look at wild speculation that maybe Marlowe might just possibly have lfaked his death (not a shred of positive evidence being adduced, just a series of 'well, it could plausibly fit the facts if you kind of squint at it this way) and this tells you that Occams razor supports the contention that Marlowe was actually Shakespeare?

Sheesh.

We don't actually know that Shakespeare's children were illiterate. If they were, that tells us more about differential gender expectations in his day than anything about Shakespeare. That his father was illiterate (if he was--it's at best a good guess) tells us nothing at all about Shakespeare about whose schooling we know quite a lot.

His "utterly pedestrian will" is, in fact, exactly like other contemporary wills. Why on earth would he try to fancy up a will, for God's sake just because he had been a playwright? Do contemporary writers doodle the odd villanelle onto every shopping list and insurance agreement that passes under their pens?

The demand for references to him as a writer during his lifetime (and there are some) is, again, getting the cart before the horse evidence wise. This wasn't a world in which writers who weren't of the nobility left much of a trail. They didn't get invited to talk shows, there was no contemporary criticism etc. What is remarkable is how MUCH near-contemporary documentation we have of Shakespeare's activity as a writer--not how little.

Tell me, do you have a single positive piece of evidence that links Marlowe with any of Shakespeare's plays? Do you have a single positive piece of evidence that makes Shakespeare's authorship of the plays problematic? No, you don't.

But utter lack of evidence never killed a conspiracy theory yet, alas.
posted by yoink at 5:29 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This, I believe, is strong evidence that Marlowe wrote the works. However, I know it's likely to be fruitless trying to convince anyone whose mind is set against the idea of this "conspiracy theory". If Nixon hadn't been caught, Watergate would be a conspiracy theory. The many writers forced to write under someone else's name during McCarthyism? They could be heroes of a conspiracy theory too, if things had turned out differently.

But as I said, I'm happy to leave off preaching about the subject to those who aren't open to the idea. It interests me greatly, and has lead me to study a lot more about the history and literature of the time than I would otherwise. And I hope I am a bit more discerning in what I accept as likely fact than a simpleton credulous conspiracy buff. For me there is a lot of evidence, circumstantial, textual and concrete, to support the Marlovian hypothesis. Your results may vary.
posted by iotic at 5:47 PM on November 18, 2011


If Nixon hadn't been caught, Watergate would be a conspiracy theory.

You mean if no evidence whatosever had ever emerged to suggest that he'd ever done such a thing? Yes, in that case people arguing that he had, in fact, done it without having a single shred of evidence to support their case would, indeed, be conspiracy theorists. What is your point?

Of course, if someone were to say that their "strong evidence" was a desperate and tortured reading of whatever epitaph happens to be written on Nixon's tombstone we might be inclined to offer an even graver diagnosis.

I'm entirely "open to the idea" of someone other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare's plays. What I want to see is a shred of positive evidence to that effect. So far you've produced nothing that could remotely be described as such. You need to distinguish between people being "closed minded" and people not being interested in conspiracy theories utterly devoid of supporting evidence.
posted by yoink at 6:25 PM on November 18, 2011


A P.S. to my last, by the way: I imagine your eyes rolling when I say I'm "open to the idea" of someone other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare's plays but I want to stress just how true that is. God, it would be great if someone found evidence that Marlowe survived, completely reinvented his poetic style and paid off Shakespeare to be a front for his writing. What an absolutely ripping story that would be! Nobody knows anything much about the personalities of either Marlowe or Shakespeare outside of their writings, so there's no reason one could be particularly wedded to the idea that the persona of Shakespeare was the one that wrote those plays. I love Marlowe's plays and who wouldn't love such an utterly unprecedented story? Has there ever been a case in the history of the world to remotely parallel it?

But then, it would also be a fascinating story if it were Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or--hey--Queen Elizabeth. Those would be great stories too. And they can all be forced to fit if you're dedicated enough to looking for secret codes in epitaphs and creating stories about what people "must" have done in order to make the story work (and there are just as many people--more, actually--who have pored selectively over the evidence and declared that each of those non-Marlovians is "obviously" the author as those who have settled on Marlowe). What all these great stories lack, however, is a single, tiny, infinitesimal shred of positive evidence. Not "well, if we assume all these things then it's possible" evidence, but "hey, this actually points directly and unambiguously to Marlowe/Bacon/Queen Elizabeth having written Hamlet!"

You know, a letter from Marlowe in his handwriting (of course, we don't know what his handwriting looked like other than that one signature--Christopher Marley [ZOMG he obviously never wrote those plays attributed to Marlowe!!--in fact he must have been illiterate, just like Shakespeare's daughter Susanna who only left a signature in her own hand]) saying something about it. Or even a contemporary comment from the incredibly close-knit world of Elizabethan playwrights who would all have had to have known that Shakespeare wasn't writing the plays that were routinely attributed to him to the effect that Shakespeare was some other playwright's beard. And no, Greene jokingly accusing him of being a plagiarist is not remotely relevant here.
posted by yoink at 7:12 PM on November 18, 2011


Iotic-- two things that are more for folks who are on the fence than they are for you. You've obviously considered things and believe what you believe.

First: If you want to convince me Marlowe was Shakespeare, his death is the least of your worries. You've got to convince me that he faked Shakespeare's arrival (and Greene's envy of the first history plays in 1589). While I agree that the early plays may have more in common with Marlowe than Shakespeare's later work, I see no logical explanation to justify their existing upon the same stage for multiple years. Also, how does one explain an early Shakespeare so clearly trying to one up Tamburlaine in the Henry VI plays? Obviously, if they are the same person, this rivalry might be more like an overlapping of interests that mark a period in an artist's life. Still, I have real concerns about how he would have pulled it off while his first ego was still alive; also, I don't know how he would have managed to be a named sharer in the LCM by Christmas of 1594 (without anyone knowing he was Marlowe in a wig). I don't think this is me being close-minded. I would be much more inclined to buy it if Shakespeare showed up three years after Marlowe died.

Second: Q1 Hamlet is only bad if we know it ought to be Q2. It stacks up well against the Shakespearean parts of Pericles written later. And why does an artist get better? Explain the last u2 album. Also, a good actor could make you forget many of your complaints. The passage sucks if you read it in a voice that stresses the changes and absences that make it inferior to Q2. But if you played it on its own terms? More to the point, if the play doesn't belong to Shakespeare, or Shakespeare wasn't from Stratford, it doesn't need to fit the timeline that would put it after the death of Hamnet Shaksper, or Shaksper's dad, right? The fact that it is too awful to have been written mid-career might be because it may not have been. Why hasn't more consideration been given to the possibility that it might resemble the play called Hamlet performed by the LCM in 1594? Or the "whole Hamlets" complained about by Nashe (in a passage blasting a player/playwright) in 1589? Its quality simply can't be part of the argument concerning it's authorship or chronology, at least not definitively.

Memorial reconstruction pits Shakespeare the writer against the theatre by making the theatre an agent of corruption. As this original post points out, it is worth considering the extent to which our tendency to do this has more to do with the way we've been introduced to the texts (in an English class about writers) than it does the plays themselves. Though I remain agnostic about Shakespeare's hand in Q1, I am pretty certain it was written first and written to be performed.

If you haven't gotten a chance to see a really good Original Practices production in a lit theater that stays lit (so we are a crowd and not an audience) with direct address, you should. I was silly to presume you hadn't seen and dismissed arguments against memorial reconstruction; I won't do so in this case. I will say, though, that the first time I saw an ASC production in the Blackfriars was the last time I believed in Shakespeare the Author as opposed to Shakespeare the playwright; on a visceral, personal level, I could no longer imagine not writing for that theater. Yes, I know that would have been the very end of his career. And yes I know that Ben Jonson wrote "works" and obviously cared about the way his plays were printed. But none of that means the playwrights weren't interested in the first incarnations of the plays on stage. As a human being, I simply don't understand how one could watch a crowd taking in your play and not write specifically to blow that sucker up.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 10:02 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I find it ... let's say, difficult to believe that Marlowe wrote the plays of Shakespeare -- other than the aforementioned complete lack of any evidence that he did -- simply because I've seen their plays. And their writing styles, thematic approaches, and character portrayals are so astonishingly different that it baffles me that anyone could think they were the same person. Sure, Marlowe's writing had an influence on Shakespeare's (just as others did, and just as others, such as Spenser, had an influence on Marlowe) but ... seriously? The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice were written by the same person? Or Dr. Faustus and Macbeth? It's like arguing that Jane Austen secretly wrote the works of Charlotte Bronte. A writer can grow, change, and improve, sure, but they tend not to completely and entirely alter their personalities for no particular reason.)
posted by kyrademon at 1:09 AM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


yoink, being so anti-conspiracy-theory, one would expect you to be keen on facts. Here are several that run contrary to what you have said:

- there are no accounts of Shakspere of Stratford as an author by anyone who knew him, in his lifetime. This is unlike Marlowe, Nashe and most other authors of the time. As Diana Price has shown, the literary paper trail for Shakespeare is much more absent than for any of his contemporaries.

- His will is utterly pedestrian, not because of its lack of florid language, but because of its lack of any items of cultural value. Shakespeare also seems to have left no immediate cultural legacy in his hometown.

- We do not know "a lot" about Shakespeare's schooling. In fact we know nothing. It is assumed he went to the local grammar school, which he would have been able to do for free - but the records don't survive. If so, his schooling would have ended around the age of 14. He didn't go to university. A lot has been written about the curriculum if grammar schools at the time, but what if anything he learnt there is a matter of speculation. While it is true that Ben Jonson didn't go to university, nevertheless we know he was personally mentored by William Camden, and was scrupulous in his scholasticism. No such (or any) account exists of Shakespeare's schooling.

- Susanna Shakespeare's signature was "painfully formed", suggesting she couldn't write, and a contemporary anecdote regarding her strongly suggests she couldn't read. Judith Shakespeare signed her name with a mark.

- The norm for girls brought up in literate households was, in fact, to be literate. How much more would we expect this of Shakespeare, whose plays abound with intelligent women. It is truly odd that his daughters were functionally illiterate, when he could afford the largest house in Stratford. It can only suggest his having no care for posterity - or that he wasn't the author.

- Christopher Marlowe's one surviving signature is clearly much more suggestive of his being able with a pen than Susanna, or those attributed to her father. There is less reason to doubt he wrote the plays ascribed to him, as we have many contemporary accounts of him as an author, by colleagues such as Nashe, Greene and Harvey.
posted by iotic at 1:17 AM on November 19, 2011


Dromio_of_Columbus - your last paragraph - absolutely, amen. Such performances are incredibly inspiring, and I think you have chosen a fascinating area for your studies.

Regarding Marlowe sharing chronology with Shakespeare - you seem to be under a misapprehension that they would need to. The first appearance of Shakespeare's name as an author is a few days after Marlowe's "death" - when Venus & Adonis, registered anonymously, appeared with an added dedication by "William Shakespeare".

The only piece of "evidence" for Shakespeare's being known as an author previous to this is Greene's apparent allusion in the Groatsworth, but this doesn't name him. I concur with A. D. Wraight's analysis that this is much more likely to refer to Alleyn than Shakespeare. Excellent article on the topic here.

kyrademon - a more valid comparison would be Richard II, or one of the Henry VI plays, with say, Marlowe's Edward II. They are incredibly similar. Then compare Shakespeare's early plays with his later ones, for a sense of how much his style developed. I would disagree that the personalities behind, say, Dido and Titus Andronicus are so different.

The Marlowe-as-Shakespeare argument really is very fascinating, the more you look into it. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone studying English Literature though - despite the solidity of the argument, you will likely be scorned for considering it.
posted by iotic at 2:07 AM on November 19, 2011


Among the facts pertinent to this case are a first, in Shakespeare's lifetime: a change of fashion towards more formal baroque theatre, then a civil war, a Puritan government forbidding theatre, and the great fire of London. It's amazing there is anything at all left for us to study.
I can't see why Shakespeare can't be Shakespeare. Most of the great artists of his day came from humble origins and handled theological and philosophical complexities without the luxury of an academic education. (Think Leonardo, Michelangelo). Imagining some huge conspiracy, kept a secret for hundreds of years, for no really good reason - it's too complicated.
To this day, many great writers have little education, and leave few traces (outside their work, of course) when they die. Thinking of writers I know, this makes good sense to me.
posted by mumimor at 2:34 AM on November 19, 2011


If Marlowe had invented Facebook, he would have invented Facebook.

The problem with the Marlowe as Shakespeare argument is that all your sources have to, necessarily, come from outside of the critical tradition involving the study of Shakespeare. This allows you to be dismissive of an entire discipline (who would scorn you for exploring it); their scorn becomes evidence that you are "ruffling feathers" which becomes evidence that you are on to something. Of course the government won't admit to UFO's: they're the government. You become suspicious of critical expertise while selectively relying on critical expertise to justify your argument. This again creates a tautology in which our scorn becomes evidence that your guys are "close to something." Wraight's article is ghettoized to the Marlowe Society because the establishment isn't ready for the truth.

But, again, what's the payoff? Even if I am willing to concede that we don't know that Marlowe wasn't Shakespeare, what insight does that give me into the texts that isn't greatly compromised by the fact that I now must declare war against the entire discipline of experts who care about my findings? History isn't a mystery to be figured out; history is for the living. As such, I choose (and maybe it is as arbitrary as that) the narrative that invites the largest number of people to the party.

My only olive branch is that I won't treat Wraight with scorn. I won't suggest that aliens only abduct crazy people. I will consider the notion that Greene and Nashe may have been writing about EA independently of the fact that the author belongs to a society that dismisses my entire tradition.

Poor Verdi, who is shaking his head and saying: "Yo, guys, this post was about me too."
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 5:56 AM on November 19, 2011


Oh yes, sorry Verdi. We know you found all Mozart's posthumous operas in a box, and lived on them till old age, but we don't care. Also, we don't care about Mozart not really dying, but actually going with Constance to Copenhagen, because that movie with Salieri was so cool.
posted by mumimor at 6:11 AM on November 19, 2011


Hm. I give you scholarly articles and factual argument, and you reply with unwarranted, ad hominem attacks and accusations of conspiracy / alien theories. Not that I'm surprised, but can't you do any better than that?
posted by iotic at 6:41 AM on November 19, 2011


Guys not to moderate my own thread and maybe no one else is coming in here anymore, but maybe cool it with the Marlowe derail?
posted by shakespeherian at 6:52 AM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I apologize for my part in the derail. Iotic-- I really wasn't attacking. I realize the mention of aliens makes it seem that way. Please re-read the comment; it really was meant to be a peace offering/explanation of why things have gone sour. As I am re-reading it myself, I realize that tonally it's sharper than I intended. I should have said "the trouble with talking about the theory." I really do appreciate the source regarding Nashe and Greene. I am new enough to this community that I don't know if apologies are typical or in fact the sort of thing that gets further away from the original discussion. I imagine they are the latter -- sorry shakespeherian -- but I don't like you thinking I was attacking you personally. You might enjoy James Marino's Owning Shakepseare. He too is skeptical of the traditional readings of the Nashe and Greene passages, though his argument is much more in line with this post's original article having to do with the role of the professional theatre (and specifically the LCM) in the creation of Shakespeare.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 7:29 AM on November 19, 2011


Thanks for the explanation, Dromio_of_Columbus, and thanks for the cite. shakespeherian - I apologise for the derail, too. I know it can be frustrating when a thread wanders way off-topic. The original point about the assumptions made by the article re: Shakespeare as an actor were, I think, on point. The Marlowe stuff, perhaps less so. Still it can be fun to have a wandering Internet discussion and at least no-one brought up the Nazis.

Whoops.

Have a good day you all.
posted by iotic at 7:51 AM on November 19, 2011


- there are no accounts of Shakspere of Stratford as an author by anyone who knew him, in his lifetime. This is unlike Marlowe, Nashe and most other authors of the time. As Diana Price has shown, the literary paper trail for Shakespeare is much more absent than for any of his contemporaries.

There is not a single mention of Marlowe by name as a playwright during his lifetime. Not one. There are, per contra, quite a few direct and only slightly indirect references to Shakespeare as a playwright and poet during his lifetime (the Parnassus Plays, Beaumont, Davies etc.). But hey, both Marlowe and Shakespeare are positively headline news compared to poor old John Webster about whom we know basically nothing at all. It wasn't until late last century that anyone even made a good stab at identifying him with any biographical data whatsoever. There are quite a few posthumous references to Marlowe as a dead playwright (including ones by Shakespeare). There is, of course, a flood of documentation by Shakespeare's contemporaries after his death attesting to him as author of the plays in the First Folio.

- His will is utterly pedestrian, not because of its lack of florid language, but because of its lack of any items of cultural value. Shakespeare also seems to have left no immediate cultural legacy in his hometown.

This is simply based on a misunderstanding of the nature of Elizabethan testamentary practice. Want to know who else's wills make no mention of books? Frances Bacon and Richard Hooker. Were they illiterates of no learning too? And Stratford was remarkably prompt to erect a monument to Shakespeare as a writer.

- We do not know "a lot" about Shakespeare's schooling. In fact we know nothing. It is assumed he went to the local grammar school, which he would have been able to do for free - but the records don't survive. If so, his schooling would have ended around the age of 14. He didn't go to university. A lot has been written about the curriculum if grammar schools at the time, but what if anything he learnt there is a matter of speculation. While it is true that Ben Jonson didn't go to university, nevertheless we know he was personally mentored by William Camden, and was scrupulous in his scholasticism. No such (or any) account exists of Shakespeare's schooling.

We have little to no evidence about the schooling of Jonson, of Chapman (of Chapman's Homer), of Webster, of Dekker, of Drayton etc. etc. etc. Not knowing about the schooling of an Elizabethan author is the norm, not the exception.

- Susanna Shakespeare's signature was "painfully formed", suggesting she couldn't write,

Or that she had a cramp. Or had injured her hand. Or who knows what.

- The norm for girls brought up in literate households was, in fact, to be literate.

Actually, female literacy badly lagged male literacy in both the 16th and 17th centuries. Girls were not permitted to attend grammar schools.

How much more would we expect this of Shakespeare, whose plays abound with intelligent women. It is truly odd that his daughters were functionally illiterate, when he could afford the largest house in Stratford. It can only suggest his having no care for posterity - or that he wasn't the author.

You know what's really shocking? H.G. Wells's children didn't own a single time machine! What an author writes and how s/he lives his/her life are two separate things.

- Christopher Marlowe's one surviving signature is clearly much more suggestive of his being able with a pen than Susanna, or those attributed to her father. There is less reason to doubt he wrote the plays ascribed to him, as we have many contemporary accounts of him as an author, by colleagues such as Nashe, Greene and Harvey.

Again, we have no accounts of him as a playwright before his death. None. There is every bit as much evidence to suppose that Marlowe was a front for Shakespeare as he tried to break into the literary scene as to suppose that Shakespeare was a front for Marlowe after faking his death. More, in fact, in that we don't need to explain Marlowe's well-attested death away.

Oops. On preview I see Shakespeherian's complaint about the derail. O.K. this will be my last word on the subject.
posted by yoink at 9:45 AM on November 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


It took you three hours to write the comment? :)
posted by iotic at 11:00 AM on November 19, 2011


It took you three hours to write the comment? :)

I guess rather than "preview" I meant "on reading the rest of the thread to see if anyone had already made these points."
posted by yoink at 6:56 PM on November 19, 2011


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