The following is an extract from the General Introduction to the New Oxford Shakespeare, and looks at the many different playwrights, actors, and poets that collaborated with Shakespeare.
When we read Shakespeare’s Complete Works we are primarily, of course, reading Shakespeare. But as a bonus we also get, in the same volume, an excellent anthology of most of the important playwrights who were his collaborators. Shakespeare collaborated for the same reason that most people do: different members of the team are especially good at different tasks. The poet Alexander Pope, who edited Shakespeare’s plays in 1725, had no idea that Fletcher had wrote parts of All Is True, but we now know that the four passages he singled out as particular ‘beauties’, worthy of special attention, were all written by John Fletcher.
Shakespeare’s conversations with other writers and artists, the interweaving of his creativity with theirs, began in his own lifetime. His last three plays were all co-written with Fletcher – who, in all three, seems to have written more of the surviving text than Shakespeare. But Fletcher also wrote The Tamer Tamed, a sequel and reply to The Taming of the Shrew, in which we learn that Kate was never successfully tamed, and Petruccio’s second wife tames him; we know the two plays were performed together at court in 1633, and perhaps much earlier. Ben Jonson’s Sejanus was clearly a response to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but it also seems likely that the lost version of Sejanus performed by the King’s Men was a collaboration between the two men, just as Shakespeare’s ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ was originally printed in a small collection of commissioned poems by several poets, including Jonson. Thomas Middleton, ‘our other Shakespeare’, was Shakespeare’s junior collaborator on Timon of Athens, but he also seems to have adapted four of Shakespeare’s plays between 1616 and 1623 (Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Macbeth). Middleton began the long historical tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s work to make it more suitable, and more interesting, for later audiences. But Middleton also wrote a reply, The Ghost of Lucrece, to Shakespeare’s Lucrece; an early owner bound the two poems together in a single volume.
Shakespeare was, and is, bound to many kinds of artist, not just poets and playwrights. In the last two decades of his career he was legally bound together with the other ‘sharers’ of a joint-stock company of actors. This means that Shakespeare created his characters for individual actors who would collaborate with him in performing the play. In fact, each actor received a separate manuscript, called a ‘part’, containing only the speeches of the character he was going to create, and a few words of his cues. From the beginning, each actor ‘owned’ his character.
Those actors literally embodied Shakespeare’s characters, by giving them a particular physique and a particular face. By comparison with most modern plays, Shakespeare’s scripts say almost nothing about the visual impression created by his characters, perhaps because he had already cast them in his mind, as he was writing them. Certainly, once we have seen a particular actor play a role we tend to think of the character in terms of that actor’s body, and especially that actor’s face, and modern playwrights often anticipate or imagine a particular actor as they are writing.
All his plays were written to be co-created by a team. But that team also changed over time, as actors like the star comedian William Kemp left, and new talents like Robert Armin and John Lowin arrived. Even if the actors remained the same, the spectators did not, in part because they were being influenced by other playwrights. Early in his career Shakespeare was competing with better-educated playwrights, most of them older than him, and with playwrights with more experience writing successful plays: Watson, Kyd, Greene, Peele, Lodge and Marlowe. He outlived them all, but by the late 1590s he was challenged, and new audience tastes were being shaped, by fashionable younger playwrights, beginning with Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, soon followed by Thomas Middleton, then by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
In the decade before 1594, when the Chamberlain’s Men was created, England’s infant theatre industry had gone through years of turmoil, with acting companies disintegrating, consolidating, and morphing rapidly and unpredictably. This was Europe’s first mass-entertainment industry, and like any new industry it went through a chaotic period of trial and error, erratic boom and bust. After such an apprenticeship, Shakespeare could never have expected a play to be performed, for any long period, by exactly the same cast.
Nor could he have expected his plays to be performed, always, in the same space, or for a stable loyal audience of predictably returning theatregoers. Shakespeare’s first experiences of new English plays would have been the many visits to Stratford-upon-Avon of actors on tour: between 1569 and 1587 he could have seen dozens of plays performed by all the country’s most important professional adult companies. Such touring in the ‘provinces’, away from London, continued to be a fundamental part of the theatre business throughout his working life. So did performances at court, for intellectually and financially elite audiences in spaces that were never designed for the convenience of actors. The plays he wrote for Elizabeth I continued to be revived after her death and the succession of King James I.
Shakespeare’s commercial success in his own time depended on his ability to write adaptable scripts: plays that would reward different actors and different kinds of audience, plays that would survive a weak performance or different interpretation by a new member of the cast, plays that did not depend upon a particular size or shape of stage, plays that could appeal to different political regimes. Adaptability was the secret to stability.
Shakespeare’s plays have continued to do for centuries what they did in his own lifetime: adapt to connect to an endless succession of new collaborators, new venues, and new audiences.
Featured image credit: Signature alleged to be William Shakespeare’s, found in a copy of Florio’s Montaigne in the early 19th century. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.