Almost everyone in the English speaking world, and further, has held a copy of a Shakespeare text in his/her hands at some time. But how often do we think about how that text came into being? We are told that Shakespeare wrote the play we are reading, or studying, or rehearsing, and for most of us, that’s simply that. But at some point the writer put pen to paper and the text we hold in our hands is the result of that act. How did that text come into being?
There are no eyewitnesses to Shakespeares actually writing his plays and poems but if we look at the theatre culture of his time and the conditions in which the plays were produced we can speculate about the writing process. We at No Sweat Shakespeare offer you our musings on the subject.
All writers have their own way of tackling the task of writing. Making something meaningful by putting words together is their goal, but every writer achieves that in his or her own individual way. John Milton, a blind poet, sat in a chair and dictated, among other poems, Paradise Lost, to his daughters. Anthony Trollope, the architect of the British and Irish postal systems, got up early, wrote a thousand words of one of the fifty or so novels he ended up producing, went off hunting with hounds then set off to the Post Office, where he spent the day working, then went to his club for dinner, and after that to bed. The whole cycle would begin again the next morning and repeated throughout the week. F Scott Fitzgerald, the writer of some of the most beautiful prose of the 20th century, drank continuously as he wrote, and he worked into the night until, completely drunk, he fell off his chair.
Those were lonely, isolated writers, creating their poems and novels from their individual imaginations, but we know that some of the most effective texts – those written for modern television series and films, for example – are written by a partnership of two, or a group of writers, which allows them to bounce ideas off each other and try things out. The late 16th and early 17th century theatre was similar to modern television and film in that the ratings were all-important, and to get the ratings you had to acquire high quality scripts that would work with audiences at all social levels. If two or more writers, given a deadline, worked on a script together the chances were that the script would be finished on time and it would also have the input of more than one talent, as well as having built-in critical scrutiny as the script progressed. Moreover, experienced writers could train newcomers, thus ensuring that there would always be a supply of plays to meet the irresistible demand. It was all to do with business, and theatre entrepreneurs (one of which Shakespeare became) got rich on it.
The young William Shakespeare and his even younger brother Edmund arrived in London, probably with the intention of becoming actors, having seen travelling players in Stratford, and deciding to try their luck in a London theatre. Very soon someone – perhaps a writer or a theatre manager – saw something interesting in something that the young Will had said or done and invited him to join a team that was working on a new history series. And so Shakespeare was taken into the group. It was a large group – at least a dozen – mainly writers who hadn’t become household names, but led by one who had – Thomas Nashe. They were impressed with Will and the first text of the series, now known as Henry VI Part 2, was completed. Twenty percent of it is now known to have been written by Shakespeare. It’s evident that Shakespeare’s first venture into what was to become the trade that he excelled in, was successful, and he ended up writing a good chunk of the text, in spite of his being a newcomer.
How would that large team of writers have produced that text? Well. They would have had a basic outline of the story told by the historian, Holinshed, and they would have developed it into a text that contained the elements they knew would interest and inspire an audience. They knew that it had to have rounded characters that the audience could identify with, that there had to be conflict and tension, action, violence, sex and all the things that audiences demanded, and still demand. And the dialogue had to be convincing.
And so they would have begun to throw ideas around, to get into groups and create scenes through improvisation, someone writing down the things that worked. Then, perhaps, each writer would volunteer to write a script for some part of the story, based on the discussions and improvisations, or perhaps sections would be assigned by the group’s leader. In the case of Henry VI the most experienced writer, Thomas Nashe, got to write the first act.
They probably didn’t go home to work on it at night by candlelight for ‘homework’ but stayed in the theatre and got it done before they went home. We should remember that this was business, that writing plays was a trade and that that making a play was the writers’ day job. There was no notion of play writers being artistes or men of letters. And there were tight deadlines. The only consideration was the ratings – bringing in the audience. The play scripts were not regarded as literature and once they had been performed they could be thrown away. They had to be good, though, or they would not attract audiences. They had to be full of the things audiences liked and they had to work in that they had to suspend the audiences’ disbelief, allowing them to feel that they were witnessing real life. Writing a play was a skill, and if a writer developed it to a high level there was a good, if highly pressurised, career in it for him.
While working on the Henry plays young Will was making new friends among the writing community, and learning from them. He had been bitten by the bug and play writing had become his passion. He was also making money. Before the Henry plays were ready for the stage he was, with the help of his friends, already working on a sequel, which became the successful Richard III. At the same time he had caught the eye of the experienced writer, George Peele, and the two began working on a very violent play – Titus Andronicus. This was the young Shakespeare’s first venture into the extreme violence that was to characterise the Jacobean theatre. In his subsequent plays he used violence more sparingly and more pointedly.
By now Shakespeare was doing less acting and more writing. He had now attracted the attention of some of the most prominent writers like John Fletcher, George Wilkins and Thomas Middleton. It seems that Shakespeare and Middleton worked well together as they produced at least four plays, over several years, including Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and All’s Well that Ends Well.
The success of the plays in which Shakespeare was involved and the respect he was earning from other writers boosted the young writer’s confidence and he set about attempting scripts on his own, while still collaborating with others. Writing plays was something he never gave up, even after his retirement, and young writers and old partners would make the journey to Stratford to get his advice and, if lucky, have his input into plays they were writing. Well after his retirement he contributed to two of his old friend John Fletcher’s plays: Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Both plays have been attributed to Shakespeare but they are basically the work of Fletcher.
The writing, even of the ‘great’ plays like King Lear and Hamlet, was done with other writers close by and in all of Shakespeare’s plays scholars can detect the fingerprints of several writers. For example, there are bits of Macbeth that clearly come from the pen of Thomas Middleton. Middleton also wrote music for Macbeth. Likewise, traces of Shakespeare’s writing are to be found in several plays credited to his contemporaries. So it is clear that while a writer was working on something there were always other writers nearby – writers who were willing to take a look at something that needed a second eye. (Check our our article detailing how Shakespeare wrote his plays.)
One of the approaches in collaborations was to discuss the characters and the plot of a story and each of the writers involved would write a section of the text – perhaps the beginning, or the ending, or some particular scenes. For example, when Middleton and Rowley wrote The Changeling together Middleton wrote the main plot and Rowley the sub plot. It’s a wonderful play but the two plots don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. Scholars have scratched their heads about that ever since, wondering what the two writers thought they were doing. Such imperfections are bound to happen, given the pressure of time, and they happened frequently in the plays.
Another approach was for a writer to go the whole way with the story, write a draft, and then send it around his friends for revision. Most plays underwent that process and so we have threads of the styles of several writers in them. Shakespeare was fully involved in that circus, both in the revision of his texts and in his revision of the texts of others.
Elizabethan playwrights were not lonely creators, agonising over their poetry – they were hard-working artisans, pooling their mental resources and working fast and to a deadline. They were well paid and prolific. A play had very few performances: there was fierce competition among the theatres and every theatre had to have new plays all the time. That Shakespeare’s plays are so good is a miracle, given the conditions in which they were written but that is accounted for by the fact that he was a literary genius the like of which is almost unknown previous to him and certainly not after. However, if he had never existed the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras would still be regarded as the golden age of English drama and we would still have giants like Webster and Jonson and Marlow but how fortunate we are that a talent like William Shakespeare found himself in that environment and took root with such vigour.