We think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest modern Western writers, and perhaps the greatest playwright ever. We imagine him sitting alone at his desk, writing the plays by candlelight, his quill pen scratching in the silent night. We probably think about him in the way we do about a modern novelist, whose stories evolve from her individual imagination, and which she develops through her fingertips as she types in a lonely room. Something like this:
The reality is somewhat different. The Elizabethan theatre was more like Hollywood – big corporate business where scriptwriters and teams of scriptwriters are hired to work under difficult and stressful conditions to supply a very lucrative, very competitive, market. Market research provides information about what the public wants (and that changes continuously) and the writers are expected to get on with writing for that audience as fast as possible and adapt to the changing taste: the pressure on the writers is immense. New talented young writers are brought in by film companies to work with more experienced writers and learn the trade from them. The writers make friends among each other, learn which ones they like working with, gauge which ones can be useful, and form writing partnerships. It’s a tight, exclusive, community where everyone knows everyone else and what each one is capable of.
Some actors and directors become involved in the script writing. Occasionally a writer’s name will become well known to the public and audiences will seek out films written by them.
Providing plays for the Elizabethan theatre was just like that. Before William Shakespeare, an actor, became involved in the first play he was involved in he had to be shown what to do, in the way that any apprentice has to be trained in the craft. It is unrealistic to think about this amazing talent, the young inexperienced William Shakespeare, suddenly producing a play that could be presented to the paying public. That could never have happened.
We now know that Shakespeare almost never worked alone. Even some of the most famous of the great plays attributed to him show evidence of the hand of others, and quite often, identifiable others. For example, one of the witches scenes and some general revisions in Macbeth were done by Thomas Middleton. George Wilkins made a substantial contribution to Pericles; Timon of Athens was written jointly by Shakespeare and Middleton, and Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare and George Peel. Such collaborations have been confirmed by modern analytical techniques, including lexical, metrical and stylistic tests as well as the close examination of content and tone, comparing them with texts known to have been written by various authors.
There are some famous partnerships between Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, often with both names on the texts. That was often because they were close friends, or perhaps even lovers. Thomas Middleton and William Rowley wrote one of the still most-performed Jacobean plays, The Changeling, together as well as lesser-known plays. John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont always wrote their plays together. They lived together and neither ever married. They even shared their clothes. They are buried in adjacent graves in Southwark Cathedral.
Friendship was only one reason for collaboration: the main reason was commercial – the demand for plays in a competitive industry. Writers generally specialised in, or were best at, writing a particular kind of scene. Some were best at comic scenes and others at more serious or tragic scenes and so, together, could produce a well balanced play. Some were good at spectacle or special effects, and that is probably why Middleton, brilliant at that, was approached to supply one of the witches scenes in Macbeth. He had, in fact, written a play, The Witch, and he inserted some of that into the play Shakespeare was working on.
It is difficult to know how the writers actually worked. Perhaps Beaumont and Fletcher sat down after dinner, or during the day, and talked about the play they were working on – where they were going with it – or what idea they should work on next, and other writing matters like that. Then, perhaps, each one would get on with the bit that he had agreed to write. In Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling the two styles are very clearly discernable, so they obviously wrote their agreed scenes individually then constructed the play together.
Generally, the playwriting community was tight. The writers lived and worked in a small area of London so saw a great deal of each other. It was probably a matter of one writer asking another for help on a particular aspect of a text and working a scene by another writer into the play he was responsible for.
For centuries we knew little about collaborations, apart from the most obvious, like The Changeling, but textual analysis has become very sophisticated, with experts working in the field, so now we can tell, not only that other people wrote bits of ‘Shakespeare,’ but also that Shakespeare wrote bits of other people’s plays.
As for Shakespeare himself, while he was performing on the stage he would have been watching the techniques of other actors, getting ideas from that: he would have been watching the audience response to see how they could best be pleased and all the time he would have been chatting to his colleagues and asking some of them to work with him. And sometimes one of them would in turn ask for his help.
There was a BBC series recently in which writers talked about their writing habits, which got me thinking about Shakespeare’s writing habits. The conversations the writers in this series had with the show’s presenter took place in the rooms where they wrote, and the show was mainly about where writers write. It’s interesting how so many writers cannot write anywhere but one place, where they feel enough at ease to let it flow.
The rooms were all so different and ranged from sheds at the bottom of the garden to splendid, luxurious halls, but for the most part, they were just rooms that had, over the years, taken on the personality of the writer. They were usually untidy – cluttered with towers of books and piles of ragged paper. Walls were lined with office cupboards and sagging shelves and there were glasses, coffee cups, ashtrays, and many other signs of the preoccupied writer, but they were all different because of the stamp they had been given by the writer’s personality.
The most prolific English writer, Barbara Cartland, stayed in bed every morning, surrounded by pink furnishings, dictating her novels to a secretary, and wrote, on average, a novel every two weeks.
No-one could compete with Barbara Cartland but Shakespeare, like Trollope, was nevertheless one of the most prolific English writers. We know Shakespeare’s plays so well and we know the broad outline of his life but the details of his daily life elude us. What would be of special interest to other writers – his writing habits – are unknown. Did he sit propped-up in bed like teenage poets and diarists do today? Did he sit in an armchair? Could he write when he went home to Stratford? Did he write on the coach as he travelled? There is some suggestion that he did some of his writing in the theatre itself, responding to the actors as they explored a text that had already been started. He reveals an intimate knowledge of London pub life in his plays so perhaps he sat at a table in the corner of a Fleet Street pub, writing. Or perhaps he had a study in his lodgings, with a table with inkwells and quill pens, and it was the only place where he could write.
Sadly, the fact is, we did will never know how Shakespeare’s writing took place, but wouldn’t it be great to go back in time and find out?
Shakespeare’s plays fall into the category of literature now, whereas there was probably nothing further from his mind as he turned them out for performance on a stage. He had a go at writing poems: there are the sonnets and a few epic poems, and he probably aspired to being a poet as writing poetry was one of the marks of a gentleman and that’s probably how he wanted to be regarded. But the cold reality is that Shakespeare was basically a hack and all his energy went into the urgent and exhausting job of making plays.
When he arrived in London he found himself in the middle of a blossoming theatre industry and he probably just fell into writing plays, as that’s where the money was – and it was big money, given London’s insatiable appetite for that particular form of entertainment. He worked furiously at it, turning out several plays a year. He wasn’t able to supply the demand for the theatres with which he was associated singlehanded, and there were scores of writers, all crafting plays. Some of their work has lasted but there were many more who were never heard of again. Shakespeare was just one of them, grinding away in a play factory. Indeed, we would not even have heard of him if it hadn’t been for a couple of enterprising actors who redeemed his plays and collected them in the famous First Folio. And he wrote twice as many plays as those we know about. Unfortunately many of his products have been lost forever.
Although the public loved watching plays the men who were associated with the theatre were regarded as a low form of life. The Jacobean poet, John Donne, has given us some remarkable dramatic poems but he never tried writing a play. He was a poet and a gentleman and would never have dreamt of involving himself in such a disreputable activity. The same is true of Edmund Spencer and Sir Philip Sydney, both gentlemen. They were producing ‘literature:’ Shakespeare and his colleagues were making plays – which were all disposable after they had been performed. The big thing was to keep new plays coming: there were no revivals of plays that had been discarded and that’s one of the reasons that so much of the ‘golden age’ of English literature has been lost.