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.