One of the most difficult problems for talented people who are trying to make their mark in life is that of their rivals and competitors. On the other hand, they also make friends among other top people in their field, who help them and influence them. It was no different for Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It was impossible that any other playwrights who saw his plays could be anything but enormously impressed, and threatened if they had that kind of personality, so jealousy was something that he, like anyone else in that position, had to contend with. By the same token, he enjoyed some friendships among his contemporaries, the flowers of English Renaissance dramatic writers. The intense rivalry among the playwrights created a ‘golden age’ of English drama through the Jacobean era.
Below is an overview of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – those key figures who were writing at the same time as Shakespeare.
Ben Jonson became one of Shakespeare’s closest friends. Try and imagine that Shakespeare had never existed: it’s difficult but it could have happened. That time would still be seen as the golden age of English drama, and perhaps we would now be giving Ben Jonson the kind of attention that Shakespeare enjoys.
Shakespeare was the godfather of Ben Jonson’s son and Jonson was eating and drinking with his friend in his house in Stratford a few days before Shakespeare’s death. He was eight years younger than Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare, he did not have a university education. His father died, leaving the family destitute and Jonson took up the trade of bricklaying when he was old enough to work. He gave that up and went to the Netherlands and joined up as a soldier. Tired of that, he returned to England and fell into acting. He was quite a rough fellow: in 1598 he was arrested for killing a fellow actor in a duel, and in 1603, while performing at the royal court, he was kicked out for unruly behaviour.
No-one knows for sure how he came to meet Shakespeare but it’s thought that he submitted a play to Shakespeare’s company. We do know, though, that the two playwrights hit it off and became close friends. We also know that Shakespeare performed in one of Jonson’s plays, Everyman in His Humour, but we don’t know which role Shakespeare took. Ben Jonson was well travelled and well-read and it seems that they talked a great deal about travel and books. Jonson recommended books and lent some to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a great user of books while writing his plays.
Jonson died in 1637. His legacy is a body of some of the finest plays in the English language and some of the most famous, most quoted, poems. The major plays, which are regularly performed on English stages, are: Every Man in His Humour, Eastward Ho, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair.
Christopher Marlowe, apart from being a major and brilliant playwright, was an interesting character. Like Shakespeare, and born in the same year, 1564, he was the son of a middle-class skilled worker, in his case, a shoemaker. His parents were well off enough to send him to a public school, the King’s School in Canterbury, and then to university, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. When he left university he became a spy. He achieved considerable celebrity in London after his first success, Tamburlaine (1588), and was well known for his elaborate dress and jewellery. He was a professed atheist, a dangerous thing to be at that time, and when he wrote a pamphlet about inconsistencies in the bible he came under investigation. Before he could be brought to trial, however, he was found murdered in Deptford. He was just 29. It is thought that he was assassinated by government agents.
There are still some scholars who argue that Shakespeare did not write the Shakespeare plays – that it was someone else – and Marlowe is one of the contenders. The theory is that he wasn’t murdered but changed his identity and that the Shakespeare plays are his. But the plays attributed to Marlow were clearly written by someone with a university education, whereas Shakespeare’s plays are homespun and filled with the imagery that could only come from someone raised in the countryside.
Marlowe’s plays, like Jonson’s are regularly performed in English theatres and the most well known are Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and Edward II.
Robert Greene would hardly be remembered were it not for the fact that something he wrote about Shakespeare is the only surviving comment by a contemporary critic about Shakespeare, and that Shakespeare based the plot of The Winter’s Tale on his prose work, Pandosto. In his social allegory, Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), Greene referred to the young Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’.
Greene’s best-known plays are The Scottish History of James IV and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are usually thought of together because of their long collaboration. They were younger than Shakespeare, Beaumont born in 1584 and Fletcher in 1579. They were both university educated and so were somewhat out of place in London’s theatreland. In fact, Fletcher’s father, Richard Fletcher, was the bishop of London and Beaumont’s father was a judge. It is thought that Shakespeare took an interest in the young playwrights and edited some of their plays, which his company performed. Shakespeare evidently admired Fletcher because they collaborated on The Life of King Henry the Eighth, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio. The latter has been attributed to Fletcher but we now know that it was written in collaboration with Shakespeare.
Beaumont and Fletcher’s legacy is impressive and includes Philsater, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Maid’s Tragedy among their plays. When Beaumont died in 1616 Webster went on to collaborate with Jonson and Massinger. He was involved in the writing of forty-two plays and died of the plague in 1625. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral.
Philip Massinger, born in 1584, was generally considered by his contemporaries to be the best playwright of the time, after Shakespeare. Most of his plays have been lost, but his masterpiece, The Roman Actor, survives. His partnership with Fletcher resulted in about twenty plays. He is also buried in Southwark Cathedral, in the same grave as his friend and partner, John Fletcher.
Thomas Kyd, born in 1558, is remembered for his wonderful, popular and influential play, The Spanish Tragedy, which towers above everything except Shakespeare’s best plays. It set the standard for that popular form, the revenge tragedy. Indeed, one can see what an important influence it was on Shakespeare’s great creation, Hamlet. It includes ghosts, insanity, murder, conspiracy and suicide and is a blueprint for the Jacobean plays of cruelty and violence. It is impossible to overestimate its influence on the development of English drama. He died in poverty in 1594.
John Webster – born in 1580 – didn’t write many plays, but The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are considered to be the two best Jacobean plays and, in hindsight, they define Jacobean drama, with the complexity of their intrigues, their cruelty and violence, and the intelligence of their heroes, who are Iago-like villains. The poetry in those plays is second only to that in Shakespeare’s and when they are performed today they come across as freshly as Shakespeare’s plays do.
It was some golden age. Other high points were Thomas Middleton and William Rowley‘s fascinating play, The Changeling ; Cyril Tourneur ‘s The Revenger’s Tragedy, and Thomas Dekker‘s The Honest Whore (with Middleton). The general literary scene was adorned by the likes of Edmund Spenser (The Fairy Queen); Francis Bacon; Sir Thomas Elyot (The Book of the Governor (and ancestor of the American poet, T.S. Eliot); Sir Philip Sidney (poet); Thomas Barker, (Barker’s Delight, or the Art of Angling) and Thomas Campion (Observations on the Art of English Poesie), among others.