Shakespeare and the Early Modern English Drama

An online resource for students

 by Leigh T. Denault

"He was not of an age, but for all time!"
Ben Jonson, c. 1573-1637: 'To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare' (1623)

Table of Contents:

Introducing Mr. William Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of the Bard of Avon

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, baptized on 26 April 1564, according to the parish register of the Holy Trinity Church. His birthday is popularly thought to be April 23rd, but as this is both the date of his death 54 years later and St. George's Day, the coincidence may be too far-fetched. The name of Shakespeare is an old one in Warwickshire, dating back as far as 1248, when "William Sakspere" was executed for thieving. The dramatist had seven brothers and sisters, according to the same church register, three of which died in childhood. Shakespeare himself may have narrowly escaped the plague that was ravaging London and its surrounding townships in the year of his birth. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was a land-owning heiress with the fifty-acre estate of Asbies from her father, Robert Arden, upon his death in 1556. Mary Arden married John Shakespeare shortly thereafter. John Shakespeare moved his residence to the town of Stratford in 1552, when he set himself up as a whittawer and glover. In 1556 he purchased a home on Greenhill Street, in addition to a house adjoining his place of occupancy on Henly Street. It is in this "double-house" that the poet is said to have been born.

John Shakespeare was elected alderman and high baliff of Stratford in 1568, which has led scholars to believe that Shakespeare himself was educated in a grammar school as a child - his knowledge of Latin and classical Greek literature certainly correspond to that assumption. Nicholas Rowe, who wrote the first biography of the dramatist in 1709, mentions that John Shakespeare placed William "for some time in a free school". John would have been able to enjoy the absence of tuition for William as a benefit of his position in Stratford. The school in Stratford was of very good quality, better than Eton at the time. More support for this assertion comes from Shakespeare himself: in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he re-enacts a school-room scene, right down to the learning of Latin by memorization.

The next major event in the life of William Shakespeare is his marriage to Anne Hathaway. They were married by the Bishop of Worcester on 28 November 1582, after only one calling of the banns, (it was traditonal that knowledge of any impediments to the marriage be called for three times). Very little factual information remains concerning Anne Hathaway, save that she is most likely the eldest daughter of Richard Hathaway, who lived in Shottery,a small village a mile or so to the west of Stratford. She was 26 at the date of the wedding, while Shakespeare himself was 18. The birth of their first child, Susanna, on 26 May 1583, explains the hasty marriage. Twins Hamnet and Judith were born on 2 February 1585. From the birth of the twins to his first appearance in London as a dramatist, there is no record. Speculation runs rampant, and these years are romantically termed "lost".

Shakespeare may have joined a theatre company touring Stratford, or he may have simply set out for London because he was tired of country life. For whatever reason, by 1592 he had made a place for himself in the theatrical world of London as a playwright and actor. By 1594, he had joined with a theatre company known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men, (their name changed to the King's Men upon the ascension of King James I to the throne in 1603) in which he played principle roles as well as taking upon himself the management of the company. They played at the Blackfriar at first, a theatre located in the midst of the sprawl of London, and later moved shop in the night to the Globe, located across the river. The Globe was by far a better location. Remember, Shakespeare's stint in London parallels the progression of the plague. Theatres within the London boundaries were often closed to halt the spread of infection, or heavily fined if they remained open. The Lord Chamberlain's men had been forced into a year's idleness by this law, and the covert move to the site of the Globe effectively ended the threat of closing. Always industrious, The Lord Chamberlain's Men did actually move their old theatre. They carried away every timber of the Blackfriar on a summer's night in 1598 and used them to construct the Globe, even though the previous theatre had only been leased, not purchased. The owner was away on business at the time, and upon his return he sued the company. The Lord Chamberlain's Men won the suit.

Shakespeare made a good name for himself in London. Not only were The Lord Chamberlain's Men the most popular company at the time, they were the favorites of Queen Elizabeth, a patron of theatres and actors, who invited them every Christmas to act for her at the palace, (Shakespeare responded with Richard III, giving the Tudor ascension a more legitimate turn). This great distinction was usually parcelled out among companies, but for several years The Lord Chamberlain's Men alone held the privilige. Shakespeare himself was able to sell octavo editions of his plays (sometimes called "penny copies") to the literate in his audience. This also represents a first - never before had a playwright been so well-liked within his own time that his plays were sold like novels.

William Shakespeare, First Folio Portrait In 1596, he had purchased a coat of arms for his father from the College of Heralds. His first daughter, Susanna, married well in 1607 to the Dr. John Hall. All in all, Shakespeare earned enough to retire to his native Stratford with comfort and ease in 1611, in addition to some degree of fame. He had purchased more land, and retired a second-generation gentleman. When he wrote his will in 1616, he bequeathed all of his property to Susanna, traditionally thought of as his "favorite". Judith recieved £ 300, and his wife, Anne, the famous second-best bed. The most plausible explanation for this old mystery is that Shakespeare had already made arrangements for Anne to live with Susanna, and gave her the bed, because it was her favorite, to take with her to her new home. On 23 April, 1616, (or thereabouts) William Shakespeare died, and was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church on 25 April. After his death, two actors who had been in The Lord Chamberlain's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell printed the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's collected plays and sonnets as a tribute to their friend in 1623, including 18 plays not printed anywhere else.

According to George Steevens, a knowledgeable Shakespearean scholar of the 1700's, "All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare, is - that he was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, - married and had children there, - went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays, returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried". Certainly, records from Elizabethan England are not as detailed as records from more recent times, but we know more about Shakespeare than we do about most other playwrights from his period. We know he existed, we have all of the major records and documentation of his life, we even have the costuming bills from his theatre company. Some believe that William Shakespeare didn't write plays or poems at all (the Shakespeare Oxford Society Home Page offers a good example). Their arguments fail to convince knowledgeable scholars, who attribute the disbelief to a form of intellectual elitism: Shakespeare was a commoner, and his father a dissolute one at that. He did not attend college or university, or even very much of his grammar school. How could such a one become so great? According to Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC:

    To those aquainted with the history of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it is incredible that anyone should be so naive or ignorant as to doubt the reality of Shakespeare as the author of the plays that bear his name. Yet so much nonsense has been written about other "candidates" for the plays that it is well to remind readers that no credible evidence that would stand up in a court of law has ever been adduced to prove either that Shakespeare did not write his plays or that anyone else wrote them. Alll the theories offered for the authorship of Francis Bacon, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Hertford, Christopher Marlowe, and a score of others are mere conjectures spun from the active imaginations of persons who confuse hypothesis and conjecture with evidence.

The New Globe: Elizabethan Theatre and Modern Reconstruction

"The cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself" The Tempest

"What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" Hamlet

The Globe Theatre is going up again in London's Bankside after just a few hundred year's intermission. It will be the crux of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre, an educational organization inspired and designed by actor and director Sam Wanamaker. Built 400 feet from the site of the original theatre, (which is being excavated for archeological purposes) the New Globe includes an indoor theatre designed by Inigo Jones, a famous architect and contemporary of playwright William Shakespeare. Most of Shakespeare's greatest plays were performed on the stage of the original Globe, built in Southwark in 1599. In 1613, the theatre burned to the ground. Live cannon used in a performance of Henry VIII cast sparks into the thatched roof of the Globe, and the entire building was set alight. Apparently there were no casualties, save one gentleman who was burned slightly when his trousers caught fire; this was quickly remedied by a liberally applied bottle of beer. See the bird's eye view of the "wooden O" to the left.

Not only is the Globe back, it's being rebuilt using the same methods required to constuct the original almost 400 years ago. A special permit to obtain a thatched roof in London was required, each bundle was dipped in flame-retardant solution. Master craftsmen are working alongside actors from all over London, using such materials as green oak, brick, lime, goat's hair, and water-reeds. Mortice and tenon joints are used to join the oaken posts, pegged in the same way Elizabethan craftsmen would have done. Willows are split into laths, and Chardstock sand is mixed with goat's hair and lime to make a plaster for the walls. Care has been taken to insure that all of the building materials are consistent with Elizabethan custom and the design of the original Globe. The amount of work involved is of an incredible scale. It is an exploration of the craft of Shakespeare's time, as well as a celebration of his art.

Above, you can see the outside of the Globe Theatre during its construction. The Globe was not a remarkable design in Tudor theatre construction, although we think of it as being unique today. Most of the theatres that dotted Southwark looked very much like this one. The design of the "wooden O" was favored because it let in the most light. Plays like Henry V , that are very conscious of being a play (for instance, the prologue in Henry V apologizes to the audience for the inadequacy of the stage, and asks us to use our imagination) can teach historians and students of literature alike how Elizabethan theatre worked, and what the experience of a Shakespearean play would have been like for people who lived during that time.

Sitting on the wooden benches, looking out into the sunny pit and up to the magnificent stage, a great deal of the mystery surrounding Elizabethan drama, and particularly Shakespearean drama, becomes crystal clear. Why do the characters often repeat a line or word three times? Examples: Polonious asks Hamlet what he is reading. Hamlet answers "words, words, words". The Globe's stage was very much like the modern theatre design that we call thrust. The audience would have been seated directly in front of the stage, but, also, due to the shape of the theatre, to stage left and stage right. Some influential pillars of the community even sat on the stage, not to see but to be seen -- they would parade occasionally in their newest costumes so the audience could have a better view. So, when a character says something three times, the actor was intended to speak the line while panning the audience, from stage left through the center to finish at stage right, or vice versa.

The "penny audience" or "groundlings" were those who purchased the cheapest tickets. These tickets entitled them only to standing room in the pit. They were typically the rowdiest members of the audience. The bawdy humor and ripe puns in Shakespearean drama were usually aimed at this particular crowd. The two photos above were taken from the entrance stage left, and from the stage itself.

Shown to the left is the temporary stage and a view of the stage-left audience seating. Two Gentlemen of Verona will be performed on this stage in the Fall of 1996, and the stage will then be adjusted based on its performance during that production. Note that the the York flagstones that will eventually cover the floor of the groundling arena are not yet installed. Many of the balusters have not yet been placed. And the inside theatre, designed by Inigo Jones, will not be started until the Globe is completely finished. The space that will be used for the Inigo Jones Theatre is currently filled the Shakespeare's Globe Exhibition, a cultural and historical exhibit to teach visitors more about the Globe, Shakespeare, and Elizabethan England. When it is finished, the Globe will be a working theatre. Plays in the outdoor theatre will be performed in the daylight, with the audiences sitting on oak benches or standing in the pit, just as they did 400 years ago. Afternoon and evening performances, as well as winter performances, will take place in the indoor theatre. The Globe will be not only a historic monument to the Tudor past, but also a center of entertainment in the present.

Online Resources for Early Modern Drama

Bibliography of Sources for Further Study

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. Athenum, New York 1968.

Buell, William A. The Hamlets of the Theatre. New York: Astor-Honor, Inc., 1968.

Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. Columbia University Press, New York 1993.

Dramatic Character Plates for Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays, 1775-1776. Facsimile published by Cornmarket Press from the plates in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, London, 1969.

Girard, Rene. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, New York 1991.

Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Kliman, Bernice. "Hamlet": Film, Television, and Audio Performance . Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson UP, 1988.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy. Methuen, New York 1986.

Leavenworth, Russell, editor. Interpreting "Hamlet". San Francisco: Howard Chandler, 1960.

Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. "Hamlet" Through the Ages: A Pictorial Record from 1709. London: Rockliff, 1952.

Merchant, W. M. Shakespeare and the Artist. London: Oxford UP, 1959.

Mills, John A. Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Oakley, Lucy. Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects. New York: Columbia University, 1994.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare's Tragedies. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York 1978.

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark . Washington Square Press, Pocket Books, New York 1992. (This is the version referred to throughout this page).

Smith, David L., et al, eds. The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre, and Politics in London, 1576-1649. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Spurgeon, Caroline. Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us. Cambridge University Press, New York 1988.

Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. Oxford University Press, New York 1989.

Wark, Robert. Drawings from the Turner Shakespeare. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1973.

Watts, Cedric. Hamlet. Twayne Publishers, Boston 1988.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies . Cambridge University Press, New York 1986.

Contents Copyright © Leigh T. Denault, 2002