A Portrait of the Playwright
from Center Stage, Baltimore MD. Program notes (1991)


If Entertainment Tonight or 60 Minutes, People, or Time magazines had been as much a part of Elizabethan culture as they are of our own, students and admirers of Shakespeare could now reread or view old interviews with the most celebrated playwright in the English language.  We would know precisely what he looked like and what he thought.  Quite likely we would know if his marriage was a success, if his children were delinquent, and if he had any skeletons in his family closet.


Of course, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, when William Shakespeare wrote, acted, and managed a theatrical company, the members of the entertainment world, as we now call it, were not the celebrities that they are today.  No one hastened to record their thoughts and activities for posterity.  It probably never occurred to Shakespeare or his contemporaries that 400 years later millions of people who have read his plays and seen them produced on stage, film, and television in virtually every country in the world would be curious about all the details of his life and work.  Shelves of books and articles have been created by researchers seeking to satisfy that curiosity.  If the answers they provide arc sketchy, the questions that they raise are fascinating.


Who was William Shakespeare and did he write the plays published in his name?  Most of what we know about the man has been gleaned from legal documents, such as the recording of the purchase and sale of land, and from church records of significant familiar events, such as marriages and baptisms.  Happily for researchers Shakespeare and his work are also mentioned in the writings of a number of his contemporaries (Ben Jonson, Francis Meres, and Robert Greene, among others).


On April 26, 1564, the parish register of Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, records the baptism of one William, son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and tanner of hides, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do landowner.  Custom holds that the baby was born three days before on April 23, the feast of St. George, England's patron, who according to ancient legend, was a mighty warrior and slayer of dragons.  The idea of England's greatest writer and perhaps her most famous historical figure being born on so important a feast has a certain romantic appeal, but, alas, no absolute proof of the coincidence exists.


Often with those who admire Shakespeare, the wish, as Wordsworth says, is the father of the thought.  No painting or likeness of Shakespeare made during his lifetime exists.  However, in 1623, seven years after his death, Gheerart Janssen, a Dutch immigrant, created a bust of Shakespeare for his monument in Trinity Church.  Since the monument was made during his wife's lifetime and with the financial support of many of his friends, the figure was agreeably an acceptable likeness.  In the same year Martin Droeshout created an engraved portrait to appear in an edition of Shakespeare's plays.  Although it is doubtful that Droeshout ever saw Shakespeare, he performed his work on a commission from Shakespeare's theatrical friends, so perhaps this is also in acceptable likeness.

Stratford Monument of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare First Folio
by Martin Droeshout
engraving, 1632 or 1663-1664

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare (1620’s?)



As years passed other artists painted the Playwright who began mysteriously to appear better looking and more heroic.  In the famous Chandos portrait, Shakespeare sports a gold earring and an elegant white linen collar which stands out dramatically against his black tunic.  Perhaps the artist felt that a genius of the theatre should look the part.


Whatever he looked like, Shakespeare grew up in the small but thriving market town of Stratford located on the shores of the Avon River.  One of eight children, he probably attended the local grammar school, King’s, a school of good reputation.  Education was a serious business at King's.  Pupils spent two four-hour sessions each day studying Latin literature, grammar, and learning to do their sums.  When well grounded in Latin, the students moved on to Greek.  Because there are no records, we have no way of knowing how many years Shakespeare spent at school.  His good friend, the playwright Ben Jonson, says, perhaps in exaggeration, that Shakespeare had "little Latin and less Greek."


Perhaps he was forced to leave school for family reasons.  His father, a successful businessman and a prominent participant in community affairs, suffered financial reverses when William was in his teens.  Local records indicate that John Shakespeare was unable to pay certain taxes and debts.  Although he was forced to sell some of his property, he retained the family residence and his business. in later years William would restore the family to prosperity.  But before that would occur, his family obligations would expand rapidly.


Parish records indicate that, at only 18, William married Anne Hathaway, the 26-year old daughter of a local farmer.  In six months the couple became the parents of Susanna.  Two years later, a set of twins, Judith and Hamnet, named for family friends, were born.  At not quite 21 years of age, Shakespeare had three children and a wife to care for.


How did he manage?  No one knows for sure because from the birth of the twins in February 1585 to the first reference of William Shakespeare, actor and playwright, in London in 1592, we have no records of his life.  Some scholars speculate that he taught school; others that he joined a touring company of actors who eventually took him to London.  However he got there, by 1592 he had become an important man in London theatre.  Records identify him as the "ordinary" or company playwright for the most successful theatre company in the city, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (so called because their patron was the Lord Chamberlain, an important official of the Queen’s household and immediate superior to the Master of the Revels, the person who arranged for and supervised all the entertainments presented at Court).


As the "ordinary" playwright, Shakespeare would have been expected to provide two or more new plays per year to the company and probably to help rewrite other plays which the company wished to perform.  During his association with the group, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and probably collaborated on a number of others.  Equally at home writing comedies or tragedies, he created characters so compelling that ambitious actors throughout the ages have wished to play them.  Shakespeare understood actors as few playwrights have.  Perhaps because his plays are so brilliant and so popular, we tend to forget that he was also an actor and a manager.  Although tradition suggests that Shakespeare played the Ghost in Hamlet and perhaps other roles requiring dignity and gravity, we have little definite information about his acting abilities or about the parts which he played, but we do know that his name appeared on the list of the company's principal actors.


The Lord Chamberlain's Company was owned and run by its shareholders: the company playwright and principal actors.  After expenses, such as the purchase of plays from other playwrights and the salaries of the non-shareholders were met, all profits were divided among the shareholders according to the size of their share in the company.  Shakespeare held a profitable 10%  which, over the years, made him a wealthy man.


During his years in London, Shakespeare continued to regard Stratford as his home, for there he made investments, purchased property, and probably maintained his wife and children.  Although we do not have absolute evidence, Shakespeare probably did not bring his family to London to live.  Why he did not has been the subject of much speculation.  Many people have hypothesized that Shakespeare and his wife did not get on well.  Admittedly, a hurried marriage to a pregnant older woman may not have been an ideal way to start married life.  However, if Shakespeare chose to leave his family behind in Stratford, there are other possible explanations.


London was neither the healthiest place to live nor the best location to raise children.  Plague was so rampant in the city during the summer months that theatres were generally closed to prevent the spread of contagion.  In addition, the theatre buildings tended to be located in dangerous and infamous neighborhoods where gambling, prostitution, and drinking rivaled theatergoing as major pastimes.


Further speculation about the state of Shakespeare's marriage has been fueled by the playwright's will.  He left the bulk of his property to his daughter Susanna, and her husband, a prominent physician.  Among his many bequests, only one involved his wife.  To Anne he left "the second best bed" and its linen.  Was the bequest an insult, a slight, an indication of no regard?  Perhaps not.  "The second best bed" may well have had sentimental associations.  In addition, it may not have been necessary to state specifically that his wife receive a major portion of his estate.  The common legal custom in many English jurisdictions automatically assigned one-third of the husband's estate to the wife.


Whatever his feelings about his wife, when Shakespeare retired, he returned to Stratford to live out his life.  He and his wife took up residence in an impressive home where he was widely regarded as one of the leading citizens of the town.  Although his son had died at the age of 12, both of his daughters had survived and married, and along with their husbands, resided nearby. Unfortunately, Shakespeare had only a few years to enjoy his retirement, for on the 23rd of April 1616, his putative 52nd birthday, he died.  Although we do not know the precise cause of this death, an unconfirmed report some years later by a Stratford clergyman suggests that Shakespeare and two writer friends had a  “merry meeting” where they celebrated a bit too freely, for Shakespeare caught a fever and subsequently died.  Shakespeare was reported by friends to have been a man of good humor and pleasant disposition, so perhaps people like to think of him bidding farewell to life after a pleasant evening.


However he died, Shakespeare is buried in the Trinity Church under an inscription whose authorship and content have caused considerable debate:


Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here!

Bless’d be the man that spares these stones,

And curs’d be he that moves my bones.


The author of these lines is unknown, but they certainly lack the ring of Shakespeare's verse.  Whether deterred by the threat or by legal problems, no one has disturbed his final resting place.  Seven years after his death a monument was placed in the Church honoring his memory, but the most important monument to his work was the First Folio, a collection of his plays published by his friends and fellow shareholders, Heminges and Condell.


No question was raised about the authenticity of Shakespeare's authorship of these plays for over 150 years after the publication of the First Folio.  Since then a number of people have argued strongly that a man of such limited education and personal experience could not possibly have written such masterpieces.  As alternative authors they have suggested Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I. The theory for their authorship assumes that people of distinguished social position would be ashamed to be identified as playwrights in a period of history when plays were not considered literature and when commercial playwrights were low on the social scale.




Although there are many gaps in the information which we have about Shakespeare's life, serious scholars have no doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed the author of the plays in the First Folio.  Genius knows no social class or educational level.  As Ben Jonson said of his friend, "He was not of an age, but for all time."



Understanding Shakespeare’s Plays


Were Shakespeare to wake today and find himself in an English class, he would be perplexed and probably highly frustrated by the carefully and clearly defined rules of modern grammar and amazed by the size of modern dictionaries and the frequency of their use, for he had lived in a time of much greater freedom in the use of language.  The first dictionary of the English language did not appear until 1604, only 12 years before Shakespeare's death and many years after he had become a famous playwright.  Of course grammar existed, but it's rules were much more flexible than they are today.  Despite these differences, Shakespeare's goal like any other writer's was always to convey ideas and emotions as effectively and sincerely as possible.


When potential theatre goers of today fret that they may not understand a Shakespearean play, they are responding to changes in the use and meaning of language.  Change need not be such a frightening process if we realize that we cope with linguistic changes every day of our life.  We have only to listen to the lyrics of current popular music and that of five years and ten years ago to see how much slang and colloquial (informal) English change.  Of course many changes have taken place since the days of English Renaissance theatre, but the core of the language is the same.  By learning to recognize a few techniques which characterize Shakespeare’s writing style, potential audience members can increase both their understanding and their enjoyment.


First of all, one must learn to listen for the general meaning of the words.  Often when we hear or read a work which we do not immediately understand, we stop and attempt to puzzle out its meaning.  Although this technique is feasible for a reader, it is disruptive for a listener.  When we shut down our listening while we think about a single word, we miss much additional spoken material which will probably clarify the meaning of the unknown word and will certainly convey additional, necessary information about the characters and events of the play.  In addition, other clues to the meaning of the dialogue come from the movement and facial expressions of the actors, so understanding is contingent on more than the comprehension of single words and phrases.


The study of rhetoric ("the art of using words effectively . . . especially, the art of persuading"') was a common component of all formal education in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  Consequently, people tended to know and appreciate the importance and the beauty of language.  Shakespeare was a master rhetorician, a wordsmith.  If no word existed to express the sound or the idea which he sought, he simply made one up.  For example, when he wished to convey the total repression of all gentleness, all compassion, all sympathy, he had Lady Macbeth demand: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” The image produced by his original word “unsex” conveyed his precise meaning with startling impact.


As he was concerned with both striking and precise imagery, he was also concerned with sound, with the music of words, sometimes soft and pleasant (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past”), sometimes harsh and abrasive (". . . thou lump of foul deformity").  Shakespeare’s words not only carry their own sound effects, they also communicate signals about the performance to the actors.  The playwright's selection of words determines the speed with which they can be said.  For example, Macbeth's famous speech, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”  cannot be spoken rapidly.  The words force the actor to speak slowly, thoughtfully, a pace which is particularly appropriate to this moment of Macbeth's greatest despair.  His wife has just died.  He has sacrificed honor, decency, and happiness to gain power and now that power is rapidly melting away.


Sometimes Shakespeare's hints to the actors take even more specific form.  His dialogue often indicates an action or reaction on the character's part.  In All's Well That Ends Well, for example, the Countess of Rossillion tells Helena, a young girl who lives in her household, that she would like to be a mother to her.  The Countess' lines indicate Helena's physical response: "When I said 'a mother', / Methought you saw a serpent.  What's in 'mother', / That you start at it?"


As Shakespeare’s lines provide clues for performance to the actors, they also provide clues for the imagination of the audience.  Recognizing the physical limitations of staging, the playwright depended upon the audience to "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." In this quote from the prologue to Henry V the character acknowledges to the audience the limitations of staging, but asks that they conjure up with their imaginations the two great armies and the battlefields which will be dramatized in the play.


Just as audiences are intimidated by Shakespeare’s somewhat unfamiliar language, they are frightened by the thought of seeing a play which is also poetry, assuming that poetry is by definition strange and difficult to fathom.  Actually Shakespeare's plays are a subtle mixture of prose and poetry.  One scholar has estimated that the average play (they vary widely) is comprised of roughly 75 % poetry and 25 % prose. Of that 75 %, all but about ten percent is blank verse, the poetry form which most closely resembles the natural human speech pattern.  Although blank verse-unrhymed lines of five iambic feet, with iambic designating an unstressed syllabic followed by a stressed syllable-is a structured form of composition, the audience is rarely conscious of the structure.  Only a small percentage of the dialogue in plays calls attention in any self-conscious way (such as the use of end rhyme) to its poetic form.


The switches among blank verse, rhymed verse, and prose are important signals about the nature of the speakers and about the events which are taking place.  In general, characters of lower socioeconomic status, such as servants, soldiers, and country folk, speak prose, while members of the aristocracy express themselves in poetry.  However, these distinctions are not universal.  In moments of great stress characters may switch from one format to the other to signal their emotional upheaval.


The mood of one play may be more suitable for poetry and another for prose.  Shakespeare's tragedies are written largely in poetry; the comedies make much greater use of prose than the plays of serious content.  The prevailing principle with Shakespeare's writing is that communication of the idea or the emotion is more important than the form in which it is expressed.  You can always recognize an amateur Shakespearean actor by his concentration on the mechanics of the poetry rather than the content.


If the intricacies of language constitute a small but surmountable barrier between actors and the audience, other aspects of Shakespeare’s dramatic technique remove barriers.  Despite their size, Elizabethan theatres were remarkably intimate because their thrust stages jutted out into an audience which enclosed the actors on three sides.  The audience's sense of involvement with events on stage was heightened by the use of the soliloquy (the character speaks his thoughts directly to the audience) and the aside (in conversation with others, the character expresses thoughts and reactions aloud to the audience which are accepted as being unheard by the other characters).  This sharing of thoughts and information invites us to be a part of the theatrical event in a very overt way Shakespeare was accustomed to an active, volatile audience and he capitalized on their existence to put his play across.  He would be amazed and disturbed to think that audiences often view the prospect of attending his plays as some highly formal occasion.



The Wild And Wonderful World of Shakespeare’s Theatre


On the south bank of the Thames River in the city of London, a construction crew is at work building the new Globe Theatre on the same spot where the original was torn down in 1642.  The reconstruction project is not as simple as it may sound, for no one knows just what the first Globe really looked like. Just as much information about Shakespeare's life has been lost, so too the plans for the theatre in which his plays enjoyed their earliest success no longer exist.  Nevertheless, we can and do make educated guesses about the nature of this most famous of all theatre facilities.


We base our conceptions on a number of historical documents.  Perhaps the best known of these are an early 17th-century engraving of the city of London by Dutch engraver, Jan Visscher, and the building contract for the Fortune Theatre, a major competitor of the Globe.  Some features of the Fortune were supposedly patterned after the Globe, but in one major respect they differed.  The Globe was round or octagonal in shape, and the Fortune, square.


Although we lack the exact dimensions of the Globe, we estimate that it could hold roughly 2,000-2,500 people, a large theatre indeed even in the 1980s, but distinctly so in a city whose population is estimated to have ranged between 150,000 and 200,000 in Shakespeare's day.  Although the theatre would probably only have been filled to capacity on holidays when shops were closed and people off work, much of the audience would still have been in remarkably close proximity both to the actors and to one another.  First, the thrust stage which was approximately 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep, reached well out into the audience.  Second, most of the audience paid one penny, the least expensive entrance fee, which entitled them only to standing room in the pit, the area around the stage apron.  The "groundlings:' as the pit audience members were known, had to look up at the performance.  For additional pennies, one could obtain seats in the three galleries built around the outside walls.


The stage was partially covered by a roofed structure called the huts.  Actors dressed behind the stage in an area called the tiring house.  There may have been an inner room or space at the back of the stage or perhaps only a curtain covering an opening, but there was at least one balcony level above the stage which was used in scenes such as the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.


Theatres like the Globe (large, open air theatres, with low admission charges) were called public theatres to contrast them with so called private theatres (smaller, indoor, candlelit theatres with higher admission fees).  In addition to the Globe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King's Men) owned the private theatre, the Blackfriars.  Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed in both playhouses.


In contemporary theatre we possess a range of technical skills and technology undreamed of in the theatre of 400 years ago, yet audiences flocked to the theatre and, from all reports, were delighted by what they experienced there.  The productions on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages were simple by our standards.  Scenery, as we understand it, was virtually non-existent.  Occasionally a tree or a trellis, a boulder or some easily portable element might be placed on stage, but such items were few.


In general, the audience was expected to employ its own imagination to create the backdrop for the stage action.  Playwrights like Shakespeare created scenery with words.  Characters described scenes and audiences took it from there.  Approaching Macbeth's castle, King Duncan tells us: "This castle hath a pleasant seat.  The air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself…." Of course, there is no castle on stage and the audience cannot see the landscape that surrounds it, but we accept Duncan's description.  Through Duncan, Shakespeare has created the setting for the action.


Not everything is left to the audience's imagination.  A helpful theatre manager, Philip Henslowe, left an inventory of the stage properties owned by his company.  By combining his list and by reviewing plays for indications of the props which they required, we have identified several common items.  For example, plays often called for heads since beheading was a favorite execution technique in the plays of the day.


If props and scenery were held to a minimum, costumes were a significant element in productions.  Actors were usually expected to provide their own costumes.  Prominent performers gloried in rich and attractive wearing apparel with which they hoped to dazzle their audience.  Costumes were contemporary rather than historically accurate.  Cleopatra would be dressed as a wealthy and elegant Elizabethan lady rather than an Egyptian.  Occasionally, some symbolic item of clothing, such as a toga for Julius Caesar, would be worn.


Costuming takes on an added complexity when we remember that boys played all female roles.  The first actress did not appear on an English stage until 1660.  Boys were apprenticed to experienced actors from whom they could learn their craft.  For a brief period acting companies consisting solely of boys were the rage in London.  In fact, Blackfriars was the home of a famous boys' company before it was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  This custom of all male acting companies is still practiced in Japan by the Kabuki and Noh theatres.


If ladies were not welcome on the stage, they were welcome in the audience.  If some people considered the theatre an inappropriate locale for women, it was largely because the theatres were usually located in the more questionable neighborhoods to which the proprietors of taverns, brothels, and bear baiting arenas fled to avoid harassment by the city authorities.


The theatre audience was widely described as lively, even rowdy.  Sellers of books, ale, fruit, roast chestnuts, and less respectable commodities wandered about hawking their wares during the performance.  Fights occasionally broke out, particularly on festival days when the theatres were exceptionally crowded.  Yet despite the disreputable behavior of some of the patrons, members of the highest classes of society attended the theatre-ambassadors, members of the Court.  The monarch had no need to go to the theatre, for performances were brought directly to the royal residence.  Both Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I, appreciated theatre.  Shakespeare's company performed many times before them and often in the private homes of members of the aristocracy.


Was the audience the same for both public and private theatres?  We cannot be sure, but the private theatre audiences were probably better behaved.  The three pennies admission fee which they paid guaranteed them a seat rather than the standing room at the public theatres.  The seats would have made it more difficult for the orange sellers and the other food venders to make their way about the theatre.


Performances in the public theatre usually began at 2:00 p.m., after lunch but early enough to guarantee 2-2 ½ hours of daylight, the average running time of the plays.  With the possible exception of one five to ten-minute intermission, performances ran without interruption, good weather or bad.  The theatrical season began in late August or early September and ran until late January or February depending upon how harsh the winter weather.  The theatrical companies were unable to take advantage of the warmer late spring and summer temperatures because the civil authorities feared the spread of plague which commonly occurred at this time of year. Plague was only one of many hazards which threatened English theatre, in this its golden age.  Fire was an ever-present threat particularly in the private theatres which were dependent on hundreds of candles for illumination.  Ironically, it was not the indoor Blackfriars which burned, but the Globe.  One afternoon during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a spark ignited by a weapon fired on stage caught the thatched roof of the theatre and the theatre burned to the ground.  But the Globe was a profitable business so it was rebuilt within the year.  Although the Globe survived this crisis, neither it nor the many other public and private theatres could survive the political upheaval which was approaching.


For years the Puritans had bitterly opposed theatre.  Their opposition was grounded in their religious belief that the creation of characters and their impersonation were a form of deceit.  Moreover, they believed that watching behavior on stage would lead people to copy it in their private lives.  The arguments which they used against theatre were similar to arguments which arc now lodged against rock Music and television.


As Puritanism spread, particularly among the newly emerging middle class, the Puritans rose to important positions in local government.  In fact, even during Shakespeare's years in London, the Puritans controlled the government of the city because of their strong opposition to theatre, the Globe and most other theatres were built across the Thames River outside the legal confines of the city. The Puritans' opposition to things theatrical was abetted by the low repute in which actors were commonly held.  Throughout the 16th century, regulations were promulgated to prevent or curtail theatrical performances.  In a statute of 1572, actors were classed with vagabonds, thieves, and ruffians.  To gain legal access to any community, they were required to carry a writ signed by two magistrates.  A few years later, the requirements were stiffened.  In addition to the two magistrates, a member of the nobility, a patron, must also vouch for the performer.


Of course, local authorities had some grounds for their reservation.  Up until 1576, plays and entertainments were generally staged on portable stages, usually set up in the yard of local inns.  The architecture of the inns made them an ideal performing place.  Two wings extended out from the central segment of the inn forming a partially enclosed courtyard where guests could tic up their horses.  Players would set up portable stages along one of the inn walls and the audience could gather round in the yard or those guests staying in the inn could look down on the action from the galleries which surrounded the walls of the inn.


The inns were a natural gathering place for travelers and locals interested in a drink and company.  Naturally, the mix of alcohol, crowds, and entertainment proved volatile.  The presence of crowds drew petty criminals and prostitutes looking for opportunities for profit.  They usually found them.  All of these circumstances added to the headaches of authorities attempting to maintain law and order.  Even though the actors might not be taking part in rowdy or criminal behavior, many people identified them as the proximate cause of the trouble.


Of course, the problem was exacerbated by frequent outbreaks of the plague which spread rapidly in congested areas.  Given all these factors the Puritans could find nothing about the theatre to recommend it.  Had political conditions remained static, perhaps the uneasy coexistence of theatre (protected by the patronage of the aristocracy) and Puritanism would have continued.  But theatre was not to enjoy that good fortune.


Shakespeare retired during the reign of James I, a strong-minded monarch who did not take kindly to Puritans or anyone else infringing on his authority When he was succeeded by his son, Charles 1, who was determinedly opposed to Puritanism and to encroachments on his prerogatives, England was on her way toward a civil war.  When the Puritans were victorious, they acted decisively against their old enemies.  In 1642 all theatres were closed, many, including the Globe, were torn down.  Not until the return of the monarchy, in 1660 would theatre again be legitimate.  Unfortunately, the English stage would never recapture the glory it had known in the age of William Shakespeare.