Shakespeare in London
(Notes From Greenblatt, Will in the World and Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage)
Imagine the number of productions of Hamlet that have been performed since 1599 when Richard Burbage first uttered “to be or not to be” on the newly constructed Globe Stage. I doubt there has been a single year since then when this great tragedy has not been on the boards. Hamlet’s character has taken on a life of its own as critics and students have debated his mysterious motives down through the ages. Even so, Shakespeare probably would have been shocked to hear that his play might achieve immortality. He had written Hamlet to be performed in a particular time and place. Before the Elizabethan era, theatre was regarded simply as entertainment, and the playwright exercised a decidedly subordinate role to the actors and the theatre owner in the production process. (There was no such thing as a director until the late 19th century.) There was little to no money to be made publishing plays, and playing companies were averse to distributing scripts. Performance was paramount, and little thought was given to even the notion of a ‘playwright’. These writers were ‘poets’ who supplied the raw material for an entertainment.
But something wonderful happened to London theatre in the late 1580’s which started to change everything. The phenomenal growth of a young, urban market, the widespread growth in public literacy, the political taste for spectacle and elaborate wordplay, and the school systems’ emphasis on rhetoric: all these contingencies created a sudden and highly competitive market for new plays. Every player in the country yearned to perform in London. Rather than constantly traveling, you could have a permanent home. If you had the talent to rise in the business, you might find yourself a shareholder in the company’s business and earn a percentage of the company’s profits. Fortunes could be made! London also drew many young intellectuals who, newly graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, flocked to the city to try their hands at writing for the stage. The invention of the modern playhouse and the huge popularity of this new form of entertainment had created a sudden demand for new plays, and just as suddenly playwrights found themselves earning money and respect.
We know nothing of Shakespeare’s life from the time he left Stratford until the first documented mention of him as a playwright in London in 1592. Yet by 1594 his company had been selected by the Master of Revels to be one of the two officially sanctioned troupes in the city. Not only did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men perform regularly at court, but Elizabeth gave them a virtual monopoly over the London theatre market, along with their chief rivals the Lord Admiral’s Men,
Careful study of Shakespeare’s early works can help us theorize about how he rose so quickly to the pinnacle of the London theatre world. In a pamphlet published in 1592, a university wit named Robert Greene lambasted an up and coming writer/actor who had infuriated some on the London theatre scene:
"Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie." (Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit)
Shakespeare, of course, had not attended Oxford or Cambridge. He did not possess the appropriate intellectual pedigree being little more than a country provincial from Stratford. Greene accuses him of being a hanger-on, little more than a groupie who thieves (or plagiarizes) from his betters; he is no more than an upstart who dresses like a nightingale yet caws like a crow, who supposes that he can bombast out a blank verse like his betters. Greene calls Shakespeare a Johannes Factotum, a Jack-Of-All-Trades. He is paying Shakespeare a backhanded compliment by recognizing his skill as an actor, playwright, and businessman. Shakespeare had learned the business of playing from the inside as a professional, not as a member of any elite university intellectual circle. His training was in theatre, not poetry. And by accusing him of plagiarism (in an era before copywrite had any meaning), Greene may also have recognized another of Shakespeare’s special talents. He ruthlessly plundered the work of other writers and turned their ideas into better theatre than they could imagine. The playwright from whom Shakespeare learned (and robbed) the most in these early days of his career was Christopher Marlowe. (Greenblatt 213-16)
Marlowe seems in many ways to be Shakespeare’s twin: he had been born in the same year (1564) and was the son of a commoner, a Canterbury shoemaker. Marlowe had also been a brilliant student, only Marlowe had been given the opportunity to go to Cambridge that Shakespeare had been denied. In the late 1580’s Marlowe electrified the London stage with a production for the Lord Admiral’s Men at the Rose Theatre on the Southbank that he had written as a college student: Tamburlaine the Great.
It can be argued that Marlowe invented the new form of drama that Shakespeare would perfect. Tamburlaine was one of the most successful plays of the Elizabethan era. It combined theatrical spectacle with an outrageous plot and magnificent poetry, and it inspired admiration, awe and horror in its audience. The plot tells the story of a commoner, a Scythian shepherd, who through charisma and ruthlessness rises to the throne of the mightiest empire in Asia. As performed by the lead actor of the Admiral’s Men, Edward Alleyn, Tamburlaine’s ‘mighty verse’ marched to a heroic pace and rhythm featuring language filled with exotic place names, imagery from classical mythology, and evocations of color, light and vast space. (Mermaid ed Harper) London’s urban audience, thronged by apprentices on the make, thrilled to this “anti-morality play”. Tamburlaine thrives in his no-holds-barred fight for power. Instead of representing a moral story about pride receiving it’s just punishment, Marlowe glorifies Tamburlaine, the embodiment of Machiavellian vertu. His fortune is the product of his will, and he slashes and burns his way through armies like a natural force. He is emblematic of the chaotic antithesis to the medieval conception of order and degree. His ambition is limitless and his excesses outrageous: he brushes aside his enemies, murders allies, and is never punished. Only death itself can contain him. (Mermaid ed Harper)
Here’s a taste of the language. Tamburlaine has just defeated two rival armies in battle and taken the kings Trebizon and Soria prisoner. He enters drawn on a chariot; the royals, bits in their mouths, strain to pull the chariot forward as Tamburlaine scourges them with his whip, he cries out:
Holla, ye pamper'd jades of Asia!
What, can ye draw but twenty miles a-day,
And have so proud a chariot at your heels,
And such a coachman as great Tamburlaine,
But from Asphaltis, where I conquer'd you,
To Byron here, where thus I honour you?
The horse that guide the golden eye of heaven,
And blow the morning from their nostrils,
Making their fiery gait above the clouds,
Are not so honour'd in their governor
As you, ye slaves, in mighty Tamburlaine.
The headstrong jades of Thrace Alcides tam'd,
That King Aegeus fed with human flesh,
And made so wanton that they knew their strengths,
Were not subdu'd with valor more divine
Than you by this unconquer'd arm of mine.
To make you fierce, and fit my appetite,
You shall be fed with flesh as raw as blood,
And drink in pails the strongest muscadel:
If you can live with it, then live, and draw
My chariot swifter than the racking clouds;
If not, then die like beasts, and fit for naught
But perches for the black and fatal ravens.
Thus am I right the scourge of highest Jove;
And see the figure of my dignity,
By which I hold my name and majesty! (Act IV, scene iii)
To an uncanny degree, Marlowe exemplified Tamburlaine’s creed in his own life. He was a boaster who could make good on his most outrageous vaunts. He was a violent man, frequently involved in street brawls and once acquitted of murder on a claim of self-defense. He was openly gay in a culture which tolerated homosexuality in private but vilified those who loved openly. Most dangerously, Marlowe also served as a double agent in the lethal conflict between Protestants and Catholics, traveling frequently to the continent to flush out plans to topple the throne. It was Marlowe’s knowledge of important state secrets that may have finally convinced Elizabeth’s secret police to have him murdered. During his brief career, Marlowe followed Tamburlaine with Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II, all masterpieces that still hold the stage, but his life was cut short in 1593 at the age of 29. He died in a Deptford inn, stabbed in the eye, reportedly during an argument over a dinner bill. At least that was the official story.
Shakespeare would learn much from his astonishing predecessor, much about the art of playwriting and the business of theatre but more still about the vital importance of keeping his own political opinions private in a police state. Marlowe may have inspired Shakespeare to become a playwright. Shakespeare’s first plays include a cycle about the War of the Roses (the English Civil War of the 15th century) to which Marlowe may have contributed significant passages. Together the two invented the History Play, a genre of drama which dramatized famous events from a time past whose connections to the present could be explored. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine looked at the Elizabethan era through an exotic lens, and its central character seemed to encourage the London audience to find the courage to seize power without moral compunction. In Henry VI, part II, Shakespeare actually staged a revolution in the heart of the city, but his moral was far different. In 1450 Jack Cade led an army of peasants, laborers and shopkeepers into London and briefly took power. One of his followers uttered the immortal line, “First thing we do is kill all the lawyers.” Eventually, anyone who can read will be targeted by the mob. Shakespeare depicted the vaunting ambition celebrated by Marlowe as chaotic anarchy, but these scenes are clearly the best in the play, and we sympathize with Cade as well as revile him. From the outset, Shakespeare understood how to create more compelling drama than Marlowe by depicting the contradictions of his characters. Jack Cade can be seen as a hero and as a villain. Through the use of deft irony, Shakespeare not only heightens the complexity of his characterizations and the conflicts in the action, but he gives himself political cover. By presenting both the radical and the conservative interpretations of any given situation, he could explore the most controversial topics without fearing Marlowe’s fate.
The Plague Year of 1592 and the Sonnets