So many things about Shakespeare make no sense. Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed. That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.
In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth. As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published. The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.
First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage. Why write so much more than what can be produced? The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required. From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used). If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays. It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.
Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later. Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors? Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.
This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights. The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted. But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays. If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what? The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today. While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors. There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.
The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page. That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source. This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.
The importance of the Court
Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays. According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.
Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed. It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers. Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly. For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors. The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing. Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.
Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes. The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd. That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.
Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End. With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning. But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court. Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.
That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.
However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men. Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.
How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences? How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris? Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown. How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect. If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.
While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court? Why was he never even introduced?
Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court? Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne. But what about Spenser? Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?
And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades? Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?