PREVIEWS OF BACKGROUND LECTURES
Although there will probably always be some argument about the true identity of the author of Shakespeare's plays, with students and scholars advancing various candidates, most scholars agree today that the plays were written by an Elizabethan named William Shakespeare, who was born in rural shire (county) of Warwick. Dominating Stratford, Shakespeare's home town, was Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, probably three days after he was born.
Shakespeare was born into a world of contradictions: A woman (Queen Elizabeth) ruled in a man's world; the elite were highly educated while many others couldn't read at all; the Elizabethan Court glittered with jewels and finery while peasants starved to death. Shakespeare's parents were John Shakespeare, an established glove maker and leather dresser, and Mary Arden, who came from a prominent Roman Catholic family. Shakespeare's father is first mentioned when he was fined for keeping a dunghill in front of his house; but he went on to become a prominent figure in Stratford, rising from alderman to major.
Shakespeare was educated in Stratford grammar school, learning reading and writing in the early grades, and Latin prose and verse in the later ones. As part of his education, he learned the many figures of speech (over 220) that we find in his plays. When he was eighteen, Shakespeare married an older woman named Ann Hathaway; five years later he left his family to pursue his career in London.
The London of Shakespeare's day, dominated by the powerful and shrewd Queen Elizabeth, was a city of great beauty (lovely buildings and grassy parks) and great ugliness (slimy streets and open sewers). Londoners enjoyed many amusements, gathering in taverns, at bull and bear baiting contests, and even at executions. Relatively soon after arriving, Shakespeare seems to have associated himself with the theatre, at first perhaps as a helper or apprentice, later as an actor, and then as a playwright. During his twenty-year career in the theatre, Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays and several long poems, as well as a sequence of sonnets.
After his successful career, Shakespeare, having won a Coat of Arms for his family, retired to Stratford in 1614. Two years later, in 1616, he died and is buried in the chapel of Trinity Church. On Shakespeare's grave are carved these words:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare;
To dig this dust enclosed here;
Blessed be the man that spares these stones;
And curst be he that moves my bones.
THE ELIZABETHAN RENAISSANCE
One might say that Shakespeare's era, the Elizabethan age, actually began as early as 1485, when Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry Tudor, defeated Richard III, and ascended to the throne of England. Henry's rule, and that of his Tudor descendants ended the Wars of the Roses, the civil wars that had so split England, as well as bringing to an end the lawlessness and economic depression that had characterized the fifteenth century.
The new relative peace and prosperity created the conditions under which the Renaissance, that rebirth of the arts and letters that had begun in Italy two centuries before, could now spread to England. All over Europe, emphasis gradually shifted from the gaining of territory and dominance through civil war to ancient learning, Classical art, and to the gaining of wealth through trade. The effects of the Renaissance in England were particularly felt in education, in the printing of books, in voyages of exploration, and in science, although scientific work was still closely associated with magic in the Elizabethan mind.
Although excited by new ideas and discoveries, most Elizabethans still believed in the ancient and medieval notion of a geocentric universe, with the earth located at the center of universe that was ruled by God in his Heaven. The Elizabethan cosmos, often thought of as a great "chain of being," was organized by two important principles, hierarchy and correspondence. Existing very precariously at the center of this universe was man, who possessed the faculties of both intellect and appetite, and whose character was created by the balancing of four "humors" in his body.
Just beginning to stir during Shakespeare's lifetime were hints of other, more radical ideas about human nature and the cosmos, ideas promulgated by such men as Copernicus and Galileo, Machiavelli, and Montaigne. The skeptical effects of their views may well be embedded in Shakespeare's late major tragedies.
During Shakespeare's immediate lifetime, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII. In spite of the religious ferment caused by John Calvin's and Martin Luther's Protestant reformation, Elizabeth was able to maintain an uneasy religious peace in her own country. Her court became the center of England's political, cultural, and social life: The arts and literature flourished under its patronage; "it was a place of tournaments, balls, witty conversations, lavish parties" (Joseph Papp and Elizabeth Kirkland, Shakespeare Alive, New York, Bantam, 1988, 81).
With her special political genius, the Queen managed national and international affairs, seeing her country through the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots, and through its wars with Spain. At her death in 1603, the Scottish James succeeded to the English throne; his reign, whose atmosphere may be depicted in Shakespeare's late comedy, Measure for Measure, was known for its moral and social corruption.
People in Elizabethan England were divided into four major classes: gentlemen, citizens, yeomen, and laborers and artificers. The class of gentlemen included all the nobles; citizens were primarily tradespeople; yeomen were primarily farmers and small landowners; and artificers were skilled workmen. In addition to these groups, one might mention also the vagrants, gypsies, criminals, and beggars who wandered over the countryside.
Elizabethan family life, much like our own today, was centered around the small nuclear family. Considerations of wealth and social parity were important considerations in marriages of members of the upper class, although young people usually still exercised some freedom in their choice of a mate; members of the lower classes, where property was not such an issue, had a good deal more freedom. Elizabethan weddings were lavish affairs, with feasting, music, and dancing.
Children were welcomed by their parents; often they were baptized quickly because they were so at peril from infectious diseases. Noblewomen frequently kept nursemaids or even send their babies out to be nursed, though this practice was frowned upon. Once they reached adolescence, most middle and upper class Elizabethan children were expected to move out of their homes: Upper class males, for instance, were usually sent to the university or the Inns of Court (law school). Those of the middle class could work as servants for wealthy families or as apprentices in order to learn some trade. Apprentices signed a seven-year contract to remain with their masters while they learned a trade;
With the exception of the Queen, the status of Elizabethan women was defined by their position in the family; they were seen either as wives or potential wives, who depended on their husbands for their livelihood and status. As Papp and Kirkland, Shakespeare Alive, put it, "A woman in sixteenth-century England had no vote, few legal rights, and an extremely limited chance of ever getting an education, much less a job" (68). Although noblewomen often were well educated and leisured, most Elizabethan women were expected to develop and practice various domestic skills. Women who were too outspoken were frequently attacked as being shrews.
During Shakespeare's time, England was still largely a rural land, dotted by fields, forests, cottages, and villages. Travel on muddy and unkept roads could be difficult, and even dangerous. The center of England was London, containing grand buildings, a variety of people, great contrasts in living and sanitation conditions, and many amusements, including executions, bull and bear-baiting, and the theatre.
Today, we think of the English, many of whom still believed in magic, the Devil, ghosts, and witches, as being superstitious. And certainly too, the English were xenophobic, prone to fear and stereotype foreigners.
The Elizabethan fondness for games and amusements of all kinds, coupled with their love of ceremony and pageantry, brought about the rapid development of the theatre. During the last quarter of the sixteenth century, there sprang up twenty-five theatres in and around London.
For several decades before the 1570's, companies of players had travelled around from town to town, performing the old plays inherited from the late Middle Ages, which told stories from the Bible or depicted the temptations faced by mankind; setting up their stage on a few barrels, they presented plays full of slap dash and energy, featuring devils, angels, and Hell belching smoke. Often plays were performed in the inside court of a taverns. By the middle of the 1570's, London, with its crowds of nobles, tradesmen, and visitors from abroad, was ready to become the theatrical center of England. Realizing the financial gains to be had from a permanent theatre, a carpenter turned actor turned theatre impresario named James Burbage built the first theatre (modelled partly on tavern yards and partly on the bull and bear baiting arenas) in 1576, calling his structure straightforwardly enough, the Theatre.
In order to protect themselves against the accusation that they were little more than beggars and rogues, Elizabethan actors officially attached themselves as servants to such great lords as Leicester, Oxford, Pembroke, and Essex. Actually, theatrical companies were business organizations of players, the principal ones owning shares in the company. Thus, in the mid 1590's, Shakespeare, along with other actors, was a member and shareholder in the company called the Lord Chamberlain's men.
The first public theatres, which were built outside of London in order to escape the disapproval of the Puritan city fathers, were actually open ampitheatres, measuring from 80-100 feet inside diameter, and capable of cramming from 2,000 to 3,000 people into their wooden walls. They were probably polygonal, perhaps round, very much like the open air houses built for displays of bull- and bear baiting, which themselves had probably derived from Roman amphitheatres.
Like the baiting houses, the first public theatres had three ranges of galleries of seats, but many members of the audience stood for performance in the yard surrounding the stage; these people were sarcastically called by the authors of the plays "groundlings," "understanders," and "stinkards." The stage was a rectangle projecting from one side into middle of yard, measuring more than 40 feet across and 27 feet deep. Behind it was a wall with two or three entry doors, which fronted the "tiring house" or players dressing room. Above the stage doors was a balcony usually reserved for the wealthiest members of the audience to sit in, though part of it was sometimes used for acting and later for musicians. Shows were also performed in more exclusive private theatres, in the rooms of great palaces, in colleges and at Court.
Theatre prices, which remained approximately the same until the theatres were closed in 1642, were as follows: One penny (1/12 of the shilling that a skilled craftsman could expect to earn in a day) gained access to the yard, an additional penny to the galleries, and two more for the rooms closest to stage. The wealthiest patrons, who enjoyed being seen as well as seeing, occupied the "lord's rooms" on the balcony above stage doors. Theatre audiences were composed of people who varied widely in social status and education, ranging from day laborers through merchants and their wives to noblemen and ladies, and including apprentices, ladies, law students, as well as criminals and prostitutes. The behavior of the audiences must have been as varied as their stations: They drank beer, ate apples, cracked nuts, spit, shouted, and relieved themselves against the walls of the theatre.
The Elizabethan stage was a fluid playing space, which made use of a few standard props such as a green cloth over a chair to represent a mound, an arbor, a tomb, a throne, city walls, or a city gate. Conventional dress and props were also used to create location: thus, a soldier might indicate a battlefield, a shipcaptain a ship, etc.
Frequently the clothing worn by figures as they entered the stage or the articles they carried, such as weapons or eating utensils, would indicate to the audience that they were entering from hunting, tilting, dinner, etc. Female figures typically appeared with their hair dishevelled to indicate madness, rape, or extreme grief. A journey could be indicated by figures who appeared booted, while figures entering in nightgowns or other unready dress denoted night, early morning, unreadiness, or a troubled state of mind.
Battle scenes were often indicated by small groups of combatants in "excursions" on and off stage, accompanied by elaborate sound effects, "alarums" including trumpet calls, clashes of steel, and the firing of weapons. All these sights functioned as theatrical synecdoche, relying upon the spectator's imagination transform a part into a whole. Since plays were presented either in natural light at the Globe or candlelight at Blackfriars, particular signs, such as dialogue, torches, candles, or nightgowns, were used to indicate night and darkness.
Since actors on the Elizabethan stage had to reach members of the audience scattered all over the theatre, Elizabethan acting was likely a good deal more direct, robust, foursquare, and physical than modern acting. Where modern actors try to represent the character they are playing on the stage (thus, Marlan Brando is the general, lover, or laborer that he portrays), Elizabethan actors strove more to present their character to the audience. And since Elizabethan acting was lively, brawny, passionate, and direct, many of the subtleties that we find in the plays might not even have been played on the Elizabethan stage. Because the modern notion of an interior character or personality was just developing during Shakespeare's time, most Elizabethan actors were interested not so much in projecting a character's motivation as they were in projecting images of the archetypal virtues and vices--much of the characterization was based on the kinds of stock characters you see here;
Generally speaking, Elizabethan actors were not held in high esteem by most people; some were thought of as little better than impostors or rogues. Others, however, became quite famous, as did the clown Will Kemp, who played the roles of Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing and probably Falstaff in the Henry IV plays; and the lead actor of Shakespeare's company, Richard Burbage, who played the roles of Richard III, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello.
The poets who wrote the plays were as varied as the actors who performed in them. Some, like John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, and Robert Greene, were university educated, while others, like William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, were educated in Elizabethan grammar schools; some of the poets, like Marlowe, who died in a tavern brawl and Greene, who drank himself to death, came to bad ends, while others, like Shakespeare, retired comfortably well-off.
Elizabethan plays were created in much the same way that plays are produced today:
Working from a plot summary, poets first produced a rough draft of a play, called foul papers; Next, foul papers were often recopied by a scribe in order to create a clean scribe's copy; then from that copy was produced the prompt book, the copy of the play used by the company in rehearsal. From the prompt book was also copied each actor's part; each actor rehearsed from a copy of his own lines accompanied by the last word of the speech that immediately preceded his; thus, an actor would not have even heard the whole speech that he was responding to before the first rehearsal of a new play;
Although theatre companies tried to prevent their plays from being published in order to draw more crowds to their performances, plays, particularly popular ones, were published in what were called quarto editions, small editions about the size of a modern paperback book. Unscrupulous publishers actually stole some of the plays they wished to publish, sometimes by hiring disaffected actors who had quit the company to recite the lines from their roles and then perhaps sending someone to a performance to take dictation in order to fill out the other parts.
If you wanted to buy a published play, or almost any book for that matter, you headed for the bookstalls just outside of St. Paul's Cathedral near the center of London. At a bookstall, you could buy, for example, a copy of Shakespeare's Richard III for the equivalent of about $10.00 in today's currency. Led by Ben Jonson in the early seventeenth century, some playwrights began collecting their plays together into larger books called folios and costing, before being bound, about $20.00 in present-day currency.