Theater before Shakespeare

In the Middle Ages, drama was mainly church-centered, Mystery Plays performed by citizens in the streets. Then came the Morality Plays, before grammar school students began to act versions of Comedies by Plautus and Terence, then of Tragedies by Seneca and college halls or great lords' houses. Then Shakespeare developed a form of tragedy inspired by the Boethian idea of Fortune's ever-turning wheel, expressed before him in the Mirror for Magistrates etc, and found in Chaucer, the themes of the Fall of Princes.


William Shakespeare



William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) was baptized, according to the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 26, 1564. His birthday has been traditionally celebrated on April 23, St George's Day, although there is no documentary basis for this. Seven brothers and sisters were baptized in the same church, of whom three died in childhood. The youngest, Edmund Shakespeare, born in 1580, became an actor in London and was buried in Southwark Cathedral in 1607.


Stratford was an important market centre, with a population of nearly two thousand inhabitants. Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, his mother Mary was a member of the Arden family on whose estates John Shakespeare's father had worked. John Shakespeare was living in Stratford by 1552, with a business making gloves and curing leather; he also dealt in wool. His house in Henley Street, Stratford, can still be seen; it is known as the Birthplace, since William Shakespeare is thought to have been born there. In 1568 John Shakespeare was high bailiff (mayor) of the town, but he seems to have had hard times in the late 1580s and early 1590s. He died in 1601.


There was a grammar school in Stratford, the King's New School, where William probably studied free of charge for a number of years, mostly mastering Latin grammar, literature and history. The school-room can still be seen.

Late in 1582, in his 19th year, William was given permission to marry a local girl, Anne Hathaway, then aged 26, without the usual three weeks' delay, by a special bishop's bond. On May 26, 1583, their first daughter Susanna was baptized. On February 2, 1585 his twins Hamnet (his only son, who died in 1596) and Judith were baptized, receiving the names of close friends of the family.

 Nothing is known of how Shakespeare came to London and into the theater. He may have been tutor to a Catholic family in the north of England for a time. He had probably become an actor in London by 1589, if not before. From summer 1592 until spring 1594, a high number of plague deaths kept the London theaters closed. During this time of forced inactivity, Shakespeare published his two long poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton (see page 228). At Christmas 1594 a newly constituted company of actors performed twice before the Queen, for which they received 20 pounds, the receipt being signed by William Shakespeare, William Kempe (the company's famous clown), and Richard Burbage. The Theatre was constructed in 1576 by James Burbage, Richard's father and In 1594 Richard Burbage became the leading actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men which performed at The Theatre until 1597.


In 1598 we know that Shakespeare acted in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, and in 1603 in his Sejanus, but on the whole he was not famous as an actor. He is said to have played the role of Hamlet's father's ghost.


The company was first called the 'Lord Chamberlain's Men' in 1597, when George, Lord Hunsdon received that title. At first they were known as 'Lord Hunsdon's men'. At the end of 1596, they presented all six of the Christmas plays at court and they, together with Henslowe's Admiral's Men, were the leading actors of the London theatrical scene, especially after a play presented by Pembroke's Men at the Swan early in 1597, The Isle of Dogs, brought about the arrest of Ben Jonson and the suppression of that company.


When the lease on the land where the Theatre stood expired in April 1597, two months after the death of James Burbage, the Chamberlain's Men could not renew it. So on 28 December, 1598, they secretly tore down the building and carried the main beams across the Thames to use in building the Globe. At this time, when money must have been a problem, the main actors including Shakespeare made themselves into a company, each one of the shareholders being part-owner. Shakespeare's share gave him ten percent of any profits they made.


Nothing is known of Shakespeare's family life; there is no sign that his wife or daughters came to live with him in London, where he stayed in houses close to the Theatre, then to the Globe. By 1597, Shakespeare had made enough money to buy the second largest house in Stratford, the Great House in New Place; this house was torn down by its 18th century owner, who hated tourists! He also bought farm land and another smaller house later; from 1597 his family seems to have been living in New Place, and he also made investments locally.


One major change in the actors Shakespeare was writing his plays for occurred in 1599-1600 when the clown Will Kempe left the company, perhaps after some kind of row about his old-fashioned style of clowning; in his place came Robert Armin, who seems to have been a more refined comedian with a fine singing voice.


When King James became king in 1603, he quickly made Shakespeare's company into The King's Men. When James entered London for his coronation in 1604, Shakespeare and eight other members of the company were in the procession, wearing the king's livery. By 1609, the King's Men were using the hall of the old Blackfriars monastery, an independent area to the west of the City, as their main playhouse; it gave greater intimacy to plays designed, perhaps, for a more select audience. Certainly entry cost more. Also in 1609, Shakespeare's 154 Sonnets were published in a quarto volume by Thomas Thorpe.


It seems that Shakespeare retired from London to live in Stratford in about 1611, after writing The Tempest and parts of Henry VIII. In January 1615 (or 1616?) he made his will, leaving most of his land to his favourite daughter Susanna, who had married John Hall of Stratford in 1607 and had one daughter, Elizabeth. His other daughter, Judith, only married in 1616. She received only a little in the will, since Shakespeare tried to transmit all his land as a complete estate to his grandsons; after he died Judith had three sons, but all died young and the family line ceased, since Elizabeth Hall had no children.


The only mention of Shakespeare's wife in the will, "I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture," has been much discussed. It may be that his widow had automatic rights during her lifetime to a third of her dead husband's estate. After Judith married, some changes were made to the will on 25 March 1616, and here Shakespeare's signature is very shaky. Less than a month later he died, on April 23, 1616, and was buried on April 25 inside the parish church, near the altar, in a place of honor because he was one of the churchwardens of the parish. Directly over the coffin a stone was laid with the words:


Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare

To digg the dust encloased heare.

Blese be the man that spares these stones

And curst be he that moves my bones


This request seems to have been respected, the stone is still in place. A few years later a fine monument was set up on the wall of the church near the grave, offering the first portrait of Shakespeare that we have. His hand is holding a quill pen, showing that he is being celebrated as a writer. The Dutchman who made the statue, Gheerart Janssen, had a shop in Southwark near the Globe, so he perhaps knew Shakespeare personally.


In 1623 his colleagues of the King's Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, with others, brought out a complete edition of Shakespeare's plays in folio size, the so-called First Folio containing 36 plays (not Pericles or the poems). Further editions in folio form followed in 1632, 1664, 1685. In his lifetime 19 of the plays had been published separately, in small quarto volumes, some twelve of them offered as official versions ("good quartos"), the others published without permission and in some cases representing a very different version from that found in the Folios ("bad quartos"). The plays in the First Folio seem to have been very carefully prepared for printing from the best possible copies available at that time; the big question, about which there is much debate, is how much the plays had been revised by Shakespeare or others over the years.

Hamlet's soliloquy

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die--to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause--there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action... (Act III.i)

It is often said that in this speech Hamlet is thinking of committing suicide, that the question is whether to go on living or not. On the contrary, he is reflecting on the kind of life he cannot avoid living because suicide is not a possibility. The "question" of the first line is a "topic for discussion" in an academic disputation at university. The words "to be or not to be" are the familiar abbreviation of a popular debate topic: "even when there is pain, it is better to be alive (though unhappy) than not to be alive." The stress on the impossibility of suicide, or of any easy way out, leads to the conclusion that we have to waste a lot of time and energy thinking (conscience) because there seems to be nothing we can do! The university dispute was always inconclusive, there was never a single right answer to the question/topic proposed.