Thursday, April 5, 2012

Theatre Thursday: Literary Rivalries of Elizabethan London

It is no secret that the theatrical type thrives on drama. Broadway and the West End are no more competitive and sensational than the 16th century theatre community along the Thames.

Robert Greene (c.1558-1592) wrote an attack on a playwright in Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a million of Repentance, whom he refers to as "Shake-scene". Most literary scholars agree that through a copious amount of allusions, puns and references it can be determined that the object of Greene's disdain was Shakespeare, although most anti-Stratfordian's disagree (and whoever you think Shakespeare was or certainly wasn't, I thinkwe can all agree that, by any other name, there was still a genius who wrote the plays). In any case, Greene's dislike of Shakespeare was so strong and so bitter that he was willing to devote the last moments of his own life to speak ill of his competition. Greene's rant was found in his personal papers after his death, and published posthumously.

A woodcut of Robert Greene writing in his burial shroud, symbolizing that his words come from beyond the grave. This woodcut is from the title page of English author and Greene- follower John Dickenson's Greene in conceipt: New raised from his grave to write the Tragic History of Valeria of London (1598) . Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Greene was an eccentric character-flamboyant in both his mannerisms and clothing. Greene mastered the art of self-promotion, publishing pamphlets about the exploits of himself and his fellow rogues and rakes to boost his own popularity. Green's most successful works were The Honarable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1591) which was first performed in 1594, two years after his death, and The Comical History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon (c.1590). Some have suggested that the faerie characters present in his work The Scottish History of James the Fourth, Slain at Flodden (1590) inspired Shakespeare's use of faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Wagner, 129). An earlier play, Pandosto (1588) has a plot similar to Shakespeare's later work  A Winter's Tale, though the plot of the latter likely drew inspiration from a variety of other materials.

The title-page of the first edition of Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, which most scholars agree is an attack on the great English dramatist Shakespeare. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 We know that Greene had masters from Cambridge in 1583, and that he earned another at Oxford in 1588. But Greene preferred the life of a bohemian to the life of an academic, and according to Greene's own pamphlets (much of which we can assume was sensationalized) he abandoned his well-born wife and child in Norwich for a life in the theatre (Wagner, 129). If born in modern times, this man with the red beard, formed to a devilish point with sculpting wax, would have been ready-made for reality television.

Playwright and poet Ben Jonson (c.1572-1637) felt that Shakespeare's seemingly never-ending production of material was a sign of carelessness. Of course, it is also quite possible that Jonson was just jealous of Shakespeare's talent, (not that Jonson was lacking any himself) or perhaps that he was just a little irritated at Shakespeare's fame. Jonson took pride in revising his work until he deemed it to perfect, and he frowned on others who did not do the same. In Timber, published after his death, Jonson wrote that he had heard much of Shakespeare's lack of revision, saying, "Whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line." Jonson mused slyly, "Would he had blotted a thousand."

One of Jonson's earliest plays, The Case is Altered is startlingly similar in its story arch and themes to Shakespeare's Italian comedies. But Jonson's craft developed over time, and he soon received a lot of praise for his comedic plays, earning a reputation as one of the best humorists of the Elizabethan theatre scene. He is best remembered for plays like The Devil is an Ass, (and one has to love it for the title alone!) Eastward Ho, and The Magnetic Lady. Jonson also enjoyed the prestige of writing masques for the court of King James I, Queen Elizabeth's successor, as part of the newly formed company The Kings Men (Wagner, 170).

The title page of the 1616 edition of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour. As the title page explains, the play was first performed in 1598 by The Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Lord Chamberlain at this time was Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, who depending on who you asked, was either a maternal cousin or a half-brother of Queen Elizabeth I. Stratfordian's will recognize that Shakespeare was a member of the company The Lord Chamberlain's Men (Wagner, 61). Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 All good artists, whatever their craft, draw inspiration from one another. They use their rivalries, real or manufactured, as motivation to do better, (or outdo their peers) and as a way to generate attention. (And I am sure that we all can think of many celebrity "feuds" that gain artists attention today.) In the end, Jonson expressed some repressed admiration for Shakespeare, writing "there was ever more in him to be praised than pardoned." He also declared of Shakespeare, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

I do not think that Shakespeare could have written his own epitaph better than that.

A detail of The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare, long thought to be the only portrait of the "Bard of Avon" painted from life until the discovery of The Cobbe Portrait in 2009. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


Wagner, John A. Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print.
(Pages 61, 129-130, 170-171.)