Well, there’s a question to ruffle a few feathers.
Writing that post on Shakespeare’s London last weekend really got my imagination ticking, by the way. I’m going to experiment with trying to make a Short Sheldrake on Shakespeare in the near future into a five-minute tour through Renaissance London. I want to walk you through it with an accompanying soundscape; horses and carts going by, the trudge of mud underfoot, market traders shouting their wares, preachers sermonising in the street, church bells marking the progress of the day, the rattle of a gentleman’s sword on the cobbles, the river trickling under its one crossing – London Bridge, the original pronunciation of the players on the Southbank and, away from the bustle, the tweeting of the birds in the fields and pastures that made up the vast majority of what we now know as Greater London.
Anyway, back to today’s business. Did Shakespeare know what he was doing? I’m speaking artistically here, and I’m not so interested in the question of whether he knew he was a contender to be the finest dramatist ever to walk the earth as I am in whether he was aware of the artistic shape of his career. So, to re-point the question, did he know what he was doing within his own time?
This is one of those questions to which I can only accumulate an answer, and I find it has changed over the years. If you’d asked me when I started studying Shakespeare seriously, I’d probably have said, in the best of Romantic traditions, that he just wrote what he felt and that they happened to be works of genius. He was unaware of his brilliance. Now, I’m not so sure. In my mind this question is tied up with how interesting he’d be over a pint. More on that story later.
I’ve collected little stories over my time with Shakespeare that make me think he couldn’t help but know what he was doing. At the start of his career, he needed to make a splash. He could see the vogue for History plays wasn’t going to last forever, so, if you want History plays, here’s Henry VI Parts I, II and III. Eat your heart out Chris Marlowe! Tamburlaine the Great, only Parts I and II? Pfft.
When plague closed the playhouses in 1593 or thereabouts he turned to poetry, crafting Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These garnered him a reputation as a fine poet, made him a nice little bit of money and gave him a chance to experiment with styles that inform the highly poetic dramas that come after them – Richard II, for example.
Then there is Titus Andronicus. “If you want bloody revenge tragedies that are also dramatically subtle, let me show you characters at such an emotional extreme that the usual pathways of emotion are sent awry.” Characters laugh when they run out of tears. Look up my podcast on Titus Andronicus – The Shock of the New for that point at greater length.
And then there are the experiments with genre at the other end of his career. Tragicomedy as a fully integrated and theorised genre was ‘invented’ in Italy in the very late 1500s. It was still too academic when that Italian writing was imported into England in the very early 1600s. John Marston wrote (in my view) a perfect tragedy when he wrote The Malcontent in 1603 (watch out for it at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse soon, but the way). But nobody seems to have noticed. John Fletcher had a go in about 1607. It was a total flop. The Michael Billingtons of Renaissance London were not kind to it. But Shakespeare, who had always been interested in flirting with the divide between genres, knew the area had potential. He may well have seen Marston’s play when the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s company, after all) performed it in 1604. Regardless, over the course of a year or two in the early 1610s, he hit the London theatre scene with The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Cymbeline. Three true tragicomedies. All tragicomic in different ways.
Neat interpretation, no?
I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been much fun down the pub. He’d have been sitting quietly in the corner of The Mermaid Tavern, overhearing sailors’ stories and thinking ‘There’s a scene in that’. Maybe. But if you got him talking, I reckon he’d be one of the most insightful critics of Renaissance drama you could ever hope to meet. And after the fourth tankard of burnt sack, when the bit of him that wrote Falstaff begins to take precedence, there may even be a few laughs as well.