No More Words, We Beseech You

By becoming resident playwright of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare had avoided the unhappy fate of those freelance dramatists who lived upon their increasingly frayed wits. There were not many of them, and they were all known to one another. In the manner of such things the now respectable and “gentle” Shakespeare would have been the object of some scorn and derision, as well as implicit envy, in their tavern sessions. The writers were employed either by the actors or by the managers of the theatre; they wrote singly or in groups, according to the exigency of the moment. The diaries of Philip Henslowe at the Swan reveal that, of the eighty-nine plays he supervised, thirty-four were written by a single author and the other fifty-five were the result of collaborative enterprise. Collaboration was the single most important method of providing a play. That is one reason why we never read of “author” or “playwright” concerned with any play before 1598. In an earlier period the actors themselves had written the plays, so little did the text matter compared to the spectacle and action. In Histriomastix the actors arrive in a town and proclaim their play, at which point they are asked: “What’s your playes name? Maisters whose men are ye?” The identity of the author is not a question.

The writer or writers might have proposed the story, or the story might have been suggested to them by the actors or theatre managers; they would then set to work on the “plot” or narrative scheme which, proving successful , they would fashion into the play itself. They tended to write in instalments, being paid for each stage of their delivery. “I haue hard fyue sheets of a playe,” one member of the Admiral’s Men wrote to Henslowe, “& I dow not doute but it wyll be a verye good playe.” But the playwright admitted that they were “not so fayr written all as I could wish.”1

It is of the greatest importance to note that these men were the first of their kind. There were no rules. There had never existed professional writers before, by which is meant writers who were dependent upon the commercial market for their success or failure. Chettle, Nashe and Shakespeare—whether they knew it or not—were the harbingers of a new literary culture.

The playwrights finished their “sheets” quickly. It was the literary equivalent of factory farming, and Jonson was scorned when he admitted to spending five weeks on a play. They were also called upon to augment or revise existing plays, and to adapt them to different casts and circumstances. New plays were needed all the time but, equally importantly, new kinds of play were constantly in demand. In this recently created world of play-making and play-going there were instant fashions and fancies. For a decade the fashion had been for history plays, revenge tragedies and pastoral comedies; they were then supplanted by comedies of “humours” and city comedies; the city comedies became more and more concerned with sex, and satires also came to the fore. Then there was a fashion for Roman plays. There was a vogue for plays concerned with rulers in disguise. There was a period when romances and plays containing masques became popular. Shakespeare himself was not immune to these changes of direction, and we will see how his own plays were subtly attuned to the demands of the moment.

That is why play-writing was also considered to be the most lucrative employment for any writer of the period. The average rate for a new play was approximately £6, and it can be estimated that the most successful or popular playwrights were able to compose at least five plays each year. Their annual income, therefore, was more than twice as much as they could have earned as schoolmasters. There were others who were not so fortunate, however, and were reduced to menial literary employment for the sake of a bottle of wine and a few shillings. It was an energetic, boisterous, drunken and on occasions violent world that naturally spilled over into the circles of the theatrical profession.

There was no question, then, of creating an eminent “career” out of writing for the playhouses; these men were not established poets such as Samuel Daniel or Edmund Spenser, patronised by royalty and financed by nobility. They were journeymen or workmen. Whether Shakespeare considered himself in this light is an open question. His pursuit of armigerous status suggests that he had higher aspirations, but in the actual practice of his trade he was no doubt as pragmatic and as workmanlike as any of his contemporaries.

There was, however, one great change in the printing and publication of Shakespeare’s plays. On 10 March 1598, the volume edition of A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called Loues labors lost was issued as newly “corrected and augmented” by “W. Shakspere.” This was the first of his plays in which he was announced as the author, and heralded the growing importance of his name in the dissemination of his work to the public. He had managed to fight his way through the general anonymity of the play-writing profession and had become an identifiable “author.” In the same year new quarto versions of Richard II and Richard III proclaimed that they, unlike their anonymous predecessors, had been composed solely by “William Shake-speare.” In the following year the spurious volume, The Passionate Pilgrim, also made use of Shakespeare’s name as an evident attraction for the reading public. It is sometimes suggested that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men sold these plays to their respective publishers as a ploy for raising much-needed finance. This is most unlikely; plays were by no means a large part of any publisher’s stock and would not have commanded extraordinarily high prices. It is much more likely that publication of the plays was a way of advertising them in periods when they were simultaneously being performed on the public stage.

The publication of Love’s Labour’s Lost can be seen, however, as a highly significant event in the creation of the modern conception of the writer. It was not the least of Shakespeare’s accomplishments to elevate, and perhaps even to create, the status and the reputation of the commercial author. After the spring of 1598 the number of his plays entering publication, with his name attached to them, multiplied. It has also been suggested by theatrical historians that from this time forward dramatists became more “aggressive”2 about their roles and reputations with players and publishers alike. The author may have come out of the printing press rather than the theatre, as this narrative suggests, but the literary and cultural identity of the individual writer could no longer be ignored.

It may not be coincidence that in the autumn of the same year there appears the first public praise for Shakespeare as a dramatist rather than as a poet. In Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury Francis Meres remarks that “as Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” Among Shakespeare’s comedies he mentions “Midsummers night dreame & his Merchant of Venice” and, among the tragedies, he refers to King John and Romeo and Juliet. He augments his praise by declaring that “I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake Englishe.”3 He goes on to mention Shakespeare’s name in five other passages. This is high praise, only slightly modified by the general extravagance of Meres’s encomia. It signals Shakespeare’s eminence in his profession and the fact that as an author he can now legitimately claim a place beside “Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton” and the other poets whom Meres mentions. Shakespeare had made the profession of dramatist culturally respectable, in a way unimaginable even twenty years before.

Meres had recently published a sermon entitled God’s Arithmetic and in the same year as Palladis Tamia he brought out a pious book entitled Granado’s Devotion; later he became a rector in Rutland. So Shakespeare now appealed to the “godly” as well as to the “lower sort” who filled the pit of the playhouses. Meres was severe on the generally dissolute lives of Marlowe, Peek and Greene but placed Shakespeare himself in the more elevated company of Sidney and Daniel and Spenser. The publication of Palladis Tamiamarked a very important stage in Shakespeare’s literary reputation, also, since from this time forward begins the serious commentary upon his plays.

There is a curious addendum to Meres’s praise. Among the comedies of Shakespeare he identifies is one entitled Loue labours wonnne. The name also emerges in a publisher’s catalogue at a later date. No such play survives. It has been suggested that it is an alternative title for an existing play, such as Much Ado About Nothing, but it may well be one of those Shakespearian productions that, like the mysterious play Cardenio, has been lost in the abysm of time.

Shortly after Meres published his comments the scholar and close friend of Edmund Spenser, Gabriel Harvey, inserted a note in his newly purchased copy of Speght’s edition of Chaucer. He wrote that “the younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort.” He then includes Shakespeare among a group of “flourishing metricians”4 including Samuel Daniel and his friend Edmund Spenser. Leaving aside the apparently early date for the production of Hamlet, and the fact that Harvey seems to regard that play as a text to be read, this is also significant praise from a representative of what might be called Elizabethan high poetics. Harvey had already scorned the lives and works of the jobbing playwrights of the period, in particular Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene, but in this private notation he places Shakespeare in much more elevated company—including that of his beloved Spenser.

There is one other piece of evidence that confirms Shakespeare’s standing among the “younger sort.” In this period some students at St. John’s College, Cambridge, devised a trilogy of satirical plays on current literary fashions. They have become known as theParnassus Plays and the second of them, The Second Part of the Returne from Parnassus, has a considerable interest for the student of Shakespeare. In this play a feeble character named Gullio, who may or may not be a satirical portrait of Southampton, sings aloud the praises of Shakespeare to the amusement of the more alert Inge-nioso. “We shall have nothing but pure Shakspeare,” Ingenioso declares at an outpouring by Gullio, “and shreds of poetrie that he hath gathered at the the-ators.” When Ingenioso is obliged to attend to Gullio’s verses he cries out, sarcastically, “Sweete Mr. Shakspeare!” and “Marke, Romeo and Juliet! O monstrous theft!” Gullio then goes on to ask: “Let mee heare Mr. Shakspear’s veyne” which suggests that his “vein” was well enough known to be admired, imitated and occasionally disparaged. “Let this duncified world esteeme of Spencer and Chaucer,” Gullio goes on, ‘Tie worship sweet Mr. Shakspeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillowe.”5 There is no doubt, then, that Shakespeare was indeed the “fashion.” Another character in the Parnassus trilogy seems designed to be a parody of the dramatist himself. Studioso is both playwright and schoolteacher, and he speaks in the accents of Shakespeare with plentiful natural analogies and melodious conceits. A recognisably Shakespearian style could be parodied in front of an audience, who would know precisely the object of the parody.

In 1599 a student of another Cambridge college, Queens’, wrote an encomium on “honie-tong’d Shakespeare” in which he praises the two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, as well as Romeo and Juliet. That same play was also mentioned in The Second Part of the Returne from Parnassus, which suggests that it was very popular indeed among the young scholars of the university. Shakespeare was known for his “sweetness,” but the next play of the Parnassus trilogy also mentions Richard III. The fact that Gabriel Harvey names Hamlet as one of his principal productions suggests that the dramatist was now being taken seriously on a number of levels. In the same year John Marston satirises a contemporary from whose lips flow “naught but pure Iuliat and Romio.”6 All in all, Shakespeare had become a phenomenon.

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