A Glimpse into Shakespeare’s World

The image many people have of William Shakespeare is of the poetic genius writing his plays all alone in his artist’s garret, quill in hand, perhaps crunching up and throwing out precious pages of expensive paper whenever the muse eludes him. This image could not be further from the truth. William Shakespeare worked in the midst of a vibrant, creative and dynamic entertainment industry, full of movement and colour, fundamentally collaborative, but also infused with passion, rivalry and conflict.

Without the benefit of a university education, Shakespeare would most likely have learnt his craft as a member of one of the many playing troupes patronised by Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers. In The Elizabethan Playing Companies I enter into what day to day life would have been like for Shakespeare as a part of one of these companies, on the road and in London’s playhouses.

Shakespeare arrived in London at a time when the theatre scene was the most vibrant it had ever been. New and dynamic playing companies were being formed, purpose-built theatres were being erected for the first time and young and exciting playwrights were taking London by storm, playwrights from whom Shakespeare would learn and with whom he would both collaborate and compete. One of these was the author of the most popular play to come out of the Elizabethan theatre and to whom I will introduce you in Thomas Kyd and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’.

One of the greatest rivalries in the Elizabethan theatre was between the actors Richard Burbage, who brought William Shakespeare’s immortal roles to life, and Edward Alleyn, who was renowned for playing Christopher Marlowe’s tragic anti-heroes. As I recount in Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe, while the Burbages built The Theatre and became the leaders of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Alleyn and his father-in-law, Philip Henslowe, would become the core of the rival company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, at The Rose playhouse, a rivalry that would define the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre for many years.

While the relationship between the Burbages and the Alleyns may have begun as a healthy rivalry, it would descend into an all-out family feud as a result of a domestic drama no less exciting and tragic than any Shakespeare would write. As I recount in The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 1, James Burbage’s troubles began when he took on as his business partner his brother-in-law, John Brayne, a partnership that would bring disastrous consequences for him and his family. In The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 2, I go beyond the documented facts and speculate on the root cause of all these troubles. This drama may have been just a footnote in history, if it had not spilled over into the Burbages’ public life and involved the Alleyns, as I recount in The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3, and thus had long term repercussions that would shape the future of the Elizabethan theatre.

The rivalry between the Burbages and the Alleyns, and thus between the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men, is the backdrop to the love story at the centre of the delightful film, Shakespeare in Love. Many people would have formed their impressions of the Elizabethan theatre from this film. However, while it gives us a lively and somewhat accurate image of the Elizabethan playhouse, much of the story is, in historical terms, total bunkum. In Deciphering ‘Shakespeare in Love’, I distinguish the fact from the fiction, not to disparage this beautiful film and its producers, but so that the viewer can better enjoy it as a work of great wit and creativity.

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