Richard Nisley

William Shakespeare, famous actor
History - World Released - Jun 24, 2017

Could it be? William Shakespeare—the world’s greatest playwright—was better known in his day as one of the great actors of the London stage? This is among the insights of independent scholar Marchette Chute in her book, “Shakespeare of London.” A great deal of scholarly speculation has shaped our view of Shakespeare because so little is known about his personal life. On the other hand, much is known about his career in the theater, and this is the focus of Ms. Chute’s marvelous portrayal. Chute’s account is of an ambitious man who made his reputation (and his fortune) as an actor—an actor who happened to write plays as a sideline and didn’t earn a farthing for the effort.

Unlike so many biographers, Ms. Chute doesn’t speculate on the state of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, or why they separated, or why he moved to London to take up acting. Her account of the Bard’s life really doesn’t begin until 1594, when Shakespeare joined the famed acting troupe known as the Chamberlain’s company. The Chamberlain’s company was—to draw an analogy from sports—the New York Yankees of their day. They recruited the very best actors, routinely drew the largest crowds, played before the queen each Christmas season, and were so successful they financed construction of their own theater—the Globe.

Before joining the Chamberlain’s company, Shakespeare began writing plays. His first three were histories (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3) followed by a tragedy (Titus Andronicus) and a comedy (The Comedy of Errors). They were not great plays by Shakespeare’s later standard, but great enough to attract the envy of another writer, Robert Green, who wrote a pamphlet warning his fellow Oxford graduates in the literary scene that their rights were being encroached by a mere actor.

Shakespeare did not attend Oxford, as most Elizabethan playwrights did, but he did attend an exceptional grammar school in well-to-do Stratford. The emphasis was on Latin, Latin and more Latin, but also on devising speeches (written in Latin) appropriate to historical figures, and reading them aloud in a school where eloquence was highly prized. In other words, Shakespeare’s education, which stopped at about the 8th grade, prepared him well for a career in the theater.

Shakespeare was fortunate to arrive in London at a time when the theater was enjoying something of a golden age. The first theater in London, called the Curtain, hadn't been around all that long when Shakespeare began auditioning for parts around 1588. Prior to the Curtain, the companies produced their plays in the open courtyards of various inns around London. At the same time, thanks to the advent of the printing press, books were cheap and reading had become a middle-class obsession. Where else for sophisticated Londoners to find entertainment but in the Elizabethan theater where the use of words, and especially blank verse, were a constant delight? There were no English dictionaries at the time, so truly creative talents—and Shakespeare most of all—invented hundreds of new words that became a part of the English language.

At first, authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was unknown outside of the theater. But as Shakespeare wrote hit after hit, the public gradually caught on and demanded his plays be published. As a result, a number of plays written by other playwrights but performed by the Chamberlain’s company were passed off as Shakespeare’s. And his plays that were published were corrupted by cuts and inaccurate texts and hardly representative. It wasn’t until publication of the First Folio, eight years after Shakespeare’s death, that all such errors were corrected. Why didn’t Shakespeare publish his own plays, as did his friend Ben Jonson? Because there was no money it. The money was in acting.

Acting was not an easy profession. Nearly all plays involved some kind of fighting. In staging hand-to-hand combat the actor’s training had to be excellent. The average Londoner was an expert at fencing, and he did not pay money to see two professional actors make ineffectual dabs at each other with rapiers when the script claimed they were fighting to the death. They also expected to see real blood spilled. Sheep’s blood did the trick, carried in a hidden bladder; when stuck with a blade blood splattered onto the stage as for real. Actors also had to be very agile, able to leap from balconies, tumble, do pratfalls on queue, and dance with élan. Also required was the ability to play not one but several musical instruments, and to be fluent in Latin and French. Actors needed a great voice, so that everyone in a large theater could hear all their words distinctly. Finally, an Elizabethan actor needed an excellent memory, because the repertory system was used and rarely was a play given two days in succession. Every night, the actor played a different part.

A busy actor like William Shakespeare did not have much time to write. His mornings were taken up with rehearsals and there were performances in the afternoon and sometimes special shows in the evening, to say nothing of the strenuous period when the company made its annual tour of the provinces. As a result, few actors actually wrote plays. How did Shakespeare do it? He wrote fast, says the author. He thought out the play very carefully in advance, and then wrote every chance he got. He also happened to be a genius. The texts he handed over to the copyists rarely showed signs of corrections. Shakespeare averaged two plays a year, which is not a lot compared with other Elizabethan playwrights who produced five or more plays per annum. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays are based on older plays—tired, trite and uninspired stories that in the Bard’s hands were elevated into something timeless, exalted, and magical.

Shakespeare didn’t hit his stride until writing The Taming of the Shrew, and revealed his true genius with Romeo and Juliet. When it came to writing history plays, he did not bother much with the facts. Rather, he plumbed for potential conflict, emotion and character development. As a result, generations of English people have accepted as historically accurate Shakespeare’s account of King John, of Kings Richard II and Richard III, and of the Henries—Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. In fact, these plays are mostly works of fiction. Shakespeare did not bother much with geography, either. In one of his plays, he has landlocked Bohemia fronted by an ocean.

Omnipresent in Shakespeare’s London were the Puritans—who believed the theaters were sin-filled places and the devil’s work—and Elizabeth I, the beloved Queen, who could not enter a room without creating a stir. Members of her court were forever trying to shut down the theaters, but being an intrepid theatergoer Elizabeth would hear none of it. Attending the theater was one of the few joys in her stress-filled and often unhappy life. She set the tone in so many ways for the English people, particularly in making theatergoing respectable. London women followed suit and like opera goers today made an evening at the theater a special occasion.

When Elizabeth died, King James I continued the tradition as a theater-going head-of-state. When he died, the London theater died with him. Much to the Puritan’s delight, Charles I shut down the theaters for a good long time. Thus ended a glorious age that had produced several great actors whose fame is known to this day, and a number of inspired playwrights, of whom William Shakespeare is greatest of all. As was said of another time in English history: “Don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief shining moment / that was known as Camelot” (in this case, Elizabethan London).

Shakespeare died in 1616 blissfully unaware of the immortality of the 36 plays he had written. More important to him, perhaps, was that he retired on his own terms, as a wealthy man. He invested wisely in Stratford real estate and spent his last years in and out of court protecting such property that he had. Much has been made of this by present-day biographers, but Ms. Chute points out that at the time this was a common enough practice among men of property. Indeed, the Elizabethans were a litigious bunch. Why should Shakespeare have been any different?

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