Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Age of Shakespeare

Two nicely complementary books, one on Shakespeare by the ever breezy Bill Bryson, and the other a rambling and chatty overview of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights by Judith Cook.

The Bryson book is the illustrated and updated edition, about 50 pages longer than the original, and a worthwhile extravagance because the images are so useful in giving a sense of the time. For example, a reproduced Elizabethan document looks like gibberish and suggests the foreignness of the age. When in 2005 a performance of Troilus and Cressida was given using Elizabethan pronunciation, one critic reckoned he understood no more than 30%.

Shakespeare's life, says Bryson, is "little more than a series of occasional sightings." We're not even sure of his name, it having been variously rendered as Shagspere, Shakspere, Shappere, Shaxberd, and perhaps even Shakeshafte. He may have been gay. We don't know whether he was Catholic or Protestant. We don't know how many plays he wrote or in what order. We know nothing about his activities during a seven-year period before his arrival in London, a period that Bryson slyly devotes an entire chapter to. Inevitably, much of the book concentrates on life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but context is not just necessary, it's fascinating.

However, what is known or suspected about Shakespeare is assembled with the usual Bryson industry and scope. The plays and sonnets are looked at from a variety of angles. We read about Shakespeare's stint as Burbage's house playwright, his apparent prosperity, and how his work was received in subsequent years. The book concludes with a chapter on the various claims that the plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare.

A Violent and Brutal Age

Fusing material gleaned from both books, an unsettling portrait of the times emerges. Recurring outbreaks of plague and the shifting tectonics of religion and politics made life dangerous at all levels of society. The Spanish Armada (1588) and the Gunpowder Plot to overthrow James I (1605) are two of the more famous events of the period, but there were also plots to depose or assassinate Elizabeth (e.g Essex, Ridolfi, Babington). She had an active intelligence network and at night slept with a sword by her side. Her refusal to marry or name a successor carried with it the ominous possibility of civil war upon her passing. (No wonder so many of Shakespeare's plays revolve around the transfer of power in a state.)

Hangings, bear-baiting and cock-fighting were forms of public entertainment. "Brawls," writes Bryson, "were shockingly common," as men carried swords and daggers and were quick to use them if they felt slighted. When Cook mentions the versifying of Spenser and Raleigh, she adds, "Renaissance Man indeed had many facets, but unthinking violence is rarely mentioned among them." (Which made me think of the Elizabethan adventurer, Martin Frobisher, and his ruthless dealings with the Inuit of Baffin Island, and the book by aboriginal historian Daniel Paul, We Were Not the Savages.)

"A significant proportion of the population," writes Cook, "lived below the poverty line." Vegetables were eaten mainly by the poor, while those who could afford meat supped on, among other things, "crane, bustard, swan and stork" (Bryson). Rotten teeth caused by sugar consumption was so common that some blackened healthy teeth as a fashion statement.

People believed in witchcraft. Tobacco was known but not tea or coffee. The age of consent for girls was 12, boys 14.

At the Theatre

Play-going was an intimate experience with two to three thousand people crammed into a theatre. No one was more than 50 feet from the stage and some even sat upon it. Prologues were employed due to the high level of illiteracy, yet attention spans were probably better than our own because it was an oral culture. People loved puns and wordplay.

Plays lasted three hours or more (four-and-a-half for Hamlet) without intermission. People ate and drank beer during the performance, and if they needed to relieve themselves buckets were available to piss in. Crowds were noisier than today’s audiences, unafraid to hiss or cheer, or even throw things. Pickpockets and whores were ever-present. Real bullets were used on stage.

Theatre companies consisted of about 15 actors and a handful of apprentices. Complete scripts were not handed out. Instead actors received a separate sheet or roll ("from which the word role comes" says Cook) containing only their own lines and cues. It was rare for a play to run two days in a row, which meant that over the course of a season an actor could be expected to learn 15,000 lines. Plays often concluded with a jig, an attempt to subdue post-play boisterousness.

All plays had to be approved by the Master of Revels and were subject to censorship.

Roaring Boys

Christopher Marlowe – The baby-faced fellow with the chilling stare is thought to be Kit Marlowe. Though he wrote only a handful of plays, he was hugely influential and famously praised by Ben Jonson for his "mighty line." Cook describes him as "flamboyant, outrageous in his behaviour and opinions, given to outbursts of violence," and may have served as the model for Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He was involved in a fatal fight before he himself died in what was long thought to be a senseless tavern quarrel, but may in fact have been an assassination, possibly related to his having worked as a government spy. In the top left corner of the portrait is a Latin motto that translates as "That which nourishes me destroys me."

Thomas Kyd – His play The Spanish Tragedy was "the single most popular and successful play of its day, remaining in repertoire for thirty years after his death" (Cook). His acquaintance with Marlowe caused him to be imprisoned and tortured, an experience that shortened his life.

Ben Jonson - Known as the most erudite of the playwrights and also one of the most ill-tempered. He killed at least one man in a duel, a fellow actor. He was imprisoned more than once for the content of his plays. He was branded on the thumb and threatened with having his ears and nose slit. Shakespeare is known to have acted in one of his plays, and may have contracted his fatal illness after they were out drinking together. Jonson once walked from London to Edinburgh. He died impoverished.

John Fletcher – Followed Shakespeare as Burbage’s house playwright, very prolific and collaborated with a number of others, most notably Beaumont. He died of the plague and was probably buried in a common grave.

George Peele – "His name," Cook writes, "became a byword for riotous living and dissipation." He died of a "loathsome disease."

Thomas Middleton – Author of A Game at Chesse, a thinly disguised allegory satirizing the Spanish court. It "ran for an unprecedented nine performances" (Cook) and caused an international incident. When the Spanish ambassador complained, the Globe was shut down and Middleton imprisoned.

Robert Greene – A compulsive gambler, he took up with the sister of the notorious highwayman Cutting Ball Jack. At the end of his life he repented his riotous living and appalling behaviour in a pamphlet called "A Groatsworth of Wit" in which he called Shakespeare "an upstart crow."

Thomas Dekker - He and Jonson became embroiled in a "Poets War," lampooning each other in their plays. Cook gives a hilarious excerpt from his pamphlet "A Gull's Horn Book" in which a newcomer to London is given advice on how to make an impression:

Never cut your hair or suffer a comb to fasten his teeth there. Let it grow thick and bushy, like a forest or some wilderness. Let not those four-footed creatures that breed in it and are tenants to that crown land, be put to death... Long hair will make you dreadful to your enemies, manly to your friends; it blunts the edge of the sword and deadens the thump of the bullet; in winter a warm nightcap, in summer a fan of feathers.

Shakespeare Portrayed in Film

Having thoroughly enjoyed both books, I settled down to view a pair of equally entertaining but very different movies. First up was Shakespeare in Love, which so cleverly conflates aspects of his life with Romeo and Juliet. Then came the newer Anonymous, in which the Bard is a boob, an illiterate opportunist who takes credit for plays written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.