Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you an amazing playwright, a genius mind, the greatest bard of the Renaissance period… William Shakespeare! But you already know who is he and what is he famous for? Well, what we know about the most famous English playwright is really a lot and really… nothing. Why? Let me show you…
‘What’s in a name? A rose by any name would smell as sweet.’ (Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 2)
Most of our confusion stems from the author debate. Many playwrights of the time pretended to wear Shakespeare’s crown. The first pretender is the philosopher, essayist and scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The Baconian theory says Bacon wrote the plays publicly attributed to William Shakespeare. He kept it a secret because it might have hindered his rise to high office if it became known he wrote plays for the public stage. This is very interesting and intriguing, but the glory of the greatest playwright is worth taking off the mask, isn’t it?
The second pretender on the Shakespearean throne is the Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). The Marlovian theory also says he hid under the mask of Shakespeare. The first question is how Marlowe could write Shakespeare’s plays after his own death? Maybe, the answer is in a recent film by Jim Jarmusch Only Lovers Left Alive where Marlowe turns out to be a vampire? Or not. The official Marlovian theory says Marlowe did not die in Deptford on 30 May 1593, as the historical records state, but he faked his death and continued to live and create under another name. (Maybe this name was Francis Bacon? Who knows!) But with such a busy life full of identity adventures, surely he would write novels in the spirit of Dumas, not just sonnets! Maybe, in Shakespeare’s language, the authorship question is just “much ado about nothing”!
‘All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’ (As You Like it Act 2, Scene 7)
Now let’s look at the other side of Shakespearean heritage. Let’s talk about the theater. The English Renaissance reached the greatest height in theatrical art. Shakespeare’s plays, full of humanism, comedic and tragic plots, were outstanding theatrical achievements of the period. His drama made English theatre an important contributor to the arts.
The most famous theatre associated with Shakespeare was The Globe, built in 1599 and considered the most beautiful theatre of its time. The Globe was a round, open-roofed building that housed approximately 2,000 spectators. Did you know Shakespeare was one of its owners? He adored the theater and was also a good actor. From 1594 on, the acting company variously known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-1596, 1597-1603), Lord Hunsdon’s Men (1596-1597), and the King’s Men (1603-1642) exclusively performed William Shakespeare’s plays. And William Shakespeare was a prominent member of this acting company. Maybe innate artistry helped Shakespeare write wonderful plots and create picturesque characters to brighten the stage… and cinema… and television… and everywhere else you see them performed.
‘Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?’ (Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 2)
“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the most popular and famous of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The story of two young star-crossed lovers whose death will ultimately reconcile their warring families still can’t leave any reader indifferent around the world. This romantic plot was not only Shakespeare’s idea. Working on the play, Shakespeare used an Italian tale translated into verse as “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” by Arthur Brooke in 1562 as his inspiration. This retold in prose “Palace of Pleasure” by William Painter in 1567. We know nothing about Brooke’s and Painter’s works, since we all know this plot from Shakespeare’s view. Why? The answer is simple. He had mastery and a talent to tell stories in a way that reflects their essence while making them masterfully fascinating for the stage and for the audience. They ultimately judge the success of a play. Medieval audiences didn’t just watch spectacles, they also decided how the plot developed!
Do you know Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in the original version had a happy ending? Sounds like “Shakespeare in Love,” right? And John Madden’s film is close to the truth. Because comedy pathos did not appeal to the audience, Shakespeare rewrote the ending. The audience approved of the tragic message. Periodically the theater performed both endings so the audience could choose the one they preferred. (As you like it?) Since Hollywood sometimes change the endings of their films based on audience test screenings, we can see little has changed in the entertainment industry since the Renaissance period. And maybe it’s all for the best.
Unlike many writers who never live to enjoy their fame, Shakespeare achieved great recognition during his lifetime. He wrote three types of plays: comedies, tragedies, and histories. He also wrote poems and sonnets. Many acknowledge him as one of the greatest writers of all time. He remains popular with readers around the world. Maybe Shakespeare says it best: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ (Twelfth Night Act 2, Scene 5).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marianna Kaplun was born in Moscow. She is candidate of philological sciences specializing in the first Russian drama and theatre of XVIIth century. She’s also a film and TV critic by calling. You can find her essays on her Lumiere page and on her blog.