Stanley Wells is one of the great Shakespeare
scholars of this, or any other, generation. His work on
Oxford edition of the Complete Works, the
Textual Companion, the
Dictionary of Shakespeare and, if I can mention a
Shakespeare for All Time, assure his
enduring reputation. It was with keen anticipation I
picked up this book, then, and I was not disappointed.
The book is not groundbreaking, by any means, but is
pleasant, erudite, and consistently interesting. It is
the best introduction I know to placing Shakespeare in
the theatrical currents of his time and tracing his
interactions, such as they can be known, with his less
famous, though greatly gifted, contemporaries Marlowe,
Jonson, Dekker, Middleton, Fletcher, Webster and the
In an age such as ours where otherwise serious people can become
preoccupied with crank,
ideas like the Oxford wrote Shakespeare nonsense so much in circulation, how
likely is it those same serious people have taken the time to read
Shakespeare's less well known fellows? They have, perhaps, read Dr.
Faustus in an English lit survey class, and know about Marlowe because,
after all, HE might, just maybe, be the one who really wrote at least some
of Shakespeare's plays, but certainly they have not read either part of
Tamburlaine, or A Trick To Catch The Old One, or The
Shoemakers Holiday. Need enough, then, that a thoroughgoing, popular
introduction to the lives and masterpieces of some of Shakespeare's
contemporaries deserves a home on the bulging Shakespeare bookshelf at the
Barnes & Nobles cum Starbucks.
The first sentence of the Preface says "This book attempts to
place Shakespeare in relation to the actors and other writers, mainly
playwrights, of his time in an accessible and where possible entertaining
manner" (ix). And so it does, with, speaking for myself, at least, emphasis
on "entertaining." I found the book enormously likable. If you are
familiar with the period and the authors being treated, you will find
nothing new, but a non-specialists book surveying a rather broad field does
not attempt to present novel interpretations, but rather can be relied on to
deliver the state-of-the-art scholarly understanding of these authors and
their works in a pleasant style. Wells's scholarly status guarantees the
most dependable understanding of the times and writers, and his gifts as a
writer makes reading a joy.
He begins by sketching the theatrical scene around 1600-01, placing
Shakespeare astride two generations of writers, the earlier Elizabethan
journeymen like Greene, Peele, Kyd, Lyly and (much more than a journeyman)
Marlowe, and the later generation of Jacobeans, Chapman, Jonson, Middleton,
Fletcher and Webster. Wells's style is conversational, but spiced with
intimate knowledge of the people, the period, and the great edifice of
English Literature: "Soon after it [Hamlet] took the town by storm
the Cambridge Scholar and controversialist Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631) --
an intellectual snob if ever there was one -- scribbled in his copy of
Chaucer's poems a note to the effect that 'The younger sort take much
delight in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece,
and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them to
please the wiser sort" (3). The tone is light "an intellectual snob if ever
there was one," exact "his copy of Chaucer's poems," and to the point,
placing Shakespeare's reputation broad and high midway through his career.
Wells traces the background of Elizabethan play houses, the social
context, mentioning the criticisms of Stephen Gosson and the School of
Abuse, but comes down on the side of a balanced view of players and
play goers during Shakespeare's career, noting the demands Elizabethan and
Jacobean plays made on their auditors: "...there is no other period in which
so much of the finest writing, in both verse and prose, is to be found in
plays written for the popular theatre" (27); and defending, for the most
part, the players, recognizing the stolid citizenship and industry of men
like Hemminges, Condell, Phillips, especially Edward Alleyn, and certainly
Shakespeare, while leaving room for the more liberal spirits, like Will Kemp
and, indeed, Ben Jonson. The theatre crowd of the 1580s-1620s had a mixture
of industry and profligacy, just as it has today, with men of high intellect
writing for the stage more lyrically, wittily and powerfully than ever
before or since.
We learn, charmingly, that "...in the public theatres plays were acted
without a break, in the private theatres they were customarily divided into
five acts, for the practical reason that candles used for illumination had
to be trimmed at frequent intervals" (17). And touchingly, regarding the
death of Shakespeare's great fellow Richard Burbage, "Two months later the
Earl of Pembroke, who with his brother was to be a dedicatee of the First
Folio, was still so distressed that he could not bring himself to join in
the after dinner festivities at a great banquet which was to be followed by
a performance of Pericles, in which Burbage had probably created
the leading role; the Earl wrote that 'I being tender-hearted, could not
endure to see [the play] so soon after the loss of my old acquaintance
Wells emphasizes Shakespeare's role as a collaborator throughout the
"Scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge this, but there is now
fairly general agreement that in his early years he worked with George
Peele on Titus Andronicus and with Thomas Nashe on Henry VI,
Part One. He also seems likely to have written some scenes of
Edward III...he apparently worked with Thomas Middleton on
Timon of Athens, with John Fletcher on the play known in its own
time as All is True, retitled Henry VIII...The Two
Noble Kinsmen, and on a lost play, Cardenio...Pericles
is now agreed to be a collaboration with George Wilkins, and Middleton
apparently had a share in both Measure for Measure and
Macbeth, but as an adapter rather than as a collaborator" (26).
It behooves us, then, to find out more about these men and
their relationship to Shakespeare's works.
After reviewing the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical scenes, and
placing Shakespeare squarely among his fellow actors, Wells begins a series
of chapters examining the leading playwrights of the age, as playwrights,
but also in their relationship to Shakespeare. First up is the greatest, at
least the greatest of the 16th century except for Shakespeare, Christopher
Marlowe. By way of introducing Marlowe brief consideration is made of Lyly
("In later times the compulsory reading of Euphues and its sequel
came to be used as a form of punishment suitable for uppish
undergraduates..." (64)); Greene ("Greene was so much a master of the
journalistic skill of turning anything that happened to him into copy for
the printers that it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction in
his writing..." (66)); Lodge ( "...he sailed on voyages to the Azores, the
Canary Islands and South America. It was at sea that he wrote...Rosalynde
[source for As You Like It]" (69); Peele (Peele's eclectic style
has caused his name to be associated with many anonymous plays of the period
and, conspicuously, with one that is not anonymous, Shakespeare's Titus
Andronicus" (70)); Nashe ("Nashe was a genius, a brilliant if eccentric
prose stylist and satirist whose linguistic innovations vie3 with those of
James Joyce..." (70-71)); and Kyd ("Shakespeare may well have written
Titus Andronicus in direct emulation of this play [Kyd's Spanish
Tragedy], which combines tragedy with black comedy and sensational
Marlowe (at last) is "...the only writer of his time to whom Shakespeare
makes direct reference" (75). An amazing fact for such a bookish man as
Shakespeare. Wells goes on to compare Venus and Adonis with Hero and
Leander (which Marlowe may well have allowed him to read in manuscript). In
fact both works gained a reputation as "soft porn" in their time. Wells
concludes that "...it is quite likely that Marlowe and Shakespeare were
friends" (77). After comparing their formative years--at least, the little
that is known of them--and their early careers--ditto--Wells states "it
seems certain that if Shakespeare had died when Marlowe did , we
should now regard Marlowe as the greater writer" (78). It would certainly
not be so in another five years. In fact, in another five years, when Meres
wrote Palladis Tamia naming Shakespeare's works to date, Shakespeare had
become the greatest of all English playwrights--even had he not gone on to
produce his greatest works from 1599-1611.
From a comparison of the two, Wells proceeds to analyze, in a light and
friendly way, of course, the works of Marlowe, focusing on the "magnificence
and grandiloquence" of his language. Of The Jew of Malta he says, "T. S.
Eliot had read the play correctly in 1920, writing that if we take it 'as a
farce, then the concluding act becomes intelligible..." (86). It is, in
Wells's words, "sardonic, black comedy." Interestingly, Wells draws a
parallel between Barabas's ultimate boasts "Die, life! Fly, soul! Tongue,
curse thy fill and die!" (actually, the speech from 5.5.80-88) with Burbage
playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, perhaps imitating Alleyn, with:
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon, take thy flight.
Now, die, die, die, die, die!
It is comparisons such as these that make reading Wells book so
much fun. Only a scholar of good will, if I may, can be depended upon to
represent the period faithfully while drawing such striking echoes so
Shakespeare's play that invites comparison with The Jew of
Malta is, of course, the Merchant of Venice. Of the two, Wells judges,
"Shakespeare's play is greater in stylistic range and in emotional depth
than Marlowe's, and gentler in it morality" (89). And so it is. Isn't that
why we admire Marlowe--for his language, certainly, and his heightened
histrionics--but we love gentle Shakespeare, not so much for his far greater
linguistic gifts, but for his compassion, empathy, and kindlier depths?
Another example of Wells's breadth of knowledge is his
comparison of Marlowe and Richard Barnfield: "There is only one poet of the
1590s whose interest in homoeroticism is comparable to Marlowe's" (94).
Ironically, Barnfield is best remembered for his praise of Shakespeare's
Venus and Lucrece in A Remembrance of Some English Poets
(1598). This is mentioned in the broader context of an analysis of
Marlowe's Edward II, and his homoeroticism in general.
After a discussion of Marlowe's works, he goes on to the famous
death in Deptford. Many far flung theories are spun around the death.
"Many readers of the documents have speculated that Marlowe may have been
the victim of an undisclosed conspiracy..." (100). As ridiculous as the de
Vere theories are today, so have been (and still are in less lavishly funded
circles) the Marlowe wrote Shakespeare theories in years past. In the
twenty years after his death, he is alleged to have written the masterpieces
of Shakespeare, "...which no one in the busy, and gossipy world of the
theatre knew to be his, and for which he was willing to allow his Stratford
contemporary to receive all the credit and to reap all the rewards" (100).
Interestingly, "Calvin Hoffman, an American journalist...had the Walsingham
tomb opened in the attempt to find documentary proof..." (101). It makes
for light entertainment, but is all such a silly waste of time. There is
absolutely no doubt, Wills makes clear, that Marlowe died a violent death in
Deptford in 1593.
Though Marlowe was, as Wells describes, a rioter, forger,
heretic, blasphemer, secret agent and social dissident, his death was an
enormous loss to English literature. He "was not solitary genius" however,
and a new generation of dramatists was soon to emerge.
Thus, Wells segues to a consideration of Thomas Dekker, "The
first prominent dramatist whose work centres on the capital..." (107). He
was enormously prolific, often in collaboration, and wrote "throughout his
adult life, except for the seven years that he spent in prison." Indeed,
Wells summarizes his work (ala Shapiro) in the year 1599 alone, and it is
truly amazing, including his masterpiece The Shoemaker's Holiday,
based on The Gentle Craft, a novella published in 1598 by Thomas Deloney.
"Overall, then, Dekker was involved to some degree or other in the
composition of no fewer than eleven plays in 1599" (110).
Dekker--along with several others--had a hand in Sir Thomas
More, the holograph of which contains the only sample, it is commonly
believed by scholars, of Shakespeare's handwriting (the famous Hand D). The
composition of Sir Thomas More, though, was a much looser affair
than one we would call a collaboration.
Dekker lived to be sixty, and in his later life collaborated
with Thomas Middleton, who succeeded Shakespeare as the King's Men's chief
playwright, on two fine plays, The Honest Whore and The Roaring
Girl. The latter play (probably 1611) "...is based on a real-life
London character, Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse...Reputedly the
first woman to smoke tobacco..." (121). She is presented sympathetically,
"as a kind of female Robin Hood."
Dekker's most famous prose work is the Gull's Hornbook, in
which he writes about the London theatre world. "Dekker's chapter called
'How a gallant should behave himself in a playhouse' is full of vivid and
revealing details about theatre practice" (123). The gallant, of course,
should sit on the stage. If the playwright "has satirized him or flirted
with his mistress, the gallant may take his revenge by standing up in the
middle of the play ' with a screwed and discontented face', greeting all his
friends who are on the stage with him, and persuading as many of them as may
be to depart with him" (124), and so on.
Dekker was able to transfer his skills, and "continue his
lifelong celebration of the City of London" in pageants and other
entertainments. "In 1629 the Ironmongers' Company paid him 180 pounds for
writing London's Tempe, or, The Field of Happiness..." (127). A surprising
amount. The saddest episode in Dekker's life was the seven years he spent
in prison for debt, and at the ending of his life, he had nothing. His
widow indicated that "...he had nothing to leave to posterity except his
"Ben Jonson was the most aggressively self-opinionated, conceited,
quarrelsome, vociferous and self-advertising literary and theatrical figure
of his time" (129). And those were his good qualities... No, that's a
joke. Wells goes on to call Ben a "powerful satirist, a lyric poet of
genius, a playwright of great though uneven achievement...a classical
scholar..." and so on. We know Shakespeare by his surname, but Jonson is
always "Ben." Partly, because we know so much about him, but moreso because
he mirrors so much about us, and laughs at us to boot.
Jonson began, stepping up from bricklayer's apprentice, as an actor.
Soon he was playing Heironimo from The Spanish Tragedy, on tour. His first
play, The Case is Altered, he regarded so lightly as to exclude from his
1616 Folio edition of "works." (He took many a jibe from his fellows for
publishing Works, with a capital W. He was jailed in the Marshalsea for his
part in the now lost play The Isle of Dogs, and it nearly got the
playhouses pulled down. Thereafter he killed a fellow actor (Gabriel
Spencer, with whom he had served six weeks for the Isle of Dogs
episode) in a duel. He was imprisoned again, and almost hung. He escaped
by pleading benefit of clergy, a legal loophole for literates. His goods
were confiscated and he was branded with Tyburn's T on this thumb. For
these, and a hundred other reasons, we know him as Ben.
Jonson's criticisms of Shakespeare are well known, and it is worth
mentioning that Shakespeare never answered in kind, though Wells speculates
that "...possibly Jonson was thought to be satirized in the bragging and
doltish figure of Ajax in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida..."
(139). Certainly he wore his autodidactical classicism ostentatiously. So
much so, that his original text for Sejanus, his stiff Roman
tragedy, was rewritten for performance (the performance text is lost) and
Wells quotes Ann Barton's guess that the collaborator was Shakespeare, which
may well have been the case, but, Wells is quick to point out, there is no
proof. One of Wells's fascinating speculations is that Jonson arranged the
scholarly side notes in the printed edition of Sejanus "...to draw
attention away from the play's topical resonances..." (145).
Most of Jonson's plays are comedies, much more satirical and topical than
Shakespeare's. He was in trouble again for Eastward Ho, which he
wrote with Chapman and Marston. The play's gibes against the Scots landed
the three authors in prison, under threat of personal mutilation (a not
uncommon "corrective" in Jacobean times). After Eastward Ho,
Jonson's great creative period brought forth Volpone, The
Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, the plays we best know.
Wells compares this output with Shakespeare's of the same period. With
Shakespeare turning to Romance and densely complex poetry, Jonson stuck with
his forte, classicism, satire and topical events. Ben famously expressed
criticisms of Shakespeare, "The gist of Jonson's criticism is that
Shakespeare lacked discipline..." (161), but it should be noted, "...he
expresses nothing but admiration for Shakespeare as a man."
Jonson turned to masque writing between 1616 (the year of his Folio) and
1626, collaborating closely--if precariously--with the great designer Inigo
Jones. Other well known authors of the time also wrote masques, as was the
fashion, but by then it was too late for Shakespeare. Jonson returned to
play writing near the end of his life, with plays relatively unknown today:
The Staple of News, The New Inn and A Tale of a Tub.
He died in 1637, at sixty-five. Wells observes: "For the remainder of the
seventeenth century Jonson's reputation and influence equaled and possibly
exceeded Shakespeare's, but in the eighteenth century the balance shifted,
above all with the virtual deification of Shakespeare from the time of the
Garrick Jubilee, in 1769, onwards" (165).
Wells quotes Ben Jonson's Prologue to Volpone, where Ben boasts of
writing the play in:
five weeks fully penned it--
From his own hand, without a co-adjutor,
Novice, journeyman or tutor.
He seizes on these four terms to characterize Thomas
Middleton's changing relationship with Shakespeare. In time, he played all
four roles. Shakespeare was his tutor, and Middleton was Shakespeare's
apprentice (of sorts), journeyman and collaborator (see p. 167-168).
Middleton's early plays were written for the boys' companies,
and Wells speculates interestingly on the attraction of the young actors:
"Their performances may have had the appeal of miniaturization, an effect
not unlike that produced by seeing a Mozart opera performed by puppets"
In addition to plays Middleton authored pamphlets, much like
Dekker (in fact they borrowed heavily from one another). With The Honest
Whore, however, written with Dekker, Middleton hit his play writing stride,
and followed it with "brilliant comedies": Michaelmas Term (1604),
A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World My Masters (both
in 1605) The Puritan Widow (1606) and Your Five Gallants
(1607), all city comedies and all written for the boys' companies.
Wells speculates that Middleton probably wrote A Yorkshire
Tragedy ("...among the finest one-act plays in English" (179)). He
also treats The Revenger's Tragedy as Middleton's, though
cautiously ("...the long-held suspicion that Middleton wrote the earlier
play has hardened into conviction in many scholars' minds..."
(180)--certainly not a thoroughgoing endorsement0, if for no other reason
than to enjoy the luxury of analyzing this wonderful play.
Wells also says that Shakespeare accepted Middleton "...as a
coadjutor on Timon of Athens" (184). He speculates that maybe the success
of The Revenger's Tragedy, "...quite possibly with Shakespeare in
the cast--encouraged him [Shakespeare] to accept Middleton, sixteen years
his junior, as a kind of senior apprentice" (184). The idea that
Shakespeare and Middleton collaborated on Timon is, Wells tells us,
"now strongly supported" among scholars (185). Wells's concludes: "The
collaboration on this play between Shakespeare and his younger colleague may
not have been entirely happy; indeed it is quite likely that they gave it up
as a bad job before the play was complete. So far as we know it was not
acted in its own time..." (187).
Wells goes on to describe Middleton's great plays for the adult
companies, The Roaring Girl, No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's,
The Second Maiden's Tragedy, The Lady's Tragedy and A Chaste
Maid in Cheapside, notable for "...eleven speaking female characters on
stage at once" (189). As interesting as these plays are, Wells does not
spend time on them, but brings us back go our theme of Middleton's
relationship with Shakespeare. He cites Middleton's The Witch, and
inclusions of parts of it in Macbeth. In fact, Wells states
"...there are other reasons to suppose that the text as we have it [of
Macbeth] may be an adaptation" (190), by Middleton, of course. "The
other Shakespeare play which, modern scholarship indicates, Middleton may
have adapted is Measure for Measure" (190). The adaptation, Wells
indicates, based on the best modern opinion, was made around 1621 (191).
Middleton's play writing career ended with the vivid A Game
at Chess (1624), which is vigorously anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish.
"Few plays ever written have caused such a scandal" (192). The Spanish
ambassador complained, and Middleton "...may have been imprisoned [he was
absent when the actors were reprimanded by the Privy Council] and released
on condition that he give up playwriting..." (192). It was, indeed, his
last work for the stage, though he continued to author pageants and
entertainments for the city.
"The only dramatist with whom, on the basis of evidence likely to be
accepted in a court of law, it can confidently be said that Shakespeare
collaborated is...John Fletcher (1579-1625) (p. 194). The name Fletcher can
hardly be pronounced, however unfair, without the name Beaumont. As young
men, Aubry, that irrepressible 17th century gossip says "They lived together
on the Bankside, not far from the playhouse, both bachelors; lay together;
had one wench in the house between them...the same clothes and cloak etc.
between them" (quoted by Wells, p. 195). In all likelihood they would not
mind their names coupled in evergreen remembrance. In 1613 Beaumont married
and the bachelor household thrived no more.
In the chapter on Fletcher Wells also brings in George Wilkins.
"Everything points to this [Pericles]having been a collaborative play"
(200), and the shadowy Wilkins, scholars are certain, was the collaborator.
He "was a violent character, frequently in court" and "an unlikely
collaborator for respectable Master Shakespeare," but so, apparently, he
was. Wilkins was responsible for the first two acts, and Shakespeare the
When Shakespeare was turning to romance, Beaumont and Fletcher were
rising in popularity with their tragicomedies, for example Philaster
and A King and No King. Around 1610 Fletcher "...engaged directly
with Shakespeare...in the only dramatic sequel to any of his plays written
before the Restoration" (202). Wells is speaking of The Woman's Prize,
or The Tamer Tamed where Petruccio remarries and the new wife asserts
her independence. The play is an outstanding endorsement of equality and
mutual love within marriage, usually not ascribed to the age.
Shakespeare and Fletcher apparently had an affinity that reached beyond
their mutual financial interests in the success of the King's Men. They
collaborated on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the
lost Cardenio. These plays followed collaborations with Wilkins on
Pericles and Middleton on Timon of Athens. In his
forties, Shakespeare, for reasons unknown, became a collaborator as he had
been in his early career. His great plays, however, are without question
sole authorships. As Wells points out: "There is no reason to believe that
he collaborated with any other writer from 1594 till the composition of
Timon of Athens, maybe in 1606" (208-9).
Cardenio, of which we possess a "thoroughly rewritten version dating from
1728" was a Shakespeare and Fletcher collaboration. Henry VIII, another
collaboration with Fletcher, "literally brought the house down." It was at
a performance of this play, on June 29, 1613 that the Globe burnt to the
After Shakespeare's death in 1616 Fletcher took over as the chief
dramatist for the King's Men, and "...was to write a long stream of
successful plays, almost always in tandem with another writer--first with
the former boy actor Nathan Field and then...with Phillip Massinger with
whom he composed some seventeen plays" (220). After Fletcher's death (from
plague) Massinger succeeded him as chief dramatist of the King's Men and
"...on his death in March, 1640 he joined his old friend in the church,
reputedly in the same grave. A single memorial stone now commemorates them
Wells, as a near coda, examines briefly the work of John Webster, calling
his chapter "The Succession." Other than Shakespeare, no Jacobean wrote
greater tragedies than Webster, though Wells does not go so far. His
White Devil and Duchess of Malfi are the only ones of the
period that seriously contend with Shakespeare's in artistic merit. Webster
was clearly a disciple: "The Duchess of Malfi, too, reverberates with
Shakespearean echoes..." (227); "Antony and Cleopatra may well have
helped Webster to shape the structure of The Duchess of Malfi" (229).
After glancing at Webster's two great plays, Wells mentions the later
Jacobeans, Ford, Davenant, Shirley, and Brome, but has little to say about
them. There are well beyond Shakespeare's days, though he influenced them
mightily, as he has every writer since, dramatist or not. This is the end
of Wells's story. Beyond this, he tacks on some very interesting documents,
or more accurately, document extracts: Duties of the Master of the Revels;
An Inventory of Theatrical Properties; a letter by Edward Alleyn on Tour;
Warrant from a Nobleman Seeking Permission for His Company of Players to
Perform on Tour; An Act to Restrain Abuses of Players; Simon Forman at the
Theatre; A Sonnet on the Pitiful Burning of the Globe Playhouse in London;
and The Character of a Virtuous Player. They are most welcome, a little
scholarly gift at the end of a popular treatise, fascinating all.
This book is an outstanding introduction to Shakespeare's relationship to
his fellows. Deep analysis is eschewed for a survey of the most interesting
facts and theories about these great dramatists. As I said at the outset, I
know of no better introduction to the major figures of the time as they
stood in relationship to Shakespeare. This is an excellent book, from a
trustworthy scholar, especially for those new to many of Shakespeare's