Yeah, But Apart From Shakespeare…
Every now and again someone asks, ‘Why is all the attention on Shakespeare?’ And it’s true that the canonical Shakespeare tragedies and comedies are endlessly revived ahead of his contemporaries. The Bard’s pre-eminent glory tends to eclipse the splendour of his fellow dramatists, who don’t get much of a look-in. When you’ve a mountain in view you don’t see the hills.
Prior to the year 1915 Shakespeare’s rivals were less visible, but then a single volume published in the World’s Classics series revived interest in the key playwrights. These scribes would all have been aware that WS was wowing ’em on Bankside, but we’ll never know how much they felt themselves to be in direct rivalry. London’s theatre habit allowed room for a great many plays and writers. In the nine years that Samuel Pepys was filling his diaries he saw 350 performances of plays. He didn’t think much of ‘Twelfth Night’ because it wasn’t about the Twelfth Night. He had a rubbish seat for ‘Henry V’ and couldn’t hear it, and thought ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ ‘insipid, ridiculous’. He loved ‘Macbeth’ though.
Luckily there was much else for him to choose from.
Your main man here is Kit Marlowe, of course – born in the same year as WS, an eminent playwright of the Elizabethan era and a major influence on Shakespeare’s writing. The two would have had (we assume) a tricky but close relationship, although we know little about that because Elizabethans weren’t into sharing their feelings. The key texts are ‘Dr Faustus’ and the nigh-endless 2-part ‘Tamburlaine’. Marlowe’s blank verse has grace but is easier to discern than Shakespeare’s, which paradoxically makes it less interesting. He only wrote for six years before being famously killed in a Deptford pub, his full potential unrealised.
Running behind him is John Webster, especially admired for ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘The White Devil’ (which we studied at school but weren’t allowed to see on stage – too violent to watch but OK for exam study). Although Webster wrote comedies he’s more remembered for those tragedies. ‘The White Devil’ is a highly intellectual and complex revenge drama that proved unpopular with its audience, who were expecting knockabout fun. ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was performed with special lighting and musical interludes, which probably helped audiences accept the Duchess’s curious ability to have babies at high speed. I love ‘The White Devil’, so filled with vengeful cruelties, yet so heartbreaking. There’s a theory that suggests we’ve taken to love his plays because the world war horrors experienced in the 20th century added deeper understanding. There seems to be no film version of ‘The White Devil’ ever made, but if anyone knows of one, do tell me.
Webster collaborated with Thomas Dekker, who wrote ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, whose lead, the inexhaustible Simon Eyre the shoemaker, is one of the liveliest characters ever written, out-Falstaffing Falstaff himself. ‘Let’s be merry while we are young,’ he cries, ‘old age, sack and sugar will steal upon us, ere we be aware.’ It’s a fun play, not often performed but endlessly quotable.
This brings us to joint authors John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, who wrote about 55 plays together, of which 12 to 15 survive. I haven’t seen their hugely popular ‘Philaster’, a play which proves there’s nothing so wicked as a truly good man, but I saw ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, the first whole parody play in English. Fletcher was 24 when he co-wrote the comedy, which was performed in Blackfriars in 1609. It’s the first play to make its heroes working class, and to break the fourth wall. Those were rebellious, licentious, appalling times, and the young playwright reflected this. It’s also the story of a boy set loose in London for the first time, and conveys the timeless thrill of arriving in the city. At the end our hero says as he dies;
‘Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!
Ne’er shall we more on Shrove Tuesday meet,
And pluck down houses of iniquity,
I shall never more hold open, while another pumps, both legs.
I die. Fly, fly my soul to Grocers’ Hall.’
Yes, it’s rude and shameless – and shows that people don’t change. It captures the thrill of being young, dumb and up for anything the city night holds.
Finally I’d suggest as a final rival Phillip Massinger, for his ‘A New Way To Pay Old Debts’, which for a very old play feels oddly modern. Its theme is one of living beyond your means – that one can be thought well of yet survive entirely on physical and emotional credit. ‘We worldly men,’ says the extortionist Sir Giles Overreach, ‘when we see friends and kinsmen past hope sunk in their fortunes, lend no hand to lift them up, but rather set our feet upon their heads to press them to the bottom.’
Shakespeare is really something – but he isn’t everything.