Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Writer We Know As William Shakespeare

Today, I’m handing blogging duties over to Warren King, from No Sweat Shakespeare, who has written an excellent guest post on the practicalities of Shakespeare’s writing career. How did he write so much?

Cover of Shakespeare's First Folio:
How Did William Shakespeare Write All of
Those Plays and Poems?
Modern writers have far better facilities for writing than those of past centuries - computers, for example, which have transformed the editing process. One will not find early drafts of prominent writers anymore, which is a pity if we want to make a serious study of an author’s creative processes. Before the invention of word processing, writers could file their drafts away: drafts of Keats’s odes, for example, are available in print, where we see some of the most famous lines in English poetry in their earlier forms, with different words, eventually changed to the words with which we are so familiar.  An
early typescript of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland has been published with crossings out, words, phrases and lines added and deleted, and with annotations by Ezra Pound, who advised Eliot all the way through the writing. Such documents are important to our understanding of those writers and their works.

As we writers sit at our computers we also have a world of information at our disposal, accessible with a couple of clicks of the mouse. In previous generations, research was a matter of acquiring the relevant books and then doing some hard reading.

Writers have different habits: some set a few hours aside every day for writing; others write when they feel like it; some write when the inspiration strikes them. Some writers sit at a desk, the same desk every day; others write wherever they are. Hemingway wrote standing up at an architect’s drawing board, and often sitting in cafes. Poets, particularly, can write anywhere, in any circumstances.

Most writers have full-time jobs and write in their spare time, even some whose names have endured. Anthony Trollope was a senior official in the Post Office all his adult life; Philip Larkin was famous long before he retired from his job as a librarian; John Mortimer was as famous as a barrister as he was as a writer.

Illustration of Shakespeare's Globe:
William Shakespeare Was a Bussinessman
as Well as a Writer
Shakespeare was a very busy man, with substantial commitments to several activities. He was an actor, play broker, impresario, theatre manager: he was also a regular commuter between London and Stratford, with various active interests in the community of his home town. We don’t know many hard facts about Shakespeare but we do know those things.

What we don’t know much about is Shakespeare the writer. All we have are his works. The authorship of those works is disputed, but there is no evidence for their having been written by someone else. We are left, though, with the puzzle of how a man with such a busy life, in times when everything one had to do was so much more time-consuming than it is today, managed to do all that writing. Take travel as an example of the things that took a lot of time. We can travel to Stratford from London in under two hours: it would have taken Shakespeare two or three days.

He set off for London in 1585, aged twenty-one, the year in which the twins, Judith and Hamnet, were born. It is thought that he worked as an actor and it’s clear that he quickly recognised the hunger for plays and the financial rewards for theatres that kept the supply of plays flowing, because he lost no time in jumping on that bandwagon: between 1589 and 1592, he wrote The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. During the following year, he produced Love’s Labours Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Also in 1593, he started writing the sonnets. His son, Hamnet, died in 1596 and in 1597 he bought a large house, New House, in Stratford, and yet, during those two years there was no pause in his writing – he wrote The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II. And so it went on until his retirement to Stratford in 1612.

Probably the most remarkable year of writing was 1608, the year in which his mother died. It was also the year in which his company, The King’s Men, started playing in The Blackfriars theatre. There would have been a huge demand for plays then and, although the precise chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is unclear, in 1608, he may have written All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida! That seems a clear response to the need to establish the new theatre in the face of fierce competition.

The Interior of Blackfriars Playhouse,
Shakespeare's Second Theatre
And so the unsolvable question of how he physically did all that arises. Even if the plays were humming in his head as he went about his daily life there is still the matter of actually putting them down on paper. Many of them show clear signs that he would have had to have done some reading in the Classics, in philosophy, geography and current affairs. And, as we have seen, he worked hard at the practical matter of theatre management and travelled regularly to Stratford. We can only speculate about how he did it all.

He had lodgings about an hour’s walk from the theatres, to which he would have gone home every day when the work of the theatre ended. After a hard day in the theatre he might have sat down and worked. It may be that he formulated a scene or two as he walked home and all it needed then was to get it down. We cannot say how much sleep he needed, but perhaps he worked till the early hours, slept briefly, then went off to work, sometimes with a new, badly needed script. He would have been working to deadlines because of the demand for new plays, so that would have been a strong incentive to get on with it. The more the plays kept coming the more money he would be making and, indeed, he retired a very rich man. He was a success as a writer and an equal success as a businessman.

Perhaps he wrote somewhere in the theatre as well. If everything was going smoothly and he wasn’t needed, who is to say that he didn’t spend hours writing on the spot?

His plays show that he had an intimate knowledge of pub life: perhaps he went to a tavern and sat in a corner writing. And all the travelling he did, perhaps hitching a ride on the back of a wagon, may have provided writing opportunities. Not everyone can write in such circumstances – an extremely bumpy ride – but we have testimony, for example, from Trollope – another prolific writer - about writing in the cabin of a small boat in a sea storm.

Shakespeare was a dedicated writer, and dedicated writers do not make excuses – they just get on with the writing. He would probably be very surprised if he could come back today to see that he is regarded as the greatest, most enduring, English writer in history, as that wouldn’t have been his aim. He would have seen himself as a hack, like all the other playwrights. Writing plays was just a craft, which is why the word ‘playwright’ is in the same class as ‘wheelwright’ – an artisan who made wheels. But he was a rare genius and, combined with being what today we call a ‘workoholic,’ he gave us the ‘Shakespeare’ that we know today.


  1. Hi there, as you say Shakespeare was a hard worker, but I suspect that twelve plays in one year would have been beyond even him. Some of the plays suggested for 1608 we know to be earlier: Hamlet, for instance was published in 1603 and 1604, and Measure for Measure was performed before the king in 1604.John Manningham saw Twelfth Night in 1602,and Thomas Platter saw Julius Caesar in 1599. And although there may not be any concrete evidence I believe that Shakespeare's output is reckoned to be about the same in 1608 as most other years, ie 2 plays.
    All the best,
    Sylvia Morris

    1. Hello Sylvia,

      Thanks very much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. You are, of course, absolutely right about those four; evidence suggests they were penned earlier. That was something I missed when reading the piece. Have edited that paragraph to rectify the mistake.

      Thanks so much and very best wishes!

  2. You say that WS left Stratford for London in 1585 but there's no evidence at all for that. He might have been apprenticed to a London troupe as a teenager, anything up to 7 years earlier - in fact that's almost the only way they got into showbusiness in those days. All we know is that he was back in Stratford (on tour?) 9 months before the twins were born.

    1. Hi there, the post wasn't penned by me, but Warren King from No Sweat Shakespeare. I don't know if he'll spot your comment, so you may wish to visit his site if you'd like to discuss his reasons for reaching that conclusion.

      To my mind, like so much of Shakespeare's existence, the date he went to London is a big unknown. For much of his life (including exactly when he came to be part of the theatre scene), all we have is conjecture. I guess Warren gives 1585, because it's reasonable to assume Shakespeare's second round of 'lost years' was spent as an apprentice actor/writer.

      We know he married Anne in 1582 in Stratford - and we know he'd been spending time with her (nudge-nudge) prior to their nuptials. So, it doesn't seem as though he would have been in London seven years earlier as you suggest. But, it's one of those things we'll never know for sure.

      Thanks for popping by.