Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Who Were Shakespeare’s Contemporaries?

Did Shakespeare stand
unrivalled in his lifetime?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Shakespeare was the only successful playwright of his generation. However, you’d be wrong. During his lifetime, Shakespeare was just one among many talented dramatists.

That’s not to suggest that Shakespeare wasn’t successful in his own time, because he certainly was. But, unlike our modern view, which assumes he had no peers, he was actually faced with some rather serious competition. By no stretch of the imagination did he stand alone as a bastion of English drama.

Who Were The Other Successful Playwrights of The Early Modern Era?

John Fletcher (1579-1625) His most famous solo effort is The Faithful Shepherdess, but he’s also widely recognized for his collaborations, which include our man, Shakespeare. After Shakespeare retired, Fletcher went on to fill his shoes as the chief playwright for The King’s Men.

Francis Beaumont is best known for
The Knight of The Burning Pestle
Francis Beaumont (1585-1616) Beaumont is best known for his partnership with the aforementioned Fletcher. It’s believed that the pair wrote fifty plays together - of which only thirteen still exist. Beaumont remains most well known for his comedy, The Knight of The Burning Pestle.

John Webster (1578-1632) Known for his very dark work filled with violence and torment, some of Webster’s early plays were never published. However, his The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil are still quite widely known.

Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) Something of a pioneer in English drama, Kyd wrote two works that had an immense influence on Shakespeare: The Spanish Tragedy; echoes of which can be found in Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and an early version of Hamlet, which is sadly lost.

Thomas Heywood (1570-1641) Although relatively little is known of Shakespeare life, even less is known of Heywood’s. According to the man himself, he wrote 220 plays. If this is true, a large number of them were lost, as only twenty three plays and eight masques survive. He is best remembered for his tragicomedy A Woman Killed With Kindness.

The rakish and very dapper Christopher
Marlowe was, arguably, Shakespeare's
 biggest competiton
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) Marlowe’s reputation has fared slightly better than some of those mentioned above, but this may be due to the fact that some believe he was Shakespeare. His mysterious life and, apparently, violent death may also have helped in securing his legacy. Seven of his plays survive, including Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus.

Thomas Dekker (1570-1632) Widely known to be a prolific writer, Dekker claimed to have written some 240 plays. Sadly, only twenty were published in his lifetime, the best known of which is a comedy called The Shoemaker’s Holiday.

John Lyly (1554-1606) Like Kyd, Lyly was the vanguard of English drama, creating a new form of prose, euphuism, which became incredibly popular during the 1580s. Shakespeare borrowed the euphuism style in several of his plays, including Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Thomas Middleton in a
Roman-themed ensemble
Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) Just like John Fletcher, Middleton is believed to have collaborated with Shakespeare, specifically on Timon of Athens. In his own right, he was deemed an incredibly versatile writer; penning verse, prose, pageants and masques. His early success was in the genre of comedy. However, he is now best known for two later works, Women Beware Women and The Changeling, both of which are tragedies.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) Another candidate for authorship among the anti-Stratfordian crowd, Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour was performed at The Globe, with our very own William Shakespeare among the cast. Until the 18th century, Jonson’s reputation rivalled, and in some circles, surpassed Shakespeare’s. Today, his best known works are Volpone, The Alchemist and The Fox.

Why Did Shakespeare Become so Much More Famous?

Well, as you can see, Shakespeare was far from a big fish in a small pond. Throughout his career, there were other playwrights who were deemed equally as good and, sometimes, better than the Bard of Avon.

Shakespeare didn’t begin to enjoy the unmatched esteemed he now holds until the latter part of the 17th century. Why did this happen and why were his contemporaries left by the wayside? Well, that’s a discussion for another time.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What’s it All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Why Are Some Shakespearean Plays More Well Known Than Others?

Why are some of Shakespeare's plays
barely heard of?

Everybody, even someone who would like to spit in Shakespeare’s eye, has heard of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. However, a few of Shakespeare’s plays are less well known: King John, Henry VIII and Cymbeline for example. So, why are some Shakespearean plays more famous than others?

This is a question that was posed to me and, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. A simple, “because they are,” didn’t seem particularly helpful. So, let me try and answer it with another question. Why are some films more popular than others?

Is it Because They’re Better?

I’m not going to pretend that the quality of Shakespeare’s work doesn’t vary, because it does. An early play, like Titus Andronicus, is pretty scrappy compared with King Lear. However, I don’t think this is an indicator for popularity. I would rank The Comedy of Errors among Shakespeare’s ‘less great’ plays, but it’s still widely known.

And if we bring the issue back to modern movies, there is, similarly, no discernable link between popularity and quality. I’m sure you know at least one film, that you think is brilliant, and yet very few of your friends have heard of it. Sometimes there really is no accounting for taste.

So, works of literature of drama that become immensely popular aren’t necessarily ‘better’ or offering a deeper insight into humanity. In fact, let’s be honest, most books, plays and films that strike it big in the mainstream are quite the opposite.

Shakespeare’s Box Office Smashes

Why is Hamlet more famous than King John?
Undoubtedly, in Shakespeare’s own time, some of his plays were bigger hits than others. However, it was during the Victorian era that our modern perceptions of ‘popular’ Shakespeare works was formed.

During the latter part of the 17th and throughout the 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s work underwent a massive revival that catapulted him to the ‘genius’ status he continues to hold. And this is the period during which some of his plays were performed frequently, while others fell by the wayside.

I suspect there was no grand plan to promote certain plays over others. Theatre companies simply performed the works that drew in the biggest crowds. Therefore, the popular plays continued to get more popular, while the lesser known plays became more obscure to the general public.

Why do Schools Focus on The Popular Plays?

Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare's
most frequently performed plays
Of course, now, when we all learn at least one Shakespeare play at school, this divide between the plays is exacerbated.

There are two very good reasons for schools and universities to stick with the more well known plays. Firstly, students are likely to have heard of the play and, therefore, may be interested in learning more about it. And secondly, there are plentiful supplies of film, TV and stage adaptations of the popular works, meaning that students can actually see the play in action. Finding a DVD of Macbeth is much easier than trying to find a DVD of King John.

As I’m a firm believer in watching the plays in order to create enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s work, this makes perfect sense to me. Although, I must admit, I do think it would be interesting if schools started to dust off those more obscure works. And, of course, if we brought them out into the open, they would no longer be the ‘lesser known’ plays.

So, to sum up, some Shakespearean plays are more well known than others, because…they just are.

For more on Shakespeare and his work, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Macbeth

Cover of What's It All About,
Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth
Macbeth is arguably the most popular Shakespeare play. It's also one of the most popular plays on the planet - performed somewhere in the world every four hours.

And, because it's Shakespeare's shortest and least complicated (in terms of plot) tragedy, it is one of the most frequently studied plays. So, it seemed like the logical place to start when embarking on my series of guides.

Macbeth was the second Shakespeare play I read, and my first experience with it was at school. Despite the classes predominantly involving sitting and reading the text aloud (which, in my opinion is not the way to learn Shakespeare), I fell in love with it. And, despite some tough competition over the succeeding years, it has remained (at a pinch) my favourite Shakespeare play.

I can't quite pinpoint any one aspect of Macbeth that makes it such a great play, perhaps because it isn't one thing that makes it so good. It's a combination of things that have ensured its popularity for over four-hundred years.

What is 'What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth'?

As the title suggests, What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth contains all the information you need to understand, appreciate and (hopefully) love Macbeth. With a straightforward approach and plenty of humour, the book delves into the main characters, the plot, the history and the superstitions surrounding the Scottish Play.

If you're studying Macbeth, it is the ideal ebook to help you get to grips with the content and themes of the play. If you're already a fan of Macbeth, you should find some interesting and entertaining facts within these digital pages. And, if you hate Macbeth, this ebook will provide many reasons to change your mind.

Where You Can Get Your Copy

What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth is currently available for your kindle at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and the cornucopia of Amazon outlets.

However, if Amazon's not your cup of tea, you can purchase A Guide to Macbeth from Smashwords.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Popular Phrases Penned by Shakespeare

It's All Greek to Me! Common Phrases
to Thank Shakespeare For
It always baffles me when someone claims that Shakespeare is boring and has no relevance to modern life. I think the themes of Shakespeare's plays have huge relevance - more on that here, but it's also Shakespeare's words that linger, whether we're aware of it or not.

For, example, here are just a few of the everyday phrases that were coined by William Shakespeare:

“A foregone conclusion.” (Othello)

Found in Act III, Scene iii of Othello and spoken by the eponymous hero, “But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.”(III.iii) The phrase ‘foregone conclusion’ is used to denote anything that is deemed as an obvious outcome without the requirement of further proof or evidence.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet)

One of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare’s work, this phrase is found in Act II, Scene ii of Romeo and Juliet. It is spoken by Juliet during her great ‘balcony scene’ “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;”(II.ii) In other words, it doesn’t matter what something is called; the title or label that we give things is not as important as what the thing actually ‘is’.

“All that glitters is not gold.” (The Merchant of Venice)

The Prince of Morocco Discovers That 'All That
Glitters is Not Gold'
Sometimes said, “All that glisters is not gold,” comes from Act II, Scene vii of The Merchant of Venice and is said by the Prince of Morocco (one of Portia’s suitors), who is reading aloud the text from a scroll, “All that glitters is not gold;/Often have you heard that told:”(II.vii)

The phrase, which means not everything that looks valuable truly has value, is possibly more relevant in today’s materialistic society than it was in Shakespeare’s lifetime. However, he was by no means the first to espouse this notion. In fact, Alain de Lille, a French theologian wrote “Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold,” in the 12th century.

“It’s all Greek to me.” (Julius Caesar)

Meaning that something is unintelligible, the phrase was coined in Act I, Scene ii of Julius Caesar. It is spoken during a conversation between Cassius and Casca, “…those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”(I.ii)

“Fight fire with fire”

Shakespeare's King John Must Learn to
'Fight Fire With Fire'
Technically, Shakespeare did not invent this exact phrase. The version that we now know came much later. However, he undoubtedly used a precursor to the modern phrase in Act V, Scene i of King John.

The line is said by Philip Faulconbridge, who is known throughout the play as ‘Bastard’. “Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;/Threaten the threatener and outface the brow/Of bragging horror.”(V.i) In other words, retaliate using the same, or similar, methods as the ones used by your attacker.

Of course, these are just a handful of the phrases which are used in modern English and were coined by William Shakespeare. They do, however, help demonstrate the huge influence Shakespeare’s work has had, and continues to have, on the English language.

If you’d like to learn more about how Shakespeare has influenced contemporary English language, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

This post was originally published on Suite101.com, by the author.

As mentioned, there are plenty more popular phrases that were penned by Shakespeare. So, if I haven't mentioned your favourite 'Shakespearean' phrase that's still commonly used today, why not mention it in the comments below?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Who Was Shakespeare’s Fair Youth?

Who Did Shakespeare Write His
Fair Youth Sonnets For?
The vast majority (126 to be exact) of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, known as the ‘fair youth’. So, who was this whipper-snapper and what relationship did he have with Shakespeare?

If you’ve already read my closer look at Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll know that numbers 1 to 126 are collectively known as the fair youth sonnets. Yes, these seemingly romantic poems, including the most famous Shakespearean sonnet of all, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” are written about (and for) a young gentleman.

Who Was The Subject of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth Sonnets?

Well, the fact of the matter is that no-one knows who this mysterious ‘fair youth’ was. There are some educated  guesses, but we may never know for sure. So, who’s in the running?

Henry Wriothesley in His Teenage
Years - Can  We Say Effeminate?
Henry Wriothesley (3rd Earl of Southampton) The most commonly supposed ‘fair youth’, Henry was, at one time, a patron of Shakespeare’s. He was, in his adolescent years, what can only be described as a ‘pretty boy’. And is certainly a man whose beauty could conceivably be spoken about amongst other men. 

It also seems likely that Will would want to flatter someone who was allowing him to make his livelihood writing. Moreover, there is the sonnets’ dedication, which is addressed to Mr W. H., which could be in reference to Henry Wriothesley, although the initials are the wrong way around.

William Herbert (3rd Earl of Pembroke) Now, Mr Herbert’s initials would be the right way around. William Herbert was also patron to Shakespeare at some point, which seems to suggest that Shakespeare had a thing for 3rd earls. Again, the purpose of penning a series of extremely flattering poems to your patron seems painfully obvious.

Could Shakespeare’s Fair Youth Have Been a Commoner?

William Herbert - Not Looking Particularly
Fair or Youthful

However, there are other possibilities. For example, although many of the sonnets suggest that the poet is of a more lowly status, this may be part and parcel of the romantic poetic form, indicting that he is ‘not worthy’ of the object of his affection. 

For example, Oscar Wilde suggests that W. H. might be a boy actor, named William Hughes. This is a nice theory, but, unfortunately, there is no evidence that this man even existed, much less that he was the object of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And there is, of course, another possibility. The fair youth might not have been an actual person at all. The tale woven through the sonnets may simply be a fiction. 

Shakespeare Wrote Romantic Poetry to a Man!?

Was Shakespeare Gay?

So, does this mean that Shakespeare was gay? Well, you can find out more about my opinion on that topic in my post on the subject, ‘Was Shakespeare Gay?’ But the quick answer is there is no way of knowing. 

But it’s worth remembering that, at the time, it was not uncommon for men to refer to and revere the beauty of other men, especially that of young men and teenage boys. It was also not uncommon for a man to express ‘love’ for another man - there are many instances of that in Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare may have taken a fancy to his fair youth and he might have engaged in an affair with him. But the sonnets alone are not evidence enough to suggest that he did. Unfortunately, there are some questions about the Bard they may never be answered: Who was the fair youth and did Shakespeare love him?, are just two of them.