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.

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