Saturday, 1 September 2012

How Did Shakespeare Become Unrivalled in His Field?

How did this become one of the most famous
faces in the world?

Today, Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest English playwright and, some would say, the finest playwright the world has ever known. But his reputation wasn’t always so unmatchable.

You may remember, in the last post, I looked at a handful of Shakespeare’s rivals. A few men who collaborated, and a few more who competed, with Shakespeare. If you missed it, you can take a butcher's (for those not from these shores, that’s cockney rhyming slang) here.

So, a question was left dangling: how did Shakespeare go from being just one fairly average Joe, in a sea of talented writers, to become the most celebrated playwright on the planet? It couldn’t have just been luck, could it?

Just How Big is Shakespeare?

The Ninagawa Company of Japan is
 just one of the many theatre companies that
performs and celebrates Shakespeare
I think, to get a feel for just how significant the transformation of Shakespeare’s reputation is, we need to put his fame in context. The fact is that nobody else’s work is performed even fractionally as frequently as Shakespeare’s, and this is true in almost every corner of the globe.

Shakespeare is performed everywhere. For instance, theatre companies from Brazil, Iraq, Japan and Russia took part in this year’s World Shakespeare Festival. The Bard is also studied almost everywhere, with a whopping quarter of all school students studying at least some Shakespeare.

No other playwright, or writer of any kind, has enjoyed such widespread and huge acclaim. He has been placed on an incredibly high pedestal, and some would say he is not entirely deserving of it. In fact, given the way his plays were handled just after the Restoration, it’s a miracle he was ever placed on it at all.

How Shakespeare’s Plays Were Mangled in the Late 17th Century

Shortly after the Restoration, in 1660, theatre was back with a bang and so was Shakespeare. However, in these new, ornate and elaborate indoor theatres, the plays took on a very different shape to the one Shakespeare had intended. However, most shocking of all was not just the aesthetic conditions under which the plays were performed, but the fact that they were subject to ‘improvement’ by various writers, including Nahum Tate, who famously rewrote King Lear with a happy ending.

Theatres of the Restoration were big and grand, and
somewhat different from Shakespeare's Globe.
Unbelievably this version of Lear, which was first performed in 1681, continued to be the standard adaptation until 1838. Imagine that, 157 years of Lear and Cordelia surviving the whole horrid business!

And, guess what, between 1660 and the end of the century, Shakespeare was still not top dog. His plays were undoubtedly widely performed and proved popular among audiences, but he played second fiddle to the immense popularity of Beaumont and Fletcher.

What Happened Next?

As the 18th century rolled in, Shakespeare’s box office value went up and, consequently, so did the frequency with which his plays were performed. Soon, he took the crown from Beaumont and Fletcher. And by 1737, one quarter of plays performed in London were Shakespeare’s. In fact, there were occasions when rival companies would be performing the same Shakespeare play at exactly the same time.

Needless to say, the leading roles made stars of the actors who played them. And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, not quite.

While staged productions of the plays continued to be ‘improved’ and adapted, something happened that was the saving grace in preserving Shakespeare’s original work. His plays were quickly being published with the intention of reading them critically and placing an emphasis on remaining faithful to the playwright’s original text. These published versions of the scripts are, predominantly, the ones that we still read today.

How Did Shakespeare Become Unrivalled?

Unlike anti-Stratfordians, John Dryden believed
that Shakespeare's lack of education was perhaps
his biggest asset
Well, I don’t suppose it’s possible to say with absolute certainty how or why Shakespeare’s popularity skyrocketed during the early 18th century. Perhaps there was some luck involved. But I do take issue with those who claim that William Shakespeare should not be idolised and placed on a pedestal. The fact is, there’s a spark of genius in his work, something that is not easily described, but profoundly felt.

For John Dryden, the reason Shakespeare left his contemporaries in the dust, was because he was something of a maverick who followed none of the ‘traditional’ dramatic conventions. It was, therefore, (according to Dryden) the very thing that some use as evidence that the Bard from Avon wrote nothing - his lack of education, that made his plays so incomparable. “He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there.” - Dryden, Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

What do you think Shakespeare got so right? Or do you believe his phenomenal reputation is unwarranted and unjust?

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