Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (2004)
“Life in the Suburbs”
HE HAD GROWN UP in a world where the fields began just at the end of the street, or at most within a few minutes' walk. Now all around him, extending for miles beyond
London's crumbling city walls, were tenements, warehouses, small vegetable gardens, workshops, gun foundries, brick kilns, and windmills, along with stinking ditches and refuse heaps. Shakespeare made his acquaintance for the first time with the suburbs.
He discovered what it was to pine for open country.
Londoners too liked to walk out into the fields to take some fresh air-- the familiar joy of the countryside was intensified by a widespread belief that the plague was airborne, carried by foul smells. City dwellers passed through the crowded, reeking streets sniffing nosegays or stuffing their nostrils with cloves. In their rooms they burned scented candles and fuming pots to keep the city's pestilential stench at bay. The sweet country
air was regarded as literally lifesaving-- hence the rush out of the city, during times of plague, by those who could afford to leave and hence too the ordinary craving for a stroll in the fields.
Setting out from the center of the city, an energetic walker could still fairly quickly reach hedged pastures where cows peacefully grazed or ground where laundresses pegged their washing and dyers stretched cloth tautly on what were known as tenter frames or tenterhooks (from whence our phrase "to be on tenterhooks"). And though in Shakespeare's time the open spaces to which Londoners had once had easy access had already begun to disappear, other attractions drew people through the gates or across the river to the suburbs. Many taverns and inns, some of them quite venerable-- the famous Tabard Inn, where Chaucer's pilgrims started their journey to Canterbury, was located in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames-- offered food and drink and private rooms in a world that had almost no privacy. In Finsbury Field, to the north of the
city, archers could stroll about shooting at painted stakes and trying to avoid passersby. (In 1557 a pregnant woman out for a walk with her husband was struck in the neck by a stray arrow and killed.) Other places of amusement included firing ranges (for practicing pistol shooting), cockfighting pits, wrestling rings, bowling alleys, places for music and dancing, platforms upon which criminals were mutilated or hanged, and an impressive array of "houses of resort," that is, whorehouses. Moralists denounced the latter with particular fierceness, of course, and demanded that they be closed, but the moves against them by city authorities always fell short. In Measure for Measure, a play set in a Vienna that looks and sounds like London, the ruler, embarking on a campaign of moral
reform, gives an order to pull down the "houses of resort in the suburbs" (1.2.82-83). The order is not carried out.
The congested city, then, was effectively surrounded by an all-purpose entertainment zone, the place where Shakespeare spent much of his professional life. His imagination took it all in, even things that at this distance seem quite negligible. He was forcefully struck, for example, by the game of bowls, particularly by the way the ball with the off-center weight swerved, so that you hit your target only by seeming to aim elsewhere. The image came to him repeatedly as a way of figuring the surprising twists of his cunningly devised plots. So too with archery, wrestling, tilting at posts called quintains, and the whole range of Elizabethan sports and contests: when he did not actually depict them (like in the wrestling scene in As You Like It), he used them again and again as images.
Shakespeare's imagination was excited as well by the less innocuous amusements of the suburbs. Henry VIII bequeathed to his royal children a love of seeing bulls and bears "baited," that is, penned up in a ring or chained to a stake and set upon by fierce dogs. The bulls--on occasion “wearied to death” for sport-- seem to have been more or less anonymous, but the bears acquired names and personalities: Sackerson, Ned Whiting, George Stone, and Harry Hunks (the latter blinded to increase the fun). The game was something of an English specialty-- in their travel journals foreign tourists frequently noted that they took in the sight, and Queen Elizabeth treated visiting ambassadors to it. The cost of keeping the animals was defrayed by making it an entertainment available
to the public: large crowds paid admission to the great circular wooden arenas to see the spectacle. In a popular variation, an ape was tied to the back of a pony, which was then attacked by the dogs: "To see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape," wrote one observer, "beholding the curs hanging from the Cars and neck of the pony, is very laughable."
"Be there bears i'th' town?" asks the asinine Slender, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, "I love the sport well" (1.1.241, 243). Shakespeare clearly visited the bear garden in person-- he had professional reasons to be interested in what crowds were excited by-- but evidently he was less wholeheartedly enamored. The sport, he saw wryly, served to make the Slenders of the world feel more like real men. "I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain," Slender boasts. "But I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it that it passed. But women, indeed, cannot abide 'em. They are very ill-favoured, rough things" (1.1.247-51).
Elizabethans perceived bears as supremely ugly, embodiments of everything coarse and violent, and Shakespeare repeatedly echoed this view, but he also grasped something else: "They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly," says Macbeth, his enemies closing in around him, "But bear-like I must fight the course" (5.7.1--2). This was hardly a sentimental account of either bearbaiting or murder-- Macbeth is a traitor who deserves what he gets in the end--- but it suspended the coarse laughter of the arena and got at something almost unendurable about the spectacle.
Why did Elizabethan and Jacobean people, including, notably, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs who were its special patrons, enjoy something so brutal and nasty? (Though there was an attempt to revive the "royal sport" at the end of the seventeenth century, it never really recovered from the blow it suffered when seven bears were shot to death in 1655 by Puritan soldiers.) The answer is as difficult to determine as it is to explain why we love our own cruel spectacles. But one key is found in a remark by Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Dekker: ''At length a blind bear was tied to the stake, and instead of baiting him with dogs, a company of creatures that had the shapes of men and faces of Christians (being either colliers, carters, or watermen) took the office of beadles upon them, and whipped Monsieur Hunks till the blood ran down his old shoulders." What the crowds saw in this instance, at least, was a grotesque-- and therefore amusing-- version of the disciplinary whippings that were routinely inflicted throughout society: parents frequently whipped children, teachers whipped students, masters whipped servants, beadles whipped whores, sheriffs whipped vagrants and "sturdy beggars." The spectacle in the arena had an odd double effect that Shakespeare would immeasurably intensify. It confirmed the order of things-- this is what we do-- and at the same time it called that order into question-- what we do is grotesque.
London was a nonstop theater of punishments. Shakespeare had certainly witnessed corporal discipline before he came to London-- Stratford had whipping posts, pillories, and stocks-- but the frequency and ferocity of sentences meted out on public scaffolds at Tower Hill, Tyburn, and Smithfield; at Bridewell and the Marshalsea prisons; and at many other sites both within and outside the city walls would have been new. Almost daily he could have watched the state brand, cut, and kill those it deemed offenders. London's many established punishment grounds did not exhaust the locations of these spectacles: in some cases of murder the offender's right hand was cut off at or near the place where the crime was committed and the bleeding malefactor was then paraded through the streets to the execution site. Such spectacles were virtually inescapable for anyone who lived in the great city.
What was it like to walk through these streets? To see such sights every few days? To live in a city where popular entertainments mirrored these constant torments in the whipping of blind bears or, for that matter, in the performance of tragedies? Whether or not Shakespeare went out of his way to witness the gory rituals of law and order (there were other playwrights who were more interested in competing with the public torturer and hangman), they figure repeatedly in his plays. Lavinia's ghastly fate in Titus Andronicus--- her hands lopped off, her tongue cut out-- would have been easy for Elizabethan actors to represent in graphic, realistic detail, for they had seen such things performed in the flesh on scaffolds in the suburbs, near the playhouse. And when Shakespeare's characters displayed the bloody heads of Richard III or Macbeth, members of the audience could easily have compared the simulation with the real thing.
Shakespeare was not simply giving the vulgar crowd what they craved; he himself was manifestly fascinated by the penal spectacles all around him. His fascination was not the same as endorsement; indeed it included a strong current of revulsion. The most terrible scene of torture in his works-- the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear-- is, the playwright makes clear, unequivocally the act of moral monsters. But the horror with which this particular wicked act is depicted is not the same as a blanket repudiation of his society's savage judicial punishments. When at the end of Othello the wicked Iago refuses to explain why he has woven his vicious plot-- "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word" -- the agents of the Venetian state are confident that they will get some answer from him: "Torments will ope your lips" (5.2.309-10, 312). And even if they do not succeed-- Iago remains silent for the remainder of the play, and nothing encourages us to believe that torments will lead him to alter his resolution-- the Venetians are determined to exact some vengeance on the villain for what he has done. Indeed they will, as the official of the state explains, use all of their ingenuity in order to intensify and prolong his agony:
If there be any cunning cruelty
That can torment him much and hold him long,
It shall be his.
Though torturing Iago cannot revive Desdemona or restore Othelio's ruined life, Othello encourages the audience to accept the legitimacy of this proposed course of action: it is a gesture, however inadequate, toward repairing the damaged moral order. State torture is part of the world as Shakespeare and his audience experienced and thus imagined it, and not only from the special perspective of tragedy. In the glow at the end of one of Shakespeare's happiest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, when all the dark suspicions have been vanquished and the bitter misunderstandings have been resolved, there is still time to think ahead to the rack and the thumbscrew. The schemes of Don John the Bastard-- a kind of inept Iago-- have been exposed, and the villain has fled. Claudio and Hero have been reconciled and are about to join that most delicious couple, Beatrice and Benedick, in marrying. The merry Benedick calls for music-- "let's have a dance ere we are married"-- when word is brought that Don John has been captured. "Think not on him till tomorrow," Benedick says, speaking the play's closing words, "I'll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up, pipers" (5.4.112-13, 121-22).
This then is the answer, or at least part of the answer, to the question of what it was like to live in such a city as London, amidst the endless, grim spectacles of penal justice. The spectacles were part of the structure of life and were accepted as such; the trick was to know when to look and when to look away, when to punish and when to dance. In close proximity to the sites of pain and death were sites of pleasure-- the punishment scaffolds of the Bankside were close to the brothels-- and these too seized Shakespeare's imagination. Whorehouses ("stews") figure frequently in his plays-- Doll Tearsheet, Mistress Overdone, and their fellow workers in the sex industry are quickly but indelibly sketched, along with assorted panders, doorkeepers, tapsters, and servants. He depicted brothels as places of disease, vice, and disorder, but also as places that satisfied ineradicable human needs, bringing together men and women, gentlemen and common people, old and young, the educated and the illiterate, in a camaraderie rarely found elsewhere in the highly stratified society. Above all, he depicted them as small businesses that struggle against high odds-- stiff competition, rowdy or indifferent clients, hostile civic authorities-- to make a modest profit.
These qualities closely linked whorehouses in Shakespeare's imagination, and probably in that of most of his contemporaries, with another suburban institution, one that had only recently come into its own and that was the center of his professional life. The theater, which did not exist as a freestanding structure anywhere in England when Shakespeare
was born, at once conjoined and played with almost everything that the "entertainment zone" had to offer: dancing, music, games of skill, blood sports, punishment, sex. Indeed, the boundaries between theatrical imitation and reality, between one form of amusement and another, were often blurred. Whores worked the playhouse crowd and, at least in the fantasies of the theater's enemies, conducted their trade in small rooms on-site.
A foreign visitor to London in 1584 described the elaborate spectacle
he had witnessed in Southwark one August afternoon:
There is a round building three stories high, in which are kept
about a hundred large English dogs, with separate wooden kennels
for each of them. These dogs were made to fight singly with
three bears, the second bear being larger than the first and the
third larger than the second. After this a horse was brought in
and chased by the dogs, and at last a bull, who defended himself
bravely, The next was that a number of men and women came
forward from a separate compartment, dancing, conversing and
fighting with each other: also a man who threw some white
bread among the crowd, that scrambled for it. Right over the
middle of the place a rose was fixed, this rose being set on fire by
a rocket: suddenly lots of apples and pears fell out of it down
upon the people standing below. Whilst the people were scrambling
for the apples, some rockets were made to fall down upon
them out of the rose, which caused a great fright but amused the
spectators. After this, rockets and other fireworks came flying
out of all corners, and that was the end of the play.
"That was the end of the play": few today would classify this gory, gaudy spectacle as theater, but in Elizabethan London the baiting of animals and the performing of plays were curiously intertwined. They both aroused the ire of the city authorities, fretting about traffic congestion, idleness, disorder, and public health-- hence the location of performances in places like Southwark, outside the jurisdiction of the aldermen and mayor. They were attacked in similar terms by moralists and preachers, threatening divine vengeance upon all who took pleasure in filthy, godless shows. They attracted crowds of common people and at the same time were patronized and protected by aristocrats. They even took place in strikingly similar buildings. Indeed, one of these buildings-- the Hope playhouse--served for both bearbaiting and playacting: in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, performed there in 1614, one of the characters refers to the stench that still lingered from the previous day's sport. The Hope was owned by the pawnbroker, moneylender, and theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe, who also owned whorehouses. London entertainments-- and the money they generated-- all, in some sense, flowed into one another.
At the same time, the theater, which had (with the exception of the Hope) genuinely differentiated itself from all other types of arenas, was a remarkably important innovation. Playacting in purpose-built playhouses (as opposed to candlelit private halls, inn yards, and the backs of wagons) had only recently come to London, significantly later than blood sports. A map of Southwark from 1542 already shows a bullring on High Street, but it was not until 1567 that a prosperous London grocer, John Brayne, put up the city's first freestanding public playhouse, the Red Lion, in Stepney. The enterprise was a bold one--nothing of the kind had been built in England since the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Very little is known about the Red Lion-- it may have been pulled down or transformed to other uses very quickly-- but to the intrepid Brayne it must have seemed a promising speculation, for nine years later he was at it again, in a far more important venture. This time he took a business partner, his brother-in-law James Burbage, a joiner by trade who had turned actor under the patronage of the Earl of Leicester. Burbage's carpentry skills were probably at least as important as his playacting, for he played a major role in constructing the complex polygonal timber building that the entrepreneurs called simply the Theater.
The name befits the notion of the Renaissance, in the literal sense of a rebirth of classical antiquity: in 1576 the relatively unfamiliar word "theater" self-consciously conjured up ancient amphitheaters. Not surprisingly, then, the Theater was almost immediately attacked from the pulpit for being made "after the manner of the old heathenish Theatre at Rome." Burbage and Brayne were wise to build it on land they had leased in the liberty of Holywell in the suburb of Shoreditch, outside the Bishopsgate entrance to the city. Here, on the site of what had been a priory of Benedictine nuns, the enterprise was subject to the queen's Privy Council rather than the city. The preachers could fulminate and the city fathers could threaten, but the show would go on.
When Shakespeare came to London, he had seen and acted in plays, but he had never before seen a freestanding playhouse. Probably it had already been described to him in detail, perhaps carefully sketched by a family member who had been to London or by a friend, but there was a moment when he set foot in one for the first time. He saw a rectangular elevated platform, jutting out into the middle of a large yard surrounded by tiered galleries. The yard, for the "groundlings" to stand and watch the play, was open to the elements, but the stage was covered by a painted canopy-- known as "the heavens"-- supported by two columns. The stage, five feet above the ground, had no protective railings-- an actor in the midst of a sword fight had to keep a sharp sense of where he was. Set into the stage was a trapdoor that led to a storage space known as "hell," which could be used to powerful theatrical effect. At the back of the stage was a wooden wall with two doors, for entrances and exits, and between them, in some theaters, a central curtained space that could be opened for formal entrances or for more intimate scenes. Above these doors on the back wall ran a gallery partitioned into rooms for the highest-paying spectators. The central part of this gallery could be used for staging scenes: if not at once then very soon after, Shakespeare began to imagine the ways he might use that space, say, as a balcony or the high parapet of a castle wall.
With no lighting and nothing more than minimal scenery, there would have been little scope for creating the types of illusions routinely used by
modern theaters, but audiences have proved again and again that they do not need to be plunged into darkness in order to imagine the night or to see papier-mache trees in order to conjure up a forest. What Elizabethan audiences did take seriously was the illusionistic effect of clothes; behind the back wall of the stage was a "tiring house," where the actors could don their elaborate costumes, costumes that were carefully protected from the rain by the overhanging canopy. The whole design was wonderfully functional and flexible. The handsome guildhalls and the private halls of the nobility and gentry in which the touring companies performed had their advantages, but the actors had constantly to rethink the show, altering the blocking to fit each different space and working around features that were never intended to accommodate performances. Any young actor or aspiring playwright up from the provinces must have felt on entering a London playhouse that he had died and gone to theatrical heaven.
That heaven had the agreeable quality of looking at least in certain respects reassuringly familiar. An open space, surrounded by galleries, was reminiscent of the innyards in London and throughout the country where plays were occasionally performed in the open air. (More often they were performed in large rooms.) The innkeepers-- or housekeepers, as they were called in this period-- rented space, along with costumes and props, to itinerant players who would, at the end of the performance, pass the hat among the crowd. By the time he reached London young Will may have collected the pennies himself more than once, though the companies in the 1580s had also begun to experiment with charging for admission at the inn door. The new Theater and the other public theaters that were built in its wake were run on different principles, but the proprietors similarly called themselves housekeepers, as if they simply owned an inn (presumably, this is why we still speak of dimming the "houselights" or of playing to a "full house").
Burbage and Brayne's investment, in fact, included an inn, the Cross Keys on Gracechurch Street (near what is now Liverpool Street Station), where players on occasion also performed, but their principal theater was a separate structure, enabling the entrepreneurs fully to implement the new idea: the spectators would have to pay at the door, before they saw the show. At the end of the play the actors would only beg for
applause and urge return visits. Thus was the box office-- originally a locked cashbox-born. The innovation--significantly changing the relationship between the entertainers and their customers-- must have been an immediate commercial success, since: another theater, the Curtain, soon went up in the same neighborhood, and other theaters soon followed. One penny would get you into the yard where you could stand for the two or three hours with the crowd, milling about, buying apples, oranges, nuts, and bottled ale, or pushing in as close as you could get to the edge of the stage. Another penny would get you out of the rain (or on occasion the hot sun) and onto a seat in one of the covered galleries that ringed the playhouse; a third penny would get you a cushioned seat in one of the "gentlemen's rooms" on the lower level of the galleries, "the pleasantest place," as a theatergoer of the time put it, "where [one] not only sees everything well but can also be seen."
The system of payment was meant in part to ensure some financial transparency: the first penny was supposed to go to the players; the second and third pennies in whole or in part to the "housekeepers." But the partners soon fell out-- Burbage, Brayne alleged, had been filching money from the cashbox to which he had a secret key-- and they did what Elizabethans with any money at stake constantly did: they went to court. Even after Brayne's death in 1586, the charges and countercharges had not been settled. On the contrary, they grew more tangled and bitter, culminating in a pitched battle on November 16, 1590, when Brayne's widow came with her allies to the Theater to attempt to collect a share of the receipts. Leaning out of a window, James Burbage and his wife shouted that their sister-in-law was a whore and the collectors knaves. Their youngest son, Richard, then in his early twenties, lay about him with a broomstick and assaulted one of the collectors, "scornfully and disdainfully," as the deposition puts it, "playing with this deponent’s nose." This rowdy youth with the broomstick is the first recorded glimpse of the celebrated actor who subsequently played Hamlet and most of the other great Shakespearean heroes.
The theatrical world Shakespeare found his way into was volatile, speculative, competitive, and precarious. The stage had vociferous enemies: the theaters, preachers and moralists charged, were temples to Venus and other devilish pagan deities; respectable matrons who went innocently enough to watch the plays were quickly lured into lives of licentiousness; men were sexually aroused by seductive boy actors; the
Word of God was mocked and piety held up to ridicule; grave authorities were brought into contempt; seditious ideas were planted in the minds of the multitude. Go to plays, thundered one irate minister, John Northbrooke,
if you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlots to obtain one's love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs oflove, to speak filthily, to be proud ....
The catalog of vicious lessons continues breathlessly, to be augmented over the years by many other preachers. And as if this were not enough, the wickedness on stage, the theater's enemies complained, was matched by the wickedness of the audience. At our playhouses, wrote Stephen Gosson in 1579,
… you shall see such heaving and shoving, such itching and shouldering to sit by the women; such care for their garments, that they be not trod on; such eyes to their laps, that no chips light in them; such pillows to their backs, that they take no hurt; such masking in their ears, I know not what; such giving them pippins, to pass the time; such playing at foot saunt [i.e.,footsie] ... ; such ticking, such toying, such smiling, such winking, and such manning them home, when the sports are ended.
It is a terrible thing, moralists sourly observed, that many who sit happily for two hours to watch a play cannot bear to sit for an hour to hear a sermon.
These charges were leveled in the name of closing down the theaters, but apart from leading to a ban on Sunday performances, they principally served, not surprisingly, to intensity the public's interest. "Where shall we go?" wrote John Florio, in an English-Italian phrase book that he published in 1578. "To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place." Florio was born and brought up in London, the son of refugee Italian Protestants. His little language lesson-- revealing, as those in modern textbooks are, precisely because it was attempting to be so ordinary and everyday continued:
Do comedies like you well?
Yea sir, on holy days.
They please me also well, but the preachers will not allow them.
Wherefore? Know you it?
They say, they are not good.
And wherefore are they used?
Because every man delights in them.
"Because every man delights in them": defenders of the stage marshaled many arguments-- plays showed virtue rewarded and vice punished, taught good manners, kept minds that might otherwise be plotting mischief occupied with harmless things, and so forth-- but the theaters survived and flourished simply because people ranging from lowly apprentices to the queen enjoyed what they saw.
Powerful aristocrats, key government officials, and the queen herself protected the public theaters and the playing companies. If there was a dangerous, subversive force in the realm, they thought, it was not the theaters but the theaters' enemies: the discontented, tirelessly meddlesome Protestant radicals who wanted to sweep away all profane pleasures. But the protection that the queen and her advisers afforded the stage was by no means unconditional; they too were nervous about public assemblies. They behaved, whether from paranoia or from bitter practical experience, as if crowds were inherently dangerous, as if they could easily turn violent, as if, given the chance, they would attack their social superiors and strike at the fundamental institutions of the society. Though official documents always stressed the queen's serene confidence in her loving subjects, many of her less guarded remarks suggest a strong current of suspicion. When Sir Philip Sidney had a shoving match with his social superior, the Earl of Oxford, over a tennis court, Elizabeth gave Sidney a lecture on the difference between an earl and a mere knight, along with a warning: Can you imagine, she asked, what would happen if common people learned that you yourself did not respect rank and title?
Elizabethan officials worried about any public spectacle that they could not control. Even the gathering together of a handful of people could alarm the authorities. Spies were assigned to taverns and inns to listen into conversations and report anything suspicious. Proclamations were issued asking people to be on the watch for anyone speaking "undutiful words." The government issued warnings against people who "lie privily in corners and bad houses, listening after news and stirs, and spreading rumors and tales." Vagabonds lurking in London were subject to harsh punishments. Small wonder that the position of the theaters, even with its powerful friends, was precarious.
Arriving in London in the late 1580s, probably as a hired actor in a troupe of players, Shakespeare entered a relatively new scene, not so new that its basic outlines were unformed but new enough that it was still open and evolving. The playing companies had been accustomed to a nomadic life of almost perpetual touring, with their membership frequently shifting, temporarily splitting apart, and recombining. The rise of the public theaters in a city with a rapidly expanding population hungry for amusement gave at least some of these companies the opportunity to have a lucrative home base where they would do most of their performing. They would still go out on the road from time to time, but the wagon with the costumes and props, the scrambling to find a place to perform, the fraught negotiations with the local authorities would no longer occupy the center of their professional lives.
But even for the most successful companies the transition to a more settled London-centered existence was not easy. Touring was no doubt tiring-- after a handful of performances, the troupe would have to pack up and move on-- but the actors could get by with a modest repertory. Not so in London. The open amphitheaters were large-- they could hold two thousand or more-- and the city, though populous by sixteenth-century standards, was only two hundred thousand. This meant that to survive economically it was not enough to mount one or two successful plays a season and keep them up for reasonable runs. The companies had to induce people, large numbers of people, to get in the habit of coming to the theater again and again, and this meant a constantly changing repertoire, as many as five or six plays per week The sheer magnitude of the enterprise is astonishing: for each company, approximately twenty new plays per year in addition to some twenty plays carried over from previous seasons.
Shakespeare seems to have grasped quickly the special opportunity that the burgeoning public theaters had created. The companies that performed in them had an enormous appetite for new plays. He could help to satisfy this appetite, either on his own or in collaboration with others. His timing could not have been better. There was no writers' guild, no special credentials that he needed to possess, no prerequisites for venturing forth. London would enable him to realize the embryonic ambition to write as well as to act that he may have brought with him from Stratford.
Later in his life it was said that Shakespeare wrote with astonishing facility. "The Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare," his friend and rival Ben Jonson wrote, "that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line." "My answer hath been," Jonson tartly added, "would he had blotted a thousand: " Judging from the multiple versions that exist of many of his plays and poems, Shakespeare in fact must have quietly blotted thousands of lines. There is powerful evidence that he extensively revised his work Yet the impression of a great ease in writing remains and may have extended back even to his early efforts. Words came easily to him, he was a quick study, and he had already absorbed several richly suggestive theatrical models. Though young and untried, he was poised to begin writing for the stage at once. Nonetheless, there are signs that it took a startling aesthetic shock to set Shakespeare's career as a writer fully in motion.
London, the chronicler Stow wrote, "was a mighty arm and instrument to bring any great desire to effect." The great public theaters that went up from the 1570s onward-- the Theater, the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, the Globe, the Red Bull, the Fortune, and the Hope-- were in the business of fostering and catering to such great desires. Shakespeare
encountered this central principle in its purest form almost immediately upon his arrival, for in 1587, just at the time he was finding his feet in London, crowds were flocking to the Rose to see the Lord Admiral's Men perform Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Shakespeare almost certainly saw the play (along with the sequel that shortly followed), and he probably went back again and again. It may indeed have been one of the first performances he ever saw in a playhouse-- perhaps the first-- and, from its effect upon his early work, it appears to have had upon him an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact.
The dream that Marlowe's startlingly cruel play aroused and brilliantly gratified was the dream of domination. His hero is a poor Scythian shepherd who rises by determination, charismatic energy, and utter ruthlessness to conquer much of the known world. The play, conceived on an epic scale, is full of noise, exotic pageantry, and rivers of stage blood-flags fly, chariots are dragged across the stage, cannons are fired-- but the core of its appeal is its incantatory celebration of the will to power:
Nature, that framed us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all:
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
For the space of this play, all of the moral rules inculcated in schools and churches, in homilies and proclamations and sober-minded tracts, are suspended. The highest good-- "That perfect bliss and sole felicity"-- is not the contemplation of God but the possession of a crown. There is no hierarchy of blood, no divinely sanctioned legitimate authority, no inherited obligation to obey, no moral restraint. Instead, there is a restless, violent
striving that can be fully appeased only by grasping (or dreaming of grasping) supreme power.
The part of Tamburlaine was created by an astonishingly gifted young actor in the Lord Admiral's Men, Edward Alleyn, at the time only twenty-one years old. At the sight of the performance, Shakespeare, two years his senior, may have grasped, if he had not already begun to do so, that he was not
likely to become one of the leading actors on the London stage. Alleyn was the real thing: a majestic physical presence, with a "well-tuned," clear voice capable of seizing and holding the attention of enormous audiences. Achieving instant and enduring fame for his "stalking and roaring" in the part, Alleyn went on to play Faustus, Barabas, and many other great roles; to marry Henslowe's step-daughter; to become immensely rich from the business side of entertainment; and to found a distinguished educational institution, Dulwich College.
The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in Alleyn's interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor's fine voice, nor even in the hero's daring vision of the blissful object at which he lunges, the earthy crown. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine's power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play's blank verse-- the dynamic flow of unrhymed five-stress, ten-syllable lines-- that the author, Christopher Marlowe, had mastered for the stage. This verse, like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are, was by no means only bombast and bragging. Its appeal lay in its own "wondrous architecture": its subtle rhythms, the way in which a succession of monosyllables suddenly flowers into the word "aspiring," the pleasure of hearing "fruit" become "fruition."
Shakespeare had never heard anything quite like this before-- certainly not in the morality plays or mystery cycles he had watched back in Warwickshire. He must have said to himself something like, "You are not in Stratford anymore." To someone raised on a diet of moralities and mysteries, it must have seemed as if the figure of Riot had somehow seized control of the stage, and with it an unparalleled power of language.
Perhaps, at one of those early performances-- before the full extent of Marlowe's recklessness became known-- Shakespeare waited, with others in the audience, for the tyrant, soaked with the blood of innocents, to be brought low. That, after all, is what always happened to Riot or to Herod in the religious drama. But what he saw instead was one insanely cruel victory follow another, the rhetoric of triumph becoming ever more intoxicating. "Millions of souls sit on the banks of Styx," exults the murderous
conqueror at the play's close,
Waiting the back return of Charon's boat.
Hell and Elysium swarm with ghosts of men
That I have sent ....
Nothing holds Tamburlaine back, no fear, no deference, no respect for the established order of things: "Emperors and kings lie breathless at my feet" (5.1.469). With these words and with the slaughter of the innocent virgins of Damascus, he takes his beautiful bride, the divine Zenocrate, daughter of the conquered sultan of Egypt. Then, shockingly, outrageously, the play was over, and the crowd applauded, cheering the trampling of everything that they had been instructed with numbing repetition to hold dear.
This was a crucial experience for Shakespeare, a challenge to all of his aesthetic and moral and professional assumptions. The challenge must have been intensified when he learned that Marlowe was in effect his double: born in the same year, 1564, in a provincial town; the son not of a wealthy gentleman but of a common artisan, a shoemaker. Had Marlowe not existed, Shakespeare would no doubt have written plays, but those plays would have been decisively different. As it is, he gives the impression
that he made the key move in his career-- the decision not to make his living as an actor alone but to try also to write for the stage on which he performed-- under Marlowe's influence. The fingerprints of Tamburlaine (both the initial play and the sequel that soon followed) are all over the plays that are among Shakespeare's earliest known ventures as a playwright, the three parts of Henry VI-- so much so that earlier textual scholars thought that the Henry VI plays must have been collaborative enterprises undertaken with Marlowe himself The decided unevenness in the style of the plays suggests that Shakespeare may well have been working with others, though few scholars any longer believe that Marlowe was among them. Rather, the neophyte Shakespeare and his collaborators seem to have been looking over their shoulders at Marlowe's achievement.
Marlowe had put together the two parts of Tamburlaine out of his strange personal history-- spy, double agent, counterfeiter, atheist-- but also and as important, out of his voraciously wide reading. Some of the details of the life of the Scythian conqueror he could have culled from popular English books, but scholars have shown that Marlowe must have followed the leads in these books back to other, less readily available sources in Latin. Some of the details in Tamburlaine suggest that Marlowe even picked up information found in Turkish sources not yet translated during the playwright's lifetime into any Western European languages. And crucially, for these plays full of exotic geographical locations, he had access to the recent and very expensive Theatrum orbis ierrarum by the great Flemish geographer Ortelius. Where could a shoemaker's son find access to this and all the rest? The explanation must lie in the bibliographical and human resources of Cambridge University, where Marlowe enrolled as a student in 1581. In July of that year, for example, a copy of Ortelius's atlas was presented to the university library, and Marlowe's own colIege, Corpus Christi, already owned a copy.
Shakespeare had no comparable resources upon which he could draw. But he did have a friend in London who probably played a crucial role at this point in his career. Richard Field had come to London in 1578 from Stratford-upon-Avon, where his father and Shakespeare's father were associates, to serve as an apprentice to the printer Thomas
Vautrollier, a Protestant refugee from Paris. Vautrollier had a good business: he published schoolbooks, an edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, a Latin Book of Common Prayer, works in French, and editions of important classics. Thus described, the list sounds rather dull, but Vautrollier also allowed himself to take certain risks, such as bringing out important works by the heretical theologian and radical Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was later burned at the stake in Rome). And among his best-known publications was a book that turned out to be one of Shakespeare's favorites: Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, a principal source for Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and, above all, Antony and Cleopatra.
Richard Field did well for himself in his new calling: after serving for six years as Vautrollier's apprentice and for a seventh year as the apprentice of another printer, in 1587 he obtained admission to the printers' guild, the
Stationer's Company. When, in that same year, Vautrollier died, Field married his widow, Jacqueline, and took over the business. By 1589, then, he was established as a master printer, with a busy workshop and an impressive, wide-ranging, and intellectually challenging list of authors. He must also have owned books by his competitors and would have had access to others. He was a hugely valuable resource for his young playwright friend from Stratford.
Even though as a poet Shakespeare dreamed of eternal fame, he does not seem to have associated that fame with the phenomenon of the printed book. And even when he was well established as a playwright, with his plays for sale in the bookstalls in St. Paul's Churchyard, he showed little or no personal interest in seeing his plays on the printed page, let alone assuring the accuracy of the editions, He never, it seems, anticipated what turned out to be the case: that he would live as much on the page as on the stage and that his destiny as a writer was deeply bound up with the technology he must have glimpsed the first time he visited his friend's printing shop in Blackfriars.
When the door opened, Shakespeare would have seen firsthand the beating heart of the London book trade: the compositor bending over the manuscripts, reaching into the trays, pulling out the bits of type and setting them in the rows; the printer inking the completed "formes," or frames in which the printing type was secured, and turning the great screws that pressed the inked formes down onto the mechanical bed on which large sheets of paper were laid; the printing press casting off the sheets which were then folded to make the pages; the proofreader correcting the sheets and going back to the compositor for changes before the pages were taken to the binders to be stitched together. All of this would have been interesting enough in itself as a spectacle (there are many images in Shakespeare's work of the imprinting of marks or signs), but the real excitement for him would have been access to books. Books were expensive, far too expensive for a young actor and untried playwright to buy out of his own pocket, and yet the ambitious Shakespeare needed them if he was to rise to the challenge posed by Marlowe's stupendous work.
How Shakespeare came to the idea of writing his counterthrust to Tamburlaine--the three plays about the troubled fifteenth-century reign of Henry VI-- is not known, Perhaps the idea was not originally his: there is evidence that the Queen's Men, with which he may have been affiliated at the time, was troubled by Marlowe's success and determined to counter it. Shakespeare may have been invited to join in a project already under way that had bogged down. Plays were often written collaboratively,
and the more established writers may have welcomed another hand, Perhaps he began by making a few small suggestions and then found himself increasingly involved and responsible. Alternatively, he may have been in charge from the beginning, But whatever the case, he and any collaborators he had needed books, as Marlowe had needed books, The key books-- English chronicles such as Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, A Mirror for Magistrates by Willam Baldwin and others, and, above all, Raphael Holinshed's indispensable and just-published Chronicles-- were not published by Field or his former master Vautrollier, but it is quite possible that Shakespeare's friend may have owned copies or been able to put him in touch with those who did.
Shakespeare had determined to write a historical epic, like Marlowe's, but to make it an English epic, an account of the bloody time of troubles that preceded the order brought by the Tudors. He wanted to resurrect a whole world, as Marlowe had done, bringing forth astonishing larger-than-life figures engaged in struggles to the death, but it was now not the exotic realms of the East that would be brought to the stage but England's own past. The great idea of the history play-- taking the audience back into a time that had dropped away from living memory but that was still eerily familiar and crucially important-- was not absolutely new, but Shakespeare gave it an energy, power, and conviction that it had never before possessed. The Henry VI plays are still crude, especially in comparison with Shakespeare's later triumphs in the same genre, but they convey a striking picture of the playwright poring over Holinshed's Chronicles in search of materials that would enable him to imitate Tamburlaine.
The imitation, though real enough, is not exactly an expression of homage; it is a skeptical reply. Marlowe's play concentrated all of the world's driving ambition in a single charismatic superhero; Shakespeare's trilogy is full of Tamburlaine-like grotesques, including one already encountered, the peasant Jack Cade. Cade turns out to be the unwitting puppet of the power crazed Duke of York, who echoes Tamburlaine's boast:
I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell,
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
(2 Henry VI, 3.1.349-54)
The Marlovian accents are still clearer in the speeches of York's evil son,
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.
(3 Henry VI, 1.2.29-31)
And the sadistic pleasure is no longer limited to the male world; it extends to the formidable Queen Margaret, triumphing over her enemy York:
Why art thou patient, man? Thou shouldst be mad,
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus.
Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance.
(3 Henry VI, 1.4.90-92)
This savage cruelty in a woman astonishes even the fierce York: "O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!" he exclaims (1.4.138). When order breaks down, everyone wants to be a Tamburlaine.
In Marlowe's vision of the exotic East, vaunting ambition, stopping at nothing, leads to the establishment of a grand world order, cruel but magnificent. That order, as part two of Tamburlaine shows, crumbles, but only because everything eventually crumbles: there is no moral other than the brute fact of mortality. In Shakespeare's vision of English history, vaunting ambition leads to chaos, an ungovernable, murderous factionalism and the consequent loss of power at home and abroad. Despite or even because of his ruthlessness, Marlowe's hero bestrides the world like a god, doing whatever it pleases him to do-"This is my mind, and I will have it so" (4.2.91). By contrast, Shakespeare's petty Tamburlaines, even though they are queens and dukes, are like mentally unbalanced small-town criminals: they are capable of incredible nastiness but cannot achieve a hint of grandeur.
In part, this limitation was a consequence of poetic inexperience: Shakespeare was not able, at least at this point in his life, to match the unstoppable, monomaniacal grandiloquence Marlowe commanded. But in part it was a clear choice: Shakespeare refused to give any of his characters, even his stalwart English military hero Talbot, the limitless power Marlowe gleefully conferred on Tamburlaine. Simply to look at Tamburlaine is to see the embodiment of Herculean power; to look on Talbot, by contrast, is to be disappointed. "I see report is fabulous and false," says the Countess of Auvergne, who has lured Talbot to her castle.
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.
(3 Henry VI, 2.3.17, 22-3)
Talbot is an ordinary mortal. When the English forces are routed, he is killed, along with his son, by a French army led by the demonic Joan of Arc. No one in this world is invincible: abandoned by her devils, Joan is soon afterward captured by the resurgent English army, tried for sorcery, and burned at the stake.
Crowds flocked in the late 1580s to see the Henry VI plays-- this was Shakespeare's first great theatrical success, establishing him as a viable playwright-- but they did not come to fantasize about possessing absolute power. On the contrary, they came to shudder at the horrors of popular uprising and civil war. The crowds came too, it seems, to savor
heroic sacrifice and to mourn loss. "How it would have joyed brave Talbot," wrote a contemporary playwright, Thomas Nashe, "to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his Tomb, he should triumph again on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding," Nashe, who may have been one of Shakespeare's collaborators on 1 Henry VI, was not an objective witness. But even if he was exaggerating, he was pointing to a major commercial triumph. Edward Alleyn had found a rival in the "Tragedian" who played Talbot-- in all likelihood, Richard Burbage; and the visionary poetic genius of Christopher Marlowe had been challenged from a hitherto unknown talent, a minor actor from Stratford-upon-Avon.