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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 7 June 2015

"Shakespeare and Co" by Stanley Wells

The aim of this scholarly paperback is to show that Shakespeare was not a lone genius but worked within the context of other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, sometimes borrowing from their works and sometimes being borrowed from. He was unusual in that he spent his entire career working with one acting company; most of his colleagues were rather more promiscuous. He usually worked alone but from time to time he collaborated with others, for example with Middleton and Fletcher. In many ways, Shakespeare was the best of his contemporaries and sometimes he so overshadowed them that their reputations are undeservedly smaller as a result. In some ways, he was not as good as others: for example, he was much less likely to use satire to point up contemporary issues and he rarely wrote about the man in the London street.

Wells has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to identifying the areas of collaboration. Much of the argument is to do with style: each writer leaves a signature in the way he writes whether it be in prose or blank verse of rhyming couplets or free verse; whether he regularly adds beats to the end of a blank verse line; whether his characters are logical on the build up of their arguments or more scatterbrained; whether the characters are ciphers or have lives of their own. Unfortunately, in a small paperback such as this, Wells has to assume a certain knowledge on the part of the reader which was often rather more than I possessed so I had to take some of his arguments on trust.

Although the focus of the book is always on Shakespeare, it probably works better as an introduction to the other playwrights. He is particularly good at explaining why certain scenes don't work. I found this fascinating and I learned about:

  • Robert Greene who wrote Pandosto which Shakespeare later transformed in A Winter's Tale; he also wrote Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
  • Thomas Kyd, author of the the best-selling The Spanish Tragedy (which I saw in a brilliant production at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington) and of an early Hamlet
  • Christopher Marlowe who wrote The Jew of Malta (a tragedy which Wells believes needs to be played for laughs), Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II
  • The almost unbelievably prolific Thomas Dekker who write The Shoemaker's Holiday and may have collaborated with Shakespeare on Sir Thomas More; he also worked with Thomas Middleton on London-based dramas The Roaring Girl and The Honest Whore
  • The agressive, murderous, and sexually promiscuous Ben Jonson who wrote great comedy including Volpone (which I saw in a memorable production at the Cockpit Theatre in London) and The Alchemist (which I saw some years ago at the National Theatre)
  • Thomas Middleton who wrote A Mad World, My Masters which was produced this year by the RSC (I watched it at the Barbican; it was brilliant), The Revenger's Tragedy, and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens
  • John Fletcher, who often worked with Francis Beaumont and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on the lost play Cardenio as well as the Two Noble Kinsmen
  • John Webster who is most famous for The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

This is a great book which sets Shakespeare on the context of his time. It is nearly as good as 1599 by James Shapiro, which is a masterpiece, and Contested Will. Other Shakespeare books reviewed on this blog include Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt which is more or less unputdownable, and the wonderful 1606 by the incomparable James Shapiro and The Lodger by Charles Nicholls.

June 2015; 231 pages

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