He innovated in a world rife with plagiarism, censorship, death threats, and worse
What many people don’t know about Shakespeare the poet and playwright is that he became wealthy in the new media business of his time — public theater. Numerous startup companies built large open-air playhouses in London at the end of the 1500s.
Shakespeare was an entrepreneur, a theater owner, and a key player, in every sense of the word, in this new business. He wrote and performed in his theater company’s plays, but he made his money at the box office.
The relatively new technology of printing — invented just over a century earlier — accelerated theater’s popularity. Inexpensive handbills and pamphlets printed by the thousands promoted the competing theater companies’ current offerings.
Everyone was trying to cash in. Unscrupulous printers pirated the most popular plays and published them in cheap portable versions comparable to today’s paperbacks. It sounds a lot like today’s media world. And Shakespeare’s theater company was one of the most popular and financially successful.
Inspired by a fantasy
What got me thinking about Shakespeare’s time compared to our own was the 25th anniversary of the 1998 comedy “Shakespeare in Love.” Kanopy, a free streaming service offered through my public library, featured it.
It’s a clever bit of make-believe, filled with insidery satire on today’s entertainment industry. (Shakespeare on a couch, stricken with writer’s block, bares his soul in Freudian fashion to a sort of psychic healer. His session is timed by an hourglass; he leaves with a powder and a charmed bracelet, after paying and scheduling next week’s appointment).
Given that we have Shakespeare’s printed plays but no letters, no diary, and no manuscripts of his works, it’s tempting to create a fantasy world for him. The movie invents a love affair that supposedly inspired “Romeo and Juliet”. (The movie version of Shakespeare first conceived the play, unpromisingly, as “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. ( Here is the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman).
Newly discovered evidence
In any case, the fantasy inspired me to return to two biographies of the playwright that appeared almost two decades ago. The authors compiled thousands of revealing new bits of evidence about Shakespeare the actor, playwright, company shareholder, real estate investor, husband, father, and lover. They’re reviewed here — “Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare”, by Stephen Greenblatt, 2004, and “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare”, by James Shapiro, 2005.
The relevance today: In our internet connected world, every scrap of information can be immediately shared and published, and many of the mysteries about Shakespeare can be put to rest.
Burying a controversy: Shakespeare, unlike his less celebrated contemporaries, didn’t attend university. That spawned an industry of skeptics centuries later who claimed that someone of such modest learning and humble beginnings could not have written all those great plays. They say it must have been the brilliant Christopher Marlowe, or any number of other less likely suspects.
But Marlowe was already dead -killed in a barroom brawl in 1593 — when Shakespeare wrote the vast majority of his plays, including his greatest works, the late tragedies and comedies.
The documents: Various public and private documents discovered in the recent past have fleshed out Shakespeare’s life and work. These include wills, lawsuits, court depositions, property sales, letters and diaries of visitors to London, favorable and unfavorable criticism by his rivals, and more.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that William Shakespeare wrote the plays comes from two of his partners in the Globe Theatre and the King’s Men — John Heminge and Henry Condell. They collected and published 36 of his plays seven years after his death in what is known as the First Folio. They knew the man and knew what he wrote.
More than the First Folio
In recent years, scholars have found evidence that Shakespeare often collaborated with other playwrights. It turns out they worked much like screenwriters today, with many hands contributing to making a product as marketable as possible.
Shakespeare the business person is believed to have added a long, moving soliloquy to revive an old warhorse, “The Spanish Tragedy”, a decade after the death of its author, Thomas Kyd. Yes, they had revivals in those days if there was money to be made.
The title page of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, from the Folger Library. The dedicatory poem, at left, is by Ben Jonson, a rival and admirer.
A risky media business
The public theater was a media innovation in England during Elizabeth’s reign. The first public playhouse was the Theatre, built in 1576, and “Over the next 16 years, 17 new open-air, public theatres were constructed,” according to an article on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Competition was intense among these media entrepreneurs. They profited handsomely as long as there wasn’t a shutdown because of the plague or a political crisis. The companies feverishly created dozens of new plays each year, shamelessly stole material from each other, and produced sequels of the greatest hits. Just like today.
But these theater companies also lived a precarious existence. According to Greenblatt, “Virtually all his rival playwrights found themselves on the straight road to starvation; Shakespeare, by contrast, made enough money to buy one of the best houses in the hometown [Stratford] to which he retired in his early fifties, a self-made man” (p. 5).
A stream of Shakespeare
Today it’s possible to stream the BBC productions of all of Shakespeare’s plays from the 1970s and ’80s on several services, and there are abundant YouTube videos of productions from many decades.
His characters and themes still grab our attention: conquering heroes, murderous conquerors, traitorous allies, poisonous jealousy, questing for true love, all-consuming indecision, and the hilarious variety of human vice and weakness.
Shakespeare the business person might be pleased to see how his work is still relevant and generating cash at the box office.
On a personal note, while I was in graduate school some decades ago, I delightedly swam in the language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I have always thought that those who proposed another author for his plays hadn’t spent the time to study the works of that period. While I enjoyed my studies immensely, I am glad that I didn’t finish the doctorate. Journalism was a better fit for me.