The Theatre of Shakespeare – Everyman or Elitist?
The actor playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary of the bard, famously declared in his dedication that Shakespeare ‘was not just for his own age – but for all time.’
This unequivocal affirmation of the universal appeal of Shakespeare beggars belief to the sluggardly schoolboy making his way to school nowadays. Indeed this attitude evokes what we all similarly experienced when trapped in the state education system.
That even now to study or learn from the greatest poet playwright that the English language has produced to date is viewed as a punishment and not a boon. My own educational experience mirrors this general trend and perhaps reflects the
national figures that show us that only eight percent of the population are regular theatregoers. Probably a lower percentage even for the lovers of Shakespeare.
This peculiarly British attitude prevails and has fanned the flames of elitism in the arts for decades perhaps centuries as we still perpetuate a literary class system and frown on the seemingly onerous task of teaching successive generations about this remarkable and exceptionally gifted writer and human being.
No-one in our school ever approached the subject with the communicable enthusiasm to explore the joys of life and the thrills and spills of the human condition there is contained in every play.
Shakespeare was very much a man of the people in that the plays were aimed at all levels of society – and very definitely not an Elizabethan literary elite.
Universal appeal is very evident in the texts and was commercially imperative to the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres’ survival. Maximizing audiences was apparent in the design of the theatres of the period he wrote for. Admission prices ranged from a farthing for ‘groundlings’ standing space in front of the stage and up to a penny for a covered seat and threepence for a private box. Indoor (winter) theatregoers paid sixpence for a seat. All pockets were catered for and with every patron duly demanding to be entertained when attending. Elizabethans were a tough crowd and would very quickly demonstrate their approbation if dissatisfied.
Play performances were bracketed with song and dance routines designed to delight audiences and to keep them coming back for more every time. Theatre was king as it was the only form of mass public entertainment at the time.
The levels of literacy and education in Elizabethan England generally were very low as a state-run system was none-existent. Even with the publication of the King James bible in English in 1611 AD, affording a wider access to the English Language and
literature this did not propel legions of other would-be playwrights to the fore.
Theatre folk and particularly actors were viewed with public disdain and as a profession considered only one step up from vagrancy.
Religious suppression, expressed in the form of Puritanism, was rife which meant that topics and themes in all public performance plays were carefully controlled and monitored for content.
When Bubonic plague broke out, as it frequently did, most theatres were summarily closed for the duration – which could be for years in some instances.
In many ways our Will was very much a product of his time. There were other aspiring playwrights who blossomed then faded with the exception of Jonson and perhaps Shakespeare’s nearest rival Christopher Marlowe – although he tragically died in 1593. His output was relatively small 36 plays as opposed to Jonson’s 200.
Yet his work was to stand head and shoulders above the rest – loved by all.
Its difficult to reconcile this sensitive creative artiste with the seemingly practical man of Stratford. He came from a relatively well to do family background; his father rose to the rank of alderman only to fall spectacularly from grace socially and financially. He was well-rooted in society with a family of four children and a studious wife behind the scenes. So where and more importantly how did the transition from citizen to artiste and literary luminary occur?
The truth now lies shrouded in mystery and merely adds to the growing number of curiosities and questions surrounding the swan of Avon. Authorship credibility being one of them. Given the range of general knowledge across professions and other esoteric mysteries evident in the plays it is a wonder that a basic education at Stratford Grammar School was adequate as. Unlike Marlowe, what we do know is that he never attended university where such knowledge was available.
One thing is certain, in his published will our Will, simply did not have any play – scripts to bequeath for the simple reason he didn’t own them.
It was customary for the plays to be the property of the theatre company and not the playwright who was paid a flat fee c£5 for the commission to write it.
Shakespeare fared better than most writers only because he became a sharer or partner in the company which afforded him the financial security of a share of the profits. Hence as his wealth accumulated he was able to buy property in Stratford and
restore his families fortunes.
After his death it was deemed important to his company partners particularly William Condell and James Burbage, as personal friends, to preserve his plays and therefore the man and his art for posterity.
In 1623 they commissioned the publication of the First Folio which was intended to be the main repository of his works preserved in print. Containing 36 full-length plays, known by them to be his writings, it is clearly a humble dedication to a fellow Thespian. The man who had most influenced and moved them theatrically and was partly responsible for their own successes in the theatre.
Today we should continue to cherish his memory and his works as a direct link to those turbulent times if nothing else. The religious, political and social upheaval of the period would challenge any writer and yet he rose above it to leave us with a
treasury of literary jewels far greater in importance than the crown jewels we see today in the Tower of London and a far more important monumental legacy to bequeath to our people, country and more importantly our artistic culture.
’This sceptred Isle set in a silver sea, this realm, this England.’