Friends and Rivals: Shakespeare and the Competition


The early modern English theater scene was fairly small and highly competitive. Playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser were friends, but also rivals. They collaborated, imitated, and satirized each other equally as they jostled for success. Joe Loewenstein, a professor of English and director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis, returns to share stories about these relationships and discusses the fluid nature of authorship in theater at the time.



Joe Loewenstein: [00:00:21] In the competitive environment of the London theatrical scene, I think Shakespeare might have seen a competitor under every rock, behind every door.

Rebecca King: [00:00:34] Hey there listeners! Thanks for tuning in to hold that thought. I'm Rebecca King. I'm happy to have Joe Lowenstein back on the show today to talk about the playwrighting scene and some of Shakespeare's competitors, after we spent much of last episode discussing how Shakespeare dealt with the criticism of writer Robert Green. Joe is a professor of English and director of the Interdisciplinary Project for the Humanities and Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. When looking at some of Shakespeare's rivals of the day, Professor Lowenstein's starts with Ben Jonson who, you may remember, has a very bombastic style of writing which Greene accused Shakespeare of imitating-- and imitating poorly at that.

Joe Loewenstein: [00:01:27] Jonson, who hit the theatrical scene in the second half of the fifteen nineties, was overwhelmingly popular. He was a very racy person in his youth. He had been a soldier in the Netherlands, he got in a duel and killed a fellow actor, he had a real reputation as a guy with a violent temper. He was obviously a pretty distinguished actor; he made his name playing the lead in Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish tragedy." It was a role that featured bombast and rand and violence and mad scenes; it was really terrific. Jonson, when he started writing plays, made his name as a comic writer and particularly a writer interested in what we would describe as neurotic personalities. Basically, lunatics. Different kinds of lunatics. It's as if, when Jonson writes a play, he's anatomizing the kinds of crazy, the kinds of mental illness that people could come down with, and it's plain that Shakespeare was watching Jonson. His play, "Twelfth Night," which is completely different in tone from Jonson's plays, and different in its plotting, since most of Shakespeare's comedies are really about love and almost none of Johnson's are about love. But there are all kinds of moments in "Twelfth Night" where it's plain that Shakespeare is playing with Jonson, poking at Jonson, responding to Jonson.

Rebecca King: [00:03:10] Clearly, even if Shakespeare was threatened by Jonson's success, he admired what Jonson was doing and, as the magpie was, Shakespeare tried to imitate Jonson in his own work. So, they were friends, they were rivals, perhaps today we called them something like frenemies. And if you were to listen to the gossip of the day, Jonson and Shakespeare's relationship becomes even more, well, weird. And complicated.

Joe Loewenstein: [00:03:42] There's all kinds of lore that comes down from the past. There's a famous story, the details of which I'm fuzzy on, but it's a famous story about Shakespeare and Jonson sharing the same whore. I'm not sure that you can use that in the podcast, but I don't think there's any question that they were frenemies. There's reason to believe that Shakespeare's first occasion of going to the court of Elizabeth was an actor in Jonson's "Every Man In His Humour," which was such a success that Elizabeth asked that it be performed for her during the Christmas festivities. I can't remember exactly which year, but it was sometime in the late 90s when Shakespeare had a role in that play. So, you could say that Jonson is responsible for Shakespeare's first occasion to perform before Elizabeth, maybe the first time he actually had been in the same room with Elizabeth.

Rebecca King: [00:04:39] Though the two might have been competitors and rivals in some regard, it's clear that they also had great admiration and respect for each other. Remember that Ben Jonson famously wrote after Shakespeare's death that his work was "not of an age, but for all time." But Johnson is not the only writer Shakespeare is actively competing with, and admiring, and imitating. Loewenstein finds Edmund Spenser's fingerprints in some of Shakespeare's work, especially his study of the epic

Joe Loewenstein: [00:05:14] I'm especially interested in the non-dramatic poet Edmund Spenser, who had his own way of continuing the tradition of Homeric and Virgilian epic. He wrote, arguably, the first modern English epic, a poem about, in praise of, Elizabeth. A poem called the "Fairy Queen." It's a poem that is set in the Arthurian days. Its hero is King Arthur, who has fallen in love in a dream with the fairy queen with Elizabeth. The first instalment of Spenser's epic came out in 1590, and there is no question in my mind that Shakespeare read it, thought about it, and admired the way in which Spenser picked up and transformed themes and concerns in Chaucer. And you can tell that Shakespeare had Spenser on his mind because, when he wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream" about a fairy queen, he steals very heavily from Chaucer. So, just as he said to Greene, 'you want bombast I'll show you bombast, you want plaigarism, I'll show you plagiarism.' He's saying to Spenser, 'you want Chaucerianism? You want early modern medievalism? I'll show you how it's done.' So, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is I think Shakespeare's, you could say, homage to Chaucer and Spenser. I would say that it's an homage to Chaucer and a piece of competition with Spenser.

Rebecca King: [00:07:05] When considering the web of influence, imitation, and plagiarism in Shakespeare's work as we have done for the last two episodes, it's important to remember the kind of fluid atmosphere in which he was working. The playwriting scene was small, highly competitive, and fast paced. Playwrights often got their start by revising other people's plays for a new season. So not only were playwrights like Shakespeare looking at the past masters like Homer and Virgil, or current rivals like Jonson and Spenser, they also frequently collaborated together and reworked some of the hits from previous seasons.

Joe Loewenstein: [00:07:47] Jonson buffed up Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" in the late 90, a decade after its original production. He wrote extra scenes for it. Shakespeare's, probably some of his first work, was as a reviser of other people's plays. We have every reason to believe that "Hamlet" is a rewrite of a play that was moderately popular in the late 1580s by Thomas Kyd. There's a lot of revising and adapting. There's a good deal of collaborative work. Certainly, Jonson, there's the rewrite of Kyd, there's a "Eastward Ho," which is a collaboration of Jonson's, there's a good couple of dozen of pretty popular plays that are collaboratively written. Shakespeare almost certainly collaborated. There's good reason to believe that Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" is a collaborative product. There is some reason to believe that there's more than one hand in Shakespeare's Peracles. We know that Shakespeare contributed at least a scene to a play on the life and death of Sir Thomas More. So, you know, he did his bit with other people's plays. But Jonson and Shakespeare largely worked on their own. We believe that Shakespeare had a good working relationship with John Ford, a person of the next generation. There is some reason to believe that Ford was in informal apprenticeship to Shakespeare. So, I mean, we have every reason to believe that he was a decent collaborator. We know that he revised his plays. "[King] Lear" comes down to us in two different versions. We know that Shakespeare cut plays for different kinds of performance, he didn't write a play and expect that it was going to stay put. He was in an environment where there was lots of improvisation, there was adaptation, there was cutting, and that would have been part of his notion of what a play was, not that you were writing something, in Jonson's words, "for all time," but that you were actually writing plays, not just for an age, but for this year, for this season, for this kind of performance. I think he might well have thought about more than one possible venue when he wrote plays. A bunch of Shakespeare scholars, myself included, believe that Midsummer Night's Dream was written originally for the occasion of a particular aristocratic marriage, that it was written actually to be performed at that marriage. But I also am pretty confident that Shakespeare wanted to re-use the play, and so when he wrote it, he wouldn't have just been thinking about the performance associated with a particular occasion, but he would have been thinking about how the play could move, with little or no adaptation, to a different venue and to a different audience.

Rebecca King: [00:11:02] The performance schedules of theater companies also lent itself to this kind of constant reworking of plays. Professor Lowenstein says that theater companies didn't just perform one play over a series of weeks or months, as they do today. That would have exhausted the audience. Instead, companies switched rather rapidly and regularly between new and different plays to bring in new audiences. This kind of schedule requires a constant stream of new, or at least revised, material and is obviously more strenuous on the theater companies and actors. Playwrights had to expect some mistakes or misquoting to happen in performance. However, Professor Lowenstein says that this began to change in Shakespeare's day.

[00:11:52] One of the things that I think we can discern across Shakespeare's writing biography is a slow development, whereby playwrights begin to have higher expectations of acting companies, begin to expect that they will stick a little closer to the script. Playwrights start out as nobodies. Well, not nobodies, but they're not the most important members of the theatrical collaboration. It's the acting company that's famous, and the playwright is just providing material. Again, it's like writers for a TV show. They're not unimportant, but they don't get, necessarily, major billing. Shakespeare's name doesn't appear on a title page of one of his plays in print until the publication of "The Merchant of Venice." The name that shows up prominently on a title page is the name of the acting company and often the venue where it's performed. The playwright's name might show up, by the end of Shakespeare's writing life, by the end of Johnson's writing life the playwright's more of a big deal, more of a draw. You might go someplace, not just to see what King's Men were performing but you might be going to the theater to see the new Shakespeare play or to see the new Chapman play, see the new Webster play.

Rebecca King: [00:13:32] Thanks to you all for tuning in to Hold That Thought. And a big thanks again to Joe Lowenstein, Professor of English and director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities and the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis, for taking the time to meet with me. Join me next week for the next installment of our Summer with the Bard. Have thoughts of your own after today's episode? Find Hold That Thought on Facebook or Twitter to continue the discussion.


Wikimedia Commons: Shakespeare and Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern
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