Ever since posting The Interconnectedness of Form I’ve been thinking about my Shakespeare reference. Now, I’m not going to do a deep analysis of ‘the meaning of Shakespeare’ but I’ve been thinking that maybe there’s a few little secrets about him that should perhaps be more widely known.
Nowadays Shakespeare is celebrated as the height of theatrical genius but it wasn’t so during his lifetime because he was the Tudor equivalent of a ‘commercial’ writer. As I said in the aforementioned post it’s a myth that all his plays were written in one draft; Shakespeare was constantly editing his plays and refining them to get the best reaction from the audience, so a person could go to two different performances and wouldn’t necessarily see the same play. Ben Jonson really disliked Shakespeare because of this, he thought that plays should be written to be printed in folios for people to read rather than written to be performed and, by modern standards, might’ve considered himself a ‘literary’ writer. Which just goes to show that the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ writers isn’t a new argument.
We can’t even be one hundred percent sure if the versions we have of the plays are in fact the versions written by Shakespeare. There are folios where the plays are quite different in places, for example Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ is unrecognisable in one version, it’s only really the gist that’s there. In all likelihood these are folios are the Tudor equivalent to bootleg copies of the play, perhaps written by someone who saw the play or an actor writing down misremembered lines. As Shakespeare didn’t write his plays for publication it would’ve been the only way to get written copies of the plays.
The theatre experience was also completely different in the time of Shakespeare. Now we go to the theatre and sit in respectful silence while the actors perform but back when Shakespeare was writing it was more like pantomime. People wouldn’t simply be heckling though, they’d be having conversations, buying things, prostitutes would pick up customers and thieves would be working amongst the crowd. Where the stalls would be in a modern theatre people would be standing, not sitting unless they wanted to be stepped on, so it would be easy to move about and throw things if you didn’t appreciate the performance, or steal people’s money in the case of thieves.
The theatre was a social centre where people went to be seen, not simply see a play. Have you ever wondered about the boxes close to the stage, the way they seem to face outwards? In Shakespeare’s day people would pay extra for seats like those where people could see them allowing them to display that they could afford those seats, and a simple seat would’ve been expensive. If you couldn’t afford a box then you could always sit on the front of the stage; obviously couldn’t see what was happening behind them but they could be seen. Though I’d imagine it was slightly dangerous if people decided they didn’t like the performance and started throwing things at the stage.
In some ways Shakespeare’s writing world was certainly very different from the modern world, but in some ways it wasn’t so different. Having been considered crass and commercial in his time by literary establishment I have to wonder what he would think of the way the modern theatre reveres his work.
I mention this in conclusion because it is important for writers, perhaps especially those submitting work for publication, to remember that simply because someone doesn’t like your work doesn’t mean nobody else will. I think we sometimes need reminding that a bad review or comment doesn’t mean our work is ‘bad’. Perhaps, like Shakespeare, we need a little editing or the right audience.
Exit Pursued By A Bear.