‘Shakespeare in Love’ is a romantic comedy about a year in Shakespeare’s life. In reality very few facts are known about Shakespeare as a person and building a picture of him is rather like trying to create a jigsaw with many pieces missing.
Since he is probably the best known playwright in the world and his plays have been performed more or less continuously for over four hundred years, Shakespeare and his works have acquired a certain reverent distance which quite often makes us forget that, in his time his plays were enjoyed by all levels of society.
The film script of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was co-written by Marc Norman and the playwright Tom Stoppard who have created a new work by taking some of the accepted facts of Shakespeare’s life and times and juggling them with aspects, ideas and actual words from Shakespeare’s plays, (in particular ‘Romeo and Juliet’). A story is brought into being which is not a true story of Shakespeare’s life, but which is fun because it plays with the facts and links them together through the idea of love, in life and on stage and screen. (CLICK HERE)Tom Stoppard says of the film:
“As with all fiction involving historical characters the story is taking place in a parallel world. One is making a fairy tale out of the life of a genius who lived. It’s rather helpful to the people who are telling the story that so little is known about William Shakespeare because it means that you can use quite a lot without contradicting other things that might have been known about him. So this fiction which exists in the parallel world of the filmmaker’s imagination coalesces with the historical Shakespeare without contradicting him.”
William Shakespeare came to London sometime after 1585. The first reference of him is in a pamphlet written by the playwright Robert Greene in 1592 and called ‘Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit’. In this pamphlet Greene wrote:
“...for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Player’s hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you and being as absolute Johannes factotum is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in the country...”
During Elizabeth’s reign the population of London doubled due to the influx of people dispossessed of their land by the enclosure system and forced to seek a living in the city. Religious refugees from France and the Netherlands also thronged to London. The City was crammed north of the Thames river inside a wall of rough stone and tile capped by brick and stone battlements which ran in a semi-circle from Fleet ditch in the west to the Tower in the east. The wall was broken by seven gates and on the south side the only entrance was across the Thames by London Bridge above the archway of which hung heads of traitors stuck on poles by way of a warning to incomers.
London was a city of contrast with hundreds of gabled houses, merchants’ mansions and walled gardens and beautiful churches, while the poor of London crowded into slum tenements made from timber, mud and plaster and built on any available space. In back alleys, the projecting upper stories blocked out sunlight. Rubbish and excrement from the many markets in London clogged the channels in the street and ravens hovered about slaughter houses. The town ditch outside the walls was a source of infection with the black rat multiplying and spreading the plague-carrying flea. The many parishes of London were run by vestry holders who performed many roles including churchwardens, constables and surveyors while the city itself was governed by the Lord Mayor and Common Council.
The City as distinct from the court at Westminster was secular, commercial and industrious. It was organized into twenty-six wards with their aldermen selected by the Livery Companies. The Organization of Guilds and City Companies was very strong and the Lord Mayor was selected from one of the twelve major companies in turn.
While Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers loved watching plays and were patrons of the playing companies, the City Fathers disapproved both on the grounds that they encouraged working people to idleness and taking time off from their work, that they gave rise to immoral behavior and particularly influenced women! Moreover since thousands of people gathered together in a small space the Council considered the playhouses to be unhealthy places which spread the plague. It was therefore forbidden for plays to be performed within the city precincts and so the playhouses developed outside the city walls in the suburbs which were expanding rapidly, particularly along Bishopsgate to Shoreditch and south of the river Thames in Southwark.
Much of the action of the film takes place in the Rose theatre. Historical excavations and research into documents of the period have helped our understanding of Elizabethan Theatre.
In 1576, James Burbage a leading member of a prominent troupe of players, the Earl of Leicester’s Men borrowed capital from his brother-in-law, the grocer John Brayne to build the first permanent playhouse at Shoreditch. He called it The Theatre. The following year The Curtain playhouse came into being close by in Shoreditch (now known as the East End). James Burbage was the father of Cuthbert and Richard Burbage. Ten years later Philip Henslowe built The Rose playhouse across the river in Bankside which was already established as a place for entertainment with its bear-baiting pits, brothels, bull-fighting arenas and inns.
Philip Henslowe, a famous theatre manager of the time, left a diary from which we have learnt much about the organization of theatre companies, the props they used, the plays performed and the playwrights who wrote for them in addition to the construction of the theatre itself. For example we know from Henslowe’s diary that the Rose was built with a timber frame and sat on brick foundations.
In 1989 Imry Merchant Developers began building in the area in which the Rose was built and the remains of the Rose theatre were discovered. These remains revealed two phases of the theatre’s construction, the original building in 1587 and a second phase of reconstruction which is also suggested in Philip Henslowe’s diary when he speaks of “such charges as I have layd owt abowte my play howsse”.
The Rose held sixteen hundred people and was full on most days on which it was open. We know from sources such as these, that these early playing companies were co-operatives where some of the actors were sharers in the company which meant that they collected payments, planned the repertoire, hired other actors, organized backstage activities, ordered props and costumes, employed musicians, supervisors and storekeepers and commissioned and purchased new plays.
The main company usually consisted of a handful of regular players with boy apprentices who played all the female roles and journeymen players who were employed for particular pieces. In England it was forbidden for women to appear on the stage on grounds of immorality.
The person who controlled the performances of plays on behalf of the government was the Master of Revels. In the 1590s this was a man called Edmund Tilney. Playhouses could be closed for many reasons, among them outbreaks of the plague, sedition and immorality which would certainly have included women appearing on stage.
Women did however attend the theater although this was not formally approved. In fact, every level of society went to the plays including apprentices, law students, craftsmen, pickpockets, ballad sellers, merchants and nobility. It cost one penny to stand in the yard of the playhouse and a further penny for a seat in one of the covered galleries. A cushion to make watching the play more comfortable cost a further penny and a seat in the lords’ room cost approximately sixpence.
Here are the last nine frames above strung together
The film deals with Shakespeare’s life as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare acted with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men which subsequently became The King’s Men for about nineteen years, but it is through his genius as a playwright that we know of him.
Although the play scripts were among the theater companies’ most valuable assets, playwrights did not earn a great deal unless they were also sharers in a company. In order to become a sharer it was necessary to actually buy a share in the company. Philip Henslowe employed a number of ‘poets’ as they were still called then, to write for the company of The Lord Admiral’s Men but they were not sharers.
This company performed plays by Christopher Marlowe and possibly Shakespeare. Other important playwrights of the period include John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, John Webster and Thomas Nashe.
Two companies of players became more important than any others in the 1590s. These were The Lord Admiral’s Men run by Philip Henslowe, the chief actor of which was Edward Alleyn and later the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, of which the Burbage brothers Cuthbert and Richard, and Shakespeare were sharers. Richard Burbage was the chief tragedian of this company and played parts such as Richard III, King Lear, and Hamlet. There was great rivalry between the playing companies but also collaboration.
Generally speaking, the situation in Elizabethan society was that marriages were arranged. Decisions about marriage were made, among those who owned property, collectively by family and kin. Many factors affected these decisions including political patronage and accumulation of wealth. Property and power were the main factors which influenced negotiations for marriage.
The third very important factor which governed marriage and family structure from the sixteenth century and indeed until the nineteenth century was the dowry system which was, more or less, a financial transaction. In England brides were not usually able to provide property in the form of land. (Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was unusual in that her father had left her a house and land in his will - i.e. the house near Stratford called Mary Arden’s House.)
Since the bride could not normally provide land she was expected to bring to the marriage a dowry in the form of a substantial cash sum. This was called a ‘portion’ and went directly to the father of the groom. In return, the father of the groom guaranteed the bride a yearly payment or annuity, called a ‘jointure’ if she survived her husband as a widow. Under this system, daughters were often seen as a drain on family finances although they were also thought useful for making political connections and were often judged on their potential for breeding healthy children.
In high society the patronage of royalty was, of course, highly valued and the Queen’s approval to a marriage had to be sought and given. Honor was also important to men and an honorable reputation was gained through such things as military glory, achievement, keeping good faith with people, good background and good marriage conditions. An honorable reputation was sufficiently important for people to fight duels over. A man’s reputation could be affected by the reputation of the woman to whom he was betrothed or married. A future bride was supposed to be a virgin and a wife to be faithful.
The Sermon of the State of Matrimony from the Elizabethan Church Book of Homilies said “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the church.”
In fact many religious moralists of the time opposed arranged marriages on the grounds that they could be used to encourage parents’ covetousness and could lead not only to misery, but also to adultery and crime.
Of course human behavior was not always in line with the rules set out. William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in November 1582 and their first child Susanna was born in May 1583. (Anne Hathaway’s cottage mentioned in the film was her family home and not her own property.)
The poets and dramatists of the period frequently wrote of more romantic love. Shakespeare wrote a sequence of sonnets about love and his plays often show us the difficulties of trying to balance the aspects of love, marriage and society’s expectations.
Queen Elizabeth I was known as the Virgin Queen but there has always been discussion over her relationship with her ‘favorites’ at court. One of these was the Earl of Essex - Robert Devereux. We will probably never know the true facts.
‘Shakespeare in Love’ links the many aspects of the film through the idea of love in life and on stage. In the film Queen Elizabeth played by Dame Judi Dench sums up the question when she asks:
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