10 – Shakespeare plays were the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters at the time
“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”
Hamlet in Hamlet
The theatre in Tudor England was truly the most popular form of mass entertainment – well, unless you include public executions – and was the predominant form of popular culture in London at the time. The players were far from the stuffy, received pronunciation thesps that we associate with actors today, the facilities were often ramshackle and over-filled and the plays were meant for the widest possible consumption – if they weren’t audience-friendly, then they wouldn’t make any money and the playwright would soon find themselves out of a job. The theatre was far more akin to a soap opera or a Hollywood blockbuster than it was to any Shakespeare performed today.
A large part of this revolved around the working life of the writer. If your play was rubbish and nobody went to see it, then it was very unlikely that you’d get a second crack at being a writer: you’d as soon end up back on the street, doing whatever it was that you did beforehand. If the play was successful, then writers would get a second play commissioned, or better still, have the same play go to a wider audience, or a repeat run, or even, if it was really, really successful, be printed as a folio that people could buy and read for themselves (if they had the cash, of course, and if they could read).
That we have heard of Shakespeare at all is a testament to just how successful he was as a playwright in his own lifetime. He was wealthy, his plays were regularly performed and his scripts made it into print, with the First Folio – published in 1623, within a decade of Shakespeare’s death, being the principal source of all of his plays that we know today. One of the major ways in which he became so successful was because his work was accessible and told stories that people had heard before. Yep, the current trend for reboots, franchises and sequels is not a new thing in the world and Shakespeare was just as guilty of cashing in as anyone else. He did King John, the Richard II, then Henry IV, Part 1, then Part 2, then Henry V, then Henry VI (parts 1, 2 and 3), then back to Richard III and then Edward III. They were the Marvel Cinematic Universe of their time.
The target of the plays was the Groundlings of the Hamlet quote above. They were the poorest section of the audience, who paid a penny to see the shows, and provided the bulk of the cash that came in for any performance. Thus, it behoved a writer to write for their tastes and their level of knowledge. When you factor in the level of state censorship at the time – which was very strict – then writing plays that were “historical” in a way that glorified the current Royal Family and demonised the bad guys (who were invariably Catholic or foreign or both). Thus, the Henry Plays showed the ruling Tudors in a good light, while also generally depicting the current times – post-Catholic, post-Mediaeval – as being far better than those that had preceded the Tudor accession to the throne around a century before.
Shakespeare also regularly recycled old plays with which his audience would have been familiar. Romeo and Juliet, for example, was a story as old as time – though most would have known it as Tristan and Isolde – and many of the tragedies referred back to Greek myths, which any educated person would have learned by rote in school and about which the audience would have known. In fact, a book published in early 2018 showed that Shakespeare regularly plagiarized texts, which software used to test college students work against others finding that aspects of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear all appeared in an unpublished book called “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, by a diplomat named George North, which was initially written in 1576. Shakespeare used a translation of Plutarch’s Lives as a guideline for all of his plays set in Ancient Rome, a translation written by one Thomas North, a likely relative of George North’s.