Drama I: Shakespeare

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Received Notions on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Period

  • In the second half of her forty-five year reign (1558-1603) Elizabeth I., managed to establish stable power structures.
  • After the defeat of the Armada (1588) England was established as a European power.
  • There also occurred an unprecedented flourishing in
  • poetry (Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser)

drama (William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe) and philosophy (Sir Francis Bacon)

  • The change of monarch (James I., 1603-1625) brought a new quality to poetic and dramatic production. In the reign of Elizabeth it had been comparatively ‘happy’ and ‘playful’. After 1603 there was a decisive shift towards darkness and horror.
  • Shakespeare’s work is positioned at the threshold to modernity.
The “Elizabethan World Picture” (cf. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, 1943) – an idea of order that was still basically medieval:
A “Great Chain of Being” linked everything from stones, plants, animals humans, to angels and God. For details cf. Royal Shakespeare Company on Chain of Being
But the Elizabethan world picture was gradually losing its credibility – the new cosmology (astronomy, Kopernikus)
Shakespeare is positioned at the point where cracks begin to show in the Elizabethan World Picture.

Whatever it is, Shakespeare does it best.

The received notions on King Lear reflect this:

  • Shakespeare’s best play
  • A play reflecting the darkness and horror of new Jacobean tragedy.
  • A play about the disturbance of the notion of order as defined in the great chain of being.
  • A play foreshadowing what Lukacs will call the "transcendental homelessness" of modern society:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (Gloucester in King Lear)

At least since the 1980s, Shakespeare research has called these received notions into question. Shakespeare reception and Shakespeare studies have themselves become an object of historical investigation.

Shakespeare studies has started to analyse what has become known as the "Shakespeare Industry" Research on King Lear has pioneered a new departure in Shakespeare editing.

Introductory Reflections on Shakespeare, Literature, Fiction and Drama

Fiction vs. Drama: Separate Histories

  • Fiction is a phenomenon of the book market. It is correlated with a relatively anonymous print culture, with mass production and individual consumption.
  • The theatre is a social phenomenon. Any performance gives a structure to space and distributes roles: not only among the actors but also for the audience.

Theatre in London 1599
Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment. The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them then for sale for a small sum to the actors.
Thomas Platter, Diary (1599). [source: Norton Anthology Webpage]

  • A theatre creates a space where role playing is to be expected. It creates a safe area for imitative role playing.
The theatres in which Shakespeare's plays were performed occupied a particular place in the city. They had a particular spatial and social structure. They had specific conditions of performance (e.g.: a stage surrounded by the audience, no stage settings, contemporary costumes, very few props, no female actresses - women's roles were played by boys).

View of London at Shakespeare's time [[1]]
View of the Globe theatre: http://www.uni-oldenburg.de/anglistik/lit-wiss/intro-to-literature/2006-12-05/1600_globe_cutaway.html

  • The role of stage censorship. Censorship of print publications ends in 1694. Censorship of the stage is introduced in 1737 and lasts until 1968

  • The theatre is a space subject to outside interventions by the authorities or by the population (censorship, closure of the theatres from 1642-1660) (There will be more on the institutional history of the theatre in England next week.)

Shakespeare and Literature

Shakespeare did not produce 'literature'. His plays were to become a supremely important part of 'literature' in the course of the redefinition of literature in the eighteenth century.

In the eyes of his contemporaries, the plays produced by Shakespeare and many of his contemporary dramatists flourished at the same time as popular urban and as prestigious courtly entertainments.

In Macbeth at the Globe, 1610, the 20 of April, Saturday, there was to be observed, first, how Macbeth and Banquo, two noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth, saying three times unto him, "Hail, Macbeth, King of Codon; for thou shall be a King, but shall beget no kings," etc. Then said Banquo, "what all to Macbeth, and nothing to me?" "Yes", said the nymphs, "hail to thee, Banquo, thou shall beget kings, yet be no king"; and so they departed and came to the country of Scotland to Duncan, King of Scots and it was in the days of Edward the Confessor. And Duncan had them both kindly welcome, and made Macbeth forthwith Prince of Northumberland, and sent him home to his own castle, and appointed Macbeth to provide for him, for he would sup with him the next day at night, and did so.
And Macbeth contrived to kill Duncan and through the persuasion of his wife did that night murder the King in his own castle, being his guest; and there were many prodigies seen that night and the day before. And when Macbeth had murdered the king, the blood on his hands could not be washed off by any means, nor from his wives hands, which handed the bloody daggers in hiding them, which by means they became both much amazed and affronted. The murder being known, Duncan's two sons fled, the one to England, the other to Wales, to save themselves. They being fled, they were supposed guilty of the murder of their father, which was nothing so.
Then was Macbeth crowned kings; and then he, for fear of Banquo, his old companion, that he should beget kings but be no king himself, he contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on his way as he rode. The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had to bid to a feast, to the which also Banquo should have come, he began to speak of noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he did thus, standing up to drink a carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he, turning about to sit down again, saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they hard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth. Then MackDove fled to England to the kinges sonn, and soon they raised an army and cam to Scotland, and at Dunstonanse overthrue Macbeth. In the meantime, while MacDove was in England, Macbeth slew MackDove's wife and children, and after in the battle MackDove slewe Macbeth. Observe also how Macbeth's queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.
[Source: Dr. Simon Forman's Diary at http://shakespeare.about.com]

Shakespeare's status as an author

  • Shakespeare was mentioned and celebrated as the author of his plays (cf. title-page)
  • But during his lifetime no one was interested in his personality.
  • There were no manuscripts preserved.
  • There was no contemporary interest in personal records, diaries, letters, etc.
  • There were no literary reviews and periodicals, no theatre criticism.
  • The interest in Shakespeare's person and the criticism of his work was retrospective.

Publication vs. Performance

  • Plays were primarily written in order to be performed, not in order to be printed.
  • King Lear was registered at the Stationers' Company on 26 Nov 1607.

first performed "upon St. Stephen's night at Christmas last" and registered at the Stationers' Company on 26 Nov 1607. First Quarto in 1608.

  • Only about half of Shakespeares plays were published individually during his life-time (the Quarto editions).
  • The first edition of Shakespeare's Works (the Folio edition) was published in 1623, seven years after his death.

Example King Lear : A Survey of the Plot

Two Parallel and interlinked plots

  • King Lear and his Daughters: Regan, Goneril, Cordelia
  • The division of the kingdoms – King Lear tries to make arrangements for his succession and his old age

3 daughters, 3 suitors (rulers of Albany, Cornwall, France), 3 parts of the kingdom

  • Casting off Cordelia and staying with his 2 "good" daughters.
  • The two daughters prove unloving and undutiful.
  • Lear is cast out, accompanied only by the fool, homeless, abandoned to the weather (famous heath scene).
  • Cordelia comes to his aid with an army from France.
  • The French army is defeated, Cordelia is made a prisoner and killed. Lear cannot save her, enters the stage carrying her dead body, dies over her dead body.

  • The Gloster plot:
  • The Duke of Gloucester and his sons: Edgar (legitimate) and Edmund (illegitimate)
  • Edmund makes it appear that Edgar is plotting his father's death. Edgar has to flee and pretends to be a homeless madman.
  • Edmund accuses his father of treason. Goneril and Regan have Gloster tortured and blinded. Then they cast him out and Edmund becomes Duke.
  • Edgar, still disguised as a homeless madman, looks after his blind father without telling him who he really is.
  • Gloster wants to be led to the cliffs of Dover in order to commit suicide. Edgar takes him onto flat ground and makes him jump. Then takes on different identity and convinces him that he has actually jumped and survived.
  • Meanwhile Edmund has become a trusted follower of both Goneril and Regan who are jealous of each other over him and plan to kill their husbands in order to marry Edmund. When all is lost, goneril poisons Regan and stabs herself.
  • Edgar joins the field of battle (between Lears daughters) and fights and kills his brother and becomes the new Duke of Gloster.

  • A contemporary perspective might take its cue from the title page.
  • To later generations, this plot seemed too terrible and tragic.
  • In 1681, Nahum Tate produced a revised version with a happy ending: the criminal sisters are punished, Lear and Cordelia are saved, and Edgar ends up marrying Cordelia.
  • The play is generally "tidied up", the brutal blinding of Gloster is removed etc.
  • This version will be acted on the stage until 1838.
  • But stage versions are only part of the cultural presence of Shakespeare.

A Look at the Different Cultural Traditions about Shakespeare

The Tradition of Shakespeare performance and Acting editions

Nahum Tate's version and verieties of it hold the stage until the early 19c.

Early 19c: return to "originals": the original ending is restored on stage(1838), major concern with historically accurate costumes.


Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)


Edwin Forest as King Lear


King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911)


Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)


King Lear mourns Cordelia's death, James Barry, 1786-1788


1999, the RSC engaged in its first international collaboration, working with the Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa

20c Jan Kott: Shakespeare in our time. King Lear and Samuel Beckett's plays.

Received Idea: Each time makes its own Shakespeare

The interest in Shakespeare's person starts in the 18th century

  • 17c none
  • 18c legends, biographical notes accompany the works – Edward Malone finds documents – dark years (cf. still today, Greenblatt)
  • 19c first: constructing Shakespeare's character from his plays.
  • 19c Looking for alternative Shakespeares (Bacon etc.)
  • 20c Shakespearean biography = "the happy hunting-ground of unsettled minds" (Joyce, Ulysses). But there remains a continual interest in the elusive personality of Shakespears (was he a catholic? what happened during the 'lost years'?)

Some facts on Shakespeare’s Life: born in Stratford upon Avon in 1564, 1584-1590 "lost years"
Actor, Author, Shareholder for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-1603), The King’s Men (1603-1616)
Retires to Stratford in 1612, dies a wealthy man in 1616.

The Tradition of Shakespeare editing

  • 17c: 4 folios
  • 18c: rival editors, who produce editions of Shakespeare's works according to their own best judgment and taste:
Alexander POPE (1725)
Lewis Theobald (1733)
Thomas Hanmer (1744)
Thomas Warburton (1747)
Samuel Johnson (1765)

  • 1728_hogarth__rival_printers.png

  • 19c: philological efforts.
First half: 3 Variorum editions (recording all known variants and giving the various editors' arguments and textual explanations)
  • Steevens. 1803 1st Variorum, 1813 Second Variorum.
  • Edward Malone third Variorum (1821)
  • 1863-66 Cambridge Shakespeare, new editorial principle: only Folio and Quartos (which are divided into good, bad and doubtful)
  • The tradition of the conflated text.

  • From 1890s: First Arden edition, editions of single works.
  • Since the early 1980s: strong criticism of the "conflated texts"
  • (Randall McLeod, "Un Editing Shakespeare", Sub-Stance 33/34 (1982): 26-55.
  • Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds. The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two versions of King Lear. Oxford, 1983)
  • Gary Taylor, Inventing Shakespeare, Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch 1986: 26-44.

The Tradition of Shakespeare criticism

Cf. Brian Vickers, ed. Shakespeare : the critical heritage. 4 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974 - 1976.
  • 17c: very little
  • 18c: the editors' prefaces, later journals and magazines
  • 19c: great critics: S.T. Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt …
  • 20c: Shakespeare is the most written about English poet. Hundreds of new publications appear every year (scholarly shakiespeare industry)

The Shakespeare Industry

  • From 1760s: Shakespeare cult, birthplace, stratford.
  • 1807, reprinted frequently: Thomas Bowdler, The Family Shakespeare ("in which nothing is added to the original; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read in a family").
  • "Victorian bardolatry":
  • Permanent Shakespeare performances at Stratford.

Consequences: What to do with an Elizabethan or Jacobean play?

Locate contemporary editions (EEBO) and compare them to later printed editions (act and scene divisions, stage directions, asides, title-pages, the text itself).

Be aware of the problematic aspects in the construction of the period.

Be aware of the textual history of the edition that you are using

Be attentive to the signs for different contexts and uses which you may discern in each text.

Look at the tradition of interpretation and performance.

Look at characters, conflicts, information management,