Today is the 446th anniversary of the date traditionally assigned to Shakespeare’s birth. It is also the 396th anniversary of his death, but people being what they are, we tend to look upon the birthday rather than the deathday aspect of the matter, thus, perhaps, play some lip service to the long acclaimed notion of the ever-living, immortal bard.
But why do I speak of Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, and his life and death, when many believe that he did not, could not, in any way, shape or form, write the plays and poems we today refer to as ‘Shakespeare’?
The question has been pondered for some time, and arguments and counterarguments have popped up over the years, as each objection was met with a response, and each response met with a further objection, and so on, until we had the literary equivalent of the Kennedy assassination: for, as the ‘experts’ in book, magazine, film and television have made abundantly clear, Oswald could not possibly have done it, and neither could anyone else. And so it is too when it comes to debating the authorship of the plays.
But the objections and the counterarguments all share a similar assumption: both look at the plays as books to be read and studied, looked at in terms of language, diction and style, themes, tropes and such readerly concerns, as opposed to plays which are to be performed. It is a rather large oversight, since the author of the plays, shall we say for the moment, avoiding all names, I say, the author of the plays, with only one exception, avoided publishing his plays, and refused to turn his plays into books, preferring, for monetary reasons, to keep them as plays. And while apparently the authorship of the plays is a somewhat open question at the moment, we do know for a fact who performed the plays, and we have a fairly good idea of when. So I propose a way to examine this question is not to look to the plays as books, but look to the plays as plays, and examine briefly the men who performed them first: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who later became The King’s Men.
The influence of the company of actors on a play may be seen in a famous manuscript play from the period called Thomas More. The manuscript has parts written in several different hands, as pages seem to have been removed and rewritten. It is the various hands that has made this manuscript so famous among scholars today, for one of the hands bears a very strong resemblance to the hand that wrote the six most famous signatures in English today: Shakespeare. Let us treat that as a coincidence for the moment. It is not important at this time. What is important is that the history of the manuscript and the different hands has been pieced together thusly: The play was written for one company, but over time the company changed: new actors arrived, old actors left, the company had more actors, the company had less. The play became unplayable in its old form for the new company and new parts had to be written in or adapted to meet the needs and the abilities of the new members and the new company. In short, the play was written and then rewritten for because of the actors- because of a specific group of actors.. Let’s stay with this point for a little bit.
Looking at the plays in this way, in terms of the actors for whom they were written, we begin to see the author as someone doing the best with what he had, rather than simply pursuing his own muse free from more worldly concerns. Take, for example,, one of my old professors, who told us that the use of twins in plays like Twelfth Night of Comedy of Errors performed a symbolic function, for the Elizabethans felt that identical twins represent two halves of a greater whole, and their coming together at the end of the play symbolizes completeness.
To which I say: Yes, very nice. I am sure it did represent some such thing. However, the playwright could have written about twins coming together as much as he liked, but if he didn’t have twins in the company, or at least two men who looked enough alike to pull it off, the plays would have sat on the shelf, useless, collecting dust rather than money, and the acting companies of the time were all about making money. The playwright would have wasted his time in writing those plays if the company could not perform it.
Here’s an interesting little fact showing a relationship between plays and actors: of all the plays extant from the period, those which may be regarded as what we today call a 'star vehicle', those plays which are dominated by one role, and by dominated I mean the plays have one role of five hundred lines or more, over ninety per cent of those star rolls can be tied to one of two actors: Richard Burbage, and Ned Allen. Burbage was the actor most closely connected to the plays we are examining, and he is known to have been the first Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and such. He was regarded as one of the greatest actors of the age. He appears to have been, to put it mildly, a ham The connection between him and Allen and these ‘star roles’ implies that these roles were written for these actors, to showcase their talents, and as both these men were the leaders of the their companies, it is also plausible and perhaps likely that these roles may have been written or at least made so large at the request of the actors themselves.
As a further indication of how these roles were tied to the actors, we can see in the plays as they are currently dated a progression in the age of the main character. Is this because the writer was getting older, and thus more sympathetic to and concerned with the issues of age? Or is it because the lead actor was getting older, and can no longer play Romeo, but instead must play a Lear or Prospero instead? Perhaps both?
There is also the question of Shakespeare's clown characters. They often seem to fall into one of two categories: Rather morose, and rather wise fools. Does the difference follow some dramatic need, or an expression of some universal human truth, or is it on account of a change in the troupes, with an actor who specializes in one form of comedy being replaced by someone who specializes in another? Critic Edward Malone has claimed that the arrival of John Heminges, an actor who specialized in playing fat, funny drunks, to Burbage's troupe lead to the creation of one of the plays' most memorable figures: Sir John Falstaff. As evidence that an actor who specialized in playing the popular fat drunks continued with the troupe, another very similar role, Sir Toby Belch, appears in Twelfth Night.
We have before us what seems to me a tantalizing question: What part, if any, did the actors take in writing their own roles? In all honesty, I cannot answer that question. There is the issue of what are called “the O groans”, which occur at the end of some of the early versions of Hamlet. Hamlet’s last words are most commonly rendered as “The rest is silence”, but one early version of the play has it thus: “The rest is silence. O!O!O!O!O!” The belief is that Burbage, who seemed to have a fondness for protracted death scenes, put the groans in himself, but there is no way of knowing for certain if it was Burbage or the author. It seems that the actors may have had a hand in creating their roles, but how much I cannot say. I can tell you that John Heminges did play for other troupes under other writers, but only one created Sir John Falstaff for him. I can say other writers wrote for Burbage, but none of them created a Hamlet for him. The evidence indicates that we are looking for a gifted writer who had close ties to the troupe, who worked with them consistently and closely enough to know their strengths and their weaknesses thoroughly.
So, who wrote the plays?
There are those who claim the writer of the plays was a nobleman. If I am correct in my belief that the writer of the plays must have known the actors and worked intimately with the actors, and even wrote enlarged roles at the request of an actor, then I would have to say that a noble author seems unlikely to me. Players in the period were considered to be servants and vagabonds, and could be thrown in jail if the did not have a patron. It is unlikely a nobleman would have worked as closely and for as long as these plays would have required. He would have considered it beneath him, and could have caused a scandal for working so closely with another man's servants, as the players were. He would not have increased a role to suit the vanity of a lead actor.
The alternative to this is a writer within the troupe itself. The familiarity the author of the plays shows for his company and his theatre indicate strongly, in my opinion, someone who was connected to the theatre and the actors, close enough to allow the possibility of the actors adding to and embellishing their roles. Do we have any evidence that there was someone in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, who wrote? As it turns out, we do.
He went by the name of William Shakespeare.