Drama in Shakespeare's England tJA,wU.


During Shakespeare's lifetime, drama developed faster than ever before. In London, playgoing became a large-scale business. With SOHle theatres holding two or three thousand people, there were huge profits to be made, and new material was

" always needed. Drama was not seen as "literature", but merely as popular entertainment, "in the same way as Hollywood films or television sitcoms and soap operas are now.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637), one of the greatest playwrights

of Shakespeare's era.

A scene from the £'ll1l0US play Volpone by Ben Jonson.

Dramatic developments

When Shakespeare was young,

he could have watched, or even taken part in, several different kinds of drama. Some towns still followed the medieval tradition of putting on a series of "mystery plays" every summer. These told Bible stories and were performed by the townspeople. Plays were also performed by schoolboys and university students. These plays were often in Latin.

What kind of plays?

During Shakespeare's <;:areer, fashions and tastes in drama changed. Shakespeare himself wrote mostly comedies and history plays during the 'Elizabethan period (1558-1603), and tragedies and tragicomedies during the reign of King James (1603-1625).

Tragedy ends in the death

of one or 1I1Ore of the main characters. In a revenge tragedy such as Titus Andronicus, one murder sets off a chain of revenge killings. Most of Shakespeare's tragedies involve historical individuals and events.

Comedy usually has a happy ending, and can also include jokes, farce and innuendo. Shakespeare's comedies are usually love stories, set far away from England.

Faustus, from the tide page of an edition of Dr Faustus by Christopher .Marlowe,

There were also touring companies of actors who visited towns

and staged morality plays, dealing with human sin and virtue. They also put on other entertainments such as juggling shows.

Tragicomedy is a mixture of comedy and tragedy. The play seems to move towards

a tragic ending, but a twist in the plot saves the characters. Shakespeare's romance plays

(see page 26), such as The !if/inte,.'s Tale, are examples

of tragicomedy.

The maj or growth of theatre in London probably began In the late 1580s. The first purpose-built theatre had opened there in 1576. Tamburlaine (1587) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was typical of the new style of drama, telling the St01Y of a powerful conqueror, and The Spanish Tragedy (c.1588) by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) started a trend for revenge tragedies. At this time, a few individual actors became velY famous, like film stars today. For . example, Edward Alleyn was so popular as Tamburlaine that Marlowe wrote a sequel for him.

Satirical comedies, such as The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), attack ideas or individuals by laughing at

them. They are similar to ~

comedies, but have a more

"cynical tone. V'.

History plays usually tell th~ :-\

stories of great.leaders and kings. In his history plays, Shakespeare sometimes altered what he found in the history books to suit his own dramatic purposes and make the plays more exciting.

Juliet Stevenson in The Duchess if IVla!fi, a tragedy by John Webster. Most of the characters in this play die in a gory bloodbath.

The actors are at hand and by their show You shall know all that you are like to know.Ai

A Midsummer Night'S Dream, V.i.116-117

2==========1 Go to www.usborne-quicklinks.colTI for links to websites where you can 'read more about drama in Shakespeare's time and see if you could survive as a playwright.

Plays, plots andpoetry

Although there was a great variety of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, most playwrights followed a

few basic methods, or conventions. Playwrights didn't

.. often make up new plots: they used traditional tales

or borrowed ideas from other books. Shakespeare often took two old stories and combined them to make a new one, as in The Merchant oj Venio: (see page 23). Many plays were set in other countries and in times gone by.

Alan Howard as Macbeth. The panic in his face is emphasized by the loosely structured blank verse he speaks (see below).

Plays were written in poetry-or prose, or a mixture

of both. Playwrights mainly used a kind Of unrhymed poetry called blank verse. This uses a type of verse line called an iambic pentameter, made up of five units called iambic feet. An iambic foot has two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one.

This line from l'vlacbeth is a perfect iambic pentameter. The marks show the stressed syllables.

Sh~kespeare often broke the rules and wrote lines with a slightly differen; pattern of stresses. This varied the speeches so that they didn't sound boring. The lines below have varied stresses, which brings them closer to real speech. Try saying them out loud.






So fair and foul a day I have not seen

I I I Maibeth, I.iii.36

One iambic foot

Is this a dagger which I see before me.

The handle towards my hand? Come. let me clutch thee.

Macbeth, II.i.33-4

The changing texts

Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed, not printed as books. When they were printed, they weren't always exactly the same as the original version. These are the different stages between Shakespeare's handwritten manuscripts and the texts we have today.

Foul papers

Writers' original manuscripts are called "foul papers" because they contain crossings-out and can be hard to read. None of Shakespeare's foul papers has survived, but three pages of a play called Sir Thomas More, written jointly by several authors, are thought to be in his handwriting.

A scribe

Fair copies A specially employed scribe wrote out "fair copies" for rehearsals. The text often got changed by the actors during rehearsals.

Quartos Eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed as small books, or quartos, while he was alive, but he probably didn't check them. Some quartos were based on what actors could remember of their lines.

The First Folio

36 of the plays were collected and published in 1623, in a book now called the First Folio. Shakespeare had died

seven years earlier, so he ,,'

couldn't check the text. /;><i .... ..

A page from the First Folio ','


16th and 17th 'century printers did their typesetting by hand.

They often made mistakes, and sometimes even changed the text to make it fit on the pages.


A 16thcentury printing


Modern editions Most modern editions are based on the First Folio. But experts still argue over what exactly Shakespeare wrote, and they sometimes try to change passages in the text to what they might have been originally.


Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, is crowned queen.


William. Shakespeare isborn in Stratfordupon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.


Richard Burbage is born. He will become one of the greatest tragic actors of his age and will eventually portray Hamlet, Lear, and Othello in Shakespeare's productions.

Shakespeare is married to a local farmer's daughter~Anne Hathaway.


Shakespeare's first child., his daughter Susanna, is born. The Queen's Company, an acting troupe, is founded.


Shakespeare's wife gives birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet.


Shakespeare leaves his family inStratford-upon-Avon to establish himself in London as an actor and playwright.

Shakespeare's father dies.

Elizabeth I dies and James VI of Scotland becomes James I

of England. The plague sweeps through London once again. The Lord Chamberlain's Men become the King's Men, who are soon the favorite acting company at the royal court.


The Englishnaval fleet, headedbyLord Howard

of Effingham, defeats the Enzlish fleet

invading Spanish Armada b.,

of nearly 150 ships, ~ent by Philip II, King of Spain. The English are helped by fierce storms that scatter and sink the Spanish ships. 11usw;as orie of.the most dramatic episodesin pI}glanc]) bitter war with; Spau,;,wl}ichlastedJrom 1585. to 1604.


Shakespeare begins' to court the patronage of the royal family and dedicates his poem. Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Henry is possibly

the young man addressed in Shakespeare's Sonnets, which Shakespeare is believed to have started writing around this time. Henry dies in 1593.


The sonnets are published,


Gunpowder plot to kill King James.


Shakespeare's daughter Susanna marries Dr.John ~<l.ll.


The King's Men begin

to play at Blackfriars, Shakespeare's: mother dies.


The plague sweeps through London, leading to the closure of many of the city's playhouses for the next two years.\;;:,,,.


During the next

"Jew years, Shakespeare gradually retires from London and moves back to Stratford-upon-Avon.

: Although he buys a house in Blackfriars in 1613, he does not spend much time there.


Shakespeare becomes a founding member of the acting group the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The company performs at the Theatre, north London. Shakespeare both acts

with and writes for the troupe. Over

: the next two years, he begins togain,

recognition as the leading . '.

playwright in London.


The Globe is burned down

when the thatched roof catches fire.


Shakespeare's son, Hamner, dies at the age of 11: John Shakespeare, Shakespeare's father, reapplies successfully for a family

coat of arms.


Shakespeare's daughter Judith

marries Thomas Quiney.

Shakespeare becomes ill and revises Ius will. A month later, on April 23, he dies and is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.


Shakespeare purchases

the New Place residence

in Stratford-upon-Avon,

It is around this time that Shakespeare begins to reach artistic maturity.

Shakespeare's First Folio is published by his fellow actors. It contains 36 of the

playwright's dramas.


The Globe theater is built in

-- 7Bankside, London, from- .. the timbers of the old Theatre. As a shareholder, Shakespeare gets about

.. )0 percent of the profits:

Shakespeare memorial in Hyde Park, London



Henry VI, part 1 (c. 1589-92) -;,Henry VI, part 2 (c. 1589-92) Henry VI, part 3 (c. 1589-92) Ric/,ard III (1592)

Ric/zard II (1595) •

King John (1596)

Henn) Iv, part 1 (1597)

Henry IV, 'part 2 (1598)

Hellry V (1599)

Helln) VIII (1613)


Titlls Androlliclls (1592-93) Romeo alld Juliet (1595) Julius Caesar (1599) Hamlet (1601)

n'oilus alld Cressida (1602) Othello (1604)

King Lear (1605)

Macbeth (1605)

Antony and Cleopatra (1606) Timon of Athens (1606) Calia/anus (1608)


The Comedy of Errors (1590) The Taming of the 5h",0 (1591) Love's Labour's Lost (1593)

Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593)

The opening scene of The Tempest is a mighty shipwreck caused by Prospera the sorcerer.

A Midsummer Night's D"eam (1594) The Merchant of Venice (1596) The Mem) Wives of Windsor (1597) As You Like It (1599) . Much Ado AbouLNotlling (1599) Twelfth Night (1600)


Lines from Shakespeare's plays are still quoted today. -Here are some of his most memorable, which you may

find relevant to your own life.

HUMAN NATURE Our doubts are traitors,

and make us lose the good we might win 'by fearing to attempt

- Lucio (Measure for Measure, Act i, scene 5)

In nature there's no blemish but the mind; none can be called deform'd but the unkind - Antonio (Twelfth Night, Act iii, scene 4)

Wisely and slow; they stumble who run fast - Friar Laurence

(Romeo and Juliet, Act ii, scene 3)

Have more than thou showest: speak less than thou know est; lend less than thou owest

- Fool (King Leal', Act i, scene 4)


I am not of that feather, to shake off my friend when he must need me

- Timon (Timon of Athens, Act i, scene 1)

They-that thrive well take counsel of their friends

(Venus and Adonis)

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none - Countess Rossillion

(All's Well That Ends Well, Act i, scene 1)


To be, or not to be: that is the question - Hamlet (Hamlet, Act ill, scene 1)

All the world's a stage; and all the men and women merely players

- Jaques (As You Like It, Act ii, scene 7)

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

- Hamlet (Hamlet, Act ii, scene 2)

The web of our life is of a mingled yam, good and ill together - First Lord . (All's Well That Ends Well, Act iv, scene 3)


All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity

- Hamlet (Hamlet, Act i, scene 2)


The course of true love never did run smooth - Lysander

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act i, scene 1)

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain (Venus and Adonis)

Love sought is good, but given unsought is better

- Olivia (Twelfth Night, Act iii, scene I)


If music be the food of lo-ve,phiy'on - Duke Orsino

(Twelfth Night, Act i, scene 1)


To thine own self be true; and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cannot then

be false to any man

- Polonius (Hamlet, Act i, scene 3)

It's not enough to speak, butto speak true - Lysander

(Midsummer Night's Dream, Act v, scene 1)


Come what come may; time and the hour runs through the roughest day - Macbeth (Macbeth, Act i, scene 3)


Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones

- MarcAntony (Julius Caesar, Act iii, scene 2)


Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble

- Three witches (Macbeth, Act iv, scene 1)

i 1

Book publishing

By THE TIME Shakespeare was writing, all kinds of books were being mass-produced in print shops all over Europe; but he had little interest in seeing his plays in print. They were written to be performed and could reach a far larger audience at the Globe than they would as books. Shakespeare's plays belonged to his company, and about half of them were published during his lifetime as little books called quartos. They were published when their performing days were over, or when the company needed to raise money.

It was not until seven years after his death that some fellow actors published Shakespeare's plays in a single volume which is known as the First Folio.

17th-century image of a compositor laying out letters for


HARD PRESSED The printing process in Shakespeare's day was long and slow, and required the input of several people.

A pressman called a compositor laid metal letters in a frame called a chase. This was placed on the "coffin," where a pressman inked the letters with a leather ball. Another pressman placed the paper on a frame called a tympan, and lowered it on to the

coffin. He then slid the coffin under a printing plate called a platen, and pulled the bar to lower the platen, pressing the paper onto the inky letters .

. 'Midi()rtl1n~rt~j~k)~~;!l

" . dreame,' ,'·,:d , A'il~ l'Atl~l)@en'~ -fujlilry"ti,~a!p~b//~l IIk.!J nfl,d, ItY Ih, '11.I;:/IIFJ","",. ?~j blt',th~l.ordChHmutll'lfthll!hlt_. '.'''';,.1

'. Jtru'I~II. ,- . ,,-,'::1

"JlflU~n~~ ~P~/MJ~!'d~.~Jedlt,. /. ;~i


In 1623, Henry Condell and John Heminges published 36 of Shakespeare's plays in the leather-bound First Folio. A folio, from the Latin word for leaf, is

a large book with pages made up of standard sheets, or leaves, of paper folded in half. Hemminges and

Con dell wrote that their aim was "only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend, and fellow' alive, as was

our Shakespeare."

Heavy platen,

at printing plate

Sturdy woodell [rame

Hand press

. -:ii


SIXPENNY QUARTO This edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream was printed in 1600 by James Roberts, one of 21 printers in London at the time. Each copy was sold for six pennies - six times the cost of seeing the play on stage. The name quarto, meaning fourth, comes from the fact that four pages were printed at once, on each side of a single sheet. This was folded twice and cut to make eight pages of text.



These are just a few of the choices which have to be made by any editor of Shakespeare today:


Enter J{,W)/(t.

Ham. !o bc,or not to l:c, rlut is the ~d1ic Whether tis Nobler in the mindc to futfcr

The ')lings and Arrov~es of outragiolls Fortune, Or to rake ArfTlcs:;gainft a Sea oftroubles, And by ol'po{ing end them: to dye,to [lerp e No more; and by a Ilccpc. to by we end

The Hcart-ake, and the rhouland Natural! D10d That Flefh is heyre too? 'Tis a conlumrnatron Dcuoutly to be wtfh'd. To dye to Ilcepe,

To f'.eepc, perchance to Dreame ; I, there's the r

The Editor's Choice

. We often take tHe accttracy and autbenticity of tbe printed word for granted. But to do this witb Sbakespeare's work is unwise; we cannot assume tbat an edition we read or study or use for pe1iormance is just as Shakespeare wrote it. Each line of Shakespeare presents an editor with a dozen choices, and his decisions can significantly affect the final result.

1) Which one of the three early editions should serve as a basis for our edition? If the choice is neither of the quartos but the 1623 folio, it looks like this:

2) Having chosen our source, should the font and spelling be modernised to make it easier to read? It may then look like this:


To be, or not to be, that is the Question; Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer

The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune Or to take Arms ag~inst a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep No more ...

In the exhibition visitors can edit their own versions. of a scene from Hamlet. They can ask the same questions and make the same choices as any modern editor.

For example, compare the simple Exeunt. Enter Hamlet.

3) Shakespeare rarely used stage directions and never made act or scene divisions, but if this is an edition for actors or scholars, they could be useful. Choosing what to put as a stage direction can suggest very different ideas.

with the more evocative

Claudius and Polonius hide behind the arras. Enter Hamlet, deep in contemplation.

4) Finally, changing the punctuation can completely alter the sense and rhythm of a phrase; compare this

with the original punctuation

to die, to sleep

No more; and by a sleep, to say we end

Tbe heart-ache, and tbe tbottsand Natura] shocks . That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,

To steep, perchmlce to Dream, aye, there's the rub, .. ,

To die, to sleep - No more - and by a sleepto say we end

The heartacbe, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, 'Tis a consummation DevOlltly to be wished. To die, to sleep -

To sleep - perchance to dream. Aye, there's the l'ub.


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