Shakespeare differs from the other dramatists of his period not just because of the refinement of his intellect, but in possessing a simple humanity that he possessed which permeates nearly all of his plays. This is all the more remarkable because in all other worldly matters he was a typical bourgeois in his pursuit of financial matters and his quest for acquiring property and a coat of arms.
The conflict in his plays is invariably in the exertions of the human will. Man struggles against man and not against Fate, God or heredity. Shakespearean drama is drama of individual will. His characters bear the stamp of his own times. Being an actor and working in a district where a lot of poor people lived he acquired familiarity not only with the bohemian writers and the proletariat, but with rogues and whores as well.
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William Shakespeare left his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, at the age of 22, and next emerged in London six years later in 1592. No one has yet been able to trace where he spent the intervening six years or what he did for a living. The likeliest conjecture is that he joined a company of strolling players as an actor. He must have had some acting experience because he was able to find employment with one of London’s minor theatre companies. The outbreak of plague in that year closed all of London’s theatres for nearly two years. This was the time when he must have given serious thought of trying his hand at writing dramas.
After the epidemic of plague dwindled, a number of prominent actors who had belonged to different companies amalgamated to form a theatre company known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” — later, after the death of Queen Elizabeth, known as the “the King’s Men”. “Chamberlain’s Men” rapidly became the leading dramatic company of London. Shakespeare joined this company and remained with them for the rest of his career not only as an actor and their resident playwright, but as the administrator as well. They took over the “Curtain,” England’s first custom-built theatre. Later on they were housed in the Globe theatre as well as the Blackfriars theatre.
The ‘King’s Men’ had a long association with Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James I. They played at court more often than all the other theatre companies combined. It has been recorded that of all the plays presented at court between 1604 and 1605 seven of them were written by Shakespeare.
The theatre companies in Shakespeare’s time were organised by working member of the company. They were led by shareholders. Collectively, they owned the joint stock of play scripts, costumes and properties; they shared both expenses and profits as the ‘sharers’, (as they were called). Stanley Wells has given a graphic description of the working of the theatre:
“The success of the play in the Elizabethan theatre depended almost entirely on the actors. Only about two weeks could be allowed for rehearsal of a new play. The strain on the memory was great demanding a high degree of professionalism. Conditions of employment were carefully regulated. A contract of 1614 provides that an actor would be fined one shilling for failure to turn up at a rehearsal, two shillings for missing a rehearsal altogether, three shillings if he was not ‘ready apparalleled’ for a performance, ten shillings if four other members of the company considered him to be ‘overcome with drink’ at the time he should be acting.”
An average actor’s salary was no more than ten to twelve shillings a week. An Elizabethan shilling was equal to fifteen hundred rupees in today’s terms.
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Subordinate to the ‘sharers’ were the hired men, lesser actors, musicians, prompters, wardrobe keepers, costume-keepers and money-collectors called ‘gatherers’. Then there were apprentices, boys (who played the female parts) each serving a forced term of apprenticeship to one of the ‘sharers’. There were eight to twelve sharers in the “Chamberlain’s Men”.
This would give you some idea of how skilfully and professionally the theatre was run in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare who, after being with the “King’s Men” for several years was chosen to be its administrator, must have shown his hand at formalising the system of recruitment.
It is awesome to imagine a play like Hamlet or Antony & Cleopatra — or any of his other plays for that matter — being ready for a performance within two weeks. And let us not forget that the cast had to perform a totally different play in the evening. “The twin arts of theatre and drama,” writes Stanley Wells, “entered upon a period of achievement whose brilliance seems unequalled.”
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Shakespeare is the very centre of education in English language. Eric Bentley, one of the most erudite critics, has made a priceless comment: “All roads lead to Shakespeare, or perhaps it might be more correct to say that Shakespeare leads to all roads”. When we say drama we mean Shakespeare and the rest. The fate of Shakespeare in our times is an index to the fate of modern English theatre as a whole.
At the turn of the 20th century the Shakespeare reformers — Granville-Barker, William Poel — began to rescue Shakespeare from beneath an oppressive load of trappings. The Shakespearean theatre was dying of decoration that had been loaded on to him by the 19th century actor-managers. A large part of his text was absent from their productions; his plays had been tailored to suit the taste of the actor-managers who were interested only in passages that showed their own histrionics.
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Pedagogy is the principal enemy of Shakespeare. I was taught Shakespeare in the four years that I spent at the Punjab University — that is to say we had to go through As You Like It and Julius Caesar for the first two years and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello in the last two. I cannot speak for my other classmates, but I found him to be a special burden and I can say with hand on my heart that whatever the two different teachers tried to hand to me was left on the teacher’s desk.
The fault lay entirely in the manner in which the lecturers read them out with copious notes to explain the plays — notes which they had prepared decades ago — the emphasis always being on the questions that we were likely to be asked in the final exams of the year. It was only when I saw Shakespeare performed at the Old Vic in the early 1950s that I was spellbound by the richness of his poetry and the rhythm of his plays — and I was hooked.