Shakespeare and Co. By Stanley Wells, Allen Lane, £18
By the 1680s, just a few decades after Shakespeare died in 1616, John Aubrey (of the Brief Lives) was being told by those who knew and remembered Shakespeare that the great playwright “was not a company keeper”. He “wouldn’t be debauched and, if invited”, excused himself, saying that “he was in pain”. Ever since the success of Hamlet in the early years of the 17th century, Shakespeare, as Stanley Wells puts it in this excellent and entertaining book, “could not avoid becoming a classic”. And one of the less fortunate consequences of such greatness is a kind of imputed solitariness — to be seen as abstracted, like a colossus, from the company one had kept in order to live and make a living. So the earliest tributes paid to Shakespeare, like Jonson’s in the 1623 Folio, tended to see him as abstracted from history as well: “not of an age, but for all time”.
Shakespeare and Co. looks at Shakespeare’s singularity by putting him back into the brilliant, human clutter of his own times. The jostle and din of Elizabethan and Jacobean London were the stuff of Shakespeare’s creative and professional life. Wells’s Shakespeare is a “fully paid-up” working man of the theatre, “deeply immersed in the world around him” and never losing touch with the present. He is, as a result, “one among a great company”, actively working as an actor and playwright with other actors, playwrights and professionals in a robustly competitive “growth industry” bustling with talent and ambition.
This is far from being a new story. Historicism, old and new, has done this often and well enough. But Wells’s achievement in this book — drawing on his own experience as Shakespearean editor, critic and playgoer — is a dependable, level-headed, yet captivating digest of state-of-the-art scholarship in the field. It comes in the form of a complex account of the multifarious professional and literary relationships among Shakespeare and his contemporaries — the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the single acting company Shakespeare was associated with all his working life), and among the playwrights, mainly Marlowe, Dekker, Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher and Webster, although there is a host of other vividly etched minor characters. Like James Shapiro in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Wells opens out literary history, and a difficult and specialized variety of textual criticism, to the modern, general reader, who deserves access to the fruits of scholarship without its pedantry. And the rigorous unconventionality of the Oxford Complete Shakespeare, co-edited by Wells, is evident in this book too.
Wells uses the shape of Shakespeare’s “rapidly developing” career to give a glimpse of something much larger. This is the great progression, in English drama, from the Elizabethan through the Jacobean to the Caroline age. It involves three generations — Shakespeare’s immediate Elizabethan predecessors and early contemporaries (Lyly, Peele, Kyd, Greene and Marlowe, all of whom, except Lyly, died before Hamlet was written), followed by the emerging playwrights (Chapman, Heywood, Marston, Beaumont, apart from the principal Jacobeans mentioned above), and those who lived and worked into Charles I’s reign (Massinger and Ford, although all in the second group, apart from Beaumont, outlived Shakespeare). In what senses, then, did all these people work ‘together’, and how do these changing networks of collaboration constitute, and are constituted by, Shakespeare’s presence among his contemporaries'
To answer this question, Wells takes his cue from the Prologue to Volpone, in which Jonson lists four kinds of collaboration in the theatre, in the process of claiming that he “penned” his play in five weeks, “From his own hand, without a co-adjutor,/ Novice, journeyman or tutor” (italics mine). As Wells points out, division of labour varied from play to play, and is often difficult to prove or discern, as writers not only write their own bits but also revise each other’s, and not always maintaining a strict hierarchy of importance or seniority. Shakespeare’s best plays are single-authored, but he collaborated with other writers at times, especially early and late in his career, illustrating most of Jonson’s four categories. With Fletcher, for instance, late in his career, Shakespeare may have begun as the “tutor” or master craftsman training his “novice” or a kind of apprentice. But, with the Two Noble Kinsmen, they ended up as “coadjutors” or equal collaborators.
His work with Fletcher is perhaps the only instance of collaboration in Shakespeare’s career the evidence for which is likely to be accepted in a court of law. But Wells looks at the various modes — collaboration, revision, adaptation, reworking — in which he might have worked with Peele on Titus, Nashe on 1Henry IV, Middleton on Timon, Measure for Measure and Macbeth, Fletcher on Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio, and George Wilkins on Pericles. Discussing collaboration in the absence of hard evidence is a question of combining critical instinct, editorial scruple, historical sense (and imagination), sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of lexis, style, voice and tone, and thorough familiarity with a diverse range of individual working habits, with a sort of speculative genius founded as much on having read just about every play (and all related documents) of the period as a willingness to take informed interpretative and editorial risks.
Wells makes his most daring use of this “Could it be…'” mode in trying to imagine why Shakespeare collaborated with Wilkins, Middleton and Fletcher at the end of his career. Dismissing infirmity or the urge to tutor successors as possible reasons, Wells asks, “Could it be that Shakespeare’s colleagues required him to work with a colleague who was more in touch with the demands of the public than the ageing, increasingly self-absorbed master'” Could it be, then, that Fletcher was called in to “alleviate” the “rigours” of the Shakespearean Late Style'
Any history of the theatre — of dead actors, lost plays and gutted playhouses — will have to grapple with “shadows”, often the word for players and ghosts in Shakespeare. Performances, like the act of writing itself, are events in time, the most ephemeral of phenomena, which leave not a rack behind. They bequeath us, at best, unstable and puzzling textual traces, often of extraordinary beauty, from which we have to recreate the stories, or histories, of their making, by minds and bodies that existed once in real time and space. Wells’s account of the company that Shakespeare so uniquely and vitally kept, in every sense of the phrase, proves that such an essentially elegiac and hazardous task can also be eminently substantial and delightful.