Did falling in love inspire Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet? When we read the play, we'll look at Shakespeare's inspiration.
We'll start the course with Shakespeare in Love. This movie gives us a great sense:
- of Shakespeare's times,
- what his theater was like,
- how the plays were performed and how the playhouse influenced how the plays were written,
- what the acting company was like and how the size and composition of the acting company influenced the plays,
- who Shakespeare's competitors were and how rivalry influenced Shakespeare's plays.
Background for Shakespeare in Love and Romeo and Juliet :
Shakespeare in Love offers the wonderfully romantic view that Romeo and Juliet was inspired by an impossible-to-fulfill love affair that Shakespeare had with Gwyneth Paltrow uh, Lady Viola, I mean. However, we will see tomorrow when we read Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare based his story on well-known sources that both he and his audience were familiar with. So we can conclude, in this case, that autobiography doesn't play the kind of direct role in the making of his plays that the movie postulates. But several aspects of the movie can give us great insight into his plays.
- Shakespeare comes to London as a young man. Picture Shakespeare coming to London in the late 1580s in his early to mid-20s, arriving from the town of Stratford (about the size and distance of Reading, Pa. in comparison to Philadelphia). The London theater scene was incredibly full of life. The great playwright of the time was Christopher Marlowe (exactly as in Shakespeare in Love). Two principal producers ruled the London stage. Philip Henslowe managed a company called the Admiral's Men and had as his theater, The Rose. In competition to Henslowe, James Burbage and his two sons formed a rival company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men.
- The Playwrights: Henslowe and other producers basically hired playwrights to write their plays. It was feast or famine for the playwrights, just as we see in the movie. When they sold a play, they got rich for a time, but when they were in the process of writing, Henslowe and other producers dribbled money advances out in small amounts to the writers (just as in Shakespeare in Love).
- Censorship: The Privy Council, through the appointed representative, The Master of the Revels, had the power to censor writing, and in fact the famous writer Ben Jonson was put in jail for several months for a "lewd" and "seditious" play. In London at this time, a faction known as Puritans regarded playgoing as an immoral pursuit and made life difficult for producers and playwrights because the Puritans often held political positions in London. On the other hand, playgoing was immensely popular. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth, a highly intelligent and independent woman, was a patron of the theater, just as we see in this movie. Part of the solution to the Puritan problem was to situate the theaters just outside the London city limits.
- The Plague: The Privy Council also closed the theaters due to plagues. In fact, the theaters were closed between June 1592 and May 1594, just before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1595 and 96, just as we saw in this movie. During this plague, one tenth of London, 20,000 people, died between 1592-93.
- After the plague: Henslowe's company hired its playwrights, as I said, because his was the premier company. A newer, competing company was organized by James Burbage and his two sons in 1594. One son, Richard, had ambitions to become a great actor. The father, James, was able to secure the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain. His company became known as the Lord Chamberlain's men. The Burbages wanted a resident playwright, and Shakespeare was their man.
- Shakespeare with the Lord Chamberlain's Men: Shakespeare and the Burbages became matched up, with Shakespeare becoming the Burbages' principal playwright. Significantly, Shakespeare became one of three official members of the Burbage company. The three members of the company were Richard Burbage, who played the main tragic roles, William Kempe, who played the clown parts, and William Shakespeare, who was the company's poet. Shakespeare had just turned 30. He stayed with this company exclusively for his entire career. With this move, Shakespeare became secure and was given the artistic freedom he needed. It was unusual that the partners of the theater company were actors, and friends in addition. Those whom I just mentioned and Heminge and Condell (who published Shakespeare's collected works in the First Folio after he died all were good friends as well as fellow actors and fellow owners.
- 1594-1598: During the first four years, Shakespeare wrote Love's Labor's Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Romeo and Juliet. These plays are an artistic advance beyond his earlier plays and established his reputation.
- The old Globe Theater is built:
During the night of Dec. 28, 1598, while the landlord was out of town, the Lord Chamberlain's Men disassembled the Theater beam by beam and carted it across to the south side of the Thames River. There they reassembled the Theater and renamed it the Globe.
It was now in the heart of the entertainment district but outside of the city limits, so it was free of many restrictions. The Globe's neighbors were the Bear Garden (where bear bating was held), brothels, the Swan theater, and Henslowe's theater, the Rose.
The movie gives an excellent sense of what the theater looked like and how close the audience was to the stage, which was thrust out into the audience. Although the audience capacity was 2500, the farthest seat was near by our standards. People in the audience would freely comment on and respond to the plays since the standing audience of "groundlings" might be just two to three feet from the actors.
You can see from the movie that the setup of the theater stage remained the same from scene to scene. Costumes were important but scenery was not used. When you watch the movie, notice the stage thrust out into the audience. Notice how actors could enter from the audience. Notice that the stage has a trap door. It was by Hamlet's father's ghost as well as as the grave for Ophelia in Hamlet. Notice the pillars at the rear of the stage, the doors between the pillars for entrances and exits, and the balcony up above. That balcony is where Juliet is when Romeo comes to gaze upon her.The Lord Chamberlain's Men owned a theater with the catchy name of "Theater." The problem was that they didn't own the land the Theater was built on. They rented the land. When their lease ran out, the landlord tried to gouge them. That caused Shakespeare and the other partners to come up with one of the great schemes in all theater history.
The new Globe Theater, London. ©University of Reading (used with permission)
Here is one of the surviving copies of Shakespeare's First Folio, in the University of Pennsylvania Furness Library. Used with permission.
Shakespeare's acting company. Shakespeare's acting company was what we call a repertory company todaythat is, all the actors stayed together, most from season to season.
Shakespeare, who, as part owner of the building and the company, wrote his plays with the actors in mind. In every play he uses all of them, some in more than one role. He writes the plays with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. As you read a number of his plays, you can see how similar parts are included in each play because he had an actor who could act well in particular kinds of roles for example, the cynical role of Mercutio is just one of a string of parts at this period written for the same actor who could be witty and cynical and dirty.
The most unusual aspect of the acting companies of Shakespeare's day was how many plays they performed in a season.They usually put on a different play every day. One company one year put on 38 different plays, of which 21 were brand new that year! Can you imagine learning so many new plays in a year? Imagine acting in Hamlet one day, Romeo and Juliet the next, and so on.
The main parts were taken by the eight principal actor-owners (including Shakespeare). All the actors were on the weekly payroll. They employed several more regular actors and four or five boy-actors for the female roles.
Remember, women didn't act. Women's roles were played by pre-pubescent boys. The Juliet in Shakespeare in Love looks a little old to be pre-pubescent, but that was the idea. Therefore, Shakespeare would never have written parts for women that would have put them in bed as lovers. Love-making would always consist of words and flirting and courteous kisses. A good example is the meeting of Romeo and Juliet when they "kiss" palm to palm.Unlike today, when movie and theater directors usually assemble a cast after the script has been written, in Shakespeare's day, the company of players came first.
- Shakespeare was a businessman and became wealthy in his 25 years in the theater. We actually possess the bylaws of the Lord Chamberlain's Men's incorporation. The two Burbage brothers owned 50 percent of the company. Five other shareholders owned the other half, so Shakespeare had a 10 percent stake in the business. The Globe and Shakespeare's plays made considerable profit. Soon, they were building a second theater, the Blackfriars, which became even more profitable than the Globe. So all the while, Shakespeare is partly running the business, he is simultaneously writing the plays and acting in them. You can imagine how his acting benefited his writinghe knew what would work on stage because he would have to act in the plays he wrote. And he was sure to write plays that would be popular, because he was becoming a wealthy man because of the success of his plays. With his wealth, he was able to restore his father's good name after he fell on hard times. Shakespeare became a "gentleman," bought the largest house in his hometown, Stratford, and retired there in his mid-40s and died at the age of 52. So we should never imagine Shakespeare as a man who wrote merely because of inspiration. He may have been inspired, but he had to make sure his inspiration made money. Important implications:
- Other points:
- Another aspect of the movie that is very true is that when Shakespeare was becoming established, the most renowned playwright was Christopher Marlowe and that Shakespeare felt strong competition with him. Marlowe's early, untimely death opened up the scene for Shakespeare.
- Young Webster the boy who liked gore in the movie went on to become a well-known playwright himself in which gore plays a prominent part.
- Discussion Question: Viewing Shakespeare in Love can help us become more aware of the fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays to suit his actors' abilities, worked within the social parameters of his time, chose subject matter for competitive and popular reasons, and certainly strove to make a profit. Writers like Shakespeare wrote for a living. On the other hand, part of the success of this movie is due to how it fosters the widespread belief that art imitates lifeoften to a literal degree. Many readers, viewers, critics want to believe that an artist's life is revealed in his work. To what degree are you able to reconcile an understanding of the practical considerations of a working artist with the widespread belief that art must come from the artist's life experience? Explain what you saw in the movie that helped you understand what being a playwright was like in Shakespeare's time--his company, his theater, the censors, the queen, the audience, the actors, etc.[RJ4: Shakespeare in Love]
- After you finish viewing Shakespeare in Love and participate in a discussion, go on to read Romeo and Juliet and participate in a discussion on the play.