The Player's the Thing
Will Shakespeare’s acting career has never aroused much interest among biographers. Not only is it less interesting and important than his work as a dramatist, but little of it seems recoverable. A couple of late anecdotes have him playing the Ghost in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It, and his name appears in the surviving cast lists of two Ben Jonson plays, Everyman In His Humour and Sejanus, with no indication of his part. The general assumption is that his company valued him far more highly as an author than as a player.
John Southworth, himself an experienced Shakespearean actor, disagrees and has produced a biography that puts acting at the center of Shakespeare’s professional life. Not only, in this account, was Will a “principal actor” in most or all of his plays, as the First Folio asserts, but he shaped the plays to fit the talents of the King’s Men and the characteristics of its theaters. Also important were business exigencies, such as the need for a repertoire that could be taken on tour (particularly pressing during the long period, from 1603 through 1610, when recurrent plague severely limited the London season).
Beginning at the beginning, Mr. Southworth offers the simplest possible solution to the “riddle” of Shakespeare’s “lost years”: The lad spent the period between adolescence and his first mention in London (in 1592) not as a school teacher or legal clerk or horse holder but as an apprentice actor. Apprenticeship was the normal route into “the quality”. Not “a single player in the whole period is known to have been accepted into any of the companies in his early twenties without previous training or experience, as is [conventionally] supposed of Shakespeare”.
The frequent visits of traveling companies to Stratford-upon-Avon furnished ample opportunities for joining up. On the basis of surviving records, Mr. Southworth infers that young Will was articled at about age 16 to Robert Browne, a leading figure in Lord Worcester’s Men (and later a pioneer in taking English productions on continental tours). That company’s itinerary dovetails neatly with the known events of Shakespeare’s life, and life as a touring actor can explain such mysteries as the haste surrounding his marriage. (He had to squeeze the ceremony into an interval in the tour, and there wasn’t time to go properly through all of the formalities.)
During the next 14 years, first as an apprentice, then as a hireling with the Admiral’s Men, Shakespeare learned his chosen trade. His early works hint at his roles by echoing the speeches of characters such as Theridamas Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and the Ghost of Andrea in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. During this period he also began writing for the stage, no unusual endeavor for an actor, as shown by the parallel cases of Thomas Heywood, Richard Tarleton, Robert Armin, Nathan Field and many others. Then, in 1594, he became a sharer (stockholder) in a new troupe, first known as “Lord Hunsdon’s Men”, then as the Lord Chamberlain’s and King’s, with which he was associated for the rest of his life and for which he wrote the dramas that immortalized his name.
The novelty of Mr. Southworth’s approach is that he gives primary attention to the player rather than the playwright. Weaving together a handful of small indicators and close examination of the demands that each play made on the King’s Men’s personnel, he deduces the author’s own roles. His conclusions are necessarily speculative, but the speculations have a rational basis and agree remarkably well with the independent results of Don Foster’s computer analysis (of which Mr. Southworth was unaware until Shakespeare the Player was largely complete).
As a general rule, if Messrs. Southworth and Foster are right, Shakespeare played medium-sized, “kingly” parts, with a distinct preference for those that allowed him to be on stage at both the beginning and the end of the performance. Prime examples are the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well, Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the title role in Henry IV. Mr. Southworth’s more daring suggestions include Claudius in Hamlet (doubling as that character’s brother, the Ghost) and Iago in Othello. Some of these assignments are undoubtedly wrong, but, if just half or more hit the mark, they add up to a considerably more substantial acting career than most biographers have been willing to credit.
A corollary to the thesis that Shakespeare was a real, rather than a more or less nominal, thespian is that he would have accompanied the King’s Men on their provincial tours. Enough records survive to demonstrate that the troupe did not remain sedentary in London. It toured every year, and income from “rewards” and “gatherings” in a multitude of towns was essential to its survival. During the early years of King James’ reign, when plague frequently shuttered the London theaters, tours, rather than glamorous appearances at Court, probably kept Shakespeare and the other sharers afloat.
The picture of an actor-playwright, on the road for months at a time, adding two or three plays a year to keep his company’s repertoire fresh, devising characters to match his fellows’ strengths, from the versatile leading man Richard Burbage through the clowns Will Kempe and Robert Armin to the “thin man” John Sincler, taking into account too the characteristics of the available playhouses and even the seasons of the year, nurturing talented apprentices for whom he created memorable female roles - all this has an intuitive truth to life that portrayals of a bookish literary figure lack. One can understand why Shakespeare stood apart from writers’ feuds in London and felt no compulsion to follow up his early, highly praised narrative poems. His paramount concern was the success of his company, on whose fortunes his own depended and whose leading members were remembered in his will.
Mr. Southworth does not accept the notion, first popularized in Rowe’s unreliable Life, that Shakespeare returned to Stratford about 1610 to spend his last years “as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in Ease, Retirement, and the Conversation of his Friends”. Rather, he envisions a seasoned trouper staying in harness to the end, buying a second home near the Blackfriar’s Theatre as late as 1613, and being carried off by unexpected illness at the age of 52. The evidence here is mixed. Except for collaborations on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, the flow of Shakespearean plays comes to a halt with The Tempest (c. 1610). The cessation of Shakespeare’s activity as an author can reasonably be seen a signaling a shift in his relationship to the King’s Men, but Mr. Southworth does not try to determine what that change might have been. He does, however, furnish some leads.
It is an interesting coincidence that Shakespeare reduced his writing at almost precisely the same time as the plague abated in London and made it feasible to put on full seasons in the metropolis. Having both an outdoor venue at the Globe and an indoor one at Blackfriar’s, the King’s Men were especially well placed for year-round performances. They did not cease to tour but perhaps - the records are too fragmentary to tell - did so only to a limited extent, to keep up contacts that might be useful should the hard times ever return.
After nearly a decade of scrabbling for a living, the new circumstances meant both prosperity and a relaxation of stress. A natural step would have been to take on new hired men to relieve the burdens that the sharers had so long endured, including a new “ordinary poet” to give Shakespeare a rest from auctorial duties. John Fletcher did indeed join the company at that time and replaced Shakespeare as its principal dramatist. It seems strange to us that anyone would prefer Fletcher to Shakespeare, but contemporaries did not see so large a gulf between the two, and 15 or 20 Shakespearean plays had yet to be seen often in London; there was no pressing need for more.
Certainty about Shakespeare will always elude us, and any biography inevitably seems inadequate to his dramatic genius. All that we can hope for is a portrait that does no violence to the facts. Shakespeare the Player is a worthy advance in that direction.