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In the 1616 Folio of Ben Jonson’s Workes, published seven years before the more famous Folio of Shakespeare, Jonson adds to his flamboyant title-page a Latin motto:
Neque me ut miretur turba, laboro;
Contentus paucis lectoribus –
Adapted from the Latin poet Horace, this motto claims that Jonson doesn’t ‘work to be gaped at by the mob, but am happy with a few readers.’ The latest venture by the eminent Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells, newly published by Penguin Books under the title Shakespeare and Co., is certainly not restricted to enjoyment by a few erudite readers.
Wells has written an exciting and adventurous book which clearly examines the nature and times of his favourite writer. This wonderfully readable book explores not just the life and writings of the nation’s ‘Bard’, but uncovers the many and diverse playwrights who were contemporaries and near-contemporaries to the Stratford lad, and who influenced or were influenced by his writings – as Wells defines them, ‘the other players in [Shakespeare’s] story’.
Wells presents in an easily-understood style a glorious evocation of the ‘collaborative’ nature of early modern drama. Calling upon over a century of historical and literary research, he translates the stuff of cold historical fact and conjecture into a ready narrative. In so doing, Wells presents us with characters which, for many theatregoers of today, would be names lost in the obscurity of time. When Shakespeare was writing, these same names – Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, John Webster – would attract their audiences at the numerous playhouses dotted around London and its suburbs.
These were glamorous, radical individuals, who fought duels, fought in wars, and fought each other for the love of women, men and boys, whilst at the same time writing topical, occasionally notorious, and immensely popular drama. Wells brings these playwrights’ lives to life and in the process adds so much to our appreciation of the author’s obvious hero, William Shakespeare.
Time and again, we are presented with textual echoes from Shakespeare, or even times when Shakespeare has blatantly copied someone else’s style or content. Time and again, the fascinating and troubling history of the time inevitably filters through into the writing of drama. These were people at the cutting edge of the nation’s cultural history.
In recent years, companies such as the RSC at Stratford and the Globe in London have revived these obscure playwrights. We have marvelled at Jonson’s Sejanus, guffawed at George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston’s Eastward Ho!, or sat back in amazement at John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. With Wells’s excellent narrative flair, we are led easily and concisely through the history of these and other late Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays, understanding how they fit into our own national heritage with no less importance than the great writings of Shakespeare.
With all the rhetorical skill which this eminent academic can muster, this book will please both lay reader and scholar alike. The most up-to-date opinions on sources and collaborations, combined with illuminating examples of primary textual material, aid our understanding and further our understanding and awareness of an age lost in the mists of time.
Having read Shakespeare and Co., I feel as though I have been mixing in the smelly realms of the South London playhouses, being jostled by pickpockets and ladies of ill repute, watching expensively-clad gallants strut about on stage, vying for the audiences’ attention with the equally well-clad actors. I have tasted the beer and choked on the stench of the nearby bear-baiting arenas. I have settled in a water ferry, shouted ‘northward ho!’ back home across the Thames. I have listened to the crackle of thatch as a fire catches hold at the Globe, as women and children run screaming and as drunken louts fling their beer-bottles into the flames. I have watched a beautiful boy pretending to be a beautiful girl pretending to be a beautiful boy. All this and more is brought to life in the pages of Shakespeare and Co. Utterly enchanting.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
Originally published on R&V 07-08-07
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