Putting the Shh into Shakespeare

In our first blog post I raised the question of the defining characteristics of the sixteenth and seventeenth century playhouses: their sheer number, their architectural and performance function, their attempts to capitalise on the art of theatre, and most crucially the way they were the product of working people as financiers, artists and core audience. In this post, I’d like to ask why we don’t talk about these defining characteristics more often.

Part of the problem here is specialisation. Research interests are a vital part of academic inquiry, but they have a tendency to fossilise knowledge, even as they generate it, by tying us into certain time periods, topics or modes of thought that make us lose sight of the bigger picture and wider contexts around them. This seems particularly egregious in the case of the London playhouses: they really weren’t open for that long (let’s say eighty years as a maximum), but academic accounts have not only failed to produce overviews or histories of the playhouses, it never seems to have occurred to anyone to do so. Eighty years really isn’t that long, and without doing this work we are like Jane Austen scholars trying to understand her writing without knowing what a novel is. Andrew Gurr’s work is the noblest attempt at the kind of work I am suggesting, and I sometimes hear practitioners making a similar attempt in drama workshops, but the centre of gravity for such work has always been Shakespeare, leading to, as I’ll suggest below, an inevitable distortion. Scholarly reaction to such work has often been uncharitable, but we only have ourselves to blame if others write uncertainly about a wider picture we have failed to help to sketch.

Another part of the problem is academic writing itself. In my last blog post I took the decision that I could get away with making claims I knew would be contentious so long as I acknowledged and unpacked that contention in the very next sentence. I love the precision and determination with which academic writing tries to identify what is distinctive or new about the things it studies, but often that pursuit of precision of terminology or characteristics itself becomes a barrier to learning, researching and declaring our thoughts. We become so busy trying not to say the wrong thing or to express it in the wrong words that we end up not saying things at all. Perhaps in some cases we end up being unable to think them. In this way academic writing can become an exercise in not thinking, something we should be especially aware of as we teach: the danger of becoming arbiters of what can and cannot be thought. This seems to be at least a partial cause for our failure to take stock of the playhouses as a movement or cultural phenomenon in themselves. It’s always useful to attend to – and consider challenging – the things academic writing and training stops us writing, thinking or proposing to think.

But a final major problem, of course, is Shakespeare (Happy Possible-Birth-and-Definite-Death Day, by the way). Shakespeare has come to stand for – and stand in front of – the playhouses, which is a shame since they were always more important than him, both culturally and historically. He has effaced that which made him possible. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often celebrate things which are characteristics of the drama of his time, mistaking them as distinctively his. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook aspects of his work which are weirdly repetitious, conservative or retrograde. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook the more challenging creative decisions taken by his contemporaries. Shakespeare wrote at a time when some playwrights filled their work with female characters, or wrote about contemporary London life, or celebrated working people, or repeatedly risked imprisonment in order to encourage audiences to think about democracy or free speech or aristocratic abuses. You wouldn’t necessarily know any of that simply from reading or performing Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare offers us an impoverished view of the London playhouses, and we should surely want to challenge that situation.

Taken together, these various problems – research specialisation, academic writing and Shakespeare’s dominance of the field – have held back historical accounts of the playhouse. Shakespeare in particular seems to make us oddly incurious, wrong-footed and blindsided, skewing and refracting our engagement with the evidence and with these wonderful plays. When we engage with the London playhouses, we focus in on the two decades in which Shakespeare worked, so that we are always joining a historical conversation partway through. Indeed, the problems of specialisation and Shakespeare coalesce to make writing about the earliest Elizabethan playhouses particularly difficult: there simply aren’t that many scholars who are interested in the playhouse who are also knowledgeable about the two decades in which they opened, the 1560s and ‘70s. We also find ourselves trapped in the thinking and priorities of the period that first canonised and celebrated Shakespeare as a great genius, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we still have work to do to unpack the Enlightenment and Romantic ways of thinking about his work and his contemporaries.

I guess my central point is: if you love Shakespeare, the effect he has on the way we understand his world does him a disservice. And if you love theatre, that Shakespearean effect does this great period of theatre-building a greater disservice still. It’s time to start celebrating the movement to build multiple playhouses in and around London as an event in itself. Happy Various-Life-Events Day, Shakespeare, but I hope you won’t mind if we use your Day to celebrate the work that made you possible in the first place.

Andy Kesson

14 thoughts on “Putting the Shh into Shakespeare

  1. Wow, what a long post – so much to engage with here. One crucial starting place, it seems to me, is to try and try and try again to displace the myths and untrue generalisations that dog theatre history, such as ‘The City was full of dour Puritans who hated theatre’. This is why Before Shakespeare’s focus on the City inns, for example, is so massively overdue and promises so much. You’re right too that the obsession with Shakespeare limits enquiry: if he wasn’t associated with a particular venue and/or playing company, they tend to be neglected. Let’s sort that out once and for all!

    All power to your collective elbow!


  2. Such an exciting and worthwhile project, Andy, which lots of people (me included) are watching interestedly. A lot of Shakespeare scholarship has undoubtedly neglected or left unstudied the 1560s, 70s, 80s. I wonder how much of this has to do with the perception – correct or incorrect – that Shakespeare turns from or against “the theatre” (nebulously or specifically construed) at various points in his career. That notion may have helped open the gap this project seeks to fill.

    Who constitutes the “we” throughout the third-from-last para? Plenty of media coverage and some Shakespeare scholarship, I imagine – though it seems tough on the majority of Shakespeare scholarship. When I think of the most trad line of Shakespeare scholarship, for e.g. – from Johnson to Coleridge to Bradley to Kermode – I can recall plenty of moments when those critics find Shakespeare repetitious, retrograde, conservative (and often use their knowledge of his contemporaries as a stick with which to administer those criticisms). Without issuing rejoinders to the implicit criticisms you make of Shakespeare’s politics, I suspect that a lot of people – though perhaps not the “we” of your paragraph – find Shakespeare pre-eminent for (what we can, of course problematically, call) his aesthetic qualities. I wonder, in other words, whether making playwrights’ ideologies – about working people, about democracy, about free speech, about aristocratic abuses – so central to the project risks occluding the aesthetic which, while never simply discrete from ideology, has a vocabulary and criticism somewhat its own. Is this something you’re concerned about/with?

    Do you think there’s a risk in pitting 18th and 19th C criticism so starkly against your project? Much of it, including the maligned strain on genius and Shakespeare, seems to me insightful, liberating work – not least because it’s surprisingly in synch with some discourses of the English Renaissance (I often wonder whether Shakespeare helps shape or create the tastes by which he is later enjoyed). While it’d be tough to deny that those centuries did much to canonise and celebrate Shakespeare in the ways people do today, there’s a parallel risk of overlooking the many attempts to canonise and celebrate Shakespeare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries too – the Folios, the significant amount and quality of praise for Shakespeare both within and shortly after his lifetime. Bluntly put, it’s Ben Jonson – not Samuel Johnson, or Samuel Coleridge – who first claims Shakepeare “for all time”.

    Is it that Shakespeare offers us an “impoverished” view of the London playhouses, or an incomplete one? I’d rather venture the latter – since, as you point out, “You wouldn’t necessarily know” all sorts of things about other dramas from Shakespeare’s work or from Marlowe’s or Webster’s or Jonson’s. I suppose what this boils down to is whether we need to esteem Shakespeare less in order to esteem his contemporaries/predecessors more; whether, that is, scholarship needs to be a zero-sum game – as, in Shakespeare’s favour, it often has been. In some respects, perhaps it should be.

    What this really boils down to, of course, or rather, boils to, is that we should have a coffee-fuelled debate in the British Library soon. R


  3. Thank you for such a detailed, challenging response, Robert: I hope you’ll keep on challenging us.

    I’d love to believe you’re right that the neglect of the first three decades of public theatre stems from a perception about Shakespeare’s relationship with the playhouses (or from anything else vaguely concrete), but I suspect the real reason is that Shakespeare himself has focused attention on the second generation of theatremakers to such an extent that these questions have just never been asked. As you say, this neglect is an opportunity as well as a problem for our project, and I’m often guilty of invoking the neglect topos, but I do think there’s a wider methodological point here: on the Venn diagram of research interests, scholars interested in the playhouses and scholars interested in the ‘60s and ‘70s is not a well-populated intersection. I do think that tells us an awful lot about how little love for Shakespeare has encouraged a real, historically-rigorous engagement with the theatrical culture in which he wrote.

    I’m aware that my use of the collective personal pronoun is problematic: and I’ve been accused of misusing ‘we’ before – an accusation it’s important to spell correctly. It’s a rhetorical move I find myself making because I’m interested in the stories that haven’t yet been told by scholarship or by media representations of the period, and interested in a reassessment of where scholarship and popular debate has got to. It’s a sweeping invocation of a wide swathe of discussion that inevitably entails generalisations, but since I’d like to challenge that wider discussion such invocation seems difficult to avoid. Perhaps that’s my own limitations as a writer or thinker. I should say, though, that I’m not seeking to pitt this project ‘starkly against’ eighteenth and nineteenth century criticism: my real target is the use of fossilised, and probably misunderstood, assumptions from that period in contemporary debate. So I’m sorry if that ‘seems tough on the majority of Shakespeare scholarship’ – I would see it as the sort of intellectual challenge that ought to be normal in our profession, and perhaps the perception of toughness is a measure of how little Shakespeareans are used to being challenged on the merits of the writer they celebrate in contemporary debate.

    The aesthetic angle is an exciting one, but equally tricky. I wouldn’t want to see aesthetics as a great escape from the ideological. Because Shakespeare is so embedded in the process of canonisation itself, these sorts of arguments easily become cyclical and tautologous: Shakespeare is a great writer but the parameters of great writing have also come to be identified on the basis of his work. That feels a particularly acute problem when his contemporaries are revived onstage: an insistent, kneejerk and unhelpful urge to not only compare them to but define them by an alien Shakespearean aesthetic frequently prevents engagements with the contemporaries taking off. So whilst I accept that my account of Shakespeare’s importance here misses out much of what makes him great, that feels like a sacrifice (and rhetorical decision) worth making because the measure to which accounts of his contemporaries routinely miss out on much of what makes them great seems so much more acute and deleterious. Whilst it won’t satisfy everybody, it seems worth offering a rejoinder to Shakespeare’s distorting effect on early modern writing.

    You’re obviously right to say that Jonson provides the terms with which Shakespeare is later celebrated, but that doesn’t make the use of such terms any less of a canonising process. It can’t be said often enough that when Jonson says Shakespeare is ‘for all time’ he 1) is using entirely conventional terms of praise (a posterity convention that Shakespeare himself draws on in his sonnets), 2) does so as part of his paid role to advertise the contents of the First Folio: it’s a marketing blurb, and 3) extends the reach of his own authorship by celebrating a book modelled closely on his own Works. It’s also worth noting that the admiration Jonson expresses for Shakespeare whilst advertising the Folio runs entirely against the tenor of his usual thoughts about Shakespeare expressed in both a public and a private capacity. So yes, that phrase is a contemporary one, but its subsequent use has little to do with its original context.

    I say ‘impoverished’, you say ‘incomplete’: let’s not call the whole thing off over that one. You’re right, this isn’t a zero-sum game, and I’m not attempting to overthrow Shakespeare in order to make room for his contemporaries. What I am trying to do, rather, is overthrow (or at least challenge) the Shakespearean lens by which his contemporaries get viewed – on the rare occasion that they get viewed at all. I’d refer you back to Tracey Hill’s comment on this blog post about the way scholarship neglects the companies and venues Shakespeare didn’t regularly write for as a further example of this.

    Thanks once again for challenging that challenge, and I’ll look forward to learning from these disagreements in the future.



    • Thank you Andy – I find myself more or less in agreement (differences about Jonson aside): what appalling harmony. Looking forward to following the project as it develops. R


      • Thanks Robert. I’m intrigued by what our differences on Jonson might be, but let me try another way of thinking about it. From the 1580s onwards (probably from E.K.’s comments in Spenser’s first publication, and certainly by Nashe’s preface to Menaphon), there’s a real drive towards state-of-the-nation literary reviews, of which Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare is a part. Apart from anything else, Jonson’s words are being published by Edward Blount, important champion for Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Jonson and, of course, Shakespeare. Blount’s final publication is of six Lyly plays, where he claims Lyly as the greatest writer of his lifetime. That praise need have no less or greater value than Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare, but is does show suggest that we should be wary of trying to root Shakespeare’s current canonical positioning in as contingent and publicity-focused a piece of evidence as a prefatory poem.

        This doesn’t need to obviate Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare, but it does put the use that praise has been put to in a different context. Jonson would presumably have been horrified to see the damage his words have done to his contemporaries’ later reception.



      • On Jonson: I was being confessedly blunt in citing the prefatory material to the First Folio, but I reckon we’d place different emphases on Jonson’s praise for and criticism of Shakespeare, as well as his motives for writing that poem. Think we agree that the poem is populated by convention or conventions (though I’d also want to know where and why, within the poem, it both flouts and follows conventions); yes, economic motive plays a part (though one I wouldn’t want to overplay); and yes, I’d agree in full with your suggestion that Jonson is doing himself a favour as much as Shakespeare (as he does when hymning other writers). Having said that, if you afford only those motives you end up with a rather mean, crabbed Jonson. I also disagree that it’s against the tenor of Jonson’s other remarks on Shakespeare. They seem to me of a piece, especially in how what looks like criticism turns out, on closer inspection, to be (possible) compliment (and vice versa). I like Simon Palfrey’s line on this – that Jonson is alternately appalled and astonished by Shakespeare’s “enormous temerity […] with that hint of religious terror that occasionally surfaces in Jonson’s discourse when, no longer scoffing or disdainful, he really believes that things have gone too far” (I like Palfrey’s subclause a little less).
        You’re pushing at a fairly open door on Lyly/Blount, Dr K, although the context and content of Blount’s remarks seem a little different to Jonson’s. I suppose they would, all things considered. Hope that clarifies, if not fully then at least synecdochally. R


  4. Very interesting read, Andy and excited to hear more about this as it progresses. In particular your mention that the initial phenomena of the playhouses being led by the working classes and the speculation they were making into this new form. That investigation into social history is very exciting because I think it will open up so much more then just the exciting world of early modern theatre, which would not have come to be if it weren’t for quite the right mix of ingredients in society at that time…. What triggered it? Those female voices, subversive ideas and of course the scenes of modern London life were lifted and inspired from somewhere – it will be brilliant to start lifting the lid on it.

    Of course, there’s a bottomless pit possibility here isn’t there! Good luck and have fun!

    Best wishes!


  5. ” Shakespeare in particular seems to make us oddly incurious, wrong-footed and blindsided, skewing and refracting our engagement with the evidence and with these wonderful plays.”

    I think you’re absolutely spot on here, Andy. In particular, even those of us who don’t like Bardolatry end up focusing on other authors – which is great, but doesn’t solve the problem you’ve identified of focusing on the single author at the expense of the (much weirder and more interesting) cultural phenomenon. I love where this project is going already and how much it may have to teach us about how performing and watching things (I use that word deliberately) could work in early modern London. I wonder whether there’s scope to use things like Lord Mayors’ Shows and accounts thereof to think about how people behave in a crowd around artistically and politically interesting stuff? (Linking back to Eoin’s excellent point about the public sphere). – And also how writers can use different and anticipated performance spaces (and past experiences therein) as creative tools? I’m just rambling now and I’m sure you’ll be looking at all this and more. It’s just so EXCITING!


  6. Pingback: Before Shakespeare in Performance | Before Shakespeare

  7. Pingback: Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone | Before Shakespeare

  8. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

  9. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

  10. Pingback: What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority | Before Shakespeare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s