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The Lost Years
No one has solved the mystery of the lost years in Shakespeare’s life, the years between 1585 and 1592. We can only imagine what happened before we first hear of him as a dramatist.
The first person to write about Shakespeare’s plays criticized him. Robert Greene, a successful dramatist, was dying in the autumn of 1592. His last work contains an angry personal attack on Shakespeare. We learn from it that Shakespeare was an actor. He had also certainly written three plays and probably as many as seven or eight. He had therefore worked in the theatre for a number of years and had started writing plays not long after he joined a theatre company.
Greene attacks Shakespeare for two reasons. At that time, plays were usually written by men like himself who had been to a university. Greene wants to warn other dramatists of the danger to their profession if actors like Shakespeare are allowed to write plays. His more serious complaint is that Shakespeare has copied their work. He compares him to a bird that copies the sounds made by other birds.
It is unlikely that Greene really believed that Shakespeare copied other writers’ speeches. He was angry because he realized that Shakespeare had borrowed their ideas and used those ideas to write better plays. By 1592, Shakespeare was already very successful, and had succeeded with different kinds of play - plays about English history, comedies and a tragedy. Greene complains that this young man thinks that he can do everything in the theatre.
We can understand Greene’s attitude better if we compare the theatre in London in Shakespeare’s time to Hollywood in the 1930s. The situation was similar in many ways. The actors were the stars. Everyone in London knew the name of Edward Alleyn, the most famous actor at that time. But the dramatists were like the people who wrote the 1930s films. Their names did not appear outside the theatre, and the manager of the company often made them write in small teams to produce plays faster. Films in Hollywood were written in this way when the cinema was the main form of popular entertainment. When the writers sold their work to a theatre company, they lost control over it. Plays were not usually published because that allowed rival companies to perform them. The company only published them if it needed money or if someone had produced a bad copy of one. Only half of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays were printed in his lifetime.
It seems surprising that the world’s greatest dramatist did not take more care of his work. To understand that, we must again make a comparison with Hollywood. Until the 1950s, the films of great directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks were not accepted as art. In the same way, during the twenty-five years of Shakespeare’s life in the theatre, plays were not ‘literature’. Shakespeare probably accepted the general opinion. He published his poems, which in his opinion proved his ability as a writer.
His first plays show that he was still learning. Christopher Marlowe, who was the same age as Shakespeare but had started earlier, was a greater poet at this time, and his plays had made Edward Alleyn a star. Thomas Kyd had written the most exciting play of the 1580s, The Spanish Tragedy. People today think that Shakespeare stood alone, far above the other dramatists of his time, but many of them wrote excellent plays that are still performed.
Shakespeare’s greatest strength was his willingness to try new ideas. He remembered the Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence and the tragedies of Seneca that he had studied at school, and copied them. He studied the plays of his rivals and the changing fashions among the audience. When he was the most successful dramatist in London, he used the subjects of old plays that he had seen or acted in and produced something much better. Even his own tragedies and comedies are different from each other. Most dramatists repeat their successes. Shakespeare only seemed to write the same kind of play if he was not satisfied at first. Then he continued until he got it right.
The early plays are therefore very different from each other, as Shakespeare tried one form after another. He wrote three plays about the wars in England in the fifteenth century, and another play about English history. There was a Roman tragedy that is so violent that many people would like to believe he did not write it. And he wrote three comedies - a romantic comedy, a comedy taken from Plautus, and one that uses familiar scenes from Stratford.
The most interesting are the last two, The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. The first is the story of a man and his servant. They were lost when they were babies and arrive in a town where each one has a twin brother with the same name. It is one of the funniest plays that Shakespeare wrote. He makes clever use of all the possibilities for confusion. Antipholus of Syracuse, the recently arrived brother, cannot understand why a strange woman - Adriana, his brother s wife - is angry with him. When he falls in love with her sister, Luciana, he is surprised that she is shocked and upset.
The Taming of the Shrew is often criticized today. It seems to be about a man who marries a bad-tempered girl and is cruel to her until she is willing to obey him. The play is one of a number that modern audiences are unwilling to accept. We should not be surprised that Shakespeare did not always have the same view of life as we have, since he died nearly 400 years ago. But the real problem is often that the modern director does not understand the play and introduces his own ideas.
Shakespeare did not usually give the Elizabethan audience just what they expected, either. There were hundreds of stories about bad-tempered women in Europe, but The Taming of the Shrew is not typical of them. It tries to show that in a good marriage the two people are partners and work together as a team. The wife does not always have to obey her husband, as most of the audience believed.
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