ONE OF THE HOT DEBATES among scholars concerns whether Shakespeare wrote his plays principally conceiving them to be literature or principally for the purpose of performance. It surely is no secret that although I count the first group among my good friends, I fall into the latter school. And if we think of Shakespeare’s plays as written principally for performance, I would add, we will understand them much better as literature. The plays’ shapes, their warps and their woofs, arise because they were written with performance in mind.
Not just any performance, either. A particular one. A new play’s success upon its first performance, we may infer from Henslowe’s Diary, often determined its future survival. That fact will come as no surprise to playwrights of our own era. So we may reasonably believe that from the time a play was first conceived, the playwright and the acting company were aiming for a successful first performance. If we can figure out the process by which plays were conceived and brought to first performances, we will much better understand the plays themselves. We will know the imperatives under which our Elizabethan playwrights operated.
In several books (Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, Documents of Performance and, together with Simon Palfrey, Shakespeare in Parts) Tiffany Stern has reviewed an impressive array of Elizabethan documents concerning this problem. I won’t attempt to redo Stern’s work. I’ll just recommend her books. But I do want to build upon the evidence that Stern assembles. With respect to creation of the script, I believe that we can figure out some important new particulars. With respect to preparation for performance, I believe that the surviving documentary evidence gives us an incomplete picture. We need to find a reasonable basis upon which to fill in that picture. I’ll say why I think so, how we might find the additional information, and, starting with Stern’s documents themselves, show what new conclusions might be drawn.
From Conception to Script
The process by which a play was first conceived and then realized as a fully developed play script is discussed not only by Stern in Parts, but also by Neil Carson in A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary and Gerald E. Bentley in The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time. But here I want to look at original documents, and draw reasonable inferences from them. Although the documents are sometimes difficult to interpret, we may rely upon them completely. They were generated as part of the actual process itself.
Ideas for new plays in the Elizabethan era were for the most part generated, the documents show, by the playwrights themselves. The playwrights then sold their ideas to the acting companies in a process which resembles the way Hollywood screenwriters today, usually with additional sponsors, pitch their ideas to the studios. They met with some or all of a company’s sharers. In the meetings they provided either a synopsis or some scenes, or perhaps both, from a play they proposed to write. In a well-known example, Henslowe records in December 1597 a one pound loan to Ben Jonson, presumably in earnest of delivery, “upon a boocke wch he showed the plotte unto the company wch he promysed to dd [deliver] unto the company.” That is, Jonson persuaded the Lord Admiral’s Company to commission him to write the play based on a “plot,” or synopsis, which he had prepared for them.
More examples may be found in Henslowe’s records. In April 1601, Lord Admiral’s sharer Samuel Rowley wrote a note to Henslowe asking him to send two pounds to John Day, William Haughton and Wentworth Smith in earnest of a play to be called “The Conquest of the West Indies.” He observes in the note: “I have harde [heard] fyve shetes” of the play, “& I dow not doute but it wyll be a verye good playe.” And in May 1613 playwright Robert Daborne himself wrote to Henslowe suggesting that Henslowe “appoynt any howr” for him to read from a proposed new play “to mr Allin,” presumably Richard Allen, a sharer in a company closely supervised by Henslowe, the Lady Elizabeth’s.
We may readily imagine that in these meetings the sharers suggested how the proposed plays might be shaped to accommodate the needs of the acting companies. That such dialogues occurred is suggested by a note written around June 1613 by Lady Elizabeth’s sharer Nathan Field. Field writes: “Mr Dawborne and I have spent a great deale of time in conference about this plott, wch will make as beneficiall a play as hath come these seaven yeares.” Field could have meant that he was writing the play together with Daborne. But he probably did not. He refers later in the note to the possibility that Daborne will sell the play instead to another acting company. Thus the time Field spent conferring with Daborne about the plot probably was spent discussing how the play might be developed.
We may also reasonably conjecture that the acting companies themselves generated ideas for new plays, and commissioned playwrights to write them. In my Alcazar article in RES I argue, for example, that the Lord Admiral’s Company themselves conceived the second and third parts of “The Civil Wars in France” as a prequel and a sequel for a revival of Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. I also argue that a half year later they similarly conceived “Troilus and Cressida” and “Orestes Furies,” alternately titled “Agamemnon,” as a prequel and sequel to a revival of another play already in their repertory, “Troy.” In these cases they commissioned first Dekker and Drayton, then Dekker and Chettle, to write the prequels and sequels.
Roslyn Knutson shows, in addition, in The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, that in some years specific play types, such as citizen comedies or revenge tragedies, were fashionable among the acting companies, and that the companies mimicked each other’s successes. Those propensities probably did not arise through a merely random process of playwrights proposing plays. The acting companies presumably were seeking plays in the specified categories. Some support for these conjectures may be found in a May 1613 note written by Daborne to Henslowe. Daborne offers to dramatize “any other book of yrs [yours]” if Henslowe would “let me have perusall” of it.