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Accessible rather than academic, & all the better for it
on 17 August 2008
"With the passing of the years Shakespeare has too often been isolated from his fellows. He is the greatest of them, but he would not have been what he is without them." -- so says Stanley Wells at the conclusion of what is a wonderfully readable look at the theatrical scene of Shakespeare's day. Concentrating on the Bard's contemporaries rather than the man himself (more than adequately covered elsewhere), Shakespeare & Co is accessible rather than academic (though by no means lightweight), and an excellent introduction to those figures who hover on the edges of Shakespeare's biography, all too undeservingly like like bit-players in somebody else's drama. Individual chapters cover the theatrical scene (how plays were put together and presented, how they fit into the political mood of the time, and so on), and a brief look at some of the well-known actors of the day, before we get to the playwrights: Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher & Francis Beaumont, and a rather short chapter on John Webster.
The book is peppered with interesting anecdotes and details about the lives of the people covered, reminding you what a Bohemian, and odd, bunch writers can be. There's the self-destructive Marlowe, an atheistical spy who declared that he had as much right to coin money as the Queen of England; Ben Jonson the tireless self-promoter convinced he was the one writing classics for the ages; the cohabiting bachelors Fletcher & Beaumont "with one wench in the house between them" -- large-as-life figures who make Shakespeare's quiet (or at least un-recorded) life seem rather tame and level-headed in comparison.
But Wells's book is as much about the works of the playwrights in question as their lives, with a particular focus on the bearing they have on Shakespeare's plays. Wells points out where the playwrights borrowed from each other, or made jokes or references to one another's works, but as things tend to centre around Shakespeare, Wells's look at the playwrights works doesn't tend to stray too far from those that touch on the Bard's.
All in all, you get the impression of a bustling and creative scene, driven by business, politics and public demand as much as artistry, and the playwrights as much jobbing writers as any Hollywood hack or pulp fictioneer. Wells occasionally points out how the writers he covers have suffered as a result of Shakespeare's success -- their works are inevitably judged as not-quite-Shakespeare, rather than being taken on their own merits, and the product of different artistic sensibilities and aims.