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How Did Shakespeare Write a Play?

The second in a four-part lecture series; 'What Was Shakespeare Really Like'

ShakespeareBT · How Did Shakespeare Write a Play

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Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company

Stanley Portrait

Hello, everyone. I am Greg Doran, Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, and I am delighted to pay tribute to Sir Stanley Wells now approaching his 90th birthday at the start of his second lecture in his series 'What Was Shakespeare Really Like'. This one is entitled 'How Did Shakespeare Write a Play?'

When Stanley retired as chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2011, my partner Antony Sher was commissioned to paint his portrait. It shows Stanley in his battered leather armchair, surrounded by his books. He’s leaning forward fixing the viewer with a piercing wickedly blue-eyed stare, his lips faintly smiling, awaiting their cue to respond, his expression alert as if he is about to challenge an assumption, or posit a new theory.

Stanley’s twitter profile declares him to be a Shakespeare writer, a lecturer, and then in third position a “controversialist”. Stanley loves a controversy. Such as the one he provoked after the installation of the window memorial to Christopher Marlowe in Westminster Abbey in 2002, when he called for the removal of the question mark placed before the date of his death, or when he identified the Cobbe portrait of a beautiful young man in an elaborate ruff as being of Shakespeare himself. Or his opposition to what he calls “Folio Fundamentalism”. Or dismissing original pronunciation productions as gimmicky, and occasionally his readiness for a fight gets him into hot water. For describing what he calls the phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare's authorship as a “psychological aberration”, and dismissing the views of those Anti-Stratfordians as “heresy”.

Stanley has served the RSC extremely well. He was on the council for many years, affording us the wisdom of his vast experience, and is currently an honorary emeritus governor. But of course he can also be infuriating. He first came to see shows at Stratford in 1954, and has lived here since 1958, so he can be very hard to please. As for instance after a recent production of Coriolanus when he sighed, "Well you see the trouble is I saw Olivier’s performance in 1959, and I can remember every intonation of his voice, on every line."

That’s part of the challenge of directing plays here, you are part of an inevitable continuum which is both inspiring and intimidating. But when you deserve Stanley’s praise it is worth its weight in gold.

So, to this essay. How did Shakespeare write a play? Who knows? Well if anyone does it is Professor Sir Stanley Wells not because he has a hotline to Shakespeare, (though I think he might) but because he has lived with him, for a goodly number of his four score years and ten, thinking about him, teaching him, watching him in performance, and of course loving him, and communicating that passion to millions.

So expect what follows to be rigorous, ingenious, deeply thoughtful, potentially provocative, and all delivered with a wink.

Professor Sir Stanley Wells:

Shakespeare was both a non-dramatic poet and a playwright. It’s not too difficult to understand how he became a poet. The King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon provided its pupils with a primarily literary education and during his school days he could have started to develop an interest in writing both poetry and drama. In 1569, his father invited the first troupes of professional players to perform in Stratford in the year he led the Corporation as Bailiff. Shakespeare was five years old. Plays by classical dramatists, such as Terence and Plautus, were probably on the school curriculum – and Plautus was to give him plot material for one of his early plays, The Comedy of Errors. In 1583, when Shakespeare was 19, the town officials subsidized an amateur performance of a play, now lost, organized by one Davy Jones, who later married a member of the Hathaway family. Shakespeare must surely have seen it and may well have been involved, as actor, or even as writer. Travelling professional companies performed in the guild-hall. During 1586 to 1587, for instance, five companies visited the town. So it’s not at all surprising that he should have been stage-struck.

We don’t know how he got involved with the theatre, but early in his career he, like many others, wrote sometimes in collaboration, perhaps initially in a kind of apprenticeship, with other professional writers including George Peele (on Titus Andronicus) and perhaps Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. His early co-authored plays were presumably offered to or commissioned by theatre managers who may have exerted influence over both their content and their style. I believe The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be his first solo-authored play, apprentice work possibly drafted even before he left Stratford. Other early plays include The Taming of the Shrew (based on a pre-existing comedy), the highly sophisticated tragedy of Richard III, generally dated 1593, and The Comedy of Errors, more securely dated, and performed at Gray’s Inn before the lawyers on 28 December 1594. By this time he had become a shareholder with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It is the most important milestone in his professional career. For something like a decade after this all his plays are solo-authored. But even during this period he was not in the position of a wholly independent, free-lance dramatist. He was a company man, with both artistic and commercial responsibilities towards his colleagues, and it seems likely that in deciding on the subject matter and style of his next play he would have consulted his colleagues about their needs. One can imagine company meetings with anxious discussions about box office receipts, the activities of rival companies, the need for plays that would show off the skills of the company’s leading actors, playing to their strengths while respecting their limitations, and the search for talented boys to replace those whose voices were breaking.

Shakespeare was constrained too, throughout his career, by legal and social requirements and by governmental censorship. It was, for instance, forbidden from early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (by an ordinance of 1559) for plays to be written on biblical subjects. And it was dangerous for a dramatist to engage directly with contemporary political issues. Even episodes which, while not being explicitly topical, might be interpreted as commenting on current events were sensitive: so for example the episode in Richard II relating to the king’s abdication was omitted from editions of the play printed before the death of Queen Elizabeth, for whom this was a sensitive issue. And from  1606 onwards, with the passing of the ‘act to restrain abuses of players’, it was forbidden to use profane language, and existing dramatic texts were revised to bring them into conformity with this. The 1622 quarto text of Othello, written before the Act was passed - probably in 1603 or 1604 –- contains fifty or more profanities that are not present in the Folio text, printed from a theatrical manuscript.

Shakespeare would have been conscious too that his company needed plays that would not only please the public audiences at the Globe (from 1599) and on tour but would also go down well at court in performances before the reigning monarch to which in theory, at least, all the company’s endeavours were directed. We know of some 170 performances that the Lord Chamberlain’s, later the King’s Men gave at court from the company’s foundation in 1594 to the time of Shakespeare’s death. These were well rewarded and highly prestigious events, given before members of the royal family and their guests, the cream of the aristocracy, and visiting dignitaries such as ambassadors and foreign courtiers. Shakespeare must have been a familiar figure at the royal court. Some of his plays, such as Macbeth, with its egregious flattery of King James I, bear obvious witness to the importance to the company of court patronage. And the wide range of dramatic styles that Shakespeare adopted, the fact that he composed an average of around two plays a year, and that he moved freely among the dramatic genres, all indicate his sensitivity to the needs of his company.

He responded to popular demand, for example in the Falstaff plays, as we see in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV:  ‘If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Catherine of France, where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat – unless already a be killed with your hard opinions.’ But the tone here is playful. The author is not as humble as he pretends to be – he keeps his options open. And though The Merry Wives of Windsor shows that he was aware of the commercial appeal of Falstaff, it is naïve to believe that the play is a mere pot-boiler that can legitimately be flattened into a mechanical farce as it so often is in productions.

It is a measure equally of Shakespeare’s professionalism and of his artistic integrity that each play has its own voice, as becomes especially clear if one reads his plays in the (necessarily partly conjectural) order of composition. In this he differs greatly from, for instance, John Lyly, or even Ben Jonson, whose plays are more restricted in range. And though he knew that he had to please, he was willing, especially as he grew older - more confident of himself, less dependent on popular success - to push the boundaries, sometimes seeming almost to be writing for himself rather than for the populace. Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline, for example, are stylistically challenging; we have little evidence as to how these and some other plays fared with audiences. But it is clear from numerous references to Hamlet soon after composition that, for all its exceptional length, it, at least, was well received – which says a lot for the often under-rated audiences of the time. And King Lear, his most uncompromising tragedy, was thought suitable to be acted before the King and his family at court on St Stephen’s Day night (26 December) 1606. 

How Did Shakespeare Choose his Plots?

Before Shakespeare even started to write a play he had to choose or to invent a story that was suitable for dramatization. Almost all his plays are based to some degree or other on one or more pre-existing narratives, some historical in origin, others fictional, some already in dramatic form. And he consulted some of these stories, especially the historical ones, in multiple versions. Richard II, for instance, is indebted not only to Marlowe’s play Edward II, which he could have seen onstage, but also to printed books including Holinshed’s and Froissart’s Chronicles, Samuel Daniel’s epic poem on the Civil Wars, and The Mirror for Magistrates. Sometimes too he would combine more than one story line within the framework of a single play – King Lear, for instance is based partly on an old play, acted in 1594 but not printed till 1605, and on other versions of the story of Lear, but in addition Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia provided material for the Gloucester plot and Samuel Harsnet’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures influenced his portrayal of Edgar. All this means that Shakespeare had to do a lot of preliminary spadework before he even began to invent a structure for his play. He needed, and the company must have allowed him, time for reading. I find it irresistible to conjecture that they made it possible for him to move away from his London lodgings from time to time to the relative peace and quiet of a study – which we know existed - in New Place.

Some of the books Shakespeare had read at school clearly gave him material for both the stories and for details of his plays and poems. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a pervasive influence from the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, right through to his last solo-authored play, The Tempest, in which he cribs almost wholesale from it for one of Prospero’s greatest speeches, The book itself appears on stage in both Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline. And it is clear that throughout his working life Shakespeare was an assiduous reader – and not only for professional reasons. He read earlier English writers including Geoffrey Chaucer, whose ‘Knight’s Tale’ figures in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and John Gower (c. 1330-1408), author of Confessio Amantis (A Lover’s Confession), who appears on stage as the Chorus to Pericles; he plundered Arthur Brooke’s long poem Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562, for his play on the same subject. He knew John Lyly’s immensely popular Euphues (1586-8), parodied in 1 Henry IV, as well as plays by Lyly, which helped him to write in the courtly style of his early comedies; he read books about English history, especially Holinshed’s Chronicles – a vast work which in its longest version, of 1587, runs, it has been computed by Stuart Gillespie, to ‘about 3,500,000 words, making it “roughly equal to the total of the Authorized version of the Bible, the complete dramatic works of Shakespeare, [Richardson’s] Clarissa, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and [Tolstoy’s] War and Peace’ . He read books of classical history too, especially Sir Thomas North’s fine translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Roman and Greek Emperors, first published in 1579 with expanded editions in 1595 and 1603; he read translations into English of Italian and other romance stories, such as those by Boccaccio, Bandello, and many other writers gathered together by William Painter in the collection The Palace of Pleasure (1556, expanded in 1567 and 1575), which was to be plundered for plots by many other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. He read English fiction such as Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1580), which formed the basis for As You Like It, and Robert Greene’s Pandosto (1588), on which he based the plot and some of the dialogue of The Winter’s Tale.  He appears too to have read Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, of 1565, which gave him the story for Othello, in Italian, and John Eliot’s satirically entertaining French conversation manual Ortho-epia Gallica of 1593 which is echoed in Henry V and in other plays and which he may have bought in order to teach himself French. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia mocks her English suitor, Faulconbridge, because ‘He hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian.’ I like to think that Shakespeare would not have written this unless he too had been able to understand these languages. All this shows that he was not just a jobbing playwright but a highly cultivated man of letters.

Having chosen the narrative material of a play, Shakespeare had to create a plot, a kind of framework resembling a maquette from which a sculptor might work, or an architect’s ground plan, or a script writer’s story-board - a story line that would give him a structure for his play, deciding how to introduce his narrative material and to establish his characters, how to introduce and to shape any sub-plot or other material extraneous to the principal narrative that he might find desirable, and how to bring it all to a conclusion. And he had to do all this in ways that would fit the physical structures of the theatres of his time and the strengths and limitations of the acting company at his disposal.

These were tasks that required considerable intellectual effort and which must have occupied his mind and imagination even before he started to compose a play’s dialogue. He knew that the theatrical conventions of his time required plays to be of a certain length, though the limits were flexible. It is difficult for us to estimate how long the plays would have lasted in contemporary performance, but the fact that they vary in line length from around 1800 lines for The Comedy of Errors to about 4,000 for Hamlet shows that though there may have been minimum expectations there were no fixed limits. Shakespeare may have wished to make changes between first having a manuscript transcribed for his actors and their putting it into production. This is illustrated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where we see the players having to write a new prologue to assure the ladies in the audience that the actors ‘will do no harm with their swords’; arguing about its versification; discussing how to modify Lion’s appearance so as not to ‘fear the ladies’; suggesting that a window of the great chamber where they are to play should be left open to let moonlight in; and discussing how to present a wall: ‘You can never bring in a wall!’, says Snout (who nevertheless eventually comes on as Wall.)

Play-texts had to be supple to local requirements. Theatrical conditions at the Globe, with its trapdoor (for Ophelia’s grave, for example), its upper level (for Juliet’s appearance at a window, in what has come, incorrectly, to be called the ‘balcony’ scene), and its flying machinery (for the appearance of Jupiter in Cymbeline), were absent in other venues, such as locations provided by the royal court, a great house, or a local guildhall when the players were on tour. Also – like the anonymously written text of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, the play within the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - adaptation might need to be carried out on the spot by the actors themselves, or by a ‘journeyman’ – hack writer - without the original playwright’s input. We have reason to believe, for example, that the only text of Macbeth that has come down to us is a version by Thomas Middleton made for the King’s Men which shortened the original and adds both dialogue and musical elements. All this means that the play texts that have survived are, as it were, only snapshots, capturing just one stage on a play’s fluctuating textual history.

What dramatic forms were available to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare had models which he could observe, follow, modify, or reject. He knew about the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy, though he conspicuously refused to be constrained by them throughout his career.

He wrote his plays as continuous structures, flowing smoothly from beginning to end. He knew of the five-act structure favoured by Roman dramatists such as Plautus and Terence, and imitated by some of his English predecessors. Gammer Gurton’s Needle, for instance, written around 1566 (probably by one William Stevenson), is a robust English comedy which nevertheless follows the neo-classical unities of place, action and time. But Shakespeare refused to be bound by the practice of his predecessors. Our understanding of the freedom with which he handled dramatic structure has been undermined by the fact that the compilers of the First Folio along with later editors imposed on the plays a division into five acts, each broken up into separate scenes, which is foreign to Shakespeare’s method of dramatic composition. In general the plays printed in his lifetime are undivided into acts and scenes, and this appears to reflect the way they were performed at least until 1609, when the King’s Men began to make use of the indoor Blackfriars playhouse; there the practicalities of, for instance, trimming the candles used to illuminate the playhouse favoured the observance of act breaks, and the theatre developed a highly accomplished band of musicians which performed both before and during the intervals of the action. Sadly, little of the music composed for these purposes – or indeed for the plays in general - has survived. The printed texts contain music cues, but I suspect that they give an inadequate impression of the amount of music that would have been played in early performance.

As ideas formed in Shakespeare’s mind he might have started to make a note of opportunities that the narrative material afforded for especially effective moments of action: the appearance of a ghost; a sleep-walking scene; a play within the play; a climactic battle; he might have jotted down ideas for characters - a comic nurse, an affected courtier, a bumbling local official, a mischievous fairy; he might even have drafted a few speeches that were central to his vision: it is conceivable for example that he roughed out Theseus’s speech on imagination – ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact….’ (5.1.), or Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech (3.1.), or Prospero’s ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves’, closely cribbed from Ovid (The Tempest, 5.1.33…) – before he plotted the play’s action.

Most importantly, he would have to think about how his narrative material related to conventions of dramatic form and to expectations of genre, whether he could best relate it to conventions of comedy or of tragedy, or indeed whether it fell outside formal expectations of genre. He would have needed to devise climactic scenes, and to think about how to bring it all to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

The ground plans for some of his plays are more schematically worked out than others. Much Ado About Nothing, for instance (first printed I believe from his original manuscript) has an improvisatory air about it, as if at times we can catch him in the act of working out his plot as he went along – the most obvious example is the presence in two stage directions of Hero’s mother, Innogen, who does and says nothing, as if he had thought at first that he might need her for the plot but eventually could think of nothing for her to say, or perhaps that he realized that he simply didn’t have enough boy actors to include her. Some plays include substantial episodes inessential to the plot but offering entertaining interludes, such as Lance’s scenes with his dog, Crab, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or passages that reflect upon what has been happening, such as the scene of the gardeners discussing the state of the commonwealth in Richard II or the dialogue between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester (in King Lear). Such scenes have been termed ‘mirror scenes’, and can illuminate the significances that Shakespeare derived from his stories. Other plays, however, such as The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, are elaborately and neatly plotted as if, like an architect designing a great cathedral, Shakespeare had created his overall design before going back to fill in the details. And there is no way in which the intricacies of the virtuosically designed final scene of Cymbeline, with its multiple denouements, can have been improvised on the spur of the moment. Its composition required the same kind of intellectual effort as a contrapuntal masterpiece by Bach.

In writing a comedy, Shakespeare would have wanted to devise scenes particularly productive of laughter – the overhearing scenes and the pageant in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Malvolio appearing in cross-gartered yellow stockings in Twelfth Night, the gulling of Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well. And the conventions of comedy encouraged the inclusion of dances, of music and song. Here he would have required the collaboration of composers, instrumentalists, and singing actors. We know that some of his actors were musicians: Augustine Philips, for instance, in his will of 1605 bequeathed ‘a cittern, a bandora, and a lute’.

For a tragedy Shakespeare would have wanted especially to give his actors the chance to portray passion, as Hamlet does, for example when he upbraids his mother, or Lear on the heath, or Othello in his jealous rage with Desdemona, or Coriolanus in his diatribes against the common people. But Shakespeare was not bound by convention, and his range and technique developed as he gained experience. He broadened generic expectations. Whereas for example his earlier comedies lack villains, he introduced comic antagonists – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Duke Frederick and the unreformed Oliver in As You Like It – into his later romantic comedies. And later in his career he deepens the emotional range of comedy by portraying serious moral dilemmas in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.

He would need constantly to remember how many actors he had available to him, and he would have to tailor the plot accordingly. Most of his plays can be performed by a company of 14 actors if, as was customary, some of them take more than one role each. This seems sometimes to have placed strains upon his ingenuity. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Lady Montague, Romeo’s mother, might have been expected to be present in the final scene to share her husband’s grief at their son’s death, and to join, as Romeo’s parents do, in the reconciliation of the two families, but when her husband is called on by the Prince to join in the general mourning, he unexpectedly announces her demise:

Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight.
Grief of my son’s exile has stopped her mouth.

Somewhat similarly, in the final scene of Twelfth Night, although we learn that Sir Toby has married Maria, she is not brought on to share in the scene of Malvolio’s discomfiture which she has helped to engineer. It seems likely that both of these characters suffer from what we may call ‘Chronic Shortage of Boy Actors Syndrome’.

Shakespeare would want to write starring roles for the leading actors, and in doing so both to cater for their strengths and to remember their limitations. It is noticeable, for example, that none of the parts that Richard Burbage, star of the company throughout Shakespeare’s career, is known to have played requires him to display any talent in singing – indeed the role of Benedick makes a joke out of his vocal limitations (, though the demands made of for example both Romeo and Hamlet show that Shakespeare had confidence in the actor’s swordsmanship. And though Shakespeare displays great confidence in the staying power of his leading players he learned to be considerate to them too – whereas Richard III has little respite during the course of his play, the heroes of later plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear all have time off in their plays’ later stages to summon up strength to play their closing scenes.

To say that Shakespeare would have to do all this is not, of course, to suggest that the writing of a play for the theatre of his time was any more difficult for him than for any of his fellow playwrights. He was driven by internal compulsions, by changing and developing creative urges as well as by practical considerations. But it does seem desirable in thinking about his mental capacities and the demands that his profession made upon him to emphasize the fact that the composition of plays for the theatres of his time made great demands on a writer’s intellectual resources, and that the peculiar circumstances of the conditions under which Shakespeare was working were especially demanding.

How fluent was Shakespeare? No working papers for any of the canonical plays survive. Heminges and Condell, in their preface to the First Folio, wrote ‘His mind and hand went together: and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.’ I don’t put much faith in this statement. Most of the plays in the Folio were printed not from Shakespeare’s manuscripts - his ‘papers’ - but from annotated copies of already printed quartos or from scribal transcripts. Still, what they say is consonant with the evidence provided by his only surviving literary manuscript, the 180 or so lines that he is believed to have added to the multi-authored play of Sir Thomas More after it had been subjected, at an uncertain date, to censorship by the Master of the Revels, Sir Thomas Buc.

This is the only literary manuscript – indeed the only example of his handwriting except for a few signatures on legal documents - to have survived. In it there is scarcely any punctuation, as if his ideas were flowing with such facility that he had no time to bother about details. Words are often abbreviated, to save time. The spelling is fluid, as was characteristic of the period – our word ‘sheriff’ is spelt in five different ways within as many lines. Three consecutive lines are ‘blotted’ with substitutions made between the deleted lines. This is a man in a hurry, writing probably to commission to patch up a manuscript play after the Master of the Revels had demanded extensive change for political reasons.

It is also possible to catch glimpses of Shakespeare at work in the printed texts of a few of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, at the end of the balcony scene, he initially intended Romeo to say (at the end of act 2, scene 1):

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequ’ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And darkness fleckled like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s pathway, made by Titan’s wheels.

But then he changed his mind deciding both that this description would come better from the mouth of Friar Laurence on his first entrance at the beginning of the following scene, and also that he could polish them up a bit. So he rewrote them slightly, but apparently failed to delete his first version, so both versions appear in the printed text.

There’s an even more revealing example of this kind of thing in Love’s Labour’s Lost (in act four, scene three) where we can see Shakespeare getting into a tangle in a first draft of a speech of Biron and then starting afresh to produce his wonderfully exhilarating paeon in praise of love beginning ‘O we have made a vow to study, lords, / And in that vow we have forsworn our books.’ The manuscript that went to the printer clearly had not been thoroughly prepared for publication.

This kind of evidence disproves the idea that Shakespeare, as Ben Jonson said teasingly ‘never blotted line.’ In Love’s Labour’s Lost he has ‘blotted’ at least seventeen lines. But it does support the view that his verse could flow ‘with great facility’ once he got into full swing. Still, there are many passages of complex, even crabbed verse in his plays – especially the later ones - which show him struggling with difficult ideas and not always appearing to be totally on top of his material.

Putting the text into production

There had to come a point at which Shakespeare turned over his final manuscript – his ‘fair copy’ - to a scribe who would have the responsibility of making one or more full copies of it for use in the theatre – by a prompter, for instance - and by writing out each actor’s part individually so that the play could be put into rehearsal. ‘Have you the lion’s part written?’ says Snug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study.’ Since he has nothing to do but roar he’s told he doesn’t need a script – though he would need to learn his cues, in order to roar in the appropriate places.

Normally, plays were acted before they got into print. Each actor would have only his own part, all his speeches written out on a paper scroll with only a few words of the cue line to indicate when he had to come in. Very few such scrolls survive, and none for any of Shakespeare’s plays. The most substantial is for a role in Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso of 1592 written for Edward Alleyn, the star of the Lord Admiral’s Men, and even it is incomplete. It is made up of sheets of paper pasted together which would have made a document about seventeen feet long. It must have been unwieldy to manipulate; and the cue lines are very short. There are some stage directions. One can imagine the actor getting hopelessly and hilariously tangled up with it in rehearsal.

This method of putting on plays means that Shakespeare, as his company’s resident playwright, is likely to have been deeply involved in the process of rehearsal and production, at least until the plays had become established among the company’s repertory. An actor himself, he played roles in both his own and in other people’s plays. We don’t know which roles he undertook, nor does he seem to have had great acclaim as an actor. But he would have been available during the rehearsal process to discuss possible changes to his scripts. We have reason to believe that he made, or at least acquiesced to, more substantial revisions to several of his plays, including Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and King Lear, displayed in the differences between their quarto and Folio texts. Shakespeare’s revisions would have been made in consultation with the actors, who may well have contributed to them.

The scripts of his plays, then, were fluid; those that survive are as it were only snapshots taken at various periods of their evolution from first manuscripts through early production scripts through adaptation necessitated by varying conditions of performance and complicated by changes of their author’s mind. The processes by which Shakespeare composed his plays, and the extent, variety,  and quality of his output,  identify him as an immensely hard-working, practically-minded man who could adapt himself to the working conditions of his time, seeing himself as one of a team, and willing to listen to voices other than his own. At the same time, the range and originality of his work show that he could challenge orthodoxy and transcend convention to produce dramas that stretch the limits of the medium in which he was working.

A talk by Stanley Wells, for reference purposes only; not to be copied or reproduced

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