Was Shakespeare as popular in his own time as he is now?

By Laura Estill

09 June 2015 - 05:52

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most popular play in modern times, but how did Shakespeare's contemporaries rate his works? Professor Laura Estill of the World Shakespeare Bibliography looks at how attitudes to Shakespeare have changed over time.

Nearly 400 years after his death, the best-known of all Shakespeare's lines is ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet, his most popular play in modern times. Hamlet has been translated into more than 75 languages (even Klingon), and performances are always taking place across the world. The Globe-to-Globe Hamlet production, for example, is currently on a two-year tour. It will have performed in every country in the world by 23 April 2016.

Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, Jude Law, Maxine Peake and Ethan Hawke are just some of the famous actors who have played Hamlet in the last 50 years. It is perhaps the most iconic role in all theatre.

By looking at the number of publications of, and about, each Shakespeare play recorded in the World Shakespeare Bibliography, we can see that in the past 50 years, people have gravitated towards the tragedies. Among those, Hamlet is the most popular.

But this was not always the case.

In early modern London, Shakespeare’s most sought-after plays were not the tragedies but the histories

According to the Database of Early English Playbooks, the two most published plays (and likely the most popular) from the 1590s to the 1630s were Henry IV Part I – published 11 times – and Richard III, which was published ten times.

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays over his lifetime. He began with a tetralogy – a series of four plays that told the story of English Kings Henry VI and Richard III. He then, like Stars Wars creator George Lucas, went back in time to tell the stories leading up to that, with a focus on Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. (The ‘Henriad’, as these plays are known, seems to have been better received than the Star Wars prequels.)

Although we can only guess at why early audiences were so drawn to the histories, it could be that the histories held an importance that is hard to imagine today. England’s ruler at the start of Shakespeare’s career was Queen Elizabeth I. As she grew older, the people of England wondered who would be her heir. They were no doubt mindful of the uprisings and usurpations that preceded her reign – many of which were dramatised in Shakespeare’s plays.

At one point in her reign, the queen allegedly said ‘I am Richard II’, comparing herself to Shakespeare’s most famous deposed king. In a country where power was centred on the throne, the issues of sovereignty and power, dramatised in Shakespeare's history plays, would have been at the centre of society, affecting everyone within it.

Although Richard III and Henry IV have always been favourites, recent productions have helped rekindle a popular appreciation of these sometimes overlooked history plays. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is running the whole Henriad, featuring the stories of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V in a ‘King and Country’ season. The recent BBC television series The Hollow Crown, with Jeremy Irons as King Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (who eventually becomes Henry V), has created a new generation of fans. It's unlikely that Henry IV Part I will outpace Hamlet’s popularity anytime soon, though.

Historic notes can tell us a lot about early attitudes to Shakespeare

We can tell what Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought about his plays by looking at their manuscripts. These were handwritten documents where they would jot down notes, accounts, poems, and snippets from plays. According to the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts, early readers didn't prefer Shakespeare over other popular writers of the time, such as Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. It wasn't until the late 17th century, roughly 80 years after Hamlet was first performed and published, that readers copied out the ‘To be or not to be’ speech.

One mid-17th century commentary on Hamlet is found in Abraham Wright’s notebook (now held at the British Library). Wright criticised Hamlet as 'an indifferent [mediocre] play, the lines but mean [average].' Wright went so far as to claim that the gravedigger scene in Hamlet was 'since bettered in The Jealous Lovers', a play by Thomas Randolph that few people today have heard of. Wright did, however, enjoy Othello, which he deemed 'a very good play', and particularly liked the parts of 'villainous' Iago and 'jealous' Othello.

One of the earliest commentaries we have on Shakespeare comes from Gabriel Harvey, a scholar and writer, who noted in the margins of one of his books that 'the younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis; but his Lucrece and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them to please the wiser sort'.

These notes also show us that Shakespeare originally became popular as a poet, not a playwright. To many early readers, Shakespeare was known not as a distinguished dramatist, but as a poet, whose most important works were The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, and the Sonnets.

There are more opportunities to enjoy Shakespeare’s works today than there were in his own time

In Shakespeare’s time, his plays were performed at the Globe Theatre in London (recreated in today’s Shakespeare’s Globe). Entrance to the Globe cost only a penny for entrance to the ‘pit’ – an outdoor area in which people would stand to see the play. This cheap price meant that trade workers and merchants could afford to see plays at the Globe, while wealthier audience members paid more to sit in the gallery.

Shakespeare’s playing company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) also performed at the Blackfriars theatre, an indoor theatre where audience members sat on benches to see performances. At sixpence, admission to the Blackfriars was more expensive than the cheapest entrance to the Globe.

Beyond professional theatres, Shakespeare’s works were sometimes played at court before the nobility, or in schools.

Today, people from around the world attend Shakespeare’s plays in parks, theatres and cinemas. From free outdoor shows to front-row seats in London’s West End, Shakespeare’s audiences in the 21st century are even more varied than in Shakespeare’s time. His works are also performed globally in many artistic disciplines and languages. In 2012, Shakespeare’s 37 plays were performed in 37 languages in London as part of the Globe to Globe festival, with companies from across the world celebrating Shakespeare within their own theatrical traditions.

Today’s Shakespeare is not the Shakespeare of his own time

Looking at early responses to Shakespeare leads us to ask why his works have been glorified over those of his contemporaries. There is ultimately not one individual answer, but many, just as there have been many responses to Shakespeare’s works. David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee, an 18th century celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works, is an example of the bardolatry (praise of Shakespeare’s genius) that has grown surrounding his works. The range of responses to Shakespeare’s works across the centuries is just one reason that they are, as Ben Jonson put it, ‘not of an age, but for all time.’

The British Council is planning a year-long global programme celebrating Shakespeare’s works in 2016. Find out about the Shakespeare Lives 2016 programme of activities.

Read this article in Farsi.

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