- Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
Stanley Wells's lifetime of experience with Shakespeare's life and work is reflected in Shakespeare & Co, an illuminating, entertaining, and much needed examination of Shakespeare and his working colleagues. An emeritus professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Wells adds Shakespeare & Co. to a long list of distinguished works, including, most recently, Shakespeare: For All Time (2003), published while he was coediting The Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Works.
He begins his new book by placing Shakespeare in London at the turn of the sixteenth century, aged thirty-seven, in the midst of writing Hamlet. From this vantage point, Wells orients us to those writers who influenced Shakespeare's early career (Lyly, Peele, Kyd, Greene, and Marlowe), acknowledges those who were his contemporaries (Chapman, Dekker, Jonson, Heywood, Marston, Fletcher, Middleton, and Beaumont), and looks forward to those who would follow him (Webster, Massinger, Ford). Wells "aims to place Shakespeare within his theatrical context, to chart his relationship with his fellow actors and dramatists, and to sketch the shifting reputations and lasting achievements of his fellow playwrights" (5). He succeeds admirably.
The book is chockablock with insights to surprise and delight even the most experienced scholar. Wells reveals, for instance, that "whereas in the public [outdoor] theatres plays were acted without a break, in the private theatres they were customarily divided into five acts, for the practical reason that candles used for illumination had to be trimmed at frequent intervals" (17). He cites Henslowe's diary concerning little-known playwright Robert Daborne to demonstrate that a playwright normally read his new play to the company (24). This triggers images of Shakespeare first reading his plays to his colleagues, speaking the lines himself, letting the actors hear them as he heard them. Later, Wells observes that during the six weeks of Lent, performances were forbidden, thereby suggesting that late winter/early spring might have brought Shakespeare back to Stratford and given him a predictable time of year in which to write.
When Wells turns to Shakespeare and the actors, revelations again abound. Generous quotations from Will Kemp's Nine Days Wonder, the autobiographical record of Kemp's jig from London to Norwich in February of 1600, bring to life the existence of the itinerate freelance performer. Wells reveals that Robert Armin (who succeeded Kemp as the primary comedian in Shakespeare's company) achieved guild status as a goldsmith, while James Burbage had been a joiner before becoming one of the most innovative theater producers of his (or any) [End Page 522] time (examples which suggest that actors have always needed a second profession to support themselves in hard times). Fine sleuthing enables Wells to trace the career of actor John Sinclo through the 1590s to the turn of the century and to establish that the man described as playing a "starved bloodhound" and "thin thing" in Henry IV, Part Two was likely the same who created Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night several years later (50). Wells contributes materially to Shakespeare studies by illuminating the lives of these theater folk and by making Shakespeare's relations with them so clear.
In "Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare's Other Early Contemporaries," Wells zeroes in on Shakespeare's earliest writing colleagues. Devoting a page or two each to John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Kyd, he takes the rest of the chapter to write in detail about the most influential playwright in London at the time: Christopher Marlowe. In describing the life and work of all these writers Wells has an unerring instinct for the telling biographical detail, the lively anecdote, and the apt quotation. Furthermore, his liberal citations from each writer's work give the reader an experience with the variety of styles surrounding the young Shakespeare as he began practicing his craft.
This is especially true of...