MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shakespeare at Work


Just how “tailor-made” were Shakespeare’s plays for the particular actors in his company? In the TLS, Charles Nicholl reviews Shakespeare in Company by Bart Van Es. This new book “seeks to show that Shakespeare’s achievement as a writer was in crucial ways communal; that the contributions of his playhouse colleagues, indeed his whole immersion in the business and practice of the theatre, are woven into the fabric of his plays; and that in a broadly chronological framework one can see his literary skills evolving in response to certain changes in his working conditions.”

Van Es offers a corrective to the later Romantic image of the lone “lofty genius” — with interesting comparisons to be made along the way, incidentally, with the give-and-take of composers like Handel who wrote for particular performers and within a demanding commercial framework. According to Nicholl, Ven Es gives us a down-to-earth portrait of “a poet at work in the daily professional context of a busy and successful theatre company.”

Of special fascination is the influence of writing for the tragedian Richard Burbage and the comedian Robert Armin. The arrival of the latter to replace the previous “star comic” Will Kemp led to “a stylistic watershed in Shakespearean comedy.” Nicholl explains:

Kemp was an old-style “jigs and bawdry” man, whose typical Shakespearean parts were lovable bozos like Bottom and Dogberry; he may also have been the world’s first Falstaff. By contrast, the parts written for Armin during the first few years of the new century are the more complex, mercurial “fools”, whose wit is satirical and edgy yet tinged also with melancholy. The first role specially tailored for Armin was Touchstone in “As You Like It”….

Further Armin roles, in probable order of composition, are Feste in “Twelfth Night,” Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida,” Lavatch in “All’s Well” and the Fool in “Lear.” The last of these is a radical relocation of the truth-telling jester to the terrain of tragedy. Armin’s last identifiable Shakespearean role is Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale.”

Filed under: book recs, Shakespeare

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