After Shakespeare: 4 Playwrights to Explore

While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Wednesday, July 8th.

This post originally ran February 4, 2015.
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Everybody knows that Shakespeare sits at the pinnacle of the authorial pyramid, his work deservedly considered as the finest example of the wonders of the written word. Other writers have avid fans–Dickensians and Janeites, for example–but he’s the only one who inspires fervor that approaches worship. “Bardolatry,” in other words.

Painting of the Birth of Shakespeare

Angelica Kauffman’s 1770 painting The Birth of Shakespeare, in which the infant is attended by Fantasy and the muses of Tragedy and Comedy. Little over the top, huh?

I’m not knocking the guy–if any literary figure is deserving of this level of adulation, it’s him. There are problems with building him so high a pedestal, though. For one, it encourages readers and playgoers to see him as superhuman, and to distrust his established biography. Hence the rising tide of anti-Stratfordian nonsense that culminated in 2012’s absurd cinematic flop Anonymous, which claimed not only that the Earl of Oxford was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works, but that he was both lover and son of Elizabeth I.

A more serious problem with obsessive bardolatry is that it leaves you nowhere to go. Since nothing else measures up, you might as well skip it all and stick with the creme de la creme. But even the most devoted fan will eventually tire of re-reading Troilus and Cressida. What do you do when you’ve had your fill of Shakespeare?

What you should do is branch out by reading some of his contemporaries. Brilliant as he was, he didn’t work in isolation, and he could never have attained the heights he did without being pushed by his colleagues. While not as accomplished overall, many of them surpassed him in certain things. Understanding their work not only shows the true contours of the Bard’s achievement, but it opens up territory he never explored. There’s more than one 450-year-old playwright worth knowing!

Christopher Marlowe portraitTake Christopher Marlowe. A charismatic and irreverent figure, he moved right from college at Cambridge onto the London theater scene, becoming the first star author of English drama. His use of blank verse set the standard for his era and was copied by virtually every playwright who came after him. In Doctor Faustus, the two parts of Tamburlaine, and other dramatic works, he featured ambitious, nihilistic anti-heroes who succeed on a grand scale before flaming out spectacularly. Charming despite their bad intentions, they served as models for better-known characters including Shakespeare’s Richard III, and with their florid speech, shocking manners, and casual violence, wouldn’t be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

During Marlowe’s prime years, he dueled, blasphemed, and had a side career as a spy for Elizabeth’s government. He died at 29 in a bar brawl that was almost certainly cover for a politically motivated assassination, just as his slightly younger counterpart Shakespeare was beginning his career. He later elegized his predecessor via an allusion in As You Like It.

Ben Jonson portraitBen Jonson was a study in contrasts. He was the stepson of a bricklayer and later a soldier who killed a man in hand-to-hand combat, but also one of the best-educated men of his generation. Irascible, argumentative, and thin-skinned, he nonetheless inspired loyalty from a vast host of followers who called themselves the “sons of Ben.” Jailed more than once for his allegedly seditious drama, he rose to become the official provider of entertainments for the court of King James I.

Jonson was a stickler for form and was often aghast at his friend Shakespeare’s indifferent approach. Violating the classical unities and giving Bohemia a seacoast–horrors! You won’t find those kinds of mistakes in Jonson’s plays. Nor will you always find richly rounded characters, but that’s not what he was trying to create. One of his main interests was capturing the fullness of the life that he saw all around him, and plays such as Bartholomew Fair and The Alchemist do just that. They depict every class and type, from the most menial to the highest born, and while they may or may not show exactly what London was like back then, they do show exactly how Londoners saw it.

Thomas Middleton portraitThomas Middleton was one of the few playwrights of the era to enjoy equal success with darkness and light alike. He, like Jonson, was a master of city comedy, as proved by A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and his Revenger’s Tragedy virtually defined a genre. Middleton was also among the best at writing significant parts for women (though they were still played by men at the time), as can be seen in The Roaring Girl, the title role of which was memorably revived in recent years by Helen Mirren.

His greatest triumph came with a play called A Game at Chess, which allegorized the tense, ongoing negotiations between traditional enemies Spain and England. Its popularity led to the first continuing run in stage history–before it and for many years afterward, no theater would produce the same piece on successive days. Audiences flocked to see contemporary aristocrats and political figures parodied until the play was canceled by the authorities. Its author’s career was likewise aborted, and as far as can be determined, he was never permitted to write for the stage again.

Aphra Behn portraitAphra Behn followed in the footsteps of these authors about a generation on, and became the first woman to earn a living by her pen. Although she intentionally obscured her personal history, she seems to have spent time in what is now Suriname, an experience that led to a novel called Oroonoko, a sympathetic portrait of a rebellious slave. She also seems to have been involved in espionage in the Netherlands.

Despite her tumultous life, she was a prolific writer. Much of what she published was ignored, but her bawdy play The Rover survives as a key feminist text. In many ways, she was far ahead of her time and had to wait until deep into the 20th century before her worth was recognized.

Reading these writers should put to rest the notion that Shakespeare was some kind of solitary genius living on a cloud. He and his colleagues competed with each other in the most commercial and populist style they could, sort of like the auteurist TV scribes of today. Is it sacrilege to compare the Bard to showrunners like Joss Whedon, Shonda Rhimes, and Aaron Sorkin? Maybe a little, but it’s a lot better than worship from afar.

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