Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Will Shakespeare retires from the theater 1611

No one knows exactly what day the most famous writer of all sold his shares in the Globe Theater and the acting company The Kings’ Men, packed his books and clothes, hugged his fellows and hired a post horse to take him home to retire in Stratford-on-Avon where his estranged wife and two grown daughters had long awaited him. No one knows because few records were kept of ordinary people then and a scribbler of plays which would be performed six or eight times and disappear was very ordinary

London at that time was a walled city of seven gates; some mansions, farmlands, and villages (among them Charing Cross) stood between it and the city of Westminster. Its population in narrow winding streets was upward then of 100,000. The open-air Globe, however, stood across the Thames outside the city limits in Southwark so the Puritans in the London government could not order it closed. Most of the players lived in the city itself and had to take a wherry across the Thames to the water steps leading to their theater.

The actors were drawn from the shareholders, the apprentice boys whom they trained up to play the women (women would not be allowed on the English stage until after 1666), actors hired by the week and by the day. Each likely played many parts. It was not an easy life: with a few read-throughs if that, the play went on. But by the time Shakespeare retired, plays were also being given in the Blackfriars Theater, a small indoor theater, one of the first of its kind.

At the age of 47, Will was a tired man. He had entered the theater in about 1590 when it was just emerging from the church steps and innyards of the medieval era and left at its height; though talented writers emerged after him, none could ever equal his golden age. So likely he left shortly after his performance of his last great play The Tempest with its famous speech by the magician Prospero:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air…

His departure was noted only by those who did not keep diaries and dates. He came back to visit in 1613 when eight of his plays were performed at Whitehall for the betrothal of King James’s daughter and took the opportunity to buy some property. On the profits from his shares in the Globe, he had bought the most impressive house in Stratford, perhaps to show his neighbors that the young man who had left his small town for the theater world in the big city had made good after all.

And what about his original manuscripts? They were probably discarded after the printing of the First Folio or perhaps destroyed when the Puritans tore down the Globe in 1644. And his letters? Likely used to light fires or line pie tins. Who would keep a letter?

As soon as Shakespeare could afford it, he had acquired a coat of arms and so it was as a landed gentleman that he returned to Stratford and died at the age of 52 in 1616. He never bothered to have his plays printed and many of them would have been lost if two of his best friends and fellow actors Heminges and Condell had not collected them into the large book known as the First Folio in 1623. A monument to those two men stands in the old City of London today a short walk away from where Heminges lived on Wood Street, that house where a bunch of tired actors may have gathered more than four hundred years ago to read through a long new play called Hamlet.

Shakespeare thought he went home quietly but those who love his work have long proved otherwise.

Stephanie Cowell


Kim Murphy said...

Great post, Stephanie! I was recently reading that a number of people think The Tempest was based on the shipwreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda.

Stephanie Cowell said...

I think you're right about that, Kim! I am a little rusty on my Shakespeare scholarship because I have not written a book about him in a while (I published THE PLAYERS in 1997 and my agent is holding the sequel to sell later)...writing this got me back into the love of it. I have a huge heavy reproduction of the First Folio which I want to look at again.

Anita Davison said...

The last time I was in the city I visited the rebuilt Globe Theatre, which faithfully recreates the original. It's an amazing structure and a real working theatre.
I took one of my author friends with me last year who was on a trip from New York and she said she had never seen a thatched roof before and was fascinated.
I am determined to go there to see a production this summer, maybe even stand in the pit and throw ripe fruit at the players!! Well, do a bit of heckling anyway - Wonder if I'll get away with it.

Alison Stuart said...

I will be in LOndon in June and would love to go to the Globe theatre!
Great blog, Stephanie!