Shakespeare’s contemporaries

April is Poetry Month, and specifically on the 23rd of this month is Shakespeare Day when we celebrate the life and works of the Bard whose poetry and plays have entertained and inspired us since their first publication or performance in the late 1500s and early part of the 1600s. No writer has had a more profound and lasting impact on human civilization than William Shakespeare. His influence on society and pop culture to this day is a testament to the enduring quality of his plays and the timelessness of his stories, which capture the human experience with great authenticity. The genius of Shakespeare was not so much his mastery of the English language as it was his uncanny understanding of human nature. We love his puns and his poetic style, but it’s his power of observation and his ability to look inward for inspiration that truly is his brilliance. His inventive mind has created characters that resonate with his audience, and his plays reveal so much about who we are, for they’re stories about us. In his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the late Harold Bloom notes that we can’t fully explain Shakespeare, but he “will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” That is the genius of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had the good fortune to write in an age when the theater was growing and becoming hugely popular and in an environment that fostered a wide variety of dramatic works by talented dramatists who were perhaps geniuses in their own right. Shakespeare’s literary genius was in some respects influenced by the creative minds of his contemporaries, such as Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Ben Johnson, and Thomas Middleton, among others. With the exception of Marlowe and Johnson, these playwrights are not very well known outside of academia—partly because Shakespeare’s name eclipses their fame—but their plays deserve mention when discussing the greatness of English Renaissance drama. Playwriting during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras was very much a collaborative effort, in which ideas were often shared or borrowed, and there’s probably no doubt that Shakespeare and his contemporaries influenced one another and even shared ideas. Shakespeare Day is not only a day to pay homage to the man himself but it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the Bard’s fellow dramatists. This blog will highlight five of them alongside one of their more notable plays.

Frontispiece to a 1620 printing of Doctor Faustus showing Faustus conjuring Mephistophilis.Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588-89)

Before there was Lord Byron, there was Christopher Marlowe…flamboyant, worldly, nonconformist, debauchee, and a man of mystery and intrigue. He lived fast and died young. He was for a time a spy for the Queen, a side gig that probably led directly to his untimely death. Only second to Shakespeare, he is one of the more recognizable names in Elizabethan drama. During his short writing career, he wrote a few great poems—notably Hero and Leander—and produced five exceptional plays: Tamburlaine, parts 1 and 2, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II. Had he lived longer, who knows what other plays he might have produced. Given his talent and learning, they certainly would have been of the same caliber as the ones in his corpus. Doctor Faustus is perhaps his best known play, which is about an ambitious man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for divine knowledge and absolute power.

Dr. Faustus is a German scholar who feels he’s reached the limits of human knowledge and understanding and seeks to learn magic. Two of his friends introduce him to the black arts, and he soon becomes a magician and summons Mephistopheles. He makes a pact with the devil; in exchange for his soul, Faustus will be granted arcane knowledge and power for twenty-four years, during which Mephistopheles will be at his service.  Faustus does have some misgivings before he signs his soul away, but the thought of absolute power dispels any reservations he has and he signs his name in blood. For the next two decades, Faustus enjoys the benefits of his “deal,” such as teleporting to different places, going invisible and pranking the Pope, and summoning the most beautiful woman who once lived, Helen of Troy. His use of power is quite frivolous, and in many ways his foolish choices make him an even more tragic figure. For a play that conveys a sense of gravitas, Doctor Faustus is a bit funny, as it has a few comedic scenes in which Faustus plays tricks and humiliates people who cross him. But we’re ever reminded of the seriousness and irreversible nature of his pact, and on the twenty-fourth year, near the play’s ending, Mephistopheles and his host of devils come to collect their dues.

Title page of The Spanish Tragedy (1615)Thomas Kyd (1558–1594)

The Spanish Tragedy (1585-87?)

Thomas Kyd was born a few years before Shakespeare and Marlowe (the latter two being born the same year in 1564) and while he did not produce very many plays, he was very influential in the development of Renaissance drama. He was friends with Marlowe and for a brief period shared a room with him in a boarding house. Both shared the same political views and had similar literary talents and ambitions. It can be said that the era of greatness in Elizabethan tragedy began with these two playwrights. Kyd is pretty much remembered for only one play, The Spanish Tragedy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when that play spawned the revenge tragedy genre and influenced many plays of this type during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, most notably Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Revenge tragedies have their origin in the Roman tragedies of Seneca, which were the inspiration for Kyd. As the name implies, revenge tragedies are about REVENGE! And they’re always bloody and violent, as defined by The Spanish Tragedy.

The story takes place in Spain, hence the title of the play. It starts with the ghost of Don Andrea, a Spanish nobleman, and the spirit of Revenge, who tells him that by the end of the play his death will be avenged. He was killed by Balthazar, prince of Portugal, who afterwards was captured and is now in the custody of Lorenzo, the son of the Duke and brother of the beautiful Bel-Imperia. She was beloved of Don Andrea but now has her eyes on Horatio, friend to the Don and victor of Balthazar. But there’s a big problem—Balthazar has fallen in love with Bel-Imperia and wishes to marry her! And to make matters worse, he soon becomes buddies with Lorenzo and both conspire to kill Horatio. His death sets in motion the mechanism of revenge by his father, Hieronimo, who is driven to madness by the murder of his son. He plans an ingenious revenge by staging a play in which the two murderers have leading roles. In many respects, the plot of Kyd’s tragedy mirrors the plot of Hieronimo’s play, and by the end of both plays the stage is awash in blood with the death of all the main players.

Title page of The Duchess of Malfi (1623)John Webster(1580–1634)

The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14)

John Webster’s body of work is quite small, but nonetheless he is considered one of the best Renaissance dramatists alongside the likes of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, partly because his plays are exceptionally well written, and when they’re performed they demand a cerebral response, despite the extreme violence of his tragedies.  His two noteworthy plays The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi represent the best of Jacobean tragedy with their complex and Machiavellian plots, portrayal of human cruelty and violence, and sense of intrigue. Unlike the tragedies of some of his peers, his are not meant to shock nor to elicit a visceral response with their depiction of violence, murder, treachery, and adultery, but rather to show the darker side of human nature and the unpleasant realities of life. The Duchess of Malfi is Webster’s finest play and perhaps one of the last great English tragedies from the Jacobean era. It’s a story about love, lust, class, and justice; it explores the extremes of human depravity and how far one will go in pursuit of one’s goal.

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the more tragic plays in the corpus of Renaissance English tragedies. The play centers on a spirited and strong-willed Duchess who is in love with her trustworthy steward Antonio. She is recently widowed and wishes to marry him, but her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, object to their union, mainly because Antonio is of low birth. They marry in secret and in the intervening years have three children. When her brothers find out through a spy named Bosola, they are incensed and seek to punish her and her lover. Ferdinand confronts the Duchess and gives her a dagger so that she can restore her honor by killing herself. She says she’s married and refuses. Her family soon after flees from Malfi but is intercepted. However, Antonio is able to escape with their eldest son, but the Duchess is captured with two of her children and all three are later imprisoned. Ferdinand orders the execution of his sister and two nephews, but he quickly regrets it and goes mad with guilt after they have been strangled. The final act is one of passion, rage, retribution, and utter carnage as Bosola becomes the Duchess’s avenger and turns on the two brothers.

Title and cover page of The Revenger's Tragedy (1608)Thomas Middleton (1580–1627)

The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607)

Thomas Middleton was one of the more prolific playwrights of the early 17th century. He wrote both comedy and tragedy, poetry, and prose. Masque and pageant plays had a resurgence in Jacobean theater, and he wrote those as well. It’s said that he preferred writing to studying and thus left Queen’s College, Oxford, without a degree so that he could spend more time publishing poetry and satirical pieces before turning to drama, an interest that soon became his vocation.  He collaborated with other playwrights, such as Thomas Dekker, Cyril Tourner, William Rowley, Ben Johnson, and Shakespeare, with whom he wrote Timon of Athens. He was a popular and successful playwright in his days, and many of his plays were well received. Women Beware Women(1620-24[?]) and The Changeling (1622) are considered his masterpiece, but The Revenger’s Tragedy merits mention because it simply is an entertaining revenge drama that pushes the boundaries of the genre. It has dark humor, but the play is otherwise morally revolting and cynical in its depiction of a corrupt family and the avenger’s sense of justice. The play conforms to and parodies the conventions of Renaissance revenge tragedy, for it is at once funny and savage.

The play opens with one of the most poignant scenes in any Renaissance tragedy. The main character and agent of vengeance, Vindice, enters the stage holding the skull of his dearly departed Gloriana who was poisoned by the Duke. He killed her because she refused to sleep with him—many of the plays of the time had elements of sex and scandal! He’s never really moved on since her death and vows to avenge her. The opportunity to kill the Duke comes when he finds out that his eldest son, Lussurioso, is seeking a woman and is thus looking for a procurer (a person who procures women of ill-repute). Vindice uses this opportunity to get close to the Duke and his son. In his disguise as a procurer he tricks Lussurioso and gets him locked up, a situation that his two step-brothers take advantage of by trying to have him killed so that one of them could inherit the Duke’s title. But they’re so grossly incompetent at plotting, conspiring, and murder that they end up killing the younger brother, who was in jail at the time for a vile crime. Their bumbling vengeful act adds some dark humor to the play, which overall is almost satirical in its revenge killings that it becomes a show of horror and amusement. Vindice gets his chance to kill the Duke when he (still disguised as a procurer) is asked to acquire an effigy of his beloved Gloriana. Yes, the Duke has a twisted mind! Vindice poisons the effigy so that when the Duke kisses it he’ll die, but not before being physically and mentally tortured. By the end of the play, Vindice also kills Lussurioso (the Duke’s heir and successor), but he is soon captured and sentenced to death, a fate he welcomes because now he can be with his Gloriana whose skull was a constant reminder of vengeance.

The Title Page of Volpone in Ben Jonson's Collected Works (1616)Ben Johnson (1572–1637)

Volpone (1606)

Ben Johnson was a towering figure in Shakespeare’s day. It might be said that if Shakespeare had never existed or had he not achieved great fame, we would be lavishing praise and attention on Johnson today. He was the quintessential man of letters, the consummate writer whose writings include dramas, essays, poetry, satire, and criticism. He was a close friend of Shakespeare and worked closely with him; though they didn’t collaborate on any plays, Shakespeare did perform in Johnson’s first play titled Every Man in His Humor.  His plays include many comedies with only two tragedies, which weren’t well received in his time. So tragedies weren’t his forte, but he received much literary acclaim for his comedies. They were and continue to be very popular because they have a very ordinary sense of humor. They mostly chronicle the life and values of ordinary people, and that has always appealed to the working class who went to see plays in 16th- and 17th-century England. Johnson is best known for Epicene, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, and Volpone, which, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, are still performed today. Volpone, in particular, is hugely popular with a modern audience as it was with a Renaissance one. It’s a play about human greed and ruthless guile with characters whose names reflect their bestial characteristics. The tricks played on everyone make Volpone cruelly funny.

Volpone, which means fox in Italian, is a Venetian aristocrat (but actually a con artist) who has a stash of gold hidden away. He is wealthy, heirless, and old, and a few citizens seek to inherit his wealth by befriending him. The merchant Corvino (the crow), the lawyer Voltore (the vulture), and the elderly gentleman Corbaccio (the raven) lavish gifts and favors on Volpone in the hope of benefiting from his will when he dies. Volpone knows their intentions and pretends to be sick and dying so that he can milk these gold-diggers for all that they’re worth.  He collects “get well” gifts from Corvino and Voltore and persuades Corbaccio to disinherit his son in favor of him.  His clever servant Mosca (the fly or parasite) helps him trick these three legacy hunters, but he is eventually betrayed by him. In order to prevent Mosca from getting his fortune, Volpone is forced to reveal his plot and deception during a court proceeding and at the end of the play everyone is justly punished.

Check out this blog for some recommended Shakespeare plays to read!