Choosing Playwrights

Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” writes Garry Wills in Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater , “are working, usually from a false and modern premise.” They think of Shakespeare as something like a modern playwright who writes a play, shops it around, and finds a producer to put on the play.

In Elizabethan England, by contrast, “the process began with the actors. They chose the playwright, not vice versa. They owned the play, to publish or withhold it from publication . . . . An aspiring playwright had to bring his ideas to these actors (or their representatives) with a plot accommodated to the number and talents of the particular troupe. The parts he was describing had to be arranged to allow for multiple doublings. A man playing two roles could not meet himself onstage, or even come back in as someone else too soon . . . . The plot had to be tailored for the company from the very outset.”

Shakespeare was attached to particular companies, but even in this setting he wrote to “the known strengths of particular actors.” He didn’t shop around for unattached starving actors, but “began with the four men already in his company and wrote the play to use them.”

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