About Stanley Wells
An Interview with Stanley Wells
More About Stanley Wells
Stanley Wells is the General Editor of the Penguin Shakespeare. He is Emeritus Professor of the University of Birmingham and Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Stanley Wells, author of Shakespeare & Co. answers our questions on all things bard.
In Shakespeare & Co. you argue that a lot of Shakespeare's achievements are built on the theatrical world and the other writers around him. Do you
think that they get unfairly overlooked?
Yes, I think it's only too common to see Shakespeare as a solitary eminence, spinning immortal masterpieces out of his own imagination. In the first place, his plays are rooted in the theatres, and the theatrical conditions, of his own time. That's why the first chapter of my book paints a picture of the professional environment in which he worked. Secondly, as the only dramatist of his time to be intimately associated for almost all of his professional life with a single, and unusually stable, company of actors, he had an exceptionally close relationship with those who put on the plays. He wrote with specific actors in mind, he knew their strengths and their weaknesses, and he knew that they would make a genuinely creative contribution to what he wrote. Which is why my second chapter is all about the actors and the acting profession of the time in which he wrote. Thirdly - and this is the thrust of the rest of the book - he was influenced by other writers, he influenced them, and he worked in closer collaboration with some of them than is usually realized.
Do you think that the book will be seen as a challenge to those who put Shakespeare on a pedestal?
I hope it will do nothing to suggest that Shakespeare is any less great than he is usually thought to be. On the other hand I should like people to realise that he was not an isolated phenomenon. His roots lie in the Elizabethan generation of dramatists - Lyly, Greene, Marlowe - who were his immediate predecessors. And he has very close links with the Jacobean generation - Dekker, Jonson, Middleton - so I think my book will help readers to understand that there were other great dramatists at the time. And especially I try to explain ways in which their greatness differed from his. I think excessive concentration on Shakespeare can diminish understanding of plays written in different styles. To give examples, I think we are so used to thinking of tragedy in the romantic terms associated with Shakespeare that we fail to understand, and to find valid ways of performing, ironic tragedies such as Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy.
You are one of our greatest Shakespeare scholars writing today. Did you learn more about Shakespeare when you were writing this book?
O, that's kind of you to say so! Yes, I became more conscious of the debts he owes to his contemporaries. And seeing his work in relation to theirs made me realize that as time went on he didn't change his fundamental techniques of writing to fit the fashion of the times. Throughout his career he preferred to write about the past and about distant places. There was a great shift in theatrical modes in the last year of the sixteenth century, when dramatists like Dekker, Jonson and Middleton started writing about contemporary London, but Shakespeare didn't join in on this. As a result he may - dare one say it? - have come to seem rather old-fashioned. Indeed I suspect that in his last years, when his poetic style became extremely rarefied, audiences, and perhaps his colleagues, may have preferred the more easily comprehensible, if less profound, work of his young colleague and collaborator John Fletcher. In fact I even speculate that at the end, the theatre company may have given him the push!
There is a lot of history in Shakespeare & Co. Do you think that history helps us enjoy watching Shakespeare's plays in performance?
Some of the history is history of the theatre and yes, I do think this helps us to understand the plays in performance. Otherwise it's about the lives of the writers I deal with, and whether or not this helps with performance I certainly think it's often fascinating and revealing in itself. Some of these writers were wonderful characters - Marlowe, for instance - forger, spy, reputed atheist and homosexual at the same time as being a great writer with a wider emotional range than he's often credited with. And Ben Jonson, pugnacious, cantankerous, quarrelsome, and self-centred, is a wonderful source of gossip about his fellow-writers - including Shakespeare.
Of the authors you are writing about, do you have a favourite, or a favourite play, amongst them?
Marlowe has a special fascination for me, and I think his play The Jew of Malta has amazing theatrical vitality in a totally non-Shakespearian mode. Dekker is under-rated, too, and I have a soft spot for The Shoemaker's Holiday, a genial comedy which used to be more often performed that it is nowadays.
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