Why Shakespeare?

Not, Why do we study his plays in schools around the world? Why is he still performed when many other playwrights from his time are forgotten? Why does his name mean something (from greatness to boredom) to just about everyone in the world?

Just, Why Shakespeare?

It’s a simple question, with as many answers as there are people in the world. I’ll answer it for me, and hope that my reasons spark something in you. 

You see, when you ask me Why Shakespeare, I won’t tell you it’s because he was a great poet and literary genius (though he was); I won’t tell you it’s because his stories have seeped into popular consciousness (though they have – if I say Romeo & Juliet, everyone knows what sort of love story I’m talking about, whether you have seen the play or not); I won’t tell you it’s because all of us use his invented words and phrases all the time (though we do, and it’s high time we realised, and that’s the short and the long of it).

‘Quoting Shakespeare’ original poster by Bernard Levin

When you ask me, “Why Shakespeare?”, I’ll tell you it’s because he captured the essence of drama like no one else ever has, because he used everything that theatre was in his time with an insider’s understanding, because he knew what to put in, how to use it, and what to leave out.

In this post (the first in a series of three), I’ll unpack the first of these reasons – Shakespeare creating theatre from the inside.

The Lost Years

The first acting troupe to which Shakespeare was probably apprenticed would have been made up of young guys. Edward Alleyn, who was the Chris Hemsworth of his day, was the third highest on the billing of the Admiral’s Men when was only 14 years old. These were young guys, strutting their stuff, making the pop culture of their time. They weren’t old and stuffy. They were young and innovative. 

When Shakespeare hit London, there were still some old stuffy guys around writing plays for the acting troupes to put on. Some of the more popular plays of the day were written by University men, like Christopher Marlowe. Alleyn made his name as the lead in Marlowe’s plays. When Shakespeare, one of the actors, started writing plays himself, one of the other University men, got grumpy. Robert Greene, complained of Shakespeare as:

“an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Players hide [quoting Shakespeare’s “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”, from his Henry VI, Part 3], supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you [that is, all of us University Men]: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country”.

Shakespeare wasn’t the posh, literary classicist, composing fine poetry in a turret room. There were guys doing that, and they hated him because he was an actor on the stage, a liveried servant, doing it better than them.

So my first reason for why Shakespeare is simply because he was an actor who clearly understood the theatre. What about you, why Shakespeare? What brings you here to this blog?

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