Research Musings: Shakespeare, and…

This one will be brief, but I made a pact with myself to write something every single day, so here goes:

In doing some preliminary online examinations of archives today (Bristol Theatre Collection, RSC/Birthplace Trust, etc.) it occurred to me to see what the Globe had available online. While I knew that the (new) Globe had never produced The Changeling, I was surprised by the other early modern plays I found in their ‘past productions’ section. In its entire existence, the Globe has produced only five early modern plays which are not ascribed to William Shakespeare: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Maid’s Tragedy in 1997, A Mad World, My Masters and The Honest Whore in 1998, and Doctor Faustus in 2011. Compare this to the eight plays the Globe has produced since 2009 that fall under the category of ‘new writing’. 

One of the questions that I wanted to research as part of my PhD was the thought process behind a company’s choice to produce The Changeling. I was especially interested in companies whose mandate is explicitly to produce Shakespeare’s plays–and when you’ve called yourself ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, one might assume that your company’s mandate has something to do with the Bard. The Globe hasn’t produced The Changeling since its resurrection, but Thomas Middleton is the second most recurring playwright in their repertoire, miles ahead of Marlowe or Beaumont and Fletcher.

Two questions are arising out of this discovery for me:

Firstly, are the Globe’s choices significant? In other words, does it matter which early modern plays outside of the Shakespeare canon the Globe chooses to produce? Is their choice to do, say, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside more significant than anyone else’s? And what, if anything, is to be made of the fact that Middleton’s two most-performed plays (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) are nowhere to be found?

Secondly, am I wrong to be framing any part of my research (and eventually my argument) in terms of Shakespeare or Shakespeare-focused companies? I had this thought today whilst trying to block out the sounds of circus performers just outside the library windows (seriously). Every single source I’ve read so far about Middleton or Middleton and Rowley or The Changeling or all of the above comes back to a comparison to Shakespeare. Shakespeare certainly isn’t routinely compared to another playwright in critical analyses of his works–or if he is, it’s done to make a specific point about a specific relationship between characters or plot lines or dramaturgical considerations; very rarely is Shakespeare broadly compared to one of his contemporaries in critical writings. Middleton, on the other hand, is always analysed in terms of Shakespeare. Am I crazy to dream of a day when Shakespeare will be analysed in terms of his contemporaries’ work just as often as his contemporaries are analysed in terms of his work? And is it really any kind of meaningful rebellion to leave Shakespeare out of my analysis of Middleton and Rowley’s play? Will that just seem negligent? Or will anyone even notice?

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3 Comments

  1. Have you come across Stanley Wells’ book “Shakespeare & Co”? It came out a couple of years ago and broadly takes the view that Shakespeare’s contemporary writers produced different, not lesser, works. Their reputations have suffered through having lived at the same time as WS.

  2. I am a volunteer steward at Shakespeare’s Globe. Fellow stewards have spoken of a production of Marlowe’s “Dido Queen of Carthage”. This was during Mark Rylance’s time as Artistic Director. Incidentally, the Globe has a library, and an education department and is likely to respond to any questions you might care to put to them. You might consider approaching Mark Rylance as well.

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