Will's World

By Cohen, Derek | American Theatre, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Will's World


Cohen, Derek, American Theatre


It is rare these days to read a scholarly book that is as beautifully written as Peter Thomson's Shakespeare's Professional Career. To enter the overtrodden ground of Shakespearean biography and politics can be a daunting prospect for reader and writer alike, but Thomson, with his lively pen and sharp, witty mind, makes it easy and pleasant to go over what we think we already know--and, with deceptive ease, offers new and interesting insights from his unusual perspective.

This is not, in fact, a biography of Shakespeare but an account of the professional world he inhabited, and the book offers a number of plausible speculations about what might well have been the case in that much-explored terrain. Shakespeare himself manages to remain a somewhat shadowy presence in this book, with center stage reserved for the conditions which determined and dominated the career of people tied to the theatre by choice or by circumstance. Thomson discusses the surrounding, dependent activities which allowed the theatre to develop and exist: prostitution, acting, catering, transportation, bull- and bear-baiting, hostelry, building and architecture--are all seen with a fine synoptic eye, and related to the study with a strong sense of their economic and political interconnectedness. Thus Thomson offers a sweeping but delightfully detailed view of the rushing excitement of the often seedy, but never dull, world of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Shakespeare functions here as a point of reference--as a prime example, rather than as a model. Thomson allows himself to suggest the nature of Shakespeare's greatness--though he does not call it that--and the nature of Shakespeare's contribution to the drama. He writes:

By the time Shakespeare left the theatre, the national drama had assimilated a method of recording human behavior that gave due recognition to its complexity. Shakespeare was both the major inspirer of this shift, and its supreme exemplar.

"Shakespeare," he goes on, "empowered his actors as no European playwright had done before him." He "invented character by building on role."

Thomson has chapters on patronage, on publishing conditions and the likely and known fates of the play texts, on censorship, and on the often wicked rivalry of the playhouses. He writes about the audiences and their history, of the ways in which audiences were perceived and occasionally feared by the authorities, and what was done to oversee and control them.

The skills and conditions of work for actors are treated in fascinating detail. …

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