All creativity, even the most famous, can be explained. To call it genius is just rhetoric, a way of evading explanation. Shakespeare, like everyone else, had to go through the process of getting it done. That means day by day, in a sequence of years that started when he wasn’t a genius, and built up as he did the things that made his reputation. There were times when it didn’t click and the products weren’t so great. This is our material to analyze.
In The Sociology of Philosophies, I used the micro-sociological method to analyze philosophers and mathematicians: both where creativity happens, and the kinds of things that get created. Two key ingredients are networks and internalized techniques.
Being creative is having the techniques to make something that becomes famous. Where do the techniques come from? In part, they come from the network-- one’s immediate predecessors, collaborators and rivals. In part-- because to become creative on your own is to make new techniques. This is done by combining techniques from the past, or reversing some into their opposite, thus creating new effects. Close acquaintance with the network of previous creators is important because you need to internalize their techniques, until you can roll with them, generating a flow of emotional energy. This internal process is what outsiders can’t see and what impresses them as overpowering genius. And it is why the most creative persons come out of a network of other creative persons.
I will give several examples of Shakespeare’s techniques for writing plays, and how he built, not only on predecessors’ work, but on his own previous plays.
I. Shakespeare’s techniques for transforming earlier plays into new plays
Creativity by reversal and recombination
Shakespeare enters the playwright network
From simple to complex villain to self-destructive tragic hero
Early success in the blood-and-gore market
Promoting the subplot: creating complex characters on the border of comedy
Shakespeare the text-searching scholar
How Shakespeare could write a bad play
II. The networks that launched Shakespeare
How Shakespeare became a great poet
The actor/playwright network
Chronology of Shakespeare’s and contemporaries’ plays
I. Shakespeare’s techniques for transforming earlier plays into new plays
Creativity by reversal and recombination
Two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet and Macbeth, have the same basic plot: A king is killed, the murderer takes his place, the king’s son seeks revenge and finally kills the usurper. Macbeth is written about five years after Hamlet, for the new monarch from Scotland, James I. For this command performance, Shakespeare takes his previous best play and reverses several basic elements. Hamlet is presented from the point of view of the son, Macbeth from the point of view of the murderer. The character Macbeth is like Claudius, if the scene where the King is praying for his sins is magnified into an entire play about guilt. The character of the avenging son shifts drastically, from the moody Hamlet to the bland character of Malcolm, who gets defocused by shifting away from his side of the story.
The other major plot devices remain the same: bracketing the story with the supernatural (the ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth); a revelation scene where the murderer freaks out guiltily in front of his court. And the power of psychological drama that Shakespeare has discovered with Hamlet-- the complexity of his self-examination, the self-doubts and torments-- are shifted over to Macbeth and his wife, who now get the famous soliloquies: “To be or not to be…” becomes “Out, damned spot!” and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”
Ghosts had been used before. Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy has the ghost of a murdered man on stage throughout the play, but he does not communicate with anyone but the audience. Shakespeare uses ghosts (Hamlet’s father; the murdered Banquo) to bring out the protagonist’s inner voices. Ghosts become a visible means to depict on stage the drama going on inside someone’s mind. Whether Shakespeare consciously intended his ghosts for this purpose is dubious; he was just working his way forward rearranging his materials. When he hit on something that generated more dramatic scenes, including the new psychological dimension, he used it again.
Shakespeare doesn’t invent everything anew; he rearranges key elements to generate new effects. The basic plot of virtually every play Shakespeare wrote can be traced to a previous source, historical narrative, story or earlier play. The main elements of Hamlet-- the murder, the ghost and the assumed madness as a strategy for revenge-- already existed and had been staged as recently as 1594. The device of a play-within-a-play that confirms Claudius’s guilt comes from the most famous early Elizabethan drama, The Spanish Tragedy (1587), but there the play-within-a-play provides cover while the revengers stab the murderers to death. Shakespeare takes the device in a new direction by shifting the dramatic emphasis and the timing. By having Hamlet delay and equivocate with himself, Shakespeare develops a new form of plot tension. This too is a reversal of a previously dominant style, the blood-and-thunder tragedies of non-stop treachery and carnage. This element isn’t discarded but displaced to the end: a matter of rearrangement.
Another innovation on the Hamlet story is to weave in a subplot. As everyone knows now, a subplot provides comic relief and suspense by retarding the main action; compare Shakespeare's early plays like Henry VI or Titus Andronicus to see what non-stop, single-file action felt like without it. Hamlet is as structurally satisfying as a Wagnerian musical climax because the subplot eventually merges with the main plot and drives it towards its conclusion. Hamlet equivocates, pretends madness, gets proof of guilt, but fails to kill Claudius. Now what? The play is stuck, except that Polonius, who has been the main comic relief, gets himself killed as a busy-body snooper. Since he has been interfering with his daughter Ophelia’s affair with Hamlet, this murder drives her to her death, and her hot-head brother Laertes returns to challenge Hamlet in the comic-then-dramatic graveyard scene. The Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes subplot is not in Shakespeare’s sources, but it is the key structural innovation. Other plot elements in the second half of Hamlet are banal: the stock devices of a letter with instructions to execute someone, the chance boarding of a pirate ship, and the mixup of swords, poisons and drinks that brings the action to a conventionally bloody end.
Shakespeare is not above using tired old devices. Othello still hinges on dropping handkerchiefs. Think of Shakespeare rushing onward into each new play, rearranging available materials, some old, some his own invention. At the time of Hamlet, further moves remain to be taken. Shakespeare is more thoroughly innovative 5-6 years later with the ending of Lear. His sources provide a happy ending, but Shakespeare now knows the power of a tragic ending as the destination of an inner character conflict. Lear is like a transformation of Titus Andronicus, his first big hit, into a psychologically sophisticated version.
Creativity by reversal and recombination is a main process of innovation in the history of philosophy and mathematics. Invention by negating one element and recombining the rest is a technique for discovery. That means that discovery and creativity is not mysterious. Once you see how to do it, you can keep on doing it by applying it to further materials.
Shakespeare enters the playwright chain
Step backwards now to about 1590. A no-longer-young actor, with 5 years or so of experience in London theatre, joins with his colleagues in writing plays. Histories of the kings of England have recently been published; “tragical histories of the death of kings” reverberate well on the stage, as Marlowe proved with Tamburlane (1587) and Edward II (1592). Shakespeare goes to the same material and the same techniques. His first such venture (apparently a joint production, like a typical Hollywood rewriting confabulation), Henry VI, is a blow-by-blow account of the War of the Roses, so long that it takes up three separate plays. There is a lot of material, conspiracies, rebellions, battles, trumpet flourishes and grand speeches. The trouble is there is so much of it that plot tension lags; and there are so many characters that none stand out, especially since none of them drives the plot.
In fact Henry VI part 1 had promising materials, much of it being devoted to the story of Joan of Arc (here called Joan la Pucelle). This could be great psychological and political drama, and Shakespeare includes all the famous historic scenes like Joan picking out the Dauphin hiding among his courtiers and Joan facing her captors who are going to burn her at the stake. But the French are the bad guys and the focus is on the English heroes. So Joan gets depicted as at best a fool deluded by her voices and at worse an actual witch; and contrary to historic sources she is depicted as a foul-mouthed slattern cursing her captors-- standard English propaganda but hardly insightful psychology of a spiritual charismatic leader. With better technique this material could have been a tragedy of Saint Joan (which George Bernard Shaw wrote 300 years later), but Shakespeare (or whoever wrote this part) passed up the opportunity to make a great play out of one of the most famous women in history. Proof that having great raw material is not enough to make a great play.
The Henry VI mini-series only comes alive in the very last act of Part 3. We have just gone through the climactic battle of the War of the Roses, when one of the numerous characters, Richard of Gloucester steps to the front of the stage and delivers the first truly dramatic soliloquy in these plays.* He tells the audience his intention, not to let his elder brothers reign, but to eliminate them one by one until he is on the throne. One might tab Richard as the stock character of the plotting villain, but next play, Richard III, has a radically different structure and focus. Virtually the same soliloquy resumes-- “Now is the summer of our discontent--” but Richard starts analyzing himself, blaming his physical deformity, despising the courtiers and joys of peace. Has Shakespeare discovered psychology? More likely he has figured out that simplifying the plot and focusing on the villain’s point of view is more dramatically effective than nonstop violence and loud declamatory speeches. With this structure, psychological complexity had to grow.
* There is one other long soliloquy in the three plays: one act before Richard’s soliloquy, King Henry VI, a timid figure, muses on the battlefield that he would rather live the life of a shepherd, delivering many lines in the idealized conventions of pastoral poetry. He witnesses a son who has killed his father, and a father who has killed his son, a contrived and maudlin depiction of the civil war, to which the king gives chorus-like comments. The scene has an artificial masque-like quality, although it gives the first hint of inwardness in these plays. Richard’s soliloquy takes it much further.
In the early plays, a scene often ends with one character remaining on stage and explaining what he will do next. These are not soliloquies in the psychological sense, but devices to inform the audience about offstage action between scenes. Since the theatre stage had no curtain, breaks between one scene and another were announced this way, as well as changes of venue. Sometimes a major character speaks of his secret plotting that he will put into action. Richard is not the only schemer in these plays (Henry VI part 2 is full of them); what is new is the self-analysis. The convention of speaking directly to the audience morphs into a device for revealing the psychology of inner dialogue.
From simple to complex villains to self-destructive protagonists
Richard III is the biggest single step in Shakespeare’s playwriting career. He has a model that he will vary and recombine into his greatest tragedies. He has learned to make complex villain-centered drama.
The result is a series of dramas where the prime mover of action, and the most impressive character, is the villain. The Merchant of Venice (about 1595) is a remake of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1590), but Shylock is a much more memorable figure than Marlowe’s Barabas. He is more villainous: instead of political treachery of selling out his city, he makes the infamous pound-of-flesh contract for a loan. But also he gets to plead eloquently for his humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” The contract dispute allows Shakespeare to build a new plot twist around Portia as the lady lawyer. Once Shylock has been bested in court, he disappears from the stage, leaving the last part of the play rather flat, relying on clichéd devices like rival suitors with tricks about disguises and tests of lovers’ fidelity. Like an experiment, it proves that such villains are the centers of emotional energy, dominating both the other characters and the audience. The famous actors of the Elizabethan stage-- Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage-- played the juicy parts, like Barabas, Richard III and Shylock.
Shakespeare does it again with the villain-centered dramas of Macbeth and his wife, and Othello’s secret nemesis, his lieutenant Iago. Othello is structurally a descendant of Richard III , stripped down even further to a few characters, giving it the dramatic concentration that lets it become the most successful Shakespeare-based opera. Othello is an imposing masculine figure and is given wonderful poetic lines, but he is essentially a pawn of Iago, who contrives the plot like an on-stage director. Iago’s character is an extension of Richard, delivering a series of self-scrutinizing soliloquies that leave his motivations mysterious, even to himself.
The most complex figures are the tragic protagonists who are their own worst enemy, Hamlet and Lear. Hence they tend to be regarded by intellectuals as Shakespeare’s most serious plays. They also fit the classic Greek theory that the greatest catharsis comes from witnessing the fate of heroes with a fatal flaw. King Lear in particular can be regarded as a drama of self-discovery, and some have judged it Shakespeare’s greatest achievement.
Generations of critics have analyzed these characters as if they were real people, whose psychological complexities are exposed for us to understand. Is it paradoxical that no one agrees on what drives Hamlet, or Iago, or Lear? Here is a sociological interpretation that none of the psychological interpreters will like: These are not real persons, whom Shakespeare observed or intuited, but characters developed in the process of writing a series of plays. Why can’t Hamlet kill the king? Because if he kills him in Act 3, the play is over; its main plot device is finding reasons to delay. Hamlet’s character is generated in the process of writing the play. The device of the dramatic self-regarding soliloquy that Shakespeare pioneered with Richard III, enables him to have Hamlet speak wonderfully poetic speeches to himself.
It is not at all clear that persons like Hamlet existed before; but as literature resembling Shakespeare’s propagated downstream, real people (or some of them) modeled themselves on this kind of endless self-reflection.* Not all life is an imitation of literature, of course, but some of the processes are analogous. Shakespeare created newer and more interesting drama by making villains more complex, then more self-conscious; reaching a point where it is no longer necessary to have bad guys drive the plot, when the good guys create dramatic tension for themselves. Out in the so-called real world, one of the things modernity means is social life gets more complicated, and individuals become more self-conscious as their thoughts reflect more points of view circulating through their tangled networks. Shakespeare is not at all modern in most things (more like a relic of waning feudalism), but he made striking jumps in recombination and reflection on literary techniques. He created complex literary personalities in the same way that social history creates more complex people.
*T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach? I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me...” Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...” And plenty of real-life beatniks, punks, and antinomian rebels who practice negation and sardonic reflection as their social niche.
An early success in the blood-and-gore market
The big successes of the theatre market in the years when Shakespeare was an apprentice actor were Kyd and Marlowe. Marlowe wrote flamboyant scenes: especially famous were Tamburlaine cracking his whip over conquered kings pulling his chariot; or Faustus inviting the devil into his study. But his plots are often jumbles, lacking plot tension and petering out in the later acts. Marlowe was a better dramatic poet than a playwright. Enter Shakespeare.
Titus Andronicus must have been written around the same time as the collaborative work Henry VI, but it was under Shakespeare’s name and made his reputation by 1592 as “the only Shake-scene” with a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” (parodying a line from Henry VI part 3). It was extremely popular throughout Shakespeare’s life (as was Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy) which tells something about contemporary taste; for us, its interest is in showing how he would change to create his signature style.
Titus is non-stop atrocity and violence all the way through. It begins with a brawl between two sons of the dead Roman Emperor over the succession. Victorious General Titus, just back from the wars, decides for the older brother, who rewards him by announcing he’ll marry Titus’s daughter. The losing brother declares No! she is betrothed to him, and carries her off, aided by Titus’s own sons. For their disobedience, Titus kills one of his sons. The new Emperor then changes his mind and declares he will marry the Queen of the Goths, whom Titus has brought back captive. The new Queen-Empress urges Titus and the Emperor to reconcile-- but in an aside she reveals it is all a ruse to get rid of Titus and his sons in due time. She has another motive of revenge, since Titus has just had her son hacked to death as revenge for the sons he has lost in the Goth wars. Score for the first scene: one son killed by father, another son executed after his mother had pleaded for his life.
In the following Acts, we witness: the Queen’s remaining two sons, egged on by her secret lover, rape Titus’s daughter. They also kill her fiancée (the Emperor’s brother) and by a forged letter, turn the blame on two of Titus’s sons. To add insult to injury, they offer to have the “murderers” pardoned if Titus will sacrifice his own hand; he does, but they send back his sons’ severed heads with his rejected hand. The rapists/murderers had cut off the girl’s hands and tongue to keep her from naming them, but she finds a way to convey the story by pointing it out in a book with her stumps. Titus now counter-attacks by stirring up the Goths to attack Rome; while he personally captures the Queen’s sons, cuts their throats, pours out their blood and grinds their bones to make a pie for her to eat. He then invites everyone who is still alive to dinner, at which: Titus stabs his own daughter-- because he can’t stand the sight of her mutilation; stabs the Queen; and is killed by the Emperor, who is killed by Titus’s last surviving son. By the end of the play, 12 of 14 principal players are dead and 6 have been mutilated or tortured. Most of this is shown onstage, and the off-stage atrocities are vividly recounted and the bodies (or body-parts) displayed.
The tone throughout is what we would see today as a grade-B horror movie, but with passages of recognizably Shakespearean verse. In one scene, there is a lugubrious quarrel between Titus, his brother, and his son over which of them will have the honour of cutting off his hand to save the others. After the bad guys have thrown back the severed heads and hand, and the daughter arrives to show off her stumps, they swear revenge and we get the following:
TITUS: Come brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other will I bear.
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
... Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do.
This may well be the most tasteless scene of all time. Shakespeare has demonstrated his ability to shock. He has gone beyond Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and the most ringing bombast of Marlowe and Lyly.* Audiences loved it. Why does Shakespeare now change his style? Probably because he recognized he couldn’t outdo himself in that direction. The action in Titus Andronicus has no turning point; it is just one atrocity after another, punctuated by bombastic laments. In his further plays Shakespeare slows it down and establishes a more interesting pace and deeper dramatic effects.
* The goriest part of Kyd’s play is where Hieronimo bites out his tongue to keep from talking under torture; while his imprisoned daughter writes a letter in her own blood. The play also features a series of hangings, stabbings, suicides, and burning at the stake. Several characters go mad on stage when they learn what is happening. Toned-down versions of such mad scenes are used by Shakespeare with Ophelia and Lear.
I have already noted how in the sequence between the end of Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III, Shakespeare modified the conventional soliloquy from the task of scene-setting and clueing-in the audience about the plot direction, to inner psychological drama. Thereafter Shakespeare’s characters acquire depth and complexity. They certainly lack this in Titus Andronicus. The characters just move around according to the needs of the plot, changing their trajectories without real motivation. Titus’s towering rage in Act I when he kills his son gives way to accepting the new status quo, and ends the Act by inviting everyone to go hunting with him. Why? just a convenient way of getting everyone dispersed in the countryside where the next scenes of rape and murder can happen. The Queen’s two sons are about to fight each other over their love of Lavinia, but they are easily persuaded to jointly rape and mutilate her. The Queen decides to visit Titus disguised as the mythical figure Revenge, which serves no purpose except to reprise a famous scene from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and for Titus to have the opportunity to kill her two sons who have accompanied her, also in supposed mythical disguises. The Queen suggests the idea of inviting everyone to dinner, although she has nothing to gain by it. And so on. Her evil lover, a Moor, contrives the worst dirty tricks; when he speaks out in his own voice, it is just to vaunt his diabolism-- he is a conventional devil-figure. Titus gets some speeches where he can pour out Shakespeare’s poetry expressing lament and revenge, but merely as the kind of declamatory rhetoric that leading actors loved to deliver.
Shakespeare could change his style because he had other directions to pursue. Some of these techniques came from comedy, which he was also writing and performing at the time. Titus has no subplot, just the continuous escalating of atrocities from one side to the other. This is one reason why the emotional level, although intense, is monotonous. By the time of Romeo and Juliet (about 3 years later) Shakespeare builds suspense by intruding low-comedy characters into the tragedy, as well as having his main characters engage in the word-play of wit and repartee. This also makes the tragic characters more likeable or at least more impressive (like Hamlet and Romeo), which they definitely are not in Titus. Most of Shakespeare’s predecessors in writing tragedy stayed strictly in that genre; his combination with comedy (which he apprenticed in by adapting old plays like Comedy of Errors from Plautus) gave him techniques for making a new kind of tragedy.
Titus Andronicus is skillful at what it set out to do, assuming that was to overtake the number one hit (Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy) at its own game. By the standards of pacing in comedies, it is clumsy. It doesn’t even handle its own horrific conclusion for maximum effect. After everyone is dead, there is a long anticlimax of 130 lines during which Roman officials explain what has happened and choose Titus’s remaining son as Emperor. This rounds out the play, considering that it started with a quarrel over choosing the Emperor, but it is in the wrong emotional tone; no one sounds shocked, no one expresses a real reaction to what has happened. Compare the ending of Hamlet, where the stage is similarly littered with bodies: a brief recognition of the inexpressible; the rest is silence.
Promoting the subplot: creating complex characters on the border of comedy
Let us go back to Henry VI, before Shakespeare acquired his own technique. In Part 1 there is a minor character, Sir John Fastolfe, who is a coward and a buffoon. He has no subplot of his own, but he does provide a bit of comic relief. When Shakespeare recognizes the importance of subplots in his serious plays (probably transposing the devices of plot complication in comedies), he turns this character into Sir John Falstaff. This happens in Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, which are a prequel to the Henry VI-Richard III sequence. Shakespeare’s English history plays have the Hollywood quality that once you are onto something, keep the franchise going. Henry V was the father of Henry VI, which is where we came in. But the Falstaff series, written in the mid-to-late 1590s, before Shakespeare concentrates on his dramatic psychological tragedies, show another advance in technique.
There is a lot of tumultuous history and famous battles, but he slims down the military/political plot. Instead, he relies on the subplot, which is now the braggart-buffoon-merry prankster Falstaff with his young buddy, Prince Hal. This proved to be so popular that Queen Elizabeth called for a further play about “the fat knight,” which became The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare is adopting the low-life layer of light comedy into the aristocratic high politics of the history plays. Having done so opens up a further move: Prince Hal grows up, becomes King Henry V, and leaves his old midnight playmate behind. It is poignant; comedy too becomes humanized. Henry V and Hamlet are created about the same time, around 1599-1601. From now on, Shakespeare has all the tools for constructing his most mature characters.
Shakespeare the text-searching scholar
Shakespeare works almost entirely with pre-existing materials. The creativity of his plays are in the combinations. Macbeth combines two different murders from Scottish history, together with Shakespeare’s own devices from Hamlet. King Lear is a combination of plot and subplot from legendary history with fragments from an English translation of Italian romances. In creating a new play, Shakespeare begins by scanning possible texts and forming them into a new gestalt. His method involves much reading-- or more likely skimming-- the available literature. He relies heavily on compilations-- Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1587); a 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a melange of tales within tales from Italian sources (published 1590 and 1598).
To appreciate Shakespeare, just read his sources. Shakespeare extracted plot lines he could make into scenes, adding dramatic dialogue-- for instance, Julius Caesar follows Plutarch fairly closely, but Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears!” speech is Shakespeare’s invention, and it becomes the turning point of the play. It took a professional eye to cull from a morass of materials the parts he could combine into maximally concentrated drama. Shakespeare’s creative skill was to discern what the original writers could not.
We imagine Shakespeare at the Mermaid tavern, writing out parts for his acting company to perform, drinking and engaging in exchanges of wit. Even more important must have been the withdrawn part of his life, where he borrowed texts, pored over them, and extracted materials he could use. He gets successively better at this: compare the straight-forward rendering of chronicled battles and rebellions in the strung-out Henry VI series, with the surgical extractions that go into Lear.
Shakespeare makes himself into an accomplished scholar. He knows what is published; he keeps up with the book market. And he scans it professionally, from his own point of view. He is no pedant of a scholar; but a creative one, the creativity residing in a vision of what to look for. Becoming a great writer, in this regard, is concomitantly a task of becoming a great reader.
Piecing together King Lear
Shakespeare takes the main plot of King Lear from Holinshed, about the division of his kingdom among his daughters. For a subplot, he locates a story in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia about a king who has two sons, a good son of legitimate birth, the other an evil bastard who first turns the father against his brother, then deprives the king of everything, including his eyes. Here are extracts from the first 3 pages: It was in the kingdome of Galacia, the season being (as in the depth of winter) very cold, and as then sodainely growne to so extreame and foule a storme, that never any winter (I thinke) brought foorth a fowler child: so that the Princes were even compelled by the haile, that the pride of the winde blew into their faces, to seeke some shrowding place within a certaine hollow rocke offering it unto them, they made it their shield against the tempests furie. And so staying there, till the violence thereof was passed, they heard the speach of a couple, who not perceiving them (being hidde within that rude canapy) helde a straunge and pitifull disputation...
There they perceaved an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorely arayed, extreamely weather-beaten; the olde man blinde, the young man leading him...
[The son speaks first:] This old man (whom I leade) was lately rightfull Prince of this countrie of Paphlagonia, by the hard-harted ungratefulnes of a sonne of his, deprived, not only of his kingdome... but of his sight, the riches which Nature graunts to the poorest creatures. Whereby, & by other his unnaturall dealings, he hath bin driven to such griefe, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the toppe of this rocke, thence to cast himselfe headlong to death...
His father began to speake, Ah my sonne (said he) how evill an Historian you, that leave out the chiefe knotte of all the discourse? my wickednes, my wickednes... I was carried by a bastarde sonne of mine (if at least I be bounde to beleeve the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, to doo my best to destroy, this sonne (I thinke you thinke) undeserving destruction.
What waies he used to bring me to it, if I should tell you, I should tediously trouble you with as much poysonous hypocrisie, desperate fraude, smoothe malice, hidden ambition, & smiling envie, as in any living person could be harbored. But I list it not, no remembrance, (no, of naughtines) delights me, but mine own... But the conclusion is, that I gave order to some servants of mine, whom I thought as apte for such charities as my selfe, to leade him out into a forrest, & there to kill him.
But those theeves (better natured to my sonne then my selfe) spared his life, letting him goe, to learne to live poorely: which he did, giving himselfe to be a private souldier, in a countrie here by. But as he was redy to be greatly advaunced for some noble peeces of service which he did, he hearde newes of me: who (dronke in my affection to that unlawfull and unnaturall sonne of mine) suffered my self so to be governed by him, that all favors and punishments passed by him, all offices, and places of importance, distributed to his favourites; so that ere I was aware, I had left my self nothing but the name of a King: which he shortly wearie of too, with many indignities (if any thing may be called an indignity, which was laid upon me) threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes; and then (proud in his tyrannie) let me goe, nether imprisoning, nor killing me: but rather delighting to make me feele my miserie; miserie indeed, if ever there were any; full of wretchednes, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltines.
Sidney's narrative then goes on to tell how the Princes, after hearing this story, fought off a troop of soldiers led by the bastard son who are pursing the father; then other knights ride to the aid of the bastard; still others happen along to support the deposed king, with further battles until the king recovers his power and puts his good son on the throne. And the knights ride forth for further adventures.
Shakespeare pulls out three main plot elements: the good and evil brothers (who become Edgar and Edmund, sons of Lear's supporter the Earl of Gloucester, whose degradation parallels Lear's at the hands of his evil daughters); the expression of guilt by the deposed King (which Shakespeare transfers to Lear, giving King Lear the humanistic depth that became so admired by critics); and the scene in a storm, where the loyal son prevents his father from committing suicide by jumping from a rock. Shakespeare's task is to turn this summary narrative into scenes and dialogue. The only scene Sidney actually presents is the storm, but this is merely a backdrop where the wretched victims can tell their story. Shakespeare uses it as the play's dramatic peak in Act 3 Scene 2, where Lear is cast out on the moor:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks...
Crack nature's molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man.
The storm is also where the main plot and subplot merge, when Lear encounters Edgar, on the run and disguised as a madman (an improvement on Sidney, who had the good son disguised as a soldier). A series of poignant scenes follow, as the arrogant Lear humbles himself and for the first time in his life takes pity on someone else-- who in turn becomes his champion who will bring about the downfall of the evil-doers.
We get a sense of Shakespeare as the text-searching reader, scanning for things he can use. He locates the 600 words I have extracted here, out of Sidney's 3600 word chapter, itself submerged in a compilation of dozens of such stories over hundreds of pages. From bare summary--"What waies he used to bring me to it...with as much poysonous hypocrisie, desperate fraude, smoothe malice, hidden ambition, & smiling envie..." Shakespeare creates actual incidents on the stage, gives them a pace and rhythm totally lacking in Sidney, as well as a series of dramatic situations his actors can exploit. Probably what first caught Shakespeare's eye was the deposed king blaming himself ("the chiefe knotte of all the discourse.. my wickednes, my wickednes..."), an unusual note in stories of knightly exploits; and the dramatic stage-setting of the storm ("compelled by the haile, that the pride of the winde blew in their faces" ). What makes these into elements of high tragedy is provided by Shakespeare's now-considerable technique.
Creating Macbeth was an easier task of scholarship than many other plays, since Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland already has an eye for dramatic incidents. Several key elements of Macbeth are clearly presented: Makbeth and Banquo, generals of King Duncane against foreign invaders andrebellions of Scottish nobles, encounter three weird sisters who prophecy their futures. Shakespeare uses their words almost literally (“All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis” etc). And later, after Makbeth is king, a witch gives him confidence by telling him he would never “be slaine by a man borne of woman” nor vanquished “till the wood of Bernane came to the castell of Dunsinane.” It is a riddle, whose answer we get later in Holinshed, that a man (Makduffe) born by Caesarian section is not born of woman, and the army attacking Dunsinane covers itself with boughs from Birnam wood. All this Shakespeare uses nearly verbatim. But Scottish history was full of kings being murdered by rebellious lords, often with good cause such as resisting taxation or revenging slain kinsmen. Shakespeare extracts and combines several instances: King Duff’s murder when lodging in the castle of Donwald, who carries it out by getting the king’s servants drunk, sending his own servants in to do the killing, while establishes his alibi by hanging out all night with the castle watch, and then going into a frenzy of killing the drunken servants. Shakespeare transfers this incident to Macbeth’s rebellion against King Duncan. Holinshed just says briefly that Makbeth and his friends-- including Banquo-- killed Duncane (presumably in battle), whereupon Makbeth had himself proclaimed king.
By combining the two narratives (Donwald murdering King Duff, Makbeth killing King Duncane), Shakespeare gets to use the weird sisters and the prophecies. And he makes the murder of the king much more dramatic, by having it happen by an elaborate plot at night in Macbeth’s castle. Having Macbeth and his wife do the bloody work themselves makes for further dramatic scenes of obsessive guilt and hallucination. Since there were rebellions going on much of the time in 11th century Scotland, killing a king to replace him with another would be nothing special-- just another version of the War of the Roses events that march through Henry VI. Makbeth’s murder of Banquo is in Holinshed, but Shakespeare invents the banquet scene where Macbeth is frightened by Banquo’s ghost, borrowing from his own dramatic turning point in Hamlet at the play-within-a-play.
Where there is good dialogue and dramatic confrontation, Shakespeare lifts it; where there are plot elements that can structure the action, he discerns them even if the original author did not. To call it plagiarism is to fail to understand that recombining and recontextualizing is the major technique of creativity. Yet the translators and compilers deserve a place in the sequence creating Shakespeare; without them, it could not have been done.
How Shakespeare could write a bad play
Dramatic materials do not guarantee literary creativity. Shakespeare blew it with Joan of Arc, and his late collaborative play, Henry VIII, was mediocre, even though his subject was the most colourful of all English kings. Shakespeare’s effort to dramatize the Iliad, in Troilus and Cressida was no great success, even though he wrote it at the height of his skills, in the yearsaround 1600-1602, between Julius Caesar and Hamlet on one side, and Othello and Lear on the other. The flip side of the creative process is revealed by analyzing why a writer who clearly has the technical skills also sometimes produces failures.
Is it just that Troilus is a deliberately anti-heroic play? Recent critics hold that it was written to satirize wars, warriors, and the heroic conventions generally. But in Shakespeare’s retelling of the Iliad, it is only the Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax who are portrayed as buffoons. Hector, the Trojan champion, is presented as a courtly knight; and Troilus the Trojan prince as a youth who grows up to become the conventional warrior hero.
The weakness of Troilus is in the under-development of the Troilus-and-Cressida love story. They rarely show much of the psychological depth that makes Hamlet and Macbeth famous (there is only one flash of introspection, in Act V scene 2, Troilus’s outburst after he overhears Cressida jilt him). Obviously Shakespeare knew how to portray inner conflict; he just didn’t provide it for these characters. The real problem is in how the plot lines are structured, that makes the Troilus-and-Cressida love story (the lovers are are separated because she is traded to the Greeks in a prisoner swap) a minor, mechanical feature of the play. Shakespeare follows his usual device of alternating sub-plots, but the time devoted to each is disproportionate, and the T-and-C plot virtually disappears for long stretches of the play, depriving the action of plot tension. Where Romeo and Juliet-- which Troilus superficially resembles-- moves along at breakneck speed, Troilus and Cressida is slow all the way through. In Shakespeare’s most powerful plays, the subplots merge and culminate in a tremendous climax; in Troilus they never connect.
Shakespeare does not fail for lack of skill. His verse writing is still at its peak; Troilus just has unusually long stretches of prose, obviously meant to be deflating and humorous. If the problem is structural, this can be understood from how Shakespeare worked. His method of creativity also reveals why sometimes the result was not a success.
The key to Shakespeare’s technique was to search out promising plots and characters, and transform them into something new and distinctive. In the case of Troilus, he takes for his sources the two most famous narrative poets among his predecessors: Homer and Chaucer. By 1600, Shakespeare is certainly aware that he is being regarded as the modern rival to the greatest of all time. So how is he going to rewrite the Iliad, the most famous piece of world literature?
Troilus, in fact, does present the entire plot of the Iliad, from Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon, to the death of Patrocles and Achilles’ revenge on Hector. But Shakespeare was not merely going to imitate Homer. True, Shakespeare sometimes closely followed his sources. He repeated the main incidents from Plutarch’s history in writingJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. But Plutarch did not write poetry, nor provide hardly any dialogue, whereas these are Homer’s celebrated accomplishments. Thus the most famous lines in Caesar’s assassination—“Et tu, Bruté!” and Antony’s funeral address-- are Shakespeare’s invention. But for the Iliad, Shakespeare had to avoid using Homer’s words. He solves this by changing the main characters, his usual device of reversal and recombination.
So Shakespeare takes Homer’s central character, Achilles, and changes him from a proud, lofty figure into a buffoon, devoted to pleasure and clowning around. Homer’s Achilles is the epitome of the tragic hero, noble in his fatal flaw of dignity and pride. Shakespeare’s Achilles does not withdraw from combat because he has been insulted by Agamemnon, but because he is frivolous and cowardly. Shakespeare brings him down even further by pairing him with another Homeric champion, Ajax, who is even stupider and also lazes around without fighting. So Shakespeare invents the plot line that Agamemnon, Ulysses and the other Greek leaders strategize how to get their two missing heroes back into action by arranging a duel with Hector, trying to build up jealousy between them. Shakespeare’s Achilles, far from being self-contained and brooding, is hyper-sensitive to what other people think of him; he wants to be noticed and is shamed when the Greek leaders casually pass him by in a deliberately off-hand manner. (Oh hi, Achilles, didn’t see you there. No time to chat.) By the time the plot action gets going in Act IV, Achilles has forgotten his feud with Agamemnon and is hanging around with the other Greeks, meeting Hector and other Trojans for courtly visits and hosting dinner parties.
The result is a long, rather boring plot line of the Greek leaders scheming, making dinner invitations, and engaging in knightly protocol with the Trojans. The ferocious berserker warriors depicted by Homer are transformed into very conventional courtly knights, who exchange compliments and fight duels, not to the death but just as a form of jousting. None of this generates any plot tension, but it takes up most of the action on stage. Finally, Homer’s plot comes back in a flurry at the end of Act V (taking up 175 lines of this 3500-line play-- about 5% of the whole): battle scenes in which Patroclus is killed, Achilles fights Hector, and finally Hector is killed. Shakespeare leaves out the emotional climax of the Iliad, when Achilles in his anger desecrates Hector’s corpse by refusing to give it back to his family for burial; and King Priam comes to beg for it, finally bringing Achilles to the realization of what it is to be truly noble. Instead, Shakespeare has Achilles fail to defeat Hector in single combat, so instead Achilles gets his troops to surround and kill him after the end of battle when Hector has taken off his own armor. So Achilles takes false credit for his victory, and is just a slob all the way to the end.
Yes, it’s really different than Homer, but it isn’t dramatic, interesting, or even memorable. As an effort to rewrite the Iliad, it is a failure. Could the play be saved by the other plot line?
Shakespeare decided to frame or decenter the Iliad story by combining it with the plot line from Chaucer’sTroilus and Cressida. This was Chaucer’s most accomplished narrative poem, but its weakness, for a stage play, gives Shakespeare the opportunity to lift its characters and action straightforwardly. Chaucer’s poem does not have much action or plot tension. Cressida learns she is going to be sent away in a prisoner exchange; Troilus suggests they elope but she points out it wouldn’t be very practical during a war. Instead Cressida promises to deceive her father once she has arrived in the Greek camp, and to escape back to Troy. But once there, she realizes her plan was unrealistic, and accepts a Greek hero as a lover. Troilus gets the message and that’s it, ends cursing his ill Fortune.
Shakespeare fleshes out this meager plot line by elaborating the characters. Pandarus the go-between is turned into an obscene comic character, who tends to overshadow the lovers, and makes the word “pandering” the most famous thing to come out of this play. Cressida, who is a rather practical person in Chaucer and his earlier source, Boccaccio, acts quite differently in the few scenes Shakespeare gives her. When first introduced in Act I, Cressida talks in bawdy innuendo (as if this is the low-life subplot); later, when the lovers finally come together in a night scene (Act III), she sounds like Juliet; but in Act IV and V, in the Greek camp, she flirts and exchanges kisses with everyone, and plays both coy and romantic with her Greek lover. It is unclear what character Shakespeare intended her to be. She is intermittently the bawdiest of Shakespeare’s heroines, a combination of Juliet and her nurse; she changes suddenly and with no apparent motivation between adjacent appearances. Perhaps Shakespeare decided to script her for light comedy, which implies that for him the Troilus-and-Cressida plot was just comic relief from the Iliad plot. The trouble is both plot lines end up feeling like subplots for the other. Neither has any dramatic momentum; and although some of the scenes come off, the whole falls flat.
So how could Shakespeare, at the top of his game, write a bad play? By tinkering with a masterpiece fully as strong as his own best creations. He could make the Iliad different, but he couldn’t make it better. Troilus is billed as a tragedy, but it plays like a comedy, except it isn't funny. In the medium of the stage play, where pacing all-important, messing around with the dramatic elements is fatal.
Troilus and Cressida was rarely performed, during Shakespeare's lifetime or later. It is among the few Shakespeare plays never filmed. Given the ambitious project, it was Shakespeare's biggest flop.
II. The Networks that Launched Shakespeare
How Shakespeare became a great poet
Shakespeare’s creativity as a poet was a big part of his success as a playwright, since his network wrote plays in verse. Shakespeare not only wrote the best plays but the best poetry; and the power of his dramatic scenes, especially the great soliloquies, hinge on their poetry. If he is already a leading dramatist at the time of Richard III-- in the early/mid 1590s--- and soon after in Romeo and Juliet, he has his poetic technique fully worked out. He could go it alone as a poet, as he did during 1593-4 when the theatres were closed, when he wrote his Sonnets and Venus and Adonis. The two kinds of techniques may have come at the same time, although they are not the same; Shakespeare kept on innovating as a playwright while his poetic style had already hit its high plateau.
Shakespeare’s skill as a poet came fairly early. How did he get it? As an actor in the first years of his career, Shakespeare must have memorized a great deal of verse. He could probably think in verse, talk to himself in verse. After a while he would get to the point of being able to say anything extemporaneously in the verse rhythms used in plays. Shakespeare acquired great facility with the poetic style of his contemporaries in the same way as the 20th century song-writer, Irving Berlin—as a street performer and singing waiter from age 13 to 23, he knew all the popular songs by repetition before writing his first hit song.* For both Shakespeare and Berlin, their early careers involved the most intimate process of internalizing what the rest of the field did, by performing it constantly.**
* Berlin started even younger, as a newspaper hawker shouting out catchy headlines. And a new medium was opening up: phonographs that could play a 4-minute song were just appearing at the time of young Irving’s street-apprenticeship, 1901-13. Once launched in the new song recording business, he went on to compose 1200 songs, of which several dozen were hits. He could literally write a song overnight by staying up and grinding it out.
** A similar process is shown in Jooyoung Lee’s ethnography of rappers improvising in street-corner competitions in Los Angeles. Some aspiring rap artists practice in their daily lives by trying to say everything in rhyme.
So our first answer is that Shakespeare acquires great facility with the poetic style of his contemporaries. How does he go beyond them? Which means: when? by what steps?
Shakespeare's life is undocumented from 1585, when he was 21 and still in Stratford-on-Avon, until 1592 when his success in London theatre was noted. He did not necessarily start his acting career in London. There were wandering troupes of players performing at country houses-- in fact these preceded the rise of public theatre in London in the 1580s. Near Stratford, there had been performances in 1575 at Kenilworth Castle, when Queen Elizabeth visited her current favorite, the handsome Earl of Leicester. There were days and nights of outdoor pageantry, the gardens full of costumes, mime and song, and reciting of poetic verses. The eleven-year-old Shakespeare could well have been among the gathering of local onlookers with his father. (Quennell 23-5) Traveling players are featured in Shakespeare's early play, The Taming of the Shrew, which is depicted as a play-within-a-play performed at a country house near Warwick-- a few miles from Stratford. And of course the traveling players in Hamlet. Since such players focused on country houses, joining such a band (perhaps temporarily at first) would have been simultaneously a way to learn the actor's craft and to meet aristocratic patrons.
Shakespeare’s poetry resembles his predecessors’. Sir Philip Sidney, around 1580, turned traditional slow-moving six-beat verse into iambic pentameter, popularizing the sonnet, and opening the way for the ringing five-beat line of Marlowe’s plays. Shakespeare knows the new poetry intimately, both through his network contacts and by memorizing and performing this kind of verse. His greatest poetry is in his plays because the new kinds of characters and situations he developed gave his poetic technique more subtle and dramatic materials to put into spoken lines.
Shakespeare’s aristocratic patrons formed his poetry. His Stratford neighbour, Fulke Greville, himself a well-known poet, was a friend of Sir Philip Sidney, the poetic innovator who popularized the sonnet sequence. Sidney died young, and his poems circulated by hand; at the center of the circle was his former mistress, the beautiful sister of the Earl of Essex, a patroness of literary men. Another of Essex’s friends was Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, the object of Shakespeare’s own sonnet sequence. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, patterned on Sidney’s, circulated in the elite literary network even more effectively than by publication, which did not occur until 1609. In the network of patrons and poets (below) we see that Shakespeare was two links away from Sidney, via two different connections, and would have heard a great deal about him and probably seen his not-yet-printed poems.
During the 1593-4 season when the theatres were closed, Shakespeare likely visited country houses of his patrons and their friends, where he was inducted into the network circulating handwritten poems. This was a medium of “publication” used by all the famous English poets from Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 1520s through John Donne in the early 1600s. The network would have been both informative and motivating, with gentlemen-courtiers acquiring reputations as wits, and pushing the boundaries of witticisms through new devices. The entire network hit its peak density in the 1590s, when a considerable number of top poets (as judged by posterity) were writing. By the time of Donne the march of verbal cleverness had generated complex poems even beyond Shakespeare’s.
The actor/playwright network
Shakespeare acquired his skills from two networks: his aristocratic poetry-loving patrons; and his fellow actors, playwrights, and business associates. Edward Alleyn played the flamboyant, over-the-top roles that made Elizabethan theatre a sensation from 1587 on: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and The Jew of Malta. Before Shakespeare rose to prominence, there was already a playwright-actor nexus, each feeding on the other in building the new style. Alleyn, along with Shakespeare’s fellow-actor in the great tragic parts, Richard Burbage, were theatrical entrepreneurs. Failing in negotiations to unite the two leading companies (the Lord Admiral’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), they formed rival companies, with Shakespeare as a principal share-holder of the latter. Marlowe and Kyd (who at one time were roommates) both wrote for an earlier troupe, Lord Strange’s men; and Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Titus Andronicus were performed under Strange’s patronage. The most famous comic actor, William Kempe, was both in Strange’s company and Shakespeare’s, contributing to his string of successful comedies, and vice versa. The networks of actors and playwrights intertwine; Shakespeare’s company performed both his own plays and those of others, launching the early successes of Ben Jonson in the late 1590s.
As we see in the network of actors and playwrights, Shakespeare had a 2-link tie to Marlowe through several intermediaries, and collaborated with Kyd in the early 1590s on minor plays,* and with several writers on the Henry VI series, before striking off on his own.
* Besides Edward III, co-written by Kyd with Shakespeare, many scholars believe Kyd wrote an early King Leir and a Hamlet. These essentially followed the older sources, and lacked Shakespeare’s innovations in character and subplot. But our concern is not to establish priority. If these attributions are true, Shakespeare’s connection to the literary network via Kyd gave him even more impetus towards his greatest plays.
Burbage played the titles roles in Hieronimo (another name for The Spanish Tragedy, revived several times in the 1590s), as well as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and Lear. Shakespeare probably chose plots and created roles to feature Burbage, just as he did for Kempe, the star attractions of their theatre company. This is not just an incidental fact; actors were the carriers and inheritors of techniques from earlier pioneers like Kyd and Marlowe. In the same way, Shakespeare’s younger fellow-actors learned by acting in his plays, before striking off on their own. Ben Jonson was an actor for several years (reputedly also playing Hieronimo) before he began writing his distinctive contemporary comedies based on his theory of humours; Shakespeare acted in one of them in 1598. The network continued to propagate itself.
Shakespeare’s role-models died as he was acquiring his own techniques: Sidney in 1586, Marlowe in 1593, Kyd in 1594, leaving a vacuum to step into. The network, passing along its techniques to those best energized to develop them, is truly the actor on the literary stage. My title should be: How Shakespeare’s network, internalized in Shakespeare, created Shakespeare.
I have not addressed the creative innovations of Shakespeare’s comedies. This will be the subject of a further post.
“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
Chronology of Shakespeare’s and contemporaries’ plays
c.1587 Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedie (most popular play of Elizabethan era; frequently revived)
1587 Marlowe, Tamburlaine, part 1
1588 Marlowe, Tamburlaine, part 2
c.1588 Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus
c.1590 Marlowe, The Jew of Malta
1588-94 The Comedy of Errors
1589-94 Two Gentlemen of Verona
1589-94 Titus Andronicus (probably with collaborator)
1589-92 Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3 (multiple collaborators)
1592 Marlowe, Edward II
1592-3 Edward III (majority of text by Kyd)
1592-3 Richard III
1593-4 The Taming of the Shrew
1593-6 Love’s Labour’s Lost
1593-4: London theatres closed for months during plague
Shakespeare composed and circulated Venus and Adonis (1592-3),
The Rape of Lucrece (1593-4), Sonnets (1593-1600)
1594 Lord Chamberlain’s Men, theatrical company formed with Shakespeare as share-holder, along with actors formerly performing Kyd and Marlowe plays
1594-6 Romeo and Juliet
1594-7 Merchant of Venice
1595 Richard II
1595-6 Midsummer Night’s Dream
1596-7 King John
1596-7 Henry IV, part 1
1597 Merry Wives of Windsor
1597-8 Henry IV, part 2
1598-99 Henry V
1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing
1598 Shakespeare acts in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour
1599 Julius Caesar
1599-1600 As You Like It
1599-1600 Twelfth Night
1600-2 Troilus and Cressida
1602-5 All’s Well That Ends Well
1603-4 Measure for Measure
1605-6 King Lear
1606-7 Antony and Cleopatra
1606 Ben Jonson, Volpone
1606 Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy
1605-8 Timon of Athens (possible collaboration with Middleton)
1607-8 Pericles, Prince of Tyre (partly by Shakespeare)
1609-11 The Winter’s Tale
1611 The Tempest
1612-13 Henry VIII (with collaborator)
1612-13 Cardenio (Fletcher and Shakespeare; lost play based on a chapter in Don Quixote)
1613 Two Noble Kinsmen (Fletcher and Shakespeare)
Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies.
William Marling. 2016. Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature and the 1960s.
Peter Quennell. 1963. Shakespeare: A Biography.
Alan Posener. 2001. William Shakespeare.
William Farnham. 1970. “Introduction” to Hamlet.
Kenneth Muir. 1984. “Introduction” to Macbeth.
Stephen Orgel. 1999. “Introduction” to King Lear.
Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (eds.) 2007. Troilus and Cressida.
Charles Nicholl. 1992. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Susan Doran. 2008. The Tudor Chronicles, 1485-1603.
Lawrence Stone. 1967. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641.
Jooyoung Lee. 2016. Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.
Wikipedia articles on particular plays and sources.