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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "Shakespeare's tutor: The influence of Thomas Kyd" by Darren Freebury-Jones

Shakespeare's Tutor book cover
Shakespeare's Tutor book cover

“Shakespeare’s ability to weave verbal details from other plays into his own passages is in part attributable to his career as an actor,” writes Darren Freebury-Jones in Shakespeare’s tutor: The influence of Thomas Kyd.

Of the playwrights from whom Shakespeare borrowed, the one who particularly stands out is Thomas Kyd, writes Freebury-Jones, Lecturer of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Kyd was an important Elizabethan dramatist, best known as the author of The Spanish Tragedy.

Learn more about authorship and influence in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s tutor, published by Manchester University Press.

Copyright Disclaimer: The following excerpt has been used with permission from the copyright holder Darren Freebury-Jones’. This extract is taken from Shakespeare’s tutor written by Darren Freebury-Jones. All rights reserved. Any unauthorised reproduction, distribution or use of this material without prior written permission from the copyright holder and publisher (Manchester University Press) is strictly prohibited.


Authorship versus influence

In that unique period of flourishing London theatres, Elizabethan dramatists kept a close eye and ear on what every other dramatist was doing, and theatre companies were deeply conscious of what their commercial rivals were producing. Dramatists competed to create new plays within extant genres, experimented by conflating genres, and drew from similar source materials – from Roman tragedies to English chronicles to Italian novellas and so on – in order to tell existing stories in innovative ways. It was also a deeply collaborative period, with dramatists working closely with theatre managers to supply playing companies with fresh material. These playwrights would have also worked with the actors not only during the composition of their plays but even when those texts were fair-copied, no doubt taking account of any feedback they received when a play was first read to the company, and even during the rehearsal process. Some dramatists, such as Richard Tarlton, Robert Wilson, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, and Shakespeare, were also actors themselves, and would develop an intimate familiarity with plays in which they had performed, which would inform the look, sound, and overall dramaturgy of their own works. Many scholars have been willing to accept the notion that Shakespeare followed the standard practice of borrowing from his fellow dramatists. To offer some examples, Hardin Craig suggested in 1951 that Shakespeare had acted in King Leir and was thus able to recall the play (1951). In 1958, Thomas H. McNeal listed numerous verbal links between Shakespeare’s plays and King Leir. He concluded that Shakespeare borrowed ‘in both phrase and para­phrase’ from the old play throughout his career (1958a: 5). Bart van Es notes that ‘Shakespeare’s early drama is often spectacularly imitative and as a result his personal voice is much less distinct’ (2013: 36), while Charles R. Forker has suggested that ‘Much of this assimilation was undoubtedly unconscious, at least in the case of verbal echoes, since Shakespeare seems to have known many of the plays from practical experience in the theatre’ (2010: 127). I wish to show in this chapter that Shakespeare’s ability to weave verbal details from other plays into his own passages is in part attributable to his career as an actor.

The first allusion to Shakespeare as an actor and drama­tist features in Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592). Greene warns his fellow dramatists and University Wits, Nashe, Peele, and Marlowe, about actors: ‘those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours’, and one actor in particular. Shakespeare, or ‘Shake- scene’, has had the audacity to turn his hand to writing plays:

Yes trust them not, for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake- scene in a country. (Carroll, 1994: 83– 4)

The 1616 Jonson Folio tells us that Shakespeare was one of the ‘principall Comedians’ in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598) and one of ‘The principall Tragedians’ in Jonson’s Sejanus (1603). Shakespeare is also listed as one of the principal actors in his own plays, in the First Folio. John Davies of Hereford tells us that he often played ‘Kingly parts in sport’ (Grosart, 1878: 26), and an early seventeenth-century book annotation describes Shakespeare as ‘Our Roscius’ (Nelson and Altrocchi, 2009).

I consider it most likely that Shakespeare began his career as an actor-dramatist for Pembroke’s Men, as proposed by J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps during the nineteenth century (1883: 105). Shakespeare seems to have written his earliest plays, such as Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, and The Taming of the Shrew, with that company before it disbanded in 1593. A. S. Cairncross argued that Pembroke’s Men ‘existed before 1592, probably as early as 1589’, and that it was ‘Shakespeare’s company, as it was, for a time at least, Kyd’s’ (1960: 344). Similarly, Terence Schoone-Jongen points out that ‘Pembroke’s 1592–93 court performances indicate it prob­ably had existed long enough to attract the court’s attention, and presumably had actors and/or writers talented enough to attract such attention’ (2008: 119). He notes that ‘Surviving evidence’ linking Shakespeare’s early acting career with ‘Pembroke’s Men is more plentiful than surviving evidence for some of its fellow playing companies’ (145). It seems likely that, as an actor-dramatist for Pembroke’s Men, Shakespeare would have developed an ear for useful theatrical utterances. Indeed, T. W. Baldwin suggested that Shakespeare ‘would learn, from acting in the old plays’ of authors ‘such as Kyd’ (1959: 54). I propose that proper acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s beginnings as an actor can tell us much about the hybrid nature of his plays, or what we might call, as Gloucester puts it in Henry VI Part Two, his ‘books of memory’ (2H6, 1.1.97).1

John Tobin notes that because plays were very seldom performed in an uninterrupted run, actors needed powerful memories. It was a time when the aural rather than the visual understanding was much greater than in our own time, but even so, the capacity of actors to hold in their heads a large number of roles from many different plays was extraordinary, and new plays were constantly being added to the repertory. (2012: 22)

The capacious memory Shakespeare required in order to succeed as an Elizabethan player meant that he could draw from a variety of plays for the verbal details of his own works. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Shakespeare simply remembered other dramatists’ lines from having seen their plays during performance. Consider Hamlet’s recitation of the Player’s speech, which, Lina Perkins Wilder observes, ‘engages directly with the mechanics of recall’ (2010: 121). Hamlet offers ‘the Player a cue line to stimu­late his memory of the speech; he misremembers, and he corrects his memory’ (121). Hamlet is able to recall a thirteen-line speech, with ‘good accent and good discretion’ (Ham., 2.2.469– 70), des­pite his having only heard the ‘speech once, but it was never acted, or, if it was, not above once’ (2.2.437– 8). It is conceivable that Shakespeare’s ‘prodigious skills of memorisation required for the theatre’ (33) would similarly enable him to recall a number of speeches from plays he had engaged with, either as a spectator or actor. Notably, Lukas Erne observes that ‘Shakespeare, perhaps more than anyone else, seems to have specifically profited from Kyd’s works’ (2001: 5).

Ben Jonson coupled Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy with Shakespeare and George Peele’s Titus Andronicus (1592) in his Induction to Bartholomew Fair (1614): ‘He that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant’ (Butler, 1989: 160). Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, like Kyd’s most famous play, is written in the Senecan mode. Erne summarises Kyd’s influence over Shakespeare’s subsequent tragedies thus:

His second tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, did what only Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda among extant plays had done before on the public stage, namely to place a conflict of love at the centre of a tragedy. His third tragedy, Julius Caesar, covers the same period of Roman history as Kyd’s Cornelia, and Shakespeare’s Brutus may well owe something to Kyd’s. Finally, the chief source of Shakespeare’s fourth tragedy, Hamlet, is undoubtedly Kyd’s work of the same name. (2001: 5)

Shakespeare evidently recalled Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda when he came to write King John, for the Bastard alludes to the miles gloriosus of Kyd’s play in the line ‘Knight, knight, good mother, Basilisco- like’ (Jn, 1.1.244), while we can trace the influence of Basilisco in Shakespeare’s characterisation of Falstaff (Freeman, 1967: 163).