Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 171
Read an excerpt from Richard Schoch's new book.
Claude Fretz writes about the ways Restoration-era theater artists adapted Shakespeare to fit changing political norms and theatrical tastes.
Richard Schoch reflects on the experiences of working with artists to bring the Restoration to life.
MICHAEL WITMORE: The next time you read a critic, or maybe talk to your uncle, about how this or that director has “brutalized” Shakespeare by changing it—the next time you hear that, we have an answer.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. In his new book, Richard Schoch has what I have to imagine will be a startling message for everyone who considers themselves to be a “Shakespeare purist.“ Doing the plays the way they appear in the First Folio? That was not a preoccupation of theater artists for several hundred years after Shakespeare’s death. In fact, throughout history, if you lined up all the Shakespeare performances there’ve ever been, you might be able to count just as many productions that changed the ending or made up characters or set the play in outer space as ones that just played it “straight.”
Richard Schoch teaches in the School of Arts, English, and Languages at Queen’s University Belfast. He lays all of this out in his new book, A Short History of Shakespeare in Performance. Professor Schoch spoke to us recently from London about the time when this first started to happen: the era we call “the Restoration.” When, just like today, the theaters reopened, after being closed for a protracted period of time—in that case, for the English Civil War.
We call this podcast, “Change it, Change it.” Richard Schoch is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, just to start, let’s bone up on our history. When Charles II regains the throne in 1660, there’d been no theater at all for the past 18 years?
RICHARD SCHOCH: There had been some theater: always illegal. The Puritans, by law, prohibited theater in 1642. We have an 18 year period in which theater is outlawed. But there was a theatrical profession, and there were people who wanted to see plays, so they went underground, if you will. Had these kind of illegal, almost speakeasy performances. As soon as the authorities in London got wind, you know, they sent the boys around and shut the theaters down. So, there was theater here and there but not very much, for 18 years.
BOGAEV: And these are Puritans, so it was forbidden because it was evil and licentious?
SCHOCH: Well, exactly. The kind of people who went to the theater, so said the Puritans, were the kind of people who damaged the social fabric. Criminals, prostitutes, low-lives, renegades. And, of course, what you saw in drama, so the Puritans believed, were bad people but who were very entertaining. So theater was just an invitation to crime and vice no matter how you looked at it.
BOGAEV: I’m really intrigued by these illegal, furtive performances. But I imagine most people must have been dying for some entertainment. So Charles then, he gives out exclusive licenses for two new theater companies, once he’s in power. One goes to William Davenant and one goes to Thomas Killigrew. Why did those two luck out?
SCHOCH: Killigrew, Thomas Killigrew, who was officially a groom of the bedchamber. That means he was a, you know, a kind of lord attendant on the king in exile on the continent. He was a member of the royal household. So, very close to the king. And his reward for being loyal to the king was to have this patent.
Davenant was a little bit different because Davenant had been involved in the theater going back to the 1640s before the closure. In fact, back to the 1630s. He had written plays, and he had been closely involved with the court masques for Charles I, the father of Charles II. The martyred father. In fact, Charles I had given Davenant his own patent to build and run a theater in 1639, right before the civil war. Davenant never got a chance to make good on that because the civil war intervened and the Puritans shut the theaters. So, Charles II kind of honored his father’s wish that Davenant should also run a theater company.
BOGAEV: Well, were there any stipulations on who was allowed to produce which plays?
SCHOCH: That’s a fascinating question because the patents themselves just say, “Killigrew, you can run a theater company. Davenant, you can run a theater company. And you can build it in this part of London or that part of London.” But they don’t say anything else. They don’t actually talk about the plays. And remember, there were no new plays.
What happened is that Killigrew’s company, because it was the king’s company, it had his name, and it had the older actors who were sort of boy actors back in the 1630s. They had the name, The King’s Company, which makes you think of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men. They said, “Well, we are the King’s Men, living on in the Restoration, so we’re going to take all the old plays, and those are our exclusive property and nobody else can stage these plays.” Because, remember, plays belonged to companies, not to authors. They belonged to acting companies.
That left Davenant out in the cold. He had no plays to perform other than the few that he’d written.
BOGAEV: Yeah. He could not have been very happy about that.
SCHOCH: Noooo. He was not happy. So, he fired off a letter to Charles II and said, basically—I’ll use some colloquial language—“Man, you’ve got to give me some plays.” So, they went kind of back and forth, and in the end, Davenant managed to steal away nine plays by Shakespeare, right?
Killigrew’s company had twenty-six or twenty-seven. And Davenant managed to carve away nine. But they included some great plays. Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure. Plays that you would recognize.
BOGAEV: Huh. So, he went for quality as opposed to quantity.
SCHOCH: Well, he was lucky to get the nine. He was lucky to get the nine. So, you know, it took him about a year to sort of finally get a repertoire. What’s fascinating, when you look at what each theater company did in the Restoration, Davenant had nine Shakespeare plays and he performed every single one of them. Killigrew had twenty-six or twenty-seven and only ever performed eight or ten.
BOGAEV: That’s crazy… and they could have split them up more equitably, given that. You write, also, that initially, both of them staged these Shakespeare plays mostly unaltered. And just a few of the big ones were successful. But a lot of them didn’t fare that well. How do we know this though? Is there something akin to Henslowe’s diary that tells you that some Shakespeare plays were successful and some weren’t?
SCHOCH: Alas, there’s no Restoration equivalent of Henslowe’s diaries. But there are other kinds of documents. For example, we have a book called Roscius Anglicanus by John Downes. It was published in 1708, but it’s a history of the English theater from 1660 to 1708.
John Downes was the prompter for Davenant’s company, the Duke’s Company. He knew exactly which plays they did, whether they were adapted or Shakespeare had written them. He knew whether they were popular or not. Whether they made money or not. And he also knew what Killigrew’s company did.
And, of course, we have Samuel Pepys, who was not a theater critic, of course; he was writing privately in his diary. But he saw several hundred plays and he would often remark about whether the play was as Shakespeare had written it or whether it was Davenant or somebody who adapted it. So we have pretty substantial evidence about when the play was performed as Shakespeare wrote it, when it was adapted, and, of course, these adaptations were themselves published.
BOGAEV: Well, I love what you have to say about Pepys. Because he apparently had very strong opinions about Shakespeare. And he hated Romeo and Juliet and he hated Midsummer with a passion. So, what did he say about those plays?
SCHOCH: This is why the Restoration, to me, is so fascinating. Because the complaints are not that people tampered with Shakespeare but that people didn’t tamper with Shakespeare and tried to do straight Shakespeare, as it were.
Pepys went to see Romeo and Juliet as Shakespeare had written it, and he wrote in his diary, “This is one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen,” if you can imagine. Then he went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Shakespeare wrote it. This is before, you know, Purcell turned it into an operatic piece. So, kind of, a straight version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote in his diary, “This is the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I’ve seen.”
BOGAEV: Well, why do you think he hated it so much?
SCHOCH: It didn’t have what he was looking for. He was looking for a Restoration fashion, a Restoration style, a Restoration sensibility. And these plays, written decades and decades ago, didn’t have that. What would Pepys and people like him have been wanting? They would want some entertainment which usually meant singing and dancing like those great set pieces with the witches in Macbeth.
In Restoration Macbeth by Davenant, you know, there are these three gigantic musical interludes, episodes, that the witches sing. And Pepys was mad about them. He loved them. He called it, “A strange perfection.” You know, that’s what makes the show perfect: so totally itself. That it has spectacle.
It even goes down to the language. Because Restoration audiences, they didn’t like, really, the heavy poetry of Shakespeare. The metaphor, the elevated diction, the extended images. They liked the lines of a play to be as clean as a whistle, you know? Straight down the line. Literal, not figurative. And if you look at the structure of a play, Pepys and people like him, they didn’t want all these messy subplots. They wanted symmetry. So, that’s what Davenant did. He kind of rearranged the structure of the play to make it more geometric, if you will.
BOGAEV: Now, you’ve just made a lot of statements about what people in the Restoration wanted, what audiences wanted. But why did they want it? Where is the sensibility coming from?
SCHOCH: It’s coming from… this Restoration sensibility is coming from the sense of, “We’re starting again.” We’re starting again with the monarchy. We’re starting again with theater. Because we’re starting again, we should be new and imaginative and adventurous and vigorous. We’re not going back. We’re going forward. So, let’s show that by having new artistic forms.
BOGAEV: Okay. So, Shakespeare, then, was old-fashioned? He was fuddy-duddy?
SCHOCH: Absolutely. Old-fashioned. Fuddy-duddy. You know, not quite yesterday’s man. More, sort of—a lot of potential, but needs to be rewritten.
BOGAEV: Okay. So, we’re starting anew. But, I mean, some of this you’re judging just from Pepys, and he was a really opinionated person. Why do we even care about what Pepys thought?
SCHOCH: Well, I’m not judging just from Pepys. I’m going by the evidence of eyewitnesses of people like John Downes. We have the evidence of the adapted play texts themselves with stage directions about music and scenery. We know exactly how Davenant went about revising the play. So Pepys becomes a kind of, you know, shorthand for how audiences responded. But we actually have a very, very good picture, a very good idea of to what degree the Restoration changed Shakespeare.
Now, the reason Pepys gets a lot of attention is because the diary is available, right? I mean, it’s like when you’re looking for your keys, where do you look? You look where the light is shining, not in the dark. Pepys gets all the love because the diary is available.
But here’s what I find interesting. You know, you raise a good point, which is that, are we going to, kind of, pin so many conclusions and insights onto the practice and views of one man? What’s interesting is that what Pepys liked and didn’t like is borne out in that book by John Downes, the prompter, called Roscius Anglicanus. In which John Downes says, you know, “This production was a huge success, and this production, three performances, and we never revived it again.” The way Pepys reacted corresponds very closely to Downes’ account of what audiences, in general, liked or didn’t like, you know? So, Pepys loved Macbeth, but so did everybody else.
BOGAEV: And you mention that they added music and they added whole scenes. How else did they change Shakespeare? How did they adapt the plays?
SCHOCH: Well, what I find fascinating about the Restoration is that, you know, it’s the first generation to do Shakespeare after Shakespeare. And they changed everything. They changed the performers. The Restoration is when the first professional English actress appears on the stage. Boy actors are out and women are finally playing women’s parts.
Now, this has a knock-on effect, in terms of how the plays are adapted. Because if you suddenly have six, seven, eight actresses in your company, and you’re performing Shakespeare, well, you need roles for them. And as we all know, Shakespeare wrote a lot more roles for men than he did for, in his time, boy-actors playing women.
So, what did Davenant do? He created new roles for actresses, and he expanded existing roles. So, for example, in Macbeth, he expands the role of Lady Macduff. So, she becomes a kind of moral counterpoint to Lady Macbeth. And in The Tempest, he creates four roles for women.
BOGAEV: So, he wrote roles for actresses and they added scenes. What else?
SCHOCH: The place where the performances occurred was different, right? No more open-air amphitheater-style playhouse. We have, in the Restoration, the proscenium stage. Much more like, you know, the sort of like a traditional Broadway or West End theater. It’s inside. There’s a sort of architectural arch that covers the opening. There is still a forestage where the actors can be close to the audience. So, it’s taking place in a different space.
And in that proscenium theater, unlike Shakespeare’s Globe, you can have a lot of scenery. There’s painted perspective scenery that can be moved up, down, left, and right. Later on in the Restoration, you get machines and things can turn around, and witches can fly in. So you get a lot of stage spectacle.
You get musicians. We can debate the numbers, but easily, you could get, you know, a dozen violin players on the stage, or to the side of the stage. I just find it fascinating that every element, every aspect of the theater that could be changed was changed by Davenant in the Restoration.
BOGAEV: How long did the adaptations and the changes to Shakespeare stick around?
SCHOCH: The Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare, the most popular ones, lasted an extraordinarily long time. So, they were written in the 1660s and the Macbeth lasted for just over a century. I mean, David Garrick, in the late 18th century, was still doing it, was still doing a version of it. The Tempest lasted even longer. It was produced from the 1660s until the late 1830s, you know, at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign.
It’s extraordinary. The idea that you can adapt Shakespeare, and change Shakespeare, and rearrange Shakespeare, and even create new characters. Scenery in a proscenium stage. Music; there’s less music today in straight dramas, but well into the 19th century, there was underscoring even in melodrama at a non-musical play, but that had musical underscoring. So, that lived on for a couple hundred years.
BOGAEV: I mean, it’s really clear that Davenant was a very savvy businessman. So, were these changes—I mean, can you look back and say, these changes were clearly driven by finances? They were financial decisions. Business decisions. Or was it his vision?
SCHOCH: It was both. I think like any great theatrical innovator, particularly in a commercial theater, you have to combine your vision with a sense of the market. Otherwise, nothing’s going to happen, right? The Restoration theater was a commercial theater. Davenant had a very strong vision of what theater can be, in terms of spectacle and music and dance and the use of actresses. We know this going all the way back to the court masques.
He had this vision that he was carrying in his head for decades, including the generation that the theaters were closed, and he finally got his chance in the 1660s to realize his vision. To make good on his vision. But being a smart theatrical entrepreneur, he knew he had to do it in a way that would attract audiences. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
BOGAEV: What about Killigrew? You say somewhere, he was a terrible businessman.
SCHOCH: Well, Killigrew had neither vision nor business sense, you know? Kind of the…
BOGAEV: Poor guy.
SCHOCH: You know, as I said, he only got the theatrical patent as a kind of a reward for being loyal to the king. It wasn’t for his theatrical vision. And it wasn’t because he was good at running businesses. So, basically, Killigrew was playing catch-up. It wasn’t that Killigrew didn’t use actresses and didn’t have spectacle, but that he kind of learned it from Davenant and the Duke’s Company. It wasn’t second nature to him. So, artistically, he sort of followed Davenant’s lead.
He was also kind of an absentee boss, you know? I mean, Davenant had actresses living with him in his house. And his house was adjacent to the theater, you know? Davenant was a twenty-four-seven theater guy, and Killigrew was really hands-off.
One of the consequences was that morale plummeted eventually in his company. And he was fighting with the actors in his company, and there wasn’t a good mood, and people weren’t going to rehearsals. It just wasn’t coming together. Remember, it’s a stable company: it wasn’t people jobbing in for this production and that production. If you start to alienate your own employees, it’s all just going to fall apart.
The companies united. They united because Killigrew’s company basically fell apart. It just wasn’t working anymore. So, thank God Davenant was there. If it was just up to Killigrew, we’d be talking about Shakespeare in a different way.
BOGAEV: I want to talk about musicals, though. Because that was the first thing you mentioned as the most dramatic change to Shakespeare. We really shouldn’t be calling them musicals, right? This is more of a kind of dramatic operas. Were dramatic operas a hot new trend in the Restoration?
SCHOCH: Yes, they were. And that phrase—and I’m so glad you used that phrase because it comes from John Dryden who adapted, with Davenant, The Tempest. That’s his phrase. That’s the Restoration phrase for this new theatrical beast, which is a drama with a lot of music and musical episodes written into it.
Not like the Phantom of the Opera where, you know, where the Phantom sings and the Phantom and Christine have a love duet. The way music appeared in Restoration dramatic opera and these adaptations of Shakespeare was as an interlude, as a place where the performance was suddenly different.
And we have to remember that in these Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare, the characters, Hamlet, Macbeth, Prospero: they didn’t sing. Rather, they were sung to. Usually, a stage chorus, something spectacular, singing to a character. Like in Macbeth—the witches, which originally were a chorus of witches—sing to Macduff and Lady Macduff. So, the music wasn’t integrated in the way of a modern musical. It kind of stood out, almost like a lightning flash.
BOGAEV: And this is stolen from the Greek form? I mean, it’s directly out of the Greek theater?
SCHOCH: I think the more immediate example, the more concrete example, would be in England: the precedent of the court masque. Under James I and Charles I—again which Davenant was involved in—there were people in the masque who were just actors, including women and including noble women and, even one time, the queen. There were people who just acted, people who just sang, and people who just danced. I think it comes out of that tradition and also the continental European tradition of the masques, as well, which Charles knew during his exile. I think those are the more immediate influences.
BOGAEV: Huh. And the audiences to those court masques, it’s the court. So, it was a really elite audience.
BOGAEV: But in the Restoration period, was it more similar to what it had been when Shakespeare was alive? You know, in other words, as a businessman, did you need to appeal both to groundlings and to the wealthy in the tiers?
SCHOCH: That’s a great question, about just who was the audience for Restoration theater. It wasn’t the elite court audience of the court masque from the time of James I and Charles I. And it wasn’t the audience at the Globe, complete with groundlings. It was somewhere in between.
I think there are two differences we can point out. First, we need to remember that the Restoration theater was an extension of the throne. The license to do theater came from the king himself. So, for the first time, the monarch went to see a play. Unlike Shakespeare in Love, the movie in which, you know, Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth shows up at the theater. That didn’t happen.
BOGAEV: Right, and that never happened. Right.
SCHOCH: That never happened. But in the Restoration, it happens. So, you do have this sense that the theater is somehow an extension of the court, an extension of royalty.
On the other hand, not everybody who went to a Restoration theater was an aristocrat or even connected to the courts. Samuel Pepys, you know, moved in elevated circles, but he was a civil servant. In fact, he complained about the apprentices being in the theater. I think that’s very important, because the cliché is that the Restoration theater audience is just aristocratic. And it’s not true. There weren’t groundlings, they kind of went with the Globe. So, it was a bit higher up.
BOGAEV: So, everybody had a seat. Everybody was seated.
SCHOCH: Oh, yes. There was no standing whatsoever. Everybody had a seat. There were, as always…
BOGAEV: And people weren’t throwing chicken bones and stuff. Or were people still eating in the theater?
SCHOCH: They weren’t… you could probably still buy an orange, you know? There’d be a woman with oranges going around. And there were, you know, there were certainly lots of assignations taking place. But no groundlings. But the audience is more diverse than we might think.
BOGAEV: Are there lessons from this period for today’s theaters on how to come back from taking 14 months off? You know, to live performance post-COVID? I mean, they had 18 years off back then.
SCHOCH: They did.
BOGAEV: What went on when these theaters cranked back up again in the 1660s?
SCHOCH: You know, this is the moment to really meditate on the Restoration theater, because 2021 is the new 1660. I mean, you think 14 months of no theater is bad, try 18 years. We find ourselves, uncannily, in a parallel moment. We are having to rethink from the ground up how we’re going to do theater. Who is doing it? What is it for? Where is it taking place, including virtual spaces? What technological resources are we going to continue? These are questions that occurred in the Restoration. Because when Davenant and Killigrew and their companies started, they had to think, “Well, here we are. What are we going to keep? What are we going to let go? And what are we going to do differently?”
And I think there are—if you’ll permit me to be a bit of a schoolteacher—I think there are a few lessons we can learn from the Restoration theater looking ahead to post-COVID theater. One is that the people who tried in the Restoration, who tried to reinstate the old ways, who just wanted to go back to how theater had been done before the closure, they succeeded in the very short term. It was expedient. But they failed in the long term, because they had no innovation. They had no ingenuity. And they had no legacy. They died out. In a way, they became the dinosaurs of their time. So, I think, you know, the precedent from the Restoration is clear.
And there’s another lesson I’d like to mention which is, when the Restoration comes—and here I’m really thinking about Davenant’s savvy, his vision, his entrepreneurship, the way he went his own way and just, kind of, triumphed over Killigrew’s company. You know, when the Restoration comes, work with people who want to work with you. Including people with influence and money. And as for everybody else, your work is not for them, and their work is not for you. You can’t collaborate with everybody, let alone satisfy everybody. So, don’t even try. This is the great lesson from Davenant. He didn’t try and please everybody. But he had a vision and he figured that enough people would appreciate it.
I think the parallel for us would be, coming back to this issue of technology, well, now that we’ve had a bit of experience, whether we liked it or not, with Zoom theater or lockdown theater, what of the technology are we going to keep going ahead? I’m not sure we know the answer. But as Hamlet would say, “That is the question.”
BOGAEV: So, if the Puritans hadn’t closed the theaters, if there’d been no shut-down, would things not really have changed? Would actors still be performing in the Globe?
SCHOCH: Well, you know, it’s a crazy thought experiment to think, “Well, what would happen if the theaters hadn’t closed in 1642?” You know, if they had not closed in 1642, in 1643, Shakespeare would have been performed in the same way as Shakespeare had been performed in Shakespeare’s time. And I sometimes think that if the theaters had not been closed, there would be no need for the reconstructed Globe on London’s south bank because we would still be in the original one. Because things would never have changed.
BOGAEV: Right. Although, it would have burned down.
SCHOCH: Although they, but they...
BOGAEV: Because everything burned down.
SCHOCH: Everything burned down. But they would have rebuilt it. But it wouldn’t have seemed different. So, we can thank the Restoration—as traumatic as it was for the theatrical profession—we can thank it for forcing a moment when innovation, and newness, and adventure seized the English theater.
BOGAEV: Well, I want to thank you for seizing this moment to talk. Thanks so much.
SCHOCH: Barbara, thank you. I’m always glad to talk about theater history and especially happy to do it with the Folger Shakespeare Library.
WITMORE: Richard Schoch is a professor in the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s University Belfast. His new book is called A Short History of Shakespeare in Performance: From the Restoration to the Twenty-First Century. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. Professor Schoch was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “Change it, Change it,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.