A third of the way through John Grisham’s Pelican Brief many years ago, I recognizedDarby Sharp, the novel’s protagonist: She was Julia Roberts. Sure nuff, Roberts played the role in the film, no doubt just as Grisham had hoped she would.

As it turns out, Grisham has some tradition behind him. According to Bart van Es’s Shakespeare in Company , the Bard himself did it - writing characters, revising scripts, to fit them to his actors.

Charles Nicholl writes in his TLS review of the book: “Shakespeares achievement as a writer was in crucial ways communal; that the contributions of his playhouse colleagues, indeed his whole immersion in the business and practice of the theatre, are woven into the fabric of his plays; and that in a broadly chronological framework one can see his literary skills evolving in response to certain changes in his working conditions.” Not a new insight, Nicholl admits, but one that van Es pursues “with great vigour and clarity, and with much telling documentary detail.”

The turning point in Shakespeare’s career came when he went from being a freelance wordsmith to a permanent “writer in residence” of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594. From that point, “He had a continuous and familiar ensemble of actors to write for, giving him the benefits of what Van Es calls ‘performer specificity,’ . . . He also had more control over what plays he chose to write, and over the casting and staging and directing of them. These factors, it is argued, much more than strictly literary influences, are a clue to the sophisticated psychological dynamic of Shakespeares plays: the ‘relational quality of his drama,’ with ‘its tendency to place characters within social units in which there is an evolving power balance between protagonists.’”

Richard Burbage was the star of the show, and van Es suggests that his prominence helps account for the types of plays and roles Shakespeare began to write: “The monster role is Hamlet, which in the earliest authoritative text (the second quarto edition of 1604) weighs in at 1,338 lines, or some 36 per cent of the entire play, which is itself the longest in the canon. Four other Burbage roles premiered during the first decade of the Globe Henry V, Macbeth, Timon and the Duke in Measure for Measure corner more than 30 per cent of the lines in those plays, with others such such as Brutus, Antony and Coriolanus not far behind.”

Some of Shakespeare’s contributions to theatrical tradition came as much from actors as from the poet. Robert Armin, a comic player in Shakespeare’s group, “made the fools role a permanent feature of his public identity: it had been his idea to turn the jester still a working reality within the early modern household into a vehicle for commentary upon the world” (van Es’s words).

Placing Shakespeare in company gives a more realistic view not only of his talents and career but of his role in our cultural imagination: “”The idea of Shakespeare as a sort of literary superman was essentially a product of the later eighteenth century, and particularly of the fulsome bicentenary celebrations of 1764, orchestrated by David Garrick. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Romantic critics such as Coleridge, and is perpetuated in that irritating moniker ‘the Bard,’ with which he continues to be saddled daily. Bart Van Ess lucid and comprehensive book is in a more recent and surely more realistic counter-tradition which sees Shakespeare as pre-eminently involved: a poet at work in the daily professional context of a busy and successful theatre company.”

Van Es brings the Bard to earth, where he belongs.

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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