Setting Shakespeare’s drama in context

I’ve been looking at  the first volume of a new reference work, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Volume 1, 1533-1566, and recently met with its author Dr Martin Wiggins, Senior Lecturer and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon.

It’s a subject he knows well. Back in 2000 he published Shakespeare and the Drama of his Time, and during the writing of the book speculated about what would have made the job of writing it easier. This new book is the answer. It will grow to be the first complete, systematic survey of all British drama dating from 1533, the beginning of the English reformation, to 1642, the start of the English revolution which signalled the closing of the theatres and the suspension of commercial playwriting.

In his preface Dr Wiggins explains the problem he had with the word “and” in the title of the earlier book. Since being elevated to near-divine status in the eighteenth century Shakespeare has been seen isolated above all his contemporaries.
This vast, eclectic body of drama tends to be treated rather like a mountain, with Shakespeare enthroned in solitary magnificence at the peak and other plays at progressively lower levels. It is the only mountain where everyone starts at the top and hardly anyone gets down as far as ground level. I wanted to turn the mountain into a plateau.

This idea of seeing Shakespeare as both above and separate from above fellow-writers is still prevalent. Just in the last few weeks, the idea that Shakespeare may have collaborated on All’s Well That Ends Well has been widely discussed in the media, still uncomfortable with the notion that he was one of a large group of professional writers in the hurly-burly of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, exchanging ideas and often working together.

Knowing exactly what was required, Wiggins planned the book in detail. It will cover every known play, extant and lost, around 2800 in all. The publisher’s blurb explains how the book works:
Each entry contains comprehensive information about a single play: its various titles, authorship, and date; a summary of the plot, a list of roles, and details of the human and geographical world in which the fictional action takes place; a list of sources, narrative and verbal, and a summary of the formal characteristics; details of the staging requirements; and an account of the early stage and textual history.

The first volume, the only one out so far, covers 34 years. The second, being published later this year, will cover 13, the third 8 and the fourth only the five years 1598 to 1602. This progression shows not only that more plays were produced as time went on, but also illustrates the changing status and quality of plays, from those devised for and performed for a specific occasion to ones that people wanted to repeat or to read for themselves.

He treats the plays as primarily theatrical artefacts, and only secondarily as literary. The definition of “drama” is wide including interludes, royal entertainments, masques and biblical puppet shows as well as plays.

Though originally envisaged as a wholly electronic resource, it is to the credit of  Oxford University Press, to be published as a series of  between 10 and 12 hardback volumes as well as online. This massive work of scholarship has already taken around 10 years, and may take another 10 to complete.

The books and online resource, when launched, are set to become a standard work of reference for students of the drama of the period and are sure to stimulate new thinking about how Shakespeare fits in to the theatrical landscape of his period. I look forward to reading the results of work done by students taking advantage of this outstanding piece of scholarship.

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2 Responses to Setting Shakespeare’s drama in context

  1. Bob Grumman says:

    Great to hear about this project. One question: did you lose ten years when describing how many years each of the first four volumes would cover–or maybe a volume covering that number of years? I’ve checked the arithmetic several times, but have been known to be bewilderingly incompetent arithmetically at times, so may well be wrong.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Dear Bob,
      Thanks for your comment. Checking the numbers I can see what you mean, and my only excuse is that I was repeating what I had been told by the editor. Suffice it to say the general point remains true, that the number of plays being performed on the stage in this period was increasing rapidly.

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