Shakespeare's contemporaries

Painting showing gentlemen in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon - 19th century watercolour by Charles Cattermole © RSC Collection

The popularity of theatre and competition between playwrights in Elizabethan England culminated in a 'golden age of drama' that produced some of the most important works in English literature. Dramatists like Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were all significant figures of the age producing works still performed regularly today.

Thomas Kyd
Born in London in 1558, Thomas Kyd was educated at the Merchant Tailor's School. Little is known of his early life, except that he gained some knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish and Latin, and that he worked in translating and pamphleteering. His first popular play Spanish Tragedy (1589) set the standard for revenge plays and continued to be performed throughout the Elizabethan period. Known for his 'rampant and lurid genius', the play included horrors of ghosts, insanity, murder and suicide. The number of reprints of the play show that it was more popular than anything Shakespeare wrote and, in 1601, Ben Jonson was even paid to update it.

Kyd shared a room with Christopher Marlowe and, in 1593, he was arrested and tortured into giving evidence against his friend. He was released after Marlowe had been murdered, but he never regained his former popularity. He died in poverty in 1594.

Christopher Marlowe
Marlowe was born in 1564, the son of an upmarket shoemaker and a clergyman's daughter. Educated at the King's School in Canterbury and at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, he frequently took leave from lessons and nearly didn't get his degree. Apparently his disappearances were as a result of time spent in Rheims among the Catholics (who were plotting against Queen Elizabeth's protestant rule) and, after his degree, he became a confidential agent for the Government. As a writer, Marlowe was chiefly associated with the Admiral's Company, and his first big success was Tamburlaine (c.1588). Often the talk of the town, he was recognised for his magnificent appearance, jewelled costumes and impulsive nature. Born in the same year, Marlowe and Shakespeare came from similar backgrounds, but Marlowe had the advantage of a university education that had given him a head start in the business.

In 1593 Marlowe wrote a manuscript that pointed out (what he considered to be) inconsistencies in the Bible, and he fell under the suspicion of heresy. His room-mate Thomas Kyd was tortured into giving evidence against him. But before he could be brought to the Privy Council, 29 year-old Marlowe was found murdered in a lodging place in Deptford. It is believed that he was in a meeting with three Government agents, and that they were paid assassins. The case of his murder was hurriedly tidied up, and the killer was pardoned quickly and quietly. Today he is best remembered for plays such Doctor Faustus in (1588-9), The Jew of Malta (c.1590) and Edward II (1593).

Ben Jonson
In 1572, Ben Jonson was born into unfortunate circumstances. Having been imprisoned and deprived of estate by Mary Tudor, his Protestant father (a clergyman) died a month before his birth. His mother, who had been left penniless, had to marry a bricklayer. Consequently, after a privileged education at Westminster, Jonson was forced to follow his stepfather's trade before serving as soldier in the Netherlands. After this, he became a member of a strolling company of actors and probably learnt his talent for writing there. On 22 September 1598, he was arrested for killing a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer in a duel. As a sign of his guilt, the authorities branded his thumb. In 1603 he was turned out of Court for unruly behaviour, and his collaboration with Marston and Chapman in 1604 for Eastward Ho! (a bustling comedy that poked fun at the Scots and King James) lead to his arrest once again. Despite his unruly behaviour, he was employed every year to produce entertainment for the King and from 1616 he enjoyed a royal pension and rewards.

It is thought that Jonson's involvement with Shakespeare began when, during the winter of 1598-9, he sent a script to the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Although he was never easy to work with, Jonson lent Shakespeare books that would further his knowledge of literature, and help improve his plays. It would seem that they had a fairly close relationship. Shakespeare was also godfather to his son.

After Charles I came to throne in 1625, Jonson fell out of favour with the Court. His work was not required for another five years. At the age of 56 he suffered a stroke, and his latest play The New Inn was a complete failure. In 1628 he was also made City Chronologer, but payment was withheld until 1631 because he had failed to do anything in office. He died on 6 August 1637, and is best remembered for plays such as Every Man in His Humour, Eastward Ho!, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair.

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
Born in 1584, Francis Beaumont is best remembered for his collaborations with John Fletcher. His father was Sir Francis of Leicestershire, and he was a judge of common pleas. Beaumont was educated at Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College) in Oxford, but the death of his father in 1597 meant that he left the university without a degree.

John Fletcher was born five years earlier at Rye, in Sussex. His father was Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London, most famous for his part as a tormenting accuser in the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. John was educated at the same university as Christopher Marlowe, at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.

Beaumont and Fletcher differed from other playwrights in that they were the first men to come from distinguished families, and they became known for their romantic tragi-comedies. Their chief works were written between 1607 and 1613 and include Philsater, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Maid's Tragedy. But their upper-class style was not always favoured. When 'The Children of the King's Revels' performed The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Blackfriars Theatre in 1610, it was promptly rejected by the audience for poking fun at the taste and manners of the London tradesmen.

Shakespeare may have supervised and edited the young playwrights' work when they began writing for the King's Men. He certainly admired Fletcher's style as he collaborated with him on his last three plays; Cardinio, The Life of King Henry the Eighth and The Two Noble Kinsmen, all written and produced in 1613-14.

Beaumont married in 1613 and did not continue to write. He died of a fever in the same year as Shakespeare (1616) and is buried at Westminster Abbey. After his death, Fletcher continued to have great success, collaborating with Jonson and Massinger. He shared Shakespeare's fortune in the number of his plays performed at Court when, in the season of 1612/13, Shakespeare had nine plays performed and Fletcher had eight. Furthermore, when the King's Men performed The Taming of the Shrew and Fletcher's reply The Tamer Tamed in 1633, Shakespeare's play was 'liked', but Fletcher's play was 'very well liked'. It has been estimated that, between 1609 and the time of his death, Fletcher was involved in writing 42 plays. He died of the plague in 1625 and is buried in Southwark Cathedral.

John Webster
Regarded as 'the last of the great Elizabethan playwrights', John Webster was born sometime around 1580. Little is known of his early years except that he may have been a member of the Middle Temple and, considering his knowledge of Law in later plays, this seems likely. The White Devil for example, is a play concerned with the dark depths of Italian politics. In 1604 he wrote an introduction for the revival Marston's The Malcontent, and he collaborated with Thomas Dekker on Westward Ho. Jonson and company then answered this with Eastward Ho! and Dekker and Webster retaliated with Northward Ho (1605). This kind of rivalry was common in the London theatre and the audience would have enjoyed seeing the playwrights 'battle it out' for public favour.

Unlike Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster produced nothing between 1605 and 1611, though his most famous piece The Duchess of Malfi (written before 1614) enjoyed success at the Globe public theatre and Blackfriars private playhouse. The play is considered to be among the finest of all Jacobean tragedies. Webster probably died sometime in the 1630s, though we cannot be sure of the exact year and date as the Great Fire of London destroyed the parish records.

Philip Massinger
Born in 1584, Philip Massinger is often considered one of the most powerful dramatists of his day. In 1602 he entered St. Alban Hall in Oxford, and the Earl of Pembroke paid for his education for four years. However, Massinger displeased his father's employer by being more interested in the Arts than in Science, and he left the establishment without taking a degree. There are no records of his activity or work until 1613, when he began his great collaboration with John Fletcher. Their partnership produced some 20 plays and, after Fletcher's death in 1625, Massinger replaced him as chief playwright for the King's Men.

Massinger's first play under Charles I was The Roman Actor (1626). He considered it to be his best play and 'ever held it the most perfect birth of (his) Minerva'. Generally his work appealed to more thoughtful politicians and moralists of the time, although people recognised that he came next to Shakespeare in the art of opening and developing a plot. Several of his plays have been lost, eight being accidentally destroyed by a cook.

On 18 March 1640, Massinger was found mysteriously dead in his bed, having been perfectly well the night before. His body now lies in Southwark Cathedral, in the same grave as his friend John Fletcher.

(Image above shows a 19th century painting from the RSC Collection showing gentlemen in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th century watercolour by Charles Cattermole © RSC Collection)

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