Thomas Kyd (1558-94)
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 The 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. It was a great success and theatre manager Philip Henslowe, recorded 29 performances 1592-97 in his diary. 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.
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Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)
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 (1572–1637)
The poet and playwright Ben Jonson was born in or near London on 11 June 1572, a month after the death of his father, a clergyman. His penniless mother remarried a bricklayer. Despite his humble origins, Jonson attended Westminster School where he received the usual classical education before following his stepfather’s trade as a bricklayer. In the 1590s he served as a soldier in the Low Countries. After military service, he joined a strolling company of actors in England and in 1598 his play Every Man in His Humour was performed by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. He is thought to have had a close relationship with Shakespeare, who was godson to his son.
A notoriously fiery character, Jonson was arrested in September 1598 for killing a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel, for which he was branded on his thumb. His relationship with authority was often strained and in 1604 he was arrested again for co-writing Eastwood Ho! with Marson and Chapman, a play which poked fun at James I and the Scots. By 1616 he was back in favour at court producing an annual entertained for the king and receiving a pension. When Charles I came to the throne in 1625, Jonson fell out of favour and his play The New Inn was a failure. He suffered a stroke when he was 56 and died on 6 August 1637 leaving an estate worth £8 8s. 10d. Today he is best known for his plays Every Man in His Humour, Eastwood Ho!, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. Jonson’s other claim to fame is his much-quoted preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s Plays, published in 1623.
Thomas Dekker (c.1572-1632)
Nothing is known for certain of Dekker’s life before 1598 when his name appears in entries in Philip Henslowe's Diary. Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson (the author of Volpone) were both big fans of each other's works. Jonson referred to Dekker as a 'dresser of plays about town' and satirised him in Poetaster and Cynthia's Revels. Dekker responded to this by satirising Jonson in Satiromastix as Horace, an arrogant and overbearing hypocrite. 1599 was a big year for Dekker. He began it in Ludgate debtors prison and ended it by having his play The Shoemaker's Holiday played at court in front of Elizabeth I on 31 December, one of the most prestigious slots in the Christmas revels.
In 1612 Dekker's debt problems saw him imprisoned yet again, due to owing the father of John Webster (The White Devil) £40. This time he was imprisoned for seven years, remarking that the experience turned his hair white. Dekker was an extremely prolific writer and personally claimed to have been involved in the writing of 240 plays. Sadly, most of his work is lost, and only twenty of his plays are known to have been published in his lifetime. He was also a master of collaboration. Dekker co-authored many plays of the Jacobean period, including The Witch of Edmonton, which he wrote with William Rowley and John Ford. He also collaborated with Henry Chettle, John Day, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Marston, Antony Munday, John Webster and William Shakespeare. In the two years between 1598 and 1600 Dekker was associated with 28 (or more) plays, as sole or joint author. That's more than a play a month! Dekker composed the annual pageant for the Lord Mayor four times – In 1612, 1627, 1628 and 1629. He died in 1632, still in debt.
John Webster (c.1580-c.1638)
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.
Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625)
Born in 1584, Francis Beaumont is best remembered for his collaborations with John Fletcher. 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. 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 Philaster, 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; Cardenio, 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.
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Philip Massinger (1584-1640)
Philip Massinger was born in November1584 probably in Salisbury. He 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. He also wrote for the Phoenix Company and 1621-25 produced the tragi-comedies: The Maid of Honour, The Bondman, The Renegado, The Parliament of Love , and The Great Duke of Florence.
Massinger's first play under Charles I was The Roman Actor (1626), which he considered it to be his best play. Several of his plays have been lost, eight being accidentally destroyed by a cook. His comedies A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625) and The City Madam (1632) have grown in popularity over the years with recent revivals. 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.
John Ford (1586-1639?)
In 1586 John Ford was born in Devon to a prosperous gentry family. He spent a short time at Exeter College, Oxford, before entering Middle Temple, one of London's Inns of Court, in 1602. Fame’s Memorial, a verse elegy, and the poem Honour Triumphant were his earliest published works, appearing in 1606. Like many gentlemen at the Inns of Court, he was a keen playgoer but doesn’t seem to have begun his playwriting career until the 1620s. He collaborated with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley on The Witch of Edmonton.
During Charles I’s reign, Ford emerged as a leading dramatist and his solo works include ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Broken Heart and Love’s Sacrifice. His plays were characterised by intense emotion and striking visual images. His last recorded play was The Lady’s Trail published in 1639 but nothing is known of him after this time.