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Monday, June 24, 2013

Stage-Struck Shakespeare


444 years ago, in the summer of 1569, Queen Elizabeth own company of players, the Queen’s Players was on tour across England.

They stopped in Stratford-upon-Avon and performed at the Guildhall.

The Guildhall in Stratford-upon-Avon
William Shakespeare was 5 years old, and it is very likely that he saw them perform. It is possible that this is the first time Shakespeare saw “professional” actors.

What did he see? It may have been Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, otherwise known as The History of the Two Valiant Knights, Sir Clyomon Knight of the Golden Shield, Son to the King of Denmark, and Clamydes the White Knight, Son to the King of Swabia.

This play did in fact have an influence on Shakespeare, when he wrote As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymbeline, and Henry IV, Part 2.

This would not be the last time young Shakespeare would see acting companies in and around Stratford.  In fact, by the end of the same summer of 1569, he would have seen the Earl of Worcester’s Men, too.

inside the Guildhall

What kind of effect did these plays have on Shakespeare, who would go on to write the greatest plays in history?

Stephen Greenblatt, in his brilliant and essential biography of Shakespeare Will in the World, has a wonderful description of the “stage-struck” “young and awkward Shakespeare” “filled with visions his tongue could not conceive and eager to play all the parts.”

I like to imagine that this young Shakespeare was so excited by the plays he saw, that he would act out characters and lines for weeks after. He was so thrilled that he probably couldn’t get to bed those nights after he saw a play.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare was not enrolled in school yet. He would start when he was 7 years old, in 1571.

So, this moment early in Shakespeare’s life gives us an idea of who he was long before he had the kind of education, with an emphasis on Latin and Greek (and the stories in those languages) that would help him unleash his talent as a writer.

What is also fascinating is these Queen’s Players, which were an early version of what would later become The Queen's Men, also acted as spies for the Queen. It was an ingenious use of the actors. Since they were travelling across England, they could also collect intelligence.

I wonder what they told the Queen, and her spymaster Frances Walsingham, about Stratford.

There probably wasn’t much to tell.

But did any of them happen to notice a bright young boy, who probably sat as close to the stage as possible, whose entire life was changed the moment they hit the stage?

Little did the Queen know, or the Queen’s Players know, that while they were collecting data on England -- they were also inspiring children like Shakespeare to become actors and playwrights.

And if Queen Elizabeth had known that she had “created” Shakespeare -- who would later become such a source of trouble for her -- she might never have allowed playing companies to form in the first place.

When Shakespeare became the most successful and popular playwright in London, in the late 1590's, he was embroiled in the most important power struggle in Queen Elizabeth's court. Shakespeare was a weapon used by the Earl of Essex against Robert Cecil.

This power struggle would lead to the failed Essex Rebellion, which in turn would inspire Shakespeare to write his greatest masterpiece, Hamlet.

It is funny to imagine that in a summer not entirely unlike this one in 2013, there was a young boy who would go see a play, and he would grow up to change the world.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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