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Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Era of Shakespeare Begins

On 15 August 1594, the famous playwright Thomas Kyd was buried. He was only 35.

If Shakespeare was there for his burial at St. Mary Colechurch, he was witnessing the end of an era, and the beginning of another.

Site of St. Mary Colechurch, on Old Jewry, which burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 and was not rebuilt

In the 1580’s Thomas Kyd was one of the first significant playwrights in London, and arguably the greatest of them all.

His play The Spanish Tragedy was arguably the first important play in the period.

Soon after Kyd made his mark, Christopher Marlowe arrived on the scene and became the second great playwright of the period. 

Marlowe’s plays, especially Tamburlaine, were the hottest tickets in town.

When Shakespeare arrived in London around 1587, he would have been obsessed with Kyd and Marlowe, and their plays.

The influence Kyd and Marlowe would have on Shakespeare is profound. 

Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy influenced Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is reason to believe that Kyd even wrote an early (1588-90) version of a Hamlet play.

Kyd also is believed to have written a play based on the story of King Leir, which Shakespeare would later turn into his masterpiece King Lear.

The influence Marlowe had on Shakespeare is even greater, and permeates many of his plays.

For example, in my version of Richard III, I propose the idea that this play was Shakespeare’s first real masterpiece and was written as a sort of theatrical requiem mass for Marlowe, who had just been killed. 

There were other great playwrights during the period from 1587, when Shakespeare arrived in London, to 1594, when Kyd was buried. But Kyd and Marlowe were the greatest of them all.

Shakespeare had only begun to become popular and successful since about 1590, but he would always be in the shadow of these two great playwrights.

But all that changed in 1593. Marlowe and Kyd got in trouble with the authorities. Suddenly, Marlowe was killed under suspicious circumstances. Kyd was imprisoned and tortured to obtain intelligence. 

In the months that followed, Kyd was a broken man, and it is believed that he died from the wounds he suffered while tortured.

The theatres in London were closed anyway due to the plague. It was a dark time, and for Shakespeare an especially difficult time, in which he could well have given up and gone back to Stratford-upon-Avon and never enjoy the success and fame he eventually did.

By 1594, with the theatres open again, and with Kyd’s death, Shakespeare faced a new challenge.

He was no longer one of several promising playwrights. He was the one and only playwright worth seeing. 

If Shakespeare was there, watching Kyd’s body put in the ground, he was witness to the end of the era of Kyd and Marlowe, the end of the birth of Elizabethan theatre.

The days and weeks after Kyd’s burial must have been both frightening and exciting for Shakespeare, because he knew that without any real competition and with any luck, London's stages could be his, and he could single-handedly define the next era of Elizabeth theatre. 

It could become the era of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Theatre, by Gustave Klimt


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