Art of gold
May 16 2016
Did Shakespeare write plays for money? Or did he create for creativity's sake? Are the two mutually exclusive?
Romantic theories of poetic creation that foreground the idealism of the creative writer simultaneously demolish motives of profit in and for writing. Arguably, the most creative of literary artists in the English language was William Shakespeare. The much idealised and inversely proportional relation between artistic endeavour and pecuniary gain is put to the lie nonetheless, in what we can infer from Shakespeare’s career and professional trajectory.
What little we know of William Shakespeare is closely interlinked with what we know of the times he lived in. The period of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I saw the rise of England as a great maritime power. Protestantism had gained ground; in the arts scene, the university wits, of whom the more renowned are Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, had freed theatre and playwriting from restrictive rules, such as the three unities, which required that the plot of a play should be governed by the unity of time (its action not to exceed the span of a single day), place (the scene of action not to extend beyond one place) and action (the narrative to be either entirely comic or tragic and not a combination of the two).
These liberating times seem to have furnished Shakespeare with just the context he needed to expend his creative genius. The apocryphal story that he was caught poaching in his village and hence fled to London where he struck fame, points to a man capable of turning an adverse situation to his advantage. His years in London not only brought him repute but also increasing financial security and social prestige.
One of his greatest critical theorists, Stephen Greenblatt, wondering how Shakespeare became Shakespeare notes that “all his rivals in the highly competitive theatre business found themselves on the straight road to starvation; this one playwright by contrast made enough money to buy one of the best houses in the hometown to which he retired when he was around 50, the self-made protagonist of an amazing success story that has resisted explanation for 400 years” (Shakespeare’s Leap, New York Times Magazine 2004).
A question we will come to again: does this make him a lesser artist?
There was no copyright practiced during the times that Shakespeare wrote. A principal means of financial support came from the system of patronage and the patrons of companies comprising actors were men of social status. Shakespeare had powerful patrons; he belonged to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as the acting company was known before it became the King’s Men, for most of his career. (In 1603 when King James I ascended the throne and became its patron, the company changed its name.)
Now patronage was a feudal legacy, while the early modern period that Shakespeare lived in was also beginning to show signs of protocapitalism. Thus, the patron may be a commissioner, but he was not the only controlling factor for profitable production. The audience was a patron as well, and these were times when tastes between multiple patrons could conflict with each other. Thus Shakespeare’s plays showcase the co-existence of different levels of comedy within a single play, such as for instance the witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and the bumbling, laughter-provoking Dogberry and Verges in the same play, to cater to different kinds of audience.
As for the questions we bring here: did Shakespeare write plays for money? Or did he create for creativity’s sake? Are the two mutually exclusive? It has also often been debated that the “genius” Shakespeare “stole” quite a lot of ideas from existing narratives, and the question would be whether that diminishes his status as an excellent author
Some of these issues are invoked in a fascinating, multi-levelled look-back at Shakespeare, by the British writer Neil Gaiman in his graphic novel The Sandman in which he situates these questions within the playwright’s personal life, social history and the life of the theatre in current times. One of The Sandman’s story includes the early comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the same name. Gaiman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story in 1991 occupies itself with the question of creativity, which may most aptly be put to this comedy, since it is believed to be one of the two most ‘original’ plays written by Shakespeare. Shakespeare as is well known, liberally borrowed plots from other sources, which nonetheless he transformed into gems; A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains, with The Tempest, least interrupted by intertextual echoes. Those are pearls that were his eyes sings Ariel of Ferdinand’s father in The Tempest, implying that the eyes were transformed into things superior by the power of the sea; such miraculous “sea-change” may equally be attributed to Shakespeare’s own magic with language on storylines he ‘lifted’.
But transforming power of sources apart, there remains the question of originality in creative competence, an integral yardstick for evaluating literary worth.
This is where Gaiman brings a spin on the debate. When Sandman’s main character Dream first meets Shakespeare, Shakespeare is a rather unsuccessful playwright who exclaims to Kit Marlowe: “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon”, after which Dream asks him whether he truly wishes this, and then leads Shakespeare away. It turns out the two made a deal that day: Dream would help Will to write, and Will in turn would write two plays for the Dream lord. The first one is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Shakespeare performs in the story by that name, for an audience of fairies Auberon and Titania amongst them.
Here, Gaiman disrupts the idealised notion of the inspired poet with the sordidness of a transaction, whereby Shakespeare, in his version, acquires creativity only because of rival Marlowe’s death, which is achieved through a Faustian pact with Dream. Thus, Gaiman’s Shakespeare is not a man above his fellows, “of imagination all compact”; he is a negotiator, a man who has clambered to artistic success via a bargain he has sealed with a dubious stranger. The price of fame here is not delay or poverty or even despair; it is the removal of a superior artist by means of powers too dark to be explained. True, Shakespeare does not understand the link between Marlowe’s death and his own fame till it is too late; but culpability in Marlowe’s death aside, this is hardly a flattering representation of Shakespeare’s artistic worth.
As for the price of art? Gaiman’s graphic novel suggests that Shakespeare paid the price by the loss of his only son; Hamnet Shakespeare, as history testifies, died very young. The only monetary transaction that explicitly happens within Gaiman’s story, moreover, is marked by deception.
When Shakespeare asks for payment from the fairy king who has come with his people to watch the premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the king gives him what seems to be gold, but what emerges to be — in the clear light of day — a bag of withered leaves. Gaiman’s version thereby moves closer to the romantic vision of art as sullied by economic concerns, but did Shakespeare in fact write for money? Does it matter?
(The writer is professor, humanities and social sciences department, IIT Bombay)