William Shakespeare

Contemporaries

Shakespeare was part of an exploding literary scene. Elizabethan writers frequently worked together, and Shakespeare served his apprenticeship by collaborating with an older generation of playwrights. One of the most famous of these writers, the political satirist Thomas Nashe, almost certainly contributed to Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy. A few scenes in these plays may also have been written by Christopher Marlowe, who created some of English literature’s first great tragic stage heroes in Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine. At the end of his career, Shakespeare would return to collaboration, as a master rather than an apprentice. He co-wrote Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher, who eventually replaced him as the main playwright of the King’s Men. Thomas Middleton, the author of a popular black comedy called The Revenger’s Tragedy, almost certainly contributed to Macbeth , Timon of Athens , Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well , perhaps by updating some of Shakespeare’s scenes.

For the bulk of his career, Shakespeare preferred to write alone. Instead of collaborators he had rivals. The most significant was Ben Jonson, a bricklayer’s son and self-taught writer whose best plays were as popular as Shakespeare’s. Jonson’s most successful comedies, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair, had English settings that were more familiar to audiences than the mostly foreign settings of Shakespeare’s comedies. The two playwrights certainly knew each other. Shakespeare acted in at least two of Jonson’s plays. When Shakespeare died, Jonson remembered him as “honest and of an open and free nature.” Jonson himself was a very different character. He once killed an actor in a duel, and spent the years 1599 - 1601 feuding with two other leading playwrights. Jonson viciously satirized his opponents on stage, and they responded in their own plays. In Hamlet, written around 1599, Guildenstern gives Hamlet the latest theatrical news: “There has been much throwing about of brains.”