Shakespeare's Peers:
English Renaissance Playwrights

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by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

The Shakespeare Memorial at Southwark Cathedral, London. Not every English playwright gets this kind of treatment.  (Credit: John Armagh, Wikimedia Commons)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

The first known English play to be written in blank verse was Gorboduc, written in 1561 by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton.

Any English Renaissance playwright not named William Shakespeare tends to be overshadowed by the Bard's reputation. However, Elizabethan England was a place in which the live stage of theater was mass entertainment. Keeping the populace coming back to Southwark's numerous playhouses required a lot of material. Shakespeare was hardly the only working playwright in his day, nor was he the most prolific. He had plenty of competition.

Unfortunately for the reputations of his contemporaries, there are quite a few factors working against them. The plays of this era were not considered high art; more often than not they were viewed as disposable entertainment. Scripts were usually the property of the theater company, not the author. These companies had scant interest in printing copies that would only make it easier for someone to steal their material. Furthermore, many playwrights worked collaboratively on scripts for the various theaters and didn't always get proper credit for all their work.

The end result is that none of the other English playwrights has a canon of works to rival Shakespeare. The publication of the First Folio in 1623 ensured that Shakespeare—reputation and talent aside—had a posthumous advantage over his peers, whose works have been largely obscured or lost to history. This lack of context ultimately hampers our understanding of both English drama as a genre and Shakespeare's relation to his peers. That said, several of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights managed to achieve a measure of fame for posterity through their works.

Francis Beaumont (1584–1616): Beaumont was a playwright best known for his successful partnership with John Fletcher. He was also great friends with Ben Jonson, who reputedly used Beaumont as a sounding board when authoring his own plays. Beaumont is now generally credited as sole author on the comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle. There are 50 plays historically ascribed to Beaumont and Fletcher, but only 13 exist today that show definite signs of their collaboration.

Thomas Dekker (?1570–1632): Dekker was a profuse writer that began his career in the 1590s. Like many of the era's playwrights, he was commissioned to write at least 40 plays for Philip Henslowe; Dekker personally claimed to have had a hand in 240 plays. Most of his work, however is lost, and only 20 of his plays are known to have been published in his lifetime. Despite his voluminous output, Dekker was consistently in debt throughout his career. His best known work is a comedy, The Shoemaker's Holiday.

John Fletcher (1579–1625): Fletcher is the only playwright on this list known to have partnered with Shakespeare (Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen). In fact, Fletcher basically took over as principal dramatist for the King's Men upon Shakespeare's retirement. Although only nine of his works were published during his lifetime, Fletcher is considered among the most prolific and influential dramatists of his day. The majority of his work was collaborative; as sole author, he is best known for The Faithful Shepherdess and Valentinian.

Thomas Heywood (?1570–1641): We know little to nothing of Heywood's life other than he was most likely born in Lincolnshire and he graduated from Cambridge. He claimed to have written some 220 plays, most of which are lost; his surviving canon consists of 23 plays and eight masques. Heywood was a writer for Henslowe and a principal dramatist for the companies Queen Anne's Men and Lady Elizabeth's Men. He is chiefly remembered for the play A Woman Killed with Kindness, a tragicomedy notable for its treatment of marital infidelity.

Ben Jonson (1572–1637): Jonson's earliest notable work, Every Man in His Humour, was performed at The Globe featuring William Shakespeare among the cast members. He's acknowledged as the first unofficial poet laureate of England during the reign of James I, and his literary circle at the Mermaid Tavern included some of the foremost writers of his day. Jonson could also be prickly, as evidenced by his stinging satires of other London playwrights. His most renowned works are the comedies Volpone, or The Fox and The Alchemist. His reputation rivaled Shakespeare's until the eighteenth century, at which point his works became eclipsed by the Bard.

Thomas Kyd (1558–1594): A pioneering dramatist, Kyd is known for two important contributions to the Elizabethan stage: The Spanish Tragedy, one of the most popular plays of the period, and an early stage version of Hamlet, now lost. Both works heavily influenced Shakespeare's Hamlet, to say the least; some scholars claim that vestiges of Kyd's Hamlet can be found in Shakespeare's first quarto edition. Sadly, Kyd's friendship with Marlowe (and Marlowe's unorthodox views on religion) resulted in his imprisonment and torture. He died a destitute, broken man soon after being released.

John Lyly (?1554–1606): The Oxford-educated Lyly owes most of his fame to his two Euphues prose romances. His writing heavily influenced many London writers, creating a new style, Euphuism, which was widely popular in the 1580s. Shakespeare employs elements of this prose style in several plays, including Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. Lyly's fortune and reputation both waned in his later years; eight of his plays survive today.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593): Marlowe was indisputably the foremost English playwright preceding Shakespeare. The son of a cobbler, Marlowe excelled at Cambridge and became well known in London during a relatively short-lived literary career between 1587 and his death in 1593 in a tavern brawl. He penned seven surviving plays, among which Doctor Faustus and Tamurlaine stand above the rest. His influence on Shakespeare seems as personal as it was professional; Shakespeare pays tribute to him in As You Like It when Rosalind quotes a line from Marlowe's unfinished poem, Hero and Leander.

Thomas Middleton (1580–1627): Middleton was a versatile, prolific writer who collaborated with many playwrights during his career. Some scholars even attribute parts of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens to Middleton. His early success was in comedy, but his lasting reputation rests on two of his late tragedies: The Changeling and Women Beware Women. Middleton also published verse, prose, masques, and pageants during his career.

John Webster (c.1578–c.1632): Webster was one of the bleakest authors of the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods. Although his verse receives high critical praise, his plays were grounded in malevolence, violence, and anguish. Many of his earliest writings were never published, but his tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are considered masterpieces of Jacobean drama.

Sources

Elizabethan Drama (John Gassner and William Greene, 1990), The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th Edition (David Bevington, 1997), The Oxford History of English Literature (G.K. Hunter, et al, 1997)

Note: this article was first published with Associated Content on June 23, 2009.