Where are all the other bards?
Have you ever seen been exhilarated by a production of 17th century writer Aphra Behn? Have you ever been riveted by a play of 18th century writer Susanna Centlivre? Have you ever missed stops on the Tube over a play by Thomas Middleton?
If you haven’t, than that’s because you have been obliged to study Shakespeare, and Shakespeare alone: each play a monolith, the canon a veritable Stonehenge, and nothing else visible in the surrounding plain. Maybe some Marlowe in the distance, or some Fletcher on the horizon.
Mrs Behn (who went to South America and wrote a novel set there) and Mrs Centlivre (who heard lectures in Cambridge disguised as a man) lived a little later than the Bard, writing after the Restoration. But Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were William Shakespeare’s contemporaries; so were Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, John Ford and John Webster. Each of them equalled him, that is, wrote some plays which equal some of his.
When I was member of two Shakespeare societies, I plotted to found a Non-Shakespeare society, which would study and read aloud exclusively old plays by Everyone Else! Other people feel similarly: I once went to a talk at the National Theatre by scholar Gary Taylor, who devotes his professional life to promoting Middleton over Shakespeare. At our Shakespeare-themed Reading Aloud event, I chose three raving speeches by John Ford!
Some memorable pieces which knocked me out at Shakespeare’s Globe – paradoxically a great champion of The Others – and other London playhouses are: An honest whore by Dekker; A chaste maid in Cheapside and Women beware women by Middleton; Tis pity she’s a whore by Ford; The Duchess of Malfi by Webster; The Wonder: a woman keeps a secret by Centlivre; The witch of Edmonton by a team (Rowley, Dekker, Ford ‘&c’); and The lady’s tragedy by an unknown playwright… possibly Middleton.
When I drew up this list, I noticed what you will have noticed: all these dramas have women, and only women, in the title. And indeed, all of them have very strong women’s parts. Although these were written as well as played by men or boys before the Restoration, they lent women a loud voice in public.
Many of these texts should carry an age rating, crammed as they are with jokes distinctly under the belt and with excessive violence. They stop at nothing: Tis pity she’s a whore conjures up love, lust, sin, death, fate, God, heaven and hell within the opening scene; the main subjects are incest, revenge, and atheism. This is like Tarantino, but with line upon line to memorise and quote.
And if you think that sending up the entertainment industry and the audience within the action is a privilege of the 20th and 21st centuries, just open The knight of the burning pestle by Fletcher (or the Fletcher & Beaumont team). The actors get to perform three lines before they are interrupted by a spectator who demands a show to his liking, claims seats on stage for himself and his wife, and invites his son to improvise the main part. From there, it is naturally a mess – or a play about plays.
Our Curriculum Resources collection, obviously aligned with the curriculum, proves my point: a search for ‘Shakespeare’ yields 400 entries; a search for all the others mentioned yields those two volumes and a little more material on these plays – half a dozen plays for a dozen outstanding authors.
However, you will be luckier at our new neighbours, the other UCL libraries: you can find all the plays mentioned above on the shelves; moreover, you can study some of them online in ancient editions like the ones on the pictures here. I have put the links to the catalogue records in for you.
Lost, I am lost: my fates have doomed my death.
The more I strive, I love; the more I love,
The less I hope: I see my ruin, certain.
Or I must speak, or burst: ‘tis not I know,
My lust, but ‘tis my fate that leads me on.
John Ford, Tis pity she’s a whore, I.ii