Who Were Some of Shakespeare's Contemporaries?
Shakespeare tends to attract all of the glory today, but he lived in an era during which the arts thrived and grew dramatically under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I. Far from being the star of his time, Shakespeare was merely one among many poets and playwrights, and in fact several authors were more highly regarded than he was. Shakespeare's contemporaries created a rich body of work, some of which has survived to this day to illustrate the diversity of people who wrote in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era.
When Shakespeare was writing, a number of theaters rivaled for public attention. Resident playwrights produced an astounding volume of new work to keep people coming back, with theaters constantly trying to one-up each other with lavish productions and thrilling plots. As a result, ample patronage existed for talented writers, since theaters often required several new plays every month.
Some of Shakespeare's contemporaries from his early years include the so-called University Wits, a group of highly educated men who brought their education to the stage, adding complexity to the theater and creating a marked shift from the relatively simple productions and storytelling which had existed previously. Christopher Marlowe, a highly celebrated playwright at the time, is an example of the University Wits, along with George Peele and Thomas Nashe.
Shakespeare's major rival was Ben Jonson, a playwright who was very widely regarded at the time. During Shakespeare's lifetime, the two men often fought bitterly, denigrating each other's work in a well known artistic rivalry. After Shakespeare's death, Jonson became one of the champions of Shakespeare's works, arguing that they were worthy of preservation. Thomas Kyd, another major rival, wrote grisly tragedies which drew in large crowds, thanks to the ample violence and bloodshed involved. One of the most popular of Shakespeare's contemporaries was Philip Massinger, a playwright who excelled at satire and political commentary.
Shakespeare also did not stand on his own as a poet, although many of his sonnets were quite popular. George Chapman, William Davenant, and Sir Walter Raleigh were very popular poets at the time, and these contemporaries of Shakespeare certainly did not allow him to rest on his laurels in the realm of poetry.
Sadly, the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries has not been preserved as completely as the works of Shakespeare. Many plays produced during this era utilized working scripts which were later discarded, rather than being preserved, and in fact some of the plays of Shakespeare performed today are actually reconstructions of working scripts which were assembled by his contemporaries, rather than being directly from his hand. Poetry was also indifferently preserved, with many poets writing to specific individuals who chose not to save or distribute the poems sent to them.
I think it's amazing that I've never even heard the name Ben Jonson before. If he was William Shakespeare's biggest rival, you would think his name would be more well known.
I'd love to see some of his plays, to compare them to Shakespeare's. If they were so determined to outdo each other, I'll bet he wrote some good stuff.
I think it's a shame that the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries were not preserved. So many of Shakespeare's plays are performed and loved today. Imagine how many more stories we could be enjoying if others had been preserved.
I'm not saying I would want to take away from Shakespeare's fame. It would just be nice to see some of the works from his contemporaries, because I'm sure they wrote some amazing plays as well.
I found this article to be very interesting. I never realized that Shakespeare wasn't a huge star during his time. He's such a big name now, that you would just assume he was then. It makes me wonder why so many of his plays by Shakespeare have been preserved, while plays by so many others were not. Maybe it was his own desire to be remembered -- perhaps he tried to preserve his plays for this reason. I guess we'll never really know.
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