Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are working, usually, from a false and modern premise. They are thinking of the modern playwright, a full-time literary fellow who writes a drama and then tries to find people who will put it on—an agent to shop it around, a producer to put up the money, a theater as its venue, a director, actors, designers of sets and costumes, musicians and dancers if the play calls for them, and so on. Sometimes a successful playwright sets up an arrangement with a particular company (Eugene O’Neill and the Province- town Players) or director (Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan), but the process still begins with the writer creating his script, before elements are fitted around it, depending on things like which directors or actors are available for and desirous of doing the play. Producers complain that it is almost impossible to assemble the ideal cast for all the roles as the author envisioned them in his isolated act of creation. The modern writer owns the play by copyright and can publish it on his or her own, whether produced or not. None of these things was true of dramatic production in Shakespeare’s time.
Then, the process began with the actors. They chose the playwright, not vice versa. They owned the play, and could publish it or withhold it from publication. Each troupe had limited resources—often, nine to twelve adult actors (all male), and far fewer boy actors (sometimes as few as two). A Swiss traveler in 1599 saw “about fifteen” players handle the forty-five speaking parts in Julius Caesar.9 An aspiring playwright had to bring his idea to these actors (or their representatives) with a plot accommodated to the number and talents of the particular troupe. The parts he was describing had to be so arranged as to allow for multiple doublings. A man playing two roles could not meet himself on stage, or even come back in as someone else too soon to allow for costume and other changes (a beard, wig, spectacles, padding, and so on). “For some thirty-five years from 1547–8 plays advertise, usually on the title-page, the number of actors required and how the parts may be doubled, trebled, and even septupled.”10 In a 1576 morality play, The Tide Tarrieth No Man, the Vice character is told to prolong his duel “while Wantonness maketh her ready” in the tiring-house to come back out as Greediness.11 The plot had to be tailored for the company from the very outset.
If the actors liked the concept of a play, they would normally recommend it to a theatrical entrepreneur (Philip Henslowe was the most famous of the half-dozen or so working at a time) for an advance to the playwright while he finished the work. This advance was a loan, which the actors would pay back later, preferably from the proceeds of the play when performed. When the author finished writing his work, he read it to the company, which either accepted or rejected it at this point. If accepted, the script had to be presented to the Master of the Revels for state censorship, with payment for his reading it. He would often demand certain changes—or in some cases turn it down entirely. Only then, if cleared, could the play be put on. If, despite such screening, the play seemed seditious or libelous in the actual presentation, the actors were responsible along with the author and could be fined, suspended, jailed, even mutilated (by branding or ear cropping or nose cropping), or their theater could be closed.12
Thus, in the modern theater, performers are fitted to the play, but in Shakespeare’s time, the play was fitted to the performers. If the playwright had an ongoing relationship with the troupe—like Shakespeare’s with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men)—he could create his text for the known strengths of particular actors, as Shakespeare did for the talents of the great Richard Burbage. Shakespeare wrote comic scenes in different ways for the famous clown Will Kemp and for the intellectual jester Robert Armin. He even took advantage of animal performers available to the cast. When the troupe had a trained dog, he wrote the part of Crab into Two Gentlemen of Verona. When it had a young polar bear at hand, he wrote a scene-stopper for The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”13 When he had two sets of players who looked alike, he wrote The Comedy of Errors. In modern productions, with an established text, producers can shop around in a large pool of unattached actors to find two couples who are plausibly similar, but Shakespeare began with the four men already in his company and wrote the play to use them.
The trickiest job was to write for that rare commodity, the boy actors who played women. These were hard to come by and train in the brief time before their voices broke. That is why women’s parts make up only thirteen percent of the lines in the plays. The playwright had to know what stage of development each apprentice had reached. There were usually just two or three boys in the public plays (though more were available from choristers when a play was given at court or in a great family mansion). The boys’ memories were such that Shakespeare wrote shorter parts for them than for adult actors—an average of three hundred or so lines to the adults’ 650 or so lines per play. But when he had a spectacular boy like John Rice, he was able to write as big a role for him as that of Cleopatra (693 lines) Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman’s part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it.14 Only Shakespeare, who knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice, knew what he could do and how to pace him from play to play.
Here is the link to the full article in the New York Review of Books.