No royal solitude for Shakespeare

Shakespeare was commonly regarded by his Romantic admirers as a solitary figure, whose prodigious talents were linked in some mysterious fashion to his isolation from society and from his fellow writers. ‘Shakespeare,’ wrote Coleridge in 1834, ‘is of no age – nor, I might add, of any religion, or party, or profession. The body and substance of his works came out of the unfathomable substance of his own oceanic mind.’ Carlyle thought likewise; Shakespeare, he believed, dwelt ‘apart, in a kind of royal solitude; none equal, none second’ to his creative powers.

This view of Shakespeare as a remote and solitary genius scarcely matches the known evidence. There were plenty of other remarkable writers in his day (for a start) from whose work he learnt and borrowed, and against whom he needed always to sharpen his wits. The profession to which he belonged depended essentially, moreover, on teamwork, as writers, players, sharers, carpenters, tire-men, scribes, book-holders, and other playhouse hands conferred and negotiated, adjusting their ideas to meet the conditions of performance, the expectations of their audiences, and each other’s better suggestions. So, far from brooding constantly apart, Shakespeare throughout most of his professional career thus worked – as Bart van Es in a recent studyhas aptly put it – in company (Shakespeare in Company, 2013); often, as the evidence of the present volume makes clear, in collaboration with a variety of fellow writers.

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