Shakespearean authorship, originality, and theatre practices

I hope you’ve had a good week, and have been throwing around some Shakespeare-related terms like “Renaissance” and “Elizabethan” like celebratory confetti! Today’s post—which is a little on the long side, so feel free to read it with two biscuits instead of one—is about breaking the “Bardolatry Barrier” (formed by idolising the “Bard”, one of Shakespeare’s nicknames) by considering some of the vastly different writing and performance practices during the Renaissance, and lowering him a little on that literary pedestal (not by too much, though—I wouldn’t want to be branded as a dissident and lose my Shakespeare PhD funding!).

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The first concept I had to grasp during my early years of studying Shakespeare was that of collaborative authorship and originality. Because the idea of “the one and only literary genius William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote plays and was basically amazeballs The End” has been so deeply ingrained into our collective cultural understanding of “Shakespeare”, and because our current society is so preoccupied with the idea of “originality” and “single authorship” and “a plague upon all plagiarists!”, I found it almost impossible to accept that Shakespeare was neither a lone writer nor a particularly original one.

Granted, Shakespeare’s skill with words was superb and he is responsible for some of the best and most wondrous things written in English, but he didn’t do it alone. He collaborated with fellow playwrights on a number of occasions, and even if he had penned something in its entirety, chances are, the version/s we’re reading now have been edited and tweaked by other people. The first “complete” edition of Shakespeare’s works, which is commonly referred to as the First Folio, contains 18 previously unpublished plays (out of Shakespeare’s 36/7/8, depending on how you see it)—and this was published in 1623. Since Shakespeare died in 1616, he didn’t have anything to do with the publication of these 18 plays—including some super popular ones such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It.

This wasn’t Jane Austen working on a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory by her lonesome self for hours on end—this was someone who, like a writer for television, worked with a team. His plays weren’t particularly original, either—he unashamedly borrowed and stole from a variety of sources, without including a footnote or bibliography. And this was perfectly acceptable, because that’s just how things worked in the Renaissance theatre, rather like mainstream television and film nowadays: you churn out something, which might reference a hundred other things, but it’s all okay because the audience will gobble it up and then move on (unless we’re talking about the latest few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, from which there is no moving on).

This brings me to the second idea I found difficult to grasp: that Shakespeare’s plays were originally written for an audience that included…well, everyone. Seriously, everyone. Sure, some of his plays were performed at court for either Queen Elizabeth I or King James IV, but many of them also saw the light of day (quite literally) in outdoor theatres such as the Globe, which was located in a pretty dodgy district. And, being an outdoor theatre attended by all sorts of people, the crowd would’ve been quite…colourful.

Instead of the somewhat pricey, “highbrow” theatre performances of Shakespeare these days, where I stand out as the rare combination of under 30, female, and non-white (something that sticks out quite considerably in the Belfast theatre scene), Renaissance playhouses were entirely different: they were cheap, loud, and sometimes irreverent. I guess a modern equivalent would be a rock concert/cinema fusion, or a rowdy outdoor screening of a popular movie—you talk, you nibble on noms, you can essentially do your own thing during the “show”. While most of us now tend to think of attending a Shakespeare play as a “high culture” event that is “super difficult” and requires you to “bring all your brainz and smartz”, during Shakespeare’s time, they were a thing to do with your pals when you were a little boozed up and wanted some cheap entertainment.

Needless to say, breaking down these barriers was a long, difficult process for me. But it was a worthwhile one, because once I (mostly) stopped seeing Shakespeare as the untouchable literary genius, I started to understand the plays more. I saw them not as serious, elevated works brimming with life lessons—most of which were too deep and meaningful to comprehend—but as entertaining retellings of awesome stories that might contain a few lessons along the way. Once again, I’m reminded of popular culture in television and films, some of which are based on books and comics: HBO’s Game of Thrones series has been consolidated in popular culture, while engaging with a range of complex issues; the X-Men films are superhero movies with a social conscience; and I’ve lost count of how many life lessons I’ve learnt from Grey’s Anatomy (never stick your hand into a body cavity containing a bomb).

There are many, many other examples and comparisons, but I think you get my drift. More importantly, once I’d finally taken down the Bardolatry Barrier, I found it much easier to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays. By being more relaxed about Shakespeare (in that I wasn’t approaching him with profound awe and terror), I focused less on “omg it’s Shakespeare it must be freaking difficult and impossible!”, and more on the characters, story, words, meanings—and the half-naked Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus.

A very good reason to get groovy with Shakespeare.

A very good reason to get groovy with Shakespeare.


Phew, these introductory posts have been kinda tough—next time, I’ll take a break from talking about Shakespeare and actually talk some Shakespeare, with none other than his The Tragedy of Macbeth!


Have you had any similar experiences with the Bardolatry Barrier? How did you overcome it? And do you have any other examples from popular culture that could be compared to Shakespeare’s works? I’d love to know!

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