Rise of Shakespeare I: Shakespeare's New Plays

<<< Back to Browse Exhibits

The First Folio presented Shakespeare for the first time as an author of importance (see “Shakespeare’s Folios”). Following its publication, Shakespeare’s reputation briefly rose, then fell during the middle of the 17th century, as Shakespeare’s plays came to seem dated. To secure audiences, theater companies in the later 17th and 18th centuries rewrote nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays. Ironically, these altered plays secured Shakespeare’s lasting fame.

Shakespeare out of step: The public theaters had been closed during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth (1642-1660). When Charles II gained the throne after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the theaters were reopened. Of necessity, at first the new theater companies chiefly performed older plays: with no public theater, it had not been a good time to be a professional playwright! Shakespeare’s plays were revived and performed again. But his plays proved less in harmony with contemporary tastes than those by playwrights like Ben Jonson or Beaumont and Fletcher. Often his plays saw limited revivals when audiences did not respond to them. This lull in Shakespeare’s popularity had begun during the 1640s and 1650s, when Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher were published more frequently than Shakespeare. When the theaters reopened, contemporary figures remarked on Shakespeare’s lack of currency. In 1661, the botanist John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “I saw Hamlet, Pr[ince]of Denmark played: but now the old playe began to disgust this refined age…”

What drove discontent with Shakespeare? Later 17th-century audiences and readers were dismayed by a number of factors. Shakespeare’s verse was not as polished and regular as these audiences liked. Shakespeare’s dramatic structures often failed to conform to emerging (often inaccurate) beliefs about Aristotelian dramatic norms, e.g. that action ought to take place in a single location and within a continuous span of time. Female actors had been newly allowed on the London stage and were extremely popular, while Shakespeare’s works often lacked a sufficient stable of female characters. Shakespeare’s plays seemed to present more ambiguous moral lessons than the audience desired: virtuous characters did not always triumph.

The answer: Companies and playwrights shortly hit on a solution: Shakespeare’s plays could be altered to make them conform to cultural values. Characters and plots were freely added or changed to fit moral or aesthetic norms and to seem “realistic.” Content that disturbed or bored audiences – or that seemed weak and thus definitionally not “Shakespearean” – was cut. 

With these changes – many of which persisted onstage for centuries – Shakespeare’s status and popularity soared more lastingly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as interest in literary treatment of complex characterization grew. Shakespeare was revered as a genius who presented the most truthful portraits of human beings in the most apt language. Most theatergoers would not have realized that the playwright they so loved was in no small part the invention of later writers and theater companies. Many of these changes persist in Shakespeare productions to this day. The selections here display and discuss some of Shakespeare’s changed work.

A last note: It is easy to scoff at Restoration writers and audiences for their seeming inability to recognize what is often described as Shakespeare’s “timeless” genius. Yet all companies customize and cut plays that they perform, then and now. Shakespeare’s own company had certainly revised his plays, often adding new scenes and songs or making other changes to bring audiences back. Evidence suggests that Shakespeare made many such changes to his own works. Moreover, every age has played Shakespeare differently, emphasizing content that resonates with that time’s interests and values. Finally, it is worth reflecting that we owe these writers and performers a debt. If they had not made Shakespeare pleasing to their time, it is possible that most of his works would have dropped out of the performing canon. Without their revisions, we might not know Shakespeare

Rise of Shakespeare I: Shakespeare's New Plays