Studying Shakespeare and his Contemporaries

  • Emma Smith


The work of the Polish theatre director Jan Kott has been influential in Shakespeare studies, not least for the title of his collected essays, Shakespeare our Contemporary. For Kott, Shakespeare was a fellow-traveller of the mid-twentieth century, a writer who understood the political and emotional life of the modern period. Echoing Ben Jonson’s famous judgement on Shakespeare as ‘not of an age, but for all time’, Kott identified Shakespeare’s ‘modern relevance’ as his most enduring quality.1 Kott’s is a Shakespeare untrammeled by the speciics of his own period, an eternally relevant cultural property in which each successive generation can find its own resonances. We are all, according to this interpretation, Shakespeare’s contemporaries.


Henry VIII Enduring Quality Feigned Death Early Play Early Modem 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Jan Kott, Shakespeare our Contemporary (2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 300. John Elsom has edited a collection of essays taking up Kott’s premise: see Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? (London: Routledge, 1989). On the history of the ways Shakespeare has been adapted and interpreted as the contemporary of different ages, seeGoogle Scholar
  2. Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: a Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (London: Hogarth Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Robert Greene, Greens Groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance (1592), sig. F1vo.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Francis Meres Palladis Tamia. Wits Treasury (London: 1598), pp. 283–4.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 226; p. 216.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    On the question of early modern dramatic authorship see Jeffrey Masten, Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) andGoogle Scholar
  7. Emma Smith, ‘Author v. Character in Early Modern Dramatic Authorship: The Example of Thomas Kyd and The Spanish Tragedy’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1998): 129–42.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Other possible pairings might include: Hamlet and Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge; Henry IV Part I and the anonymous Sir John Oldcastle; The Tempest and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus; The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    All quotations from Shakespeare refer to William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    This line is taken from Q1, The Tragedie of King Richard the Second (1597). In Q2 (1608), the line reads ‘the part I had in Woodstocks blood’.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    One of the practical obstacles to the project of relocating Shakespeare among his contemporaries is the relative dificulty of obtaining non-Shakespearean texts. Woodstock exists in a modernized and annotated text, edited by A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), and quotations in this chapter are taken from this edition. Alternatively, an electronic version of the play, entitled Thomas of Woodstock, can be obtained, free of charge for private and educational purposes, on the Internet. The Oxford Text Archive at gives full and clear details of how to obtain the text.
  12. 10.
    Margot Heinemann, ‘Political Drama’, in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Drama, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 184.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    Ibid., p. 185. This ‘orthodox doctrine’ has its clearest expression in the Elizabethan homily ‘Against Disobedience and Wilfull Rebellion’, printed as Appendix 3 to Andrew Gurr’s New Cambridge edition of Richard II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 215–20.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Richard Helgerson has discussed the radical implications of a similar manoeuvre in a different context in chapter 3 of his Forms of Nationhood: the Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, III (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 359.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    For other comparisons between Woodstock and Richard II, see Giorgio Melchiori, ‘The Corridors of History: Shakespeare the Remaker’, in British Academy Shakespeare Lectures 1980–89, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1993)Google Scholar
  17. Donna B. Hamilton, ‘The State of Law in Richard II’, Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 5–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 15.
    Ann Thompson (ed.), The Taming of the Shrew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 18.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tam’d is printed in volume 4 of The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). An electronic text is available on the Internet via the Oxford Text Archive at
  20. 17.
    Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today (London: The Women’s Press, 1988), pp. 22–4.Google Scholar
  21. Charles Marowitz, Recycling Shakespeare (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 18.
    B. L. Joseph, ‘The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet: Two Exercises in English Seneca’, in Classical Drama and Its Influence: Essays Presented to H. D. F. Kitto (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 133Google Scholar
  23. Emma Smith (ed.), Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998), p. xxix.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Wells and Taylor, p. 735.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’ (2nd ed. Macmillan: London, 1932), p. 89.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    References to The Spanish Tragedy are taken from Philip Edward’s Revels edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959).Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    James Shapiro, ‘“Tragedies Naturally Performed”: Kyd’s Representation of Violence’, in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 103.Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), p 183.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    On the continuing popularity of The Spanish Tragedy, see ‘Hieronimo’s Afterlives’, in Smith (ed.), Thomas Kyd, pp. 133–59.Google Scholar

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© Emma Smith 2001

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  • Emma Smith

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