Every other year I teach a course called “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries.” And therefore every other year I end up thinking that it’s the worst possible name for the course. For starters, when you consider that Great Britain boasted a population of 4,811,718 in 1600, the title alone would obligate me to entertain 4,811,717 thousand individuals, and though my strength is as the strength of ten, I am but one man. More seriously, if we were even to entertain only the dramatic entertainments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, that still leaves an enormous number of plays.
Consider this: with enough time on his hands or money in her pocket, an industrious young man or woman of 21 in 1584 could have seen the premier of the plays of John Lyly, as well as plays by Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene before she or he hit 30. In the next decade, my imaginary – though aging – playgoer could see plays by all of the Thomases (Heywood, Dekker, Middleton), the Johns (Marston, Webster, Fletcher), Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, Cyril Tourneur before he or she had passed his or her 40th. Won’t they be tired? Oh yeah, by the way, they could have also seen all the plays of Shakespeare, and about 1200 more for which we have records in the period.
But we don’t have world or time enough – in fact we only have fifteen weeks. So I end up selected about 25 plays and, by selecting, doom each play to the status of sample. Each play must be a sample of something about all of the other plays in the period not written by William Shakespeare, and there’s a surprisingly large number of them. This in turn seems to doom the class to an exercise in which whoever wrote the play they’re reading, they’re always reading a play not-by-Shakespeare, whereas when they’re reading a play by Shakespeare, they’re never reading a play, for instance, not-by-Marston. A former student in the course put it crudely but effectively when she said, there’s Shakespeare and there’s early modern drama. She’s right.
I’m not really complaining, and I’m certainly not diagnosing. At this point I’m merely describing the case that is the case. After all, what else would we want to call the class?
- Tudor, Jacobean, and Carolinian Drama
- Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Century Plays in English
- Plays in English: 1580-1642
- Non-Shakespearean Early Modern Entertainments
- Early English Drama
- Medieval and Renaissance Drama
I could write several hundred words, at least, on the problems of each title, but I’ll spare you for now. Suffice to say that all these course names are variously misleading. For now, at least, “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” will serve. Not least because it seems, of all the titles auditioned here, to be the most provocatively bad. “Shakespeare’s Contemporaries” is the worst possible name for the course, except for all the others.