Simon Callow on Shakespeare
The great British actor on the beloved bard
We don't know a great deal about William Shakespeare. We know where he was born. We know where he died. We know when he married, we knew how many children he had. We know something about his brothers and his sisters. We know a little bit about his father who was the mayor of Stratford on Avon for a while. Um, but there are big chunks of Shakespeare's life, which we don't know anything about at all. All we know is that in the fairly early 1590s, he showed up in London as a member of one of the theater companies, uh, apparently playing quite small parts. And then very soon after that, we hear of him starting to write plays. And the first place that he wrote, which were the plays about King Henry, the sixth in three plays, part one part two and part three. Um, he told one of the stories of England English history, and it was a huge, huge success.
It was a blockbuster really, and audiences were absolutely riveted by it. The story of the fairly recent past that he was describing events of only a hundred years before, events which had shaped the England in which everybody was then living. He created fantastic parts for the actors. He gave them marvelous kind of rip roaring words to say, and there was a lot of blood and there was a lot of death on the stage. And all of that was very, very much to the taste of the Elizabethan audience. Um, Shakespeare, who, as I say, carried on playing as far as we know, smallish parts in his own plays and also in other people's plays. Sometimes his contemporary Ben Johnson, the other most famous playwright at the period wrote plays that Shakespeare appeared in, but Shakespeare just got better and better and better as he went on.
And as his plays got better, the actors got better too. And so from being quite a kind of a, knockabout sort of a playwright who could, uh, you know, get the crowd roaring, he started to become the great master of human psychology. And he started to write parts that the actors who he'd started with probably wouldn't have been good enough to play parts of tremendous complexity of deep and dark motives. And, uh, and also of course, who spoke the most extraordinary poetry. So he grew and grew and grew, his plays got more and more ambitious, more and more profound, more and more funny. And, uh, they were absolutely the most successful plays of that time, uh, plays like Henry the fifth and Hamlet and Henry the fourth part one and two, which contains the great character of, Sir John Falstaff, wonderful place, people felt that they were watching their own lives being lived out in front of them.
The actors, especially Richard Burbage, who was a, um, Shakespeare's best friend, as well as being the leading actor in the company became immensely famous for playing parts like Richard the third and Mark Antony in Julius season. And, um, Shakespeare success came to a sort of climax with his play, the Tempest. And then he seems to have slowly withdrawn from playwriting, partly because he'd made quite a lot of money and retired back home to Stratford Upon Avon, partly because the situation was getting quite difficult politically and partly because the fashion had changed. So Shakespeare had a very brief period of glory about 20 years, really in which he was the supreme writer of the English stage. And then other younger men started to take over and Shakespeare's plays were very nearly forgotten and might've been totally forgotten. Had it not been for the fact that two of his friends in the company actors by the name of Hemmings and Kondo decided to gather all his players together and publish them, which they did after his death. And really it's because of that, because of those two actors wanting to preserve their friend's work, which they thought were the best plays ever written and they were right. Uh it's thanks to them that we have these players at all. Otherwise he might just have been a footnote in the history book.