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‘There’s more to 16th century theatre than Shakespeare,’ says academic

Proving there is much more to Tudor and Elizabethan drama than Shakespeare is the focus of an extensive study launched by a Roehampton academic.

Posted: 20 April 2016

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Dr Andy Kesson will set Shakespeare in context.

The two year, £249,000 study led by Dr Andy Kesson, is launched as the world marks the 400 year anniversary since the Bard’s death. It will present Shakespeare as a ‘latecomer’ to the live entertainment scene of the day, which had already been established for more than 20 years.

Although Shakespeare is now by far the most recognised author of his day, many other playwrights had been creating groundbreaking work for a generation earlier, and an industry of playhouses and performance companies had built up to host them.

Dr Kesson said: “Shakespeare is now undoubtedly the defining influence on our understanding of literature, but 400 years ago, he was not the only person writing nor the most famous or influential playwright in London. Authors like John Lyly, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene were responsible for creating the world in which he worked. Shakespeare came to seem to dominate this period in subsequent tradition, but at the time was only a small part of a much bigger picture.

“Now few school children, or even adults, have ever heard of these other authors, let alone seen their plays. We will put Shakespeare in the context of his immediate predecessors and the growth of England’s earliest playhouses. They and the companies which used them were essential in creating an outlet for Shakespeare, but are usually forgotten in favour of his work.”

The project has been funded with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and includes several other strands of study:

  • Reviewing the archaeological remains of the earliest playhouses, all discovered in the last 30 years.
  • The commercial and entrepreneurial basis for the early playhouses and their influence on the artistic culture of the time.
  • Joining forces with the Dolphin’s Back theatre company to workshop and perform some of the ‘forgotten’ early modern era plays of the period. Plays will also be read at Shakespeare’s Globe.
  • Reviewing Shakespeare’s representation of women in his plays, in comparison to his contemporaries. The study will show women played a bigger role in drama in the period than the work of Shakespeare alone would suggest.
  • Using workshops with students to research drama as it was practised in the Tudor and early-Elizabethan era.

The project will bring together these strands of study to show a vibrant, organised theatre scene comprising writers, venues, performing companies and engaged audiences existed well before Shakespeare began writing around 1590.

The project will be the first to seriously address the claim that the London playhouses which opened in the second half of the 16th century were the first purpose built public spaces for performance in Europe since the Roman Empire.

Study English Literature at Roehampton.

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