Shakespeare’s Daily Grind

Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
William Shakespeare (April 26 ,1564 –April 23, 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in English. His works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, a couple of long narrative poems, and other verses, some of uncertain authorship.
Shakespeare was a genius. No rational person would dispute that. But how did the Bard of Avon achieve the fantastically inventive output that he produced between his debut in the early 1590s and his curtain call in the mid-1630s. He was an actor who understood actors and, more importantly, understood the dynamics of stagecraft and audience interaction. He was a member of a company of actors who performed his own plays many times for the delectation of the public. You might think that with such a task he would do what many other playwrights of the time did, which was to produce crowd-pleasers without any substance. Instead, what Shakespeare did was to produce plays that were stimulating on both the popular and the intellectual level. This was a choice of necessity for  him. He was in the acting and playwriting business, not just for laughs, but for some lasting legacy. He is, in fact, one of the few Elizabethan or Jacobean poets whose works are still part of the curriculum of any self-respecting English department in a university that values its status and academic standing.
The practicalities of how Shakespeare wrote his plays is lost to history, but we can assume, given the fact that he was an actor himself in his own plays, that he changed the script several times before the final version was arrived at. He would come offstage after a torrid performance of Henry V and bury his head in the text, striking out infelicities, and scribbling alternative dialogue above the main text. He would ad lib during the performance itself (how could he not, being such a dynamo of creativity) much to the annoyance of the other actors. He would elaborate, modify and fiddle with the script as the show went on, and subsequent performances would be impacted by the changes he had made, until the play was just right. It is amazing how a playwright under such pressure could still produce lines that are, at times, so sublime that they almost make you cry.
But William Shakespeare was also a poet. His 154 sonnets are a tour de force of invention. Working within the very strict formal conventions of the day, with which, in fact, every sonneteer was familiar, he managed to produce immortal lines that are quoted even now after five hundred years. Again, his work ethic and routine for writing sonnets are lost to us in the swirling mist of time. But many of his sonnets are intricate mechanisms of miraculous artistry and beauty that defy full analysis. Certainly, he must have penned some of them late at night as the mood and the ale took hold, but every one of them speaks of fine tailoring and meticulous polishing. So he must have continued to work on them during the day, in breaks from the performances, in the hiatus between writing and performing one play and beginning another.
He died at the age of 53. Not a bad stretch for somebody of the time. On the other hand, how much did the stress of juggling writing, acting, directing and the precarious business of staging and advertising plays contribute to what would be considered now an early demise? Shakespeare spent himself in writing works of genius, and thank God he did. But was the cost too great? Did the spewing forth of works of literary brilliance consume him before his time. Again, we will never know. But however he managed to produce his output we are glad he did, even if the weight of it might have felled him in the end.

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