Were there any prerequisites to become a playwright in 1589?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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There were no hard-and-fast requirements or prerequisites for becoming a playwright in England in 1589, partly because professional drama and permanent theaters were relatively recent innovations. However, the following qualifications are some of the traits that would have helped someone establish a successful career as a playwright at that time:

  • a decent education.  Many playwrights were expected to be well-read, especially in the literature, history, and mythology of Greece and Rome as well as in the literature and history of continental Europe, especially of France, Spain, and Italy.

A university education was not a prerequisite (two of the greatest dramatists of the age – William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson – did not attend universities). Nevertheless, a solid grounding in the kind of texts just mentioned could be achieved in Elizabethan grammar schools and through independent study. Many dramatists (including the so-called “University Wits”) did have college educations, but such educations were not absolutely necessary.

  • Some familiarity with English dramatic traditions of the distant and especially the recent pasts. A talented dramatist would have known something about the so-called “morality” and “mystery” plays of medieval England, but he (since dramatists were typically male) would especially have been expected to know about the kinds of plays that were popular and financially successful at the time he was writing. The London theatrical scene was highly competitive, and the best playwrights were those who could meet the tastes of the time.
  • A skill for writing certain kinds of plays. Some writers, for instance, were especially skilled at writing comedies; some were especially skilled at writing tragedies; some were especially skilled at writing histories, and so on.  Some of the most talented playwrights (such as Shakespeare) could write in various genres with comparable success.

One recalls Polonius's reference, in Hamlet, to

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral . . . .

  • A talent for writing for different kinds of actors. Some plays were written to be acted entirely by boys; some were written to be acted by adult men (with boys playing female roles).  Sometimes playwrights were especially well known for writing either for the adult troupes or for the boy troupes.
  • A willingness and ability to write in collaboration with others.  Many plays of the time were the products of multiple hands.
  • Some practical experience in acting was an asset. Shakespeare was an actor; Jonson acted; various other playwrights began as actors before becoming writers, while some remained actors while also writing.
  • A strong familiarity with the generally accepted moral and religious values of the time. Elizabethan playwrights could not, for instance, openly advocate atheism or call for an overthrow of the government. Plays had to be approved, before performance, by a government censor, and playwrights had to know what would or would not pass the censor’s scrutiny.  It made little sense to write a play if the play was so thoroughly unconventional or radical that it could not be performed.

 

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