‘Oh I have lost my reputation!’ How Shakespeare’s failure led to Othello

Published by  News archive

On 28th Aug 2022

The Globe Theatre, London.
Getty images

Before he was deemed the greatest playwright of the English language, William Shakespeare suffered the same ignominy that befalls many a performer today: he was booed off the stage.  

Now a new theory suggests it was this humbling fall from grace that led him to pen one of his greatest and lasting plays, Othello.   

Analysing archival evidence, eye-witness accounts from contemporary audience members and the plays themselves, Dr John-Mark Philo of the University of East Anglia (UEA), suggests Shakespeare’s embarrassment as an actor in a play by his contemporary Ben Jonson may have contributed to the subsequent success of Othello.   

In 1603, Shakespeare was jeered by the audience as he starred alongside Richard Burbage – the foremost celebrity actor of his day – in one of the period’s most notorious flops, Jonson’s Sejanus. No fewer than four contemporary witnesses, including Jonson himself, attested to the heckles and hisses with which the cast was greeted by their first audience at the Globe Theatre.  

Dr Philo presents his findings in the paper, ‘Ben Jonson’s Sejanus and Shakespeare’s Othello: Two plays performed by the King’s Men in 1603’, published today in the journal Shakespeare Survey.  

Dr Philo, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in UEA’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, said: “There is a lot more in common between Shakespeare’s tragic romance and Jonson’s imperial Rome than first meets the eye.  

“Both plays were performed by the same theatre company, the King’s Men, in roughly the same period. They share the same images, language, plot devices and stage business, and they share more or less the same cast, with Richard Burbage taking lead roles in both.  

“There are certain turns of phrase that Shakespeare uses only in Othello, and nowhere else, which also appear in Sejanus.  

“There is also the possibility that Shakespeare was in fact the ‘second pen’ behind Sejanus, the unnamed collaborator whom Jonson described as co-authoring the play.  

“If we accept that Sejanus predates Othello, we can imagine Shakespeare taking the best parts from a performance that foundered – and in which he himself had performed a leading role – and putting them to work in a different play with the same actors.”  

Drawing from a wide range of contemporary sources, including cast lists and graffiti carved onto on the walls of public houses, the research shines new light on the interests of both Shakespeare and of the King’s Men at the turn of the 17th Century, and the ideas they were experimenting with at the time.  

The research analyses the social milieu Shakespeare was inhabiting and how we might think about his writing practice, Dr Philo said. Contrary to popular belief, the playwright – at least at that stage of his career – worked in a group context as opposed to the assumed solitary genius drawing solely from his own ideas.   

Dr Philo said: “Shakespeare and his success did not exist in a vacuum. He was part of a theatre company that put on a wide range of different plays, not just Shakespeare’s, and he was part of a lively social scene that included actors and writers who traded and shared ideas in the theatre and at the pub.”  

“Shakespeare’s experience as an actor in Jonson’s plays may well have inflected the composition and production of his own.”  

Dr Philo’s research also questions the extent to which early modern spectators may have felt they were viewing a performance by a particular company, as opposed to a particular playwright.   

“Might the name of the company have carried at times a similar weight to – or perhaps even a greater one than – that of the author? To what extent were audiences watching a play by Jonson, or a play by Shakespeare, and not just heading to the latest offering from a well-known theatre company, The King’s Men? Certainly the archival evidence supports this idea, that at least some audience members came for the Company, as opposed to a specific playwright.  

“While we are all familiar with his success, it is also worth remembering Shakespeare’s involvement with theatrical failures: the theatre company for which he performed and for which he was writing was taking risks with what they staged. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they missed the mark. But what this research explores is the idea that something could be upcycled from the debris of a theatrical flop.”  

Ben Jonson’s Sejanus and Shakespeare’s Othello: Two plays performed by the King’s Men in 1603, is published in the journal Shakespeare Survey.  

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