chapter  6
Playwrights I
Pages 28

Gerard Eades Bentley once described the artisanal period as the era of the “amateur playwright” or dabbler, as distinguished from what he viewed to be the era of the “professional playwright,” 1 one whose livelihood depended on the sale of plays. A significant marker of professionalism, he argued, was a total immersion in and dependence upon the market of theater. The primary goal of this still influential study of the professional playwright, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642 (1971), was avowedly to expand notions of dramatic authorship. 2 Strangely enough, however, it imposed such a rarified notion of dramatic authorship that few popular authors of the era could meet Bentley’s criteria: Merely William Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, John Fletcher, Phillip Massinger, William Rowley, Richard Brome, and James Shirley did so. Of those, only Shakespeare, Dekker, and Heywood were active by the late 1590s; the remaining five are associated with the drama of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. The prolific Ben Jonson was excluded from consideration, for instance, because he also profited from patronage rather than “writing primarily for profit” and did not meet another peculiar criterion for professionalism, that is, he did not have a sustained association with a specific London acting company. 3 These excluded playwrights who pursued patronage also practiced in genres other than the drama and so were, at best, “part-time” dramatists. The difficulty of maintaining such stringent criteria is suggested by Dekker, who wrote pamphlets and the like and thus may more rightly, by Bentley’s own criteria, have also been excluded since he, too, appeared to be a “part-time” playwright. It is instructive, then, that definitions of professionalism in this period quickly become problematic in practice.