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Shakespeare — On the London Stage

by Sidney Lee


The journey to London.

To London Shakespeare naturally drifted, doubtless trudging thither on foot during 1586, by way of Oxford and High Wycombe. Tradition points to that as Shakespeare’s favoured route, rather than to the road by Banbury and Aylesbury.  Aubrey asserts that at Grendon near Oxford, ‘he happened to take the humour of the constable in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”’—by which he meant, we may suppose, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’—but there were watchmen of the Dogberry type all over England, and probably at Stratford itself.  The Crown Inn, (formerly 3 Cornmarket Street) near Carfax, at Oxford, was long pointed out as one of his resting-places.

Richard Field, his townsman.

To only one resident in London is Shakespeare likely to have been known previously. Richard Field, a native of Stratford, and son of a friend of Shakespeare’s father, had left Stratford in 1579 to serve an apprenticeship with Thomas Vautrollier, the London printer.  Shakespeare and Field, who was made free of the Stationers’ Company in 1587, were soon associated as author and publisher; but the theory that Field found work for Shakespeare in Vautrollier’s printing-office is fanciful. No more can be said for the attempt to prove that he obtained employment as a lawyer’s clerk.  In view of his general quickness of apprehension, Shakespeare’s accurate use of legal terms, which deserves all the attention that has been paid it, may be attributable in part to his observation of the many legal processes in which his father was involved, and in part to early intercourse with members of the Inns of Court. 

Theatrical employment.

Tradition and common-sense alike point to one of the only two theatres (The Theatre or The Curtain) that existed in London at the date of his arrival as an early scene of his regular occupation.  The compiler of ‘Lives of the Poets’ (1753)  was the first to relate the story that his original connection with the playhouse was as holder of the horses of visitors outside the doors.  According to the same compiler, the story was related by D’Avenant to Betterton; but Rowe, to whom Betterton communicated it, made no use of it.  The two regular theatres of the time were both reached on horseback by men of fashion, and the owner of The Theatre, James Burbage, kept a livery stable at Smithfield.  There is no inherent improbability in the tale.  Dr. Johnson’s amplified version, in which Shakespeare was represented as organising a service of boys for the purpose of tending visitors’ horses, sounds apocryphal.

A playhouse servitor.

There is every indication that Shakespeare was speedily offered employment inside the playhouse.  In 1587 the two chief companies of actors, claiming respectively the nominal patronage of the Queen and Lord Leicester, returned to London from a provincial tour, during which they visited Stratford.  Two subordinate companies, one of which claimed the patronage of the Earl of Essex and the other that of Lord Stafford, also performed in the town during the same year.  Shakespeare’s friends may have called the attention of the strolling players to the homeless youth, rumours of whose search for employment about the London theatres had doubtless reached Stratford.  From such incidents seems to have sprung the opportunity which offered Shakespeare fame and fortune.  According to Rowe’s vague statement, ‘he was received into the company then in being at first in a very mean rank.’  William Castle, the parish clerk of Stratford at the end of the seventeenth century, was in the habit of telling visitors that he entered the playhouse as a servitor.  Malone recorded in 1780 a stage tradition ‘that his first office in the theatre was that of prompter’s attendant’ or call-boy.  His intellectual capacity and the amiability with which he turned to account his versatile powers were probably soon recognised, and thenceforth his promotion was assured.

The acting companies.

Shakespeare’s earliest reputation was made as an actor, and, although his work as a dramatist soon eclipsed his histrionic fame, he remained a prominent member of the actor’s profession till near the end of his life.  By an Act of Parliament of 1571 (14 Eliz. cap. 2), which was re-enacted in 1596 (39 Eliz. cap. 4), players were under the necessity of procuring a license to pursue their calling from a peer of the realm or ‘personage of higher degree;’ otherwise they were adjudged to be of the status of rogues and vagabonds.  The Queen herself and many Elizabethan peers were liberal in the exercise of their licensing powers, and few actors failed to secure a statutory license, which gave them a rank of respectability, and relieved them of all risk of identification with vagrants or ‘sturdy beggars.’  From an early period in Elizabeth’s reign licensed actors were organised into permanent companies.  In 1587 and following years, besides three companies of duly licensed boy-actors that were formed from the choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Chapel Royal and from Westminster scholars, there were in London at least six companies of fully licensed adult actors; five of these were called after the noblemen to whom their members respectively owed their licenses (viz. the Earls of Leicester, Oxford, Sussex, and Worcester, and the Lord Admiral, Charles, lord Howard of Effingham), and one of them whose actors derived their license from the Queen was called the Queen’s Company.

The Lord Chamberlain’s company.

The patron’s functions in relation to the companies seem to have been mainly confined to the grant or renewal of the actors’ licenses.  Constant alterations of name, owing to the death or change from other causes of the patrons, render it difficult to trace with certainty each company’s history.  But there seems no doubt that the most influential of the companies named—that under the nominal patronage of the Earl of Leicester—passed on his death in September 1588 to the patronage of Ferdinando Stanley, lord Strange, who became Earl of Derby on September 25, 1592.  When the Earl of Derby died on April 16, 1594, his place as patron and licenser was successively filled by Henry Carey, first lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain (d. July 23, 1596), and by his son and heir, George Carey, second lord Hunsdon, who himself became Lord Chamberlain in March 1597.  After King James’s succession in May 1603 the company was promoted to be the King’s players, and, thus advanced in dignity, it fully maintained the supremacy which, under its successive titles, it had already long enjoyed.

A member of the Lord Chamberlain’s.

It is fair to infer that this was the company that Shakespeare originally joined and adhered to through life.  Documentary evidence proves that he was a member of it in December 1594; in May, 1603 he was one of its leaders.  Four of its chief members—Richard Burbage, the greatest tragic actor of the day, John Heming, Henry Condell, and Augustine Phillips were among Shakespeare’s lifelong friends.  Under this company’s auspices, moreover, Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light.  Only two of the plays claimed for him—‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘3 Henry VI’—seem to have been performed by other companies (the Earl of Sussex’s men in the one case, and the Earl of Pembroke’s in the other).

The London theatres.

When Shakespeare became a member of the company it was doubtless performing at The Theatre, the playhouse in Shoreditch which James Burbage, the father of the great actor, Richard Burbage, had constructed in 1576; it abutted on the Finsbury Fields, and stood outside the City’s boundaries.  The only other London playhouse then in existence—the Curtain in Moorfields—was near at hand; its name survives in Curtain Road, Shoreditch.  But at an early date in his acting career Shakespeare’s company sought and found new quarters.  While known as Lord Strange’s men, they opened on February 19, 1592, a third London theatre, called the Rose, which Philip Henslowe, the speculative theatrical manager, had erected on the Bankside, Southwark.  At the date of the inauguration of the Rose Theatre Shakespeare’s company was temporarily allied with another company, the Admiral’s men, who numbered the great actor Edward Alleyn among them.  Alleyn for a few months undertook the direction of the amalgamated companies, but they quickly parted, and no further opportunity was offered Shakespeare of enjoying professional relations with Alleyn.  The Rose Theatre was doubtless the earliest scene of Shakespeare’s pronounced successes alike as actor and dramatist.  Subsequently for a short time in 1594 he frequented the stage of another new theatre at Newington Butts, and between 1595 and 1599 the older stages of the Curtain and of The Theatre in Shoreditch.  The Curtain remained open till the Civil Wars, although its vogue after 1600 was eclipsed by that of younger rivals.  In 1599 Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert demolished the old building of The Theatre and built, mainly out of the materials of the dismantled fabric, the famous theatre called the Globe on the Bankside.  It was octagonal in shape, and built of wood, and doubtless Shakespeare described it (rather than the Curtain) as ‘this wooden O’ in the opening chorus of ‘Henry V’ (1. 13).  After 1599 the Globe was mainly occupied by Shakespeare’s company, and in its profits he acquired an important share.  From the date of its inauguration until the poet’s retirement, the Globe—which quickly won the first place among London theatres—seems to have been the sole playhouse with which Shakespeare was professionally associated.  The equally familiar Blackfriars Theatre, which was created out of a dwelling-house by James Burbage, the actor’s father, at the end of 1596, was for many years afterwards leased out to the company of boy-actors known as ‘the Queen’s Children of the Chapel;’ it was not occupied by Shakespeare’s company until December 1609 or January 1610, when his acting days were nearing their end. 

Place of residence in London.

In London Shakespeare resided near the theatres.  According to a memorandum by Alleyn (which Malone quoted), he lodged in 1596 near ‘the Bear Garden in Southwark.’  In 1598 one William Shakespeare, who was assessed by the collectors of a subsidy in the sum of 13s. 4d. upon goods valued at £5, was a resident in St. Helen’s parish, Bishopsgate, but it is not certain that this taxpayer was the dramatist. 

Shakespeare’s alleged travels.  In Scotland.

The chief differences between the methods of theatrical representation in Shakespeare’s day and our own lay in the fact that neither scenery nor scenic costume nor women-actors were known to the Elizabethan stage.  All female rôles were, until the Restoration in 1660, assumed in the public theatres by men or boys.  Consequently the skill needed to rouse in the audience the requisite illusions was far greater then than at later periods.  But the professional customs of Elizabethan actors approximated in other respects more closely to those of their modern successors than is usually recognised.  The practice of touring in the provinces was followed with even greater regularity then than now.  Few companies remained in London during the summer or early autumn, and every country town with two thousand or more inhabitants could reckon on at least one visit from travelling actors between May and October.  A rapid examination of the extant archives of some seventy municipalities selected at random shows that Shakespeare’s company between 1594 and 1614 frequently performed in such towns as Barnstaple, Bath, Bristol, Coventry, Dover, Faversham, Folkestone, Hythe, Leicester, Maidstone, Marlborough, New Romney, Oxford, Rye in Sussex, Saffron Walden, and Shrewsbury.  Shakespeare may be credited with faithfully fulfilling all his professional functions, and some of the references to travel in his sonnets were doubtless reminiscences of early acting tours.  It has been repeatedly urged, moreover, that Shakespeare’s company visited Scotland, and that he went with it.  In November 1599 English actors arrived in Scotland under the leadership of Lawrence Fletcher and one Martin, and were welcomed with enthusiasm by the king.  Fletcher was a colleague of Shakespeare in 1603, but is not known to have been one earlier.  Shakespeare’s company never included an actor named Martin.  Fletcher repeated the visit in October 1601. There is nothing to indicate that any of his companions belonged to Shakespeare’s company.  In like manner, Shakespeare’s accurate reference in ‘Macbeth’ to the ‘nimble’ but ‘sweet’ climate of Inverness, and the vivid impression he conveys of the aspects of wild Highland heaths, have been judged to be the certain fruits of a personal experience; but the passages in question, into which a more definite significance has possibly been read than Shakespeare intended, can be satisfactorily accounted for by his inevitable intercourse with Scotsmen in London and the theatres after James I’s accession.

In Italy.

A few English actors in Shakespeare’s day occasionally combined to make professional tours through foreign lands, where Court society invariably gave them a hospitable reception.  In Denmark, Germany, Austria, Holland, and France, many dramatic performances were given before royal audiences by English actors between 1580 and 1630. That Shakespeare joined any of these expeditions is highly improbable.  Actors of small account at home mainly took part in them, and Shakespeare’s name appears in no extant list of those who paid professional visits abroad.  It is, in fact, unlikely that Shakespeare ever set foot on the continent of Europe in either a private or professional capacity.  He repeatedly ridicules the craze for foreign travel. To Italy, it is true, and especially to cities of Northern Italy, like Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, and Milan, he makes frequent and familiar reference, and he supplied many a realistic portrayal of Italian life and sentiment.  But the fact that he represents Valentine in the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (I. i. 71) as travelling from Verona to Milan by sea, and Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ as embarking on a ship at the gates of Milan (I. ii. 129-44), renders it almost impossible that he could have gathered his knowledge of Northern Italy from personal observation. He doubtless owed all to the verbal reports of travelled friends or to books, the contents of which he had a rare power of assimilating and vitalising.

Shakespeare’s rôles.

The publisher Chettle wrote in 1592 that Shakespeare was ‘exelent in the qualitie  he professes,’ and the old actor William Beeston asserted in the next century that Shakespeare ‘did act exceedingly well.’  But the rôles in which he distinguished himself are imperfectly recorded.  Few surviving documents refer directly to performances by him.  At Christmas 1594 he joined the popular actors William Kemp, the chief comedian of the day, and Richard Burbage, the greatest tragic actor, in ‘two several comedies or interludes’ which were acted on St. Stephen’s Day and on Innocents’ Day (December 27 and 28) at Greenwich Palace before the Queen.  The players received ‘xiiili. vjs. viiid. and by waye of her Majesties rewarde vili. xiiis. iiijd., in all xxli.  Neither plays nor parts are named.  Shakespeare’s name stands first on the list of those who took part in the original performances of Ben Jonson’s ‘Every Man in his Humour’ (1598).  In the original edition of Jonson’s ‘Sejanus’ (1603) the actors’ names are arranged in two columns, and Shakespeare’s name heads the second column, standing parallel with Burbage’s, which heads the first.  But here again the character allotted to each actor is not stated.  Rowe identified only one of Shakespeare’s parts, ‘the Ghost in his own “Hamlet,”’ and Rowe asserted his assumption of that character to be ‘the top of his performance.’  John Davies of Hereford noted that he ‘played some kingly parts in sport.’   One of Shakespeare’s younger brothers, presumably Gilbert, often came, wrote Oldys, to London in his younger days to see his brother act in his own plays; and in his old age, when his memory was failing, he recalled his brother’s performance of Adam in ‘As you like it.’  In the 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Works’ his name heads the prefatory list ‘of the principall actors in all these playes.’

Alleged scorn of an actor’s calling.

That Shakespeare chafed under some of the conditions of the actor’s calling is commonly inferred from the ‘Sonnets.’  There he reproaches himself with becoming ‘a motley to the view’ (cx. 2), and chides fortune for having provided for his livelihood nothing better than ‘public means that public manners breed,’ whence his name received a brand (cxi. 4-5).  If such self-pity is to be literally interpreted, it only reflected an evanescent mood.  His interest in all that touched the efficiency of his profession was permanently active.  He was a keen critic of actors’ elocution, and in ‘Hamlet’ shrewdly denounced their common failings, but clearly and hopefully pointed out the road to improvement.  His highest ambitions lay, it is true, elsewhere than in acting, and at an early period of his theatrical career he undertook, with triumphant success, the labours of a playwright.  But he pursued the profession of an actor loyally and uninterruptedly until he resigned all connection with the theatre within a few years of his death.