Shakespeare: the lost years

Most biographies of Shakespeare have traditionally wafted the young man directly from Stratford to London, presuming that the capital’s dominance of the English theatre which Shakespeare would help establish in the 1590s – and which lasts to this day – also held true for the 1580s. But that is not necessarily so.

The truth is, we cannot know where, when or how Shakespeare entered the theatre, or whether it occurred by chance or circumstance or force of ambition; we cannot know whether it was a long-planned or a spur-of-the-moment decision, or merely something that he edged towards unwittingly. Such information, if it was documented at all, is almost certainly irrecoverable.

That should not surprise us much: I’m not persuaded that any information of that sort was likely to have been recorded, even for the most famous Elizabethan actors, Alleyn, Burbage, Tarlton, Kemp, et al, among whom Shakespeare certainly does not figure. However famous these men became – and Tarlton in particular is as close to a celebrity as an age before celebrity can get – it is only their brief years on England’s stages that left its mark on the historical record, and that but barely. All were born in obscurity, and most died so too.

Where anecdotes do exist about other Elizabethan actors’ early careers, they take a similar shape: the young man plucked from obscurity; a talent stumbled on with surprise. I have quoted elsewhere the 17th-century antiquarian Thomas Fuller’s claim that the great Tarlton was discovered by a servant of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, while tending swine in his father’s field.

What the form of such stories tells us is, I think, a discomfort with the idea of an individual with ability being their own agent for change. Performing, the meme insists, is an essentially servile function – after all players, as social inferiors, were expected to step into the gutter, rather than ‘taking the wall’, when they met their betters in the street – and therefore talent cannot simply assert itself, it must be discovered, nurtured, patronised.

In some respects, it is the same disdain as that underlying Cambridge-educated playwright Robert Greene’s 1592 sneer at Shakespeare as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country”. How could a base-born player possibly aspire to equality with a well-educated – if in Greene’s case somewhat dissipated – gentleman.

Tracing Shakespeare’s early steps in the theatre in the 1580s involves unthinking a lot of assumptions about the practice of theatre in Elizabeth’s England, and about the place of players – both literally and figuratively – in English society. Because that place was emphatically not solely London, or London above all else, or – for most Elizabethan players – even London at all. It is dismaying to read as fine a Shakespearean scholar as Samuel Schoenbaum writing that “A historian following the tracks of the metropolitan companies in the eighties risks losing the scent altogether”. Schoenbaum is right; but for the wrong reason: the key point is that the companies of the eighties, into one of which we must assume Shakespeare found his way, were not metropolitan institutions as such. They were national. As Scott MacMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean note in their groundbreaking study of the leading troupe of the decade, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays:

[I]t would be a mistake – one frequently made – to assume that London was the ‘home’ of the adult companies, or that they settled into certain playhouses for what we would call a ‘long run’… Although the Theatre [in Shoreditch] had been built by the leader of Leicester’s Men, James Burbage, and although his company must have played there, the first thing to say about Leicester’s Men in the early 1580s is that… they were not a London company. All the companies travelled… The Queen’s Men were formed to travel too

There are few stories – anecdotes, legends, myths, call them what you will – about Shakespeare’s first steps in the theatre. So few, in fact, that 20th-century biographers have toyed with inventing another one: the idea that Shakespeare might have been recruited by a troupe of traveling players passing through Stratford. The year that catches the eye in particular is 1587, when the troupes of the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Stafford, the Queen’s Men, and one other, unidentified troupe, all performed before the town’s dignitaries in the Guild Hall.

The Queen’s Men, as was usual, received the largest reward among the troupes, 20 shillings. It was evidently a lively performance, and rapturously received: the audience in their enthusiasm managed to break a bench, which added to the town’s costs for the visit. Still, it was the sort of reception the Queen’s Men were used to, and the guild at Staffordshire were perhaps lucky to get off so lightly: at Abingdon, on the same tour, the crowd were so wild that they broke the windows of the Guild Hall when the troupe played.

By 1587 the Queen’s Men was, perhaps, not quite the company it had been: two of its founder members, John Bentley and Tobias Mills had died in 1585; both would still be remembered a quarter of a century later for their talents. But when it was formed, in March 1583, it creamed the twelve leading players from the troupes of the major aristocratic patrons, including five from the Earl of Leicester’s Men.

Hence, despite their losses, the Queen’s Men by 1587 still had three genuine stars of the Elizabethan stage in Richard Wilson, John Laneham, and, above all, the legendary comic Richard Tarlton. But if the troupe visited Stratford before 13 June that year, it would also have had a fourth star too: William Knell, a leading man who performances, as for instance the title role in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth – a key source for Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays as well as his Henry V – were also still freshly recalled in the 1610s.

Knell would have been unavailable because on 13 June 1587, playing at Thame in Oxfordshire, he was killed by his fellow player John Towne. It was after nine in the evening, in summer twilight, and Knell and Towne had been arguing. Knell, sword in hand, chased Towne into a close called the White Hound. Towne, cornered, backed against a mound of earth he could neither climb nor circle. Fearing for his life, as Knell came at him, Towne pulled his own five-shilling sword and thrust it at Knell in self-defence.

Players were often adept at swordplay and Tarlton, for one, was an expert fencer. Presumably Towne was less skilled: his blade pushed three inches into Knell’s neck. Knell took half-an-hour to die. (His widow Rebecca married another player within a year: John Heminges, later Shakespeare’s fellow actor, friend and co-director of the First Folio project.) It is possible, therefore, that the troupe was a man down when it rolled into Stratford: the perfect opportunity, it might be thought, for a young local man to get a big break.

It is an attractive speculation, but there is no evidence to support it. Moreover, even a cursory thought about the practicalities of the matter would seem to weigh against it the idea. How likely is it, after all, that the best troupe in the country would replace one of their leading actors with a young unknown with no professional theatrical experience, no experience of touring and no knowledge of the company’s repertoire? The players, by and large,  may have been personally reckless and privately spendthrift, but there is nothing about their business practices to suggest that degree of foolishness or abandon.

But simply because Shakespeare is absent from the record for most of the 1580s, and entirely after 1585, does not mean that we are wholly adrift in the ‘lost years’. In fact, they are by no means lost to us because even if we cannot be certain which troupe he first entered, we can sketch in some detail the world in which he found himself: that of the traveling players of the 1580s.

In many respects, Shakespeare was extraordinarily lucky in his timing: it was a good period to be on the road as a player, indeed arguably the best. The 1580s probably represented their zenith in terms of prestige and earning power, and the puritan stranglehold on popular pleasures had yet to establish itself in many towns and parishes. Earlier decades might have found players more numerous and more embedded in the culture; later decades would, with the ascendency of one or two London companies, offer yet greater financial rewards and higher social status  – albeit to an even smaller number of players and at the cost of their mobility.

But, in other respects, the life of a traveling player in the 1580s must have seemed more attractive, stable and lucrative than at any time previously. As already noted, the Queen’s Men, established in 1583, were routinely able to command roughly double the sums of their competitors; when Tarlton died in 1588, he left property valued at some £700: a small fortune, but a fortune nonetheless.

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