Shakespeare, the lost years and the London stage

Johannes De Witt’s 1596 sketch of The Swan

It is usually said that Shakespeare re-emerges from ‘the lost years’ with Robert Greene’s flighted asides in Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592 (and possibly the work of its editor, Henry Chettle), and which I quoted in an earlier post. Although it has sometimes been argued that Greene may not be having at Shakespeare here, for my part I find such thinking a little tenuous: while the allusion industry can overstrain itself, finding echoes and implying causalities of dubious merit, Shakespeare is clearly better suited than anyone else to be the butt of Greene’s jokes.

Allowing Greene, however, does not automatically imply – as it seems to – that Shakespeare was now a London man.

It is implausible to suggest that, as a man of the theatre, Shakespeare would not have come to London by 1591; the likelihood is that his first visit would have been much earlier, given that all the significant troupes played in the city regularly, as they did at most major English cities, together with many lesser troupes and bands of players besides.

The principal venues are well known: the Theatre and the Curtain, and the Place at Newington Butts. But there were other venues, too, most notably the inns: among them the Belle Sauvage and the Cross-Keys. It has been said, in fact, that even when in London the players remained on tour, rarely settling for long runs at specific venues, but continuing to play, less exclusively, at a range of venues across the city.

Which is to say that Shakespeare had been, and was often, in London by 1591. But there is nothing on the record to suggest it was the permanent base that it became until 1594.

Speculations about such matters have a long Shakespearean tradition – although not as long, perhaps, as one might think. The first anecdote related to Shakespeare’s entrance into the theatre dates, in fact, as late as 1753. It appeared in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, probably written by Robert Shiels, an associate of Samuel Johnson’s but published under another name. Shiels’ Shakespeare finds himself destitute and friendless in London, washing up in desperation at the playhouse door and scratching a living tending to the gentlemen’s horses while their masters enjoyed the plays. So far, perhaps, so plausible. Perhaps. But the tale outruns itself, as Shakespearean anecdotes are wont to do. Shakespeare, Shiels continues

became eminent even in that profession, and was taken notice of for his diligence and skill in it; he had soon more business than he himself could manage, and at last hired boys under him, who were known by the name of Shakespeare’s boys: Some of the players accidentally conversing with him, found him so acute, and master of so fine a conversation, that struck therewith, they… recommended him to the house.

The accidental conversation is, I think, a nice touch, pregnant with assumptions about the status of the players – not the quality of people to talk to mere grooms without good reason – which, whatever the social delicacies in 18th century London, seem alien to the London of the 1580s.

To shore up the story, Shiels provides a detailed provenance; it is not quite as encouraging as it is meant to seem. ‘I cannot forbear relating [this] story,’ writes Shiels, ‘which Sir William Davenant told Mr Betterton, who communicated it to Mr Rowe; Rowe told it Mr Pope, and Mr Pope told it to Dr Newton, the late editor of Milton, and from a gentleman, who heard it from him, ’tis here related.’

Davenant, born in 1606 the son of an Oxford vintner, was closely associated as a playwright with Shakespeare’s former colleagues in the King’s Men prior to the 1642 closure of the theatres by the puritans, and did as much as anyone to re-establish Shakespeare on the London stage after the Restoration. Davenant may in fact have been Shakespeare’s godson; but he was certainly happy later in life to imply a more direct filial bond. One such anecdote tells how the young Davenant was running along the street in Oxford and met an old man, whom Davenant told that he was going to visit his godfather. ‘What!’ the man replied, ‘have they not taught you yet not to use the Lord’s name in vain?’

It’s an old tavern joke, with little connection to either Davenant or Shakespeare; but, given Davenant’s promiscuity with his parentage, it is difficult to know whether, when late 17th and 18th century Shakespearean anecdotes were sourced back to Davenant, that was because Davenant was fond of embellishing his bardolatrous authority, or whether others were simply trying to give their own tales a more respectable paternity by invoking his name.

In this instance, it is hardly to the story’s credit that, although Rowe and Pope both allegedly knew it, neither chose to include it in their own biographies of Shakespeare. Either they knew it, and doubted it, or theirs were simply good names with which to ballast the invention, being both notable Shakespearean scholars and, by 1753, both conveniently dead.

I’m not even sure there is much evidence to support the anecdote about how the audience – or at least the better elements among it – reached the Shoreditch playhouses. Clearly Shiels is not referring to the string of theatres on the Bankside since for the most part they were reached by boat. So vital to the watermen’s trade were the playhouses that when the latter were closed on order of the Privy Council in the summer of 1592, the watermen of Bankside petitioned Lord High Admiral Howard to raise the prohibition, ‘in most humble manner’, as they put it, complaining that:

Whereas your good L[ord] hath directed your warrant unto her Majesty’s Justices, for the restraint of a playhouse belonging unto … Phillipp Henslo… So it is, if it please your good Lordship, that we your … poor watermen have had much help and relief for us poor wives and children by means of the resort of such people as come unto the said playhouse. It may therefore please your good L[ord] for God’s sake and in the way of charity to respect us your poor water men, and to give leave unto the said Phillipp Henslo to have playing in his said house… And in your honour’s so doing you shall not only do a good and a charitable dead, but also bind us all according to our duties, with our poor wives and children daily to pray for your honour in much happiness long to live.

The Shoreditch theatres, however, built in the grounds of the old Holywell Priory were certainly reachable on horseback, or indeed by coach. You could have simply ridden up and out through Bishopsgate – perhaps ten minutes at walking pace – although since there was no access to the Theatre from Holywell Lane, which then as now runs west off the high street, you would have had to skirt the old priory precinct, in the western part of which Burbage’s theatre was built, and enter through a door in the precinct wall up against the wide green country of Finsbury Fields. Most playseekers seem to have simply joined the thronging stream of people leaving the city – probably through the London wall at Moorgate – and walked north and east across the open fields, now buried deep beneath the Broadgate complex behind Liverpool Street station.

The only reference I can find to the approach to the Theatre makes no mention of either horses or coaches, however. Robin Goodfellow, the pseudonymous author of  Tarlton’s Newes out of Purgatorie,  published in 1590, recalls that on Whitsun Monday 1589 ‘I would needs to the Theatre to a play, where when I came, I found such concourse of unruly people, that I thought it better solitary to walk in the fields, then to intermeddle myself amongst such great press.’ It is too much; Goodfellow, adrift in the hot May sun, falls asleep in a pool of cool shade beneath a tree out beyond the ‘backside of Hogsdon [Hoxton]’. ‘Goodfellow’ may have had the more pleasant afternoon; The Theatre, success though it was, must have been a mixed delight in high summer: an open sewer ran across the priory precinct 30 feet to the south, the other side of which lay, among other buildings, the Earl of Rutland’s stables.

Of course, there is no actual evidence about ‘Shakespeare’s boys’ either way. But what seems to me to underlie the story are the assumptions that Shakespeare must have begun his life in the theatre in London – and that such a beginning would have had something to do with the physical structure of the theatres themselves, whether in Shoreditch, Bankside, Newington Butts or elsewhere. Both are red herrings, I think.

I can remember on my undergraduate course, over two decades distant now, being told that the erection of The Theatre in Shoreditch in the spring of 1576 by James Burbage created the first dedicated theatrical space – the first ‘theatre’ proper – in England since Roman times. The implication was left hanging that drama itself had been similarly dormant, and that Burbage’s bold move somehow breathed new life into it, an idea that seemed to have purchase somewhere between Dr Frankenstein and the bolt of lightning that vivifies his creation and the myth of the national hero – Drake, Arthur, et al – who will rise again and return at England’s greatest hour of need. Yes, we covered the miracle plays, but that was on another course, and besides they were folk plays, civic displays, religious rituals, not the secular stuff of dreams which ‘true’ theatre enacts.

I daresay time and memory have transformed my recollection of this and eroded a good deal of subtle academic discourse. Nevertheless, Burbage’s Theatre is usually considered a key factor in the emergence of the Elizabethan literary, writer’s theatre because its permanence, and the prolonged residencies of the troupes which played on The Theatre’s stage and those of its successors, created a need for a fast-moving repertory of plays. Contemporaries certainly recognised the novelty, the innovation, the difference. Edmund Howes, for example, in his continuation of Stow’s Annales, published in 1631, reached back into the past and recalled that, ‘Before the space of threescore years… I neither knew, heard, nor read, of any such Theaters, set Stages, or Play-houses, as have been purposely built within man’s memory.’

The London theatres were something out of the ordinary, noteworthy for foreign tourists too and a stop on the standard itinerary of sights. Some, like Johannes de Witt, whose sketch of the interior of the Swan Theatre is one of the few pieces of visual evidence we have for Tudor theatrical spaces, were more impressed by the building. De Witt clearly visited the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose and the Swan when he came in 1596, since he singles out the latter two, both Bankside playhouses, as the ‘more magnificent’, although allowing all four to be ‘of notable beauty’.

Others, were more impressed by the audience. One visiting German merchant in 1584 dismissed the theatres themselves as ‘peculiar houses’ but was fascinated by the size of the audiences and the large sums of money that the playhouses made. Paul Hentzer, a German lawyer who came in 1597 and whose record of his tour of England is perhaps the fullest of any tourist of the time, was most impressed by the ‘very numerous audiences… [and] … excessive applause’. (He was more excited by the bear-baiting next door.)

Meanwhile, Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian embassy in 1618, was overwhelmed by the fact that ‘a number of respectable and handsome ladies… come freely and seat themselves among the men without the slightest hesitation.’ No doubt Busino would have been consoled to know that Thomas Coryat, the indefatigable English traveller and eccentric, found the presence of courtesans at the Venetian playhouses equally distracting, although he thought the buildings themselves were ‘very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately play-houses in England’. It was about the only point of comparison which Coryat would not cede in Venice’s favour.

The construction of static theatres, particularly on the scale done so on London in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign was clearly radical; and, equally clearly, people knew it to be so at the time. It was one reason why they were so distrusted by the authorities, of which more later. Ultimately, however, although this was not necessarily the intent, the theatres did not merely create the space for the development of a writer’s theatre; they transformed what had been a popular artform – in the sense that it was necessarily designed to please as many people as possible – into one that was shaped for the pleasures, tastes and deeper pockets of the social elite.

When Davenant led the re-opening of the theatres after the Interregnum, the new theatrical spaces were recognisably modern with proscenium arches and painted flats. Gone were yards with the penny entrance fee, cheap even by Tudor standards, and gone was the sheer density of people. Even now, there isn’t a theatre in London which can match the 2,500-to-3,000 capacity of the Theatre and its successors – oddly enough not even the painstakingly reconstructed Globe itself, which accommodates around 1,500.

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