Elizabethans and theatre

As though in parallel, the English ‘Golden Age’ of literature and embryo new-age playmaking arose with Elizabeth’s deepening authority and the nation’s burgeoning prosperity.

Several purpose-built and permanent theatres appeared in the decades after her Accession (as mentioned previously, the first was Burbage’s The Theatre in Shoreditch, London, 1576) for players and playmakers attracted to these new opportunities for writers and players, and larger audiences for their works. (The first ‘upgrading’ of a play-place had taken place at The Red Lion, in Stepney, east of the city, nine years earlier, 1567, three years after Shakspere was born).

Hostelries provided the platform for many decades previously to The Theatre: The Red Bull, The Bull Inn, The Bell, The Boar’s Head, the Bell Savage and The Cross Keys. The Theatre arose because the City authority brought in the London Ordinance of 1574. So these new-style theatres burgeoned outdoors – mostly south of the River Thames, out of the City’s authority.

Mostly London-based, and owned and named after nobility, Companies of players constantly toured the provinces – particularly when plague broke out in the Capitol. But it was in London that the new professional theatre flourished…The Theatre, The Curtain, The Rose, The Fortune, The Swan… and The Globe (made of the dismantled timbers from The Theatre).

And it was an exciting, changeable, tempestuous, quarrelsome period, with great creativity, huge audiences – and aristocrats (leaders of society, who naturally would not like being “of the herd”) paying more, for gallery seating, so as not be forced among 2-3,000 of the main crowd’s groundlings: the ‘penny-knaves’ who for the most part were uneducated, supposedly illiterate, uncontrollable, vulgar, often drunken yet obviously-so-aware enthusiasts (besides the actual ne’er do wells, the thieves, pick pockets, criminals planning fraud).

As the Queen, Elizabeth, indicated her interest in this ‘new’ theatre (she ‘attended – incognito’ up- to ten plays a season), the great aristocratic indulgence of the age – the creative, ornate, expansive and expensive classical Masques – had a serious competitor.

An English tradition, based on masqued, ‘dumb-show’ openings to plays, the Masque became a ‘performance’ in itself staged at great Houses; masques in fact grew in popularity among the wealthy and titled well into the Jacobean period – perhaps to counter the swelling audiences to the professional plays, which had soared in numbers to 2-3,000 by the mid-1590’s.

Incidentally, for years before the young Elizabeth began stabilising her reign, foreign comment (and plenty from home writers) had been on “how the English suffer a grievous fault… addicted to desires for the “novelties and new-fangledness of foreign delights”… and “measuring the goodness of any foreign thing by the distance of miles” it originated from this country. This, according to many, is seen in the rise of thrill-seeking audience numbers and a fast-changing content of playmaking – featuring foreign locations particularly in France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and of course Denmark.

The plays’ plots, dialogue and speeches often changed, performance by performance; with five performances a week, in afternoons, theatre life quickly became pressure-ovens, though tremendously exciting!

The playmaker made numerous changes; or the leading actors, for whom Shakespeare certainly was primarily writing, and (especially) the Clowns/Fools, improvised and made changes, with which they felt comfortable… the poor old book-minder/repeater/prompter was under considerable responsibility, and probably made mistakes, passed on into posterity…

So when the plays of ‘Shakespeare’ were performed, or what remains that were his originals, or how they gestated towards use in the 1623 First Folio, even itself riddled with ambiguities, we cannot be sure.

In the 30 years, between 1560 and 1590, more than 30 ‘new style’ comedies appeared emerged in Elizabethan England, and half have survived. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, as a whole, some several thousand plays are said to have appeared – but just as few Manuscripts are pro rata extant. (A sour note is struck by a Jacobean critic’s comment that “only one in 40 of such plays have poetic and literary merit and as such worth keeping in a good library!”)

In the 1580’s, country people formed most of the nation’s four million or so inhabitants. By 1600 London had a population of over 200,000 – changeable when decreased after sporadic plague outbreaks, enlarging again as fear died down.

And an enthusiastic 10,000 to 14,000 people, over the five-afternoon performing week, went to the plays, which were staged at the growing number of professional theatres. From March to May, 1592, for instance, the audiences in any week attending the first performances of Henry VI Pt 1 (or 2) often totalled more than 10,000.

As theatre crowds burgeoned, Shakespeare and other theatre playmakers realised they were writing to satisfy two audiences – those of the ‘privileged’ in the gallery bench seating and those the groundlings standing, moving around in the ‘Pit’. They were there also to serve the Monarch: on her ‘request’ Shakespeare is said to have written in fourteen days The Merry Wives of Windsor for the Queen. “She wanted to see Falstaff in love!” James the King was an even more pro-active supporter than Elizabeth – he saw up to 20 plays a year, most in private audience, his early support surely influencing the thoughts towards ‘enclosed’ public theatre? And more plays written first for the Court became public.

The indoor Blackfriars Theatre became popular, leading to the more discerning – and paying more – audience, perhaps the real birth of modern theatre? It did provide the opportunity for better staged effects and variety in controlled artificial lighting (as had long been possible in plays increasingly staged by nobility in their country mansions).

To mention, or not to mention? There was little if no mention of ‘Shakespeare’ by Philip Henslowe (the only production diaries discovered), who was the major owner/ producer in London theatre, and rival counterpart of the Burbage family, for which Shakespeare wrote. In fact there was no mention of many other important names by Henslowe, until 1596, when Shakespeare was among my Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon’s players. There was no mention by of Shakespeare by Ned Alleyne in his diaries; if this is true, questions arise… but answers can only be theories.

The playmaker’s skills were often “the brilliant surface painted in words” which, as today, give an “impression of erudition and great knowledge and experience of the world that is not there” said a famous writer in 1970.

He added, a work of art is far more than a work of scholarship; and a writer or journalist today will admit that an ‘appearance of expertise’ can be prompted by good and bountiful research, careful choice and omission. In other words, greatness may well include a natural genius AND a temperament which is also very practical and pragmatic, as claimed for Shakspere/Shakespeare.

And quick-witted: Shakespeare was quick-witted, as the reported Shakespeare-Jonson godson story relates. Shakespeare was godfather to a Jonson child. After the christening ceremony, Shakespeare was thinking. Jonson asked him what was the trouble. “I’ve determined to give him a gift of Latin spoons – but I need you to translate the Latin for the child later.” Shakespeare was punning on the ‘latten’ alloy of the spoons AND on Jonson’s great Latin learning, for the Latin on the spoons was easy.

The one or several ‘Shakespeares’ we see and hear in the Canon had access to depth upon depth of understanding (knowledge and the heart). There was Shakespeare’s measured words, sounds, and rhythms and the ‘music’ which arises. They carry a magnificent hidden power in their skilful unity. And when an audience attains an infinitely acute listening, hearing and awareness….then as if by magic, Shakespeare is alive!

He was the master. An English actress said a year ago, “Drama can be and is used as a tool for Self-expression and freedom”. This is according to our own and an author’s individual understanding …. Shakespeare achieved so much, in this area, and Bacon well understood it, too.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, the ‘University Wits’ (they who had been “blessed of contact with the Thespian Springs” ), and they, and others, of
poetic and playmaking talents also took the truth and secret of Shakespeare’s identity and the true gestation of his achievements to their graves…. Bacon, Oxford, Derby, Rutland, Derby, Marlowe, Jonson, Greene, Nashe, Peele, Dekker, Chapman, Ford, Webster, Heywood, Beaumont and Fletcher… Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke… and surely Elizabeth, too.