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
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
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
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
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
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
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.