To Fill the World with Words

Soon after the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Shakespeare and his fellows began a shared run with the Lord Admiral’s Men at the playhouse in Newington Butts. This association with their principal rivals did not last for long; it was a very wet summer and the takings were low. After about ten days the Lord Admiral’s Men decamped to the Rose.

The unique position of the two companies in the Elizabethan theatre of course created competition and rivalry. When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men put on Shakespeare’s plays of Richard III and Henry V, the Lord Admiral’s Men retaliated with Richard Crookbackand their own version of Henry the Fifth. The Admiral’s Men performed The Famous Wars of Henry the First as a crowd-puller to rival Shakespeare’s episodes of Henry IV. When that was not successful they tried once more with The True and Honourable History of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle, an echo of Falstaff’s original name of Oldcastle. But the traffic was not always in one direction. When the Lord Admiral’s Men staged at least seven plays on biblical subjects, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men replied with Hester and Ahasuerus and other similar dramas. The Admiral’s Men performed two plays on the life of Cardinal Wolsey at the Rose, a theme that Shakespeare would later take up in All Is True; the Admiral’s Men also played a version of Troilus and Cressida at the same theatre, before Shakespeare had written his own variation upon an identical theme. While one group had The Merry Wives of Windsor, the other staged a drama concerning the wives of Abingdon. Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindnessvied at the Rose withOthello at the Globe, and they were no doubt viewed in the same light by the audiences who went from one theatre to the other. Two plays on the subject of Robin Hood, written by Munday and Chettle, were proving very popular at the Rose in 1598; Shakespeare retaliated with the sylvan romance As You Like It. So there was a constant cross-fertilisation of themes and ideas between the companies, fuelled by fashion and inspired by rivalry. The success of Hamlet provoked the Lord Admiral’s Men into reviving another revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy, with special additions written by Ben Jonson. The popularity of Shakespeare’s play in fact unleashed a whole sequence of imitations such as Hoffman, or A Revenge for a Father and The Atheist’s Tragedy, or The Honest Man’s Revenge. It was not unusual for playgoers to attend the various productions of these theatrical rivals, and compare notes on their respective strengths. Was Burbage superior to Alleyn in such-and-such a role? Was Mr. Shakespeare—he had become “Mr.” on the playbills when he became a “sharer”—as excellent as Kyd?

After appearing at Newington Butts the Lord Chamberlain’s Men toured parts of the country, including Wiltshire and Berkshire, before returning to London for the winter season. On 8 October Lord Hunsdon, their patron, wrote to the Lord Mayor requesting him to allow his servants to play in the City; his new company were already at the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street, and he wished to prolong their engagement. It is curious that they were not using the Theatre or the Curtain, but it is likely either that the playhouses were in a state of disrepair or that they were not considered suitable venues for the darker winter season. Hunsdon promised that they would begin at two in the afternoon rather than at four, and that they would use no drums or trumpets to advertise their presence. The Lord Mayor and his colleagues gave way to the Lord Chamberlain’s wishes, but this was the last time that any playing company ever used a city inn. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men also performed at court this winter, and played on two occasions before Elizabeth; on 26 and 28 December they attended her at her palace in Greenwich.

The actors did not simply arrive, with their costumes and instruments. They first had to rehearse the plays intended for Her Majesty’s pleasure before the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney. His suite of apartments and offices was in the former Hospital of St. John in Clerkenwell; by one of those strange coincidences of London life, Clerkenwell had once been the site of the London mystery plays. Since the company performed at the playhouses during the afternoon, these royal rehearsals must have taken place early in the morning or late at night. The chandler’s bill for the Office of the Revels records large payments for candles, coal and firewood. Tilney would act as censor, removing those lines that might be indelicate or offensive to the royal ear. He also loaned the company more sumptuous costumes if they were needed; at the court, some of their dresses and cloaks might have seemed threadbare. There are references to the actors borrowing “the monarch’s gown,” to save embarrassment before the great original, and “armor for knightly combatants” in case they were ridiculed by the more martial courtiers. The Master of the Revels also lent them “apt houses made of canvas,”“necessaries for hunters” and “a device for thunder and lightning.”1

When all was settled they took a boat downriver from one of the London wharves or “stairs,” with an attendant barge for their costumes and devices. The great hall at Greenwich had been cleared for the performance; the stage was at one end, decked out with perspective scenery devised by the Office of the Revels, and the royal dais was at the other. The hall, on this later winter afternoon and evening, was illuminated by candles and torches. The musicians were placed on the wooden balcony above the stage, and the actors could use the passage behind the screen as their “tiring-room.” The audience, invited at royal discretion, assembled in their formal robes before the arrival of the queen herself. It was the most fashionable entertainment of the year, and it would have been natural for Shakespeare and his fellows to experience a little nervousness. The names of the plays they performed on this occasion are not recorded, but it has been suggested that the queen witnessed Love’s Labour’s Lost as well as Romeo and Juliet. What better fillip for an ageing queen than tales of young lovers?

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were a success, and became something of a royal favourite. The extant records show that on this first occasion the Lord Admiral’s Men performed three times, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played twice, but in later years the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were called more often. In the winter season of 1596 and 1597, for example, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played six times and the Lord Admiral’s Men did not appear at all. A reference to William Shakespeare occurs in the payment for the royal entertainment at Greenwich in 1594, when £20 was granted to “William Kemp, William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage” for “two comedies showed before Her Majesty in Christmas time last.” It is an indication of Shakespeare’s seniority in the company that he should be listed before the principal actor—unless, of course, he was the principal actor. It suggests in any case that he was a leading member at the time of its inception, and already active in the company’s business. The entry in the treasurer’s account has the distinction of being the only official reference to Shakespeare’s connection with the stage.

On the night of the last day they performed at Greenwich, 28 December 1594, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men also gave a performance of The Comedy of Errors in the hall of Gray’s Inn. The play was part of the Christmas revels of that Inn, presided over by a lord of misrule known as “the Prince of Purpoole.” Shakespeare may have been chosen as the dramatist through his association with Southampton; Southampton was a member of Gray’s Inn. The play of twins and of mistaken identity, with all the complications of evidence involved, was naturally popular among students of the English law. For the purposes of the Inn, Shakespeare also revised The Comedy of Errors. He introduced more legalisms and two trial scenes. A special stage had been built for the production, as well as “Scaffolds to be reared to the top of the House, to increase Expectation.” So there was to be an element of spectacle in the proceedings. But the play hardly received a fair hearing. The numbers of invited guests were so large, and the event so badly managed, that the entertainments had to be curtailed. The senior members of the Inner Temple, who had been invited by their colleagues, left the hall “discontented and displeased”; spectators then invaded the stage to the obvious detriment of the players. A report in Gesta Grayorum concludes that “that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors”. Two days later the members held a “mock trial,” one of the enduring features of the Inns, at which “a Company of base and common Fellows” from “Shoreditch” was berated for making up “our Disorders with a Play of Errors and Confusions.”2 It was not a serious rebuke, and the allusion to the “base and common” actors is an arch legal joke. The person blamed for the fiasco was in fact a member and “orator” of the Inn, Francis Bacon, a keen spectator of the drama and a writer sometimes deemed to have composed Shakespeare’s plays himself. The contemporaneity of the two men has itself led to “nothing but confusion and errors.” Shakespeare has been accused of writing Bacon, and Bacon accused of writing Shakespeare, while a third party has been held responsible for the productions of both men.

The connection between the legal Inns and the drama is a very close one. Many of the poets and dramatists of the age were attached to one of the four Inns of Court—Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple—and it has plausibly been asserted that formal English drama itself originated in those surroundings. One of the earliest of English tragedies, Gorboduc, was written by two members of the Inner Temple and first performed at the Inns of Court. The “moots” or mock trials, as well as the legal debates and dialogues that were performed by the students, bear an interesting relation to the short interludes of the early sixteenth century. The Inns were also famous for their organisation of masques and pageants; the writers of these masques then began to write for the boy actors of the private theatres, St. Paul’s and Blackfriars. The Middle and the Inner Temple were next door to the theatre at Blackfriars. There is contiguity as well as continuity.

The legal ceremonies at the courts in Westminster Hall of course involved their own kind of theatre. Lawyers, like actors, had to learn the arts of rhetoric and of performance. It was known as “putting the case.” In the course of their disputations the students of law were instructed to assume the voices of different characters in order to promulgate different arguments; they were taught how to frame narratives that might include improbabilities or impossibilities in order to lend conviction to their suasoria andcontroversia. At a certain stage in their respective developments, then, the set speeches of English drama and the oratorical persuasions of English law looked very much alike. In sixteenth-century London, as in fifth-century BC Athens, public performance was always seen in terms of competition and contest.

In certain of his plays Shakespeare introduces references and allusions that were understood only by the students of the law; they in fact formed a large or at least recognisable part of his audience. They were the “coming men,” trained to be the judges and administrators and diplomats of the next generation. Many of Shakespeare’s own friends and acquaintances came from that circle. It was also widely reported, and believed, that the members of the Inns harboured papistical tendencies; Lord Burghley was obliged in 1585 to write to the treasurer of Gray’s Inn, for example, complaining that “to our great grief we have understood that not only some seminary popish priests have heretofore been harboured in Gray’s Inn but also have their assemblies and masses.”3

The members of the Inns were known as “Afternoon’s Men” for their habit of frequenting the playhouse in those hours, and were described by one contemporary as the “clamorous fry” who stood with the groundlings in the pit or “filled up the private rooms of greater price.”4 A moralist, William Prynne, stated that “this is one of the first things they learne as soone as they are admitted, to see Stage-playes.”5 One judgement in the civic courts charges a member of Gray’s Inn “for that he brought a disordered company of gentlemen of the Inns of Court”6 to the playhouse. They were clamorous because they hissed and booed with their fellows in the pit, but they were also known for shouting out themes or topics to be addressed by the actors; the actors would then extemporise comically or wittily. This was an extension of their practice at their “moots” in the Inns, and is again an indication of the association between law and drama in London.

It is important to understand this connection, if only to bring life to Shakespeare’s use of law and of legal terms in his plays and in his poetry. A drama like The Merchant of Venice can be properly understood only in this context, with the civil law of Portia pitted against the common law of Shy-lock. It is one of the defining structures of Shakespeare’s imagination.

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