I, But the Case Is Alter’d

The queen was dead. Long live the king! Elizabeth had died at two in the morning of 24 March 1603; nine hours later, a crowd of courtiers and nobles who had assembled on the west side of the High Cross in Cheapside listened to a proclamation by Cecil and then shouted out “God save King James!” As one courtier put it, quoting a psalm, “We had heaviness in the night but joy in the morning.” The news was brought to the prisoners in the Tower of London and Southampton, among them, rejoiced. Southampton had been condemned to life imprisonment for his part in the ill-fated Essex rebellion, but he was quickly released from his confinement by the new king.

King James had made a slow procession from Scotland, and did not arrive at his palace in Greenwich until 13 May. Then, six days later, letters patent were issued “pro Laurentio Fletcher et Willielmo Shakespeare….” permitting them to perform as “well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think good to see them,” both “within their now usual house called The Globe” and all the other towns and boroughs of the kingdom. They were no longer to be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were the King’s Men. A few months later they were appointed “grooms of the chamber” and their social status therefore greatly improved. They were given the right, indeed the duty, of wearing the royal livery of red doublet, hose and cloak. Shakespeare was placed first in the list, by the Master of the Great Wardrobe, for receiving 4½ yards of scarlet cloth for his uniform.

It is perhaps odd to consider Shakespeare as a royal servant, following in procession on ceremonial occasions, but there is no reason to believe that he questioned the privilege. It was, in a real sense, the height of his social accomplishment. Gone were the days when players were classified with strolling vagrants, and were often turned back by the aldermen of various towns. Gone, too, were the days when the actors were merely tolerated rather than welcomed in the capital. The new king, very early in his reign, had bestowed his favours upon them. Before the reign of James, the Globe players had been called upon to perform at court on approximately three occasions each year; in the first ten years of his reign they were asked to play fourteen times each year. So the court was a source of profit, as well as patronage, to the King’s Men.

There were of course those of a jealous disposition. A play by Francis Beaumont on the subject of social climbing, The Woman Hater, struck a glancing blow at Shakespeare’s elevation with the remark that “another payre you shall see, that were heire apparent legges to a Glover, these legges hope shortly to bee honourable.” Shakespeare’s modest origins were by now well known.

It is significant that William Shakespeare and Laurence Fletcher were first mentioned in the letters patent. Fletcher, hitherto never mentioned as one of the Globe players, had in fact been leader of a group of Scottish actors who had in previous years been patronised and welcomed by James when he was James VI of Scotland; he had even protected them against the depredations of the Kirk. Fletcher had been known as “comedyan to his majestic” So he travelled south with the new English monarch and, as the sovereign’s true servant, had been placed with the new company of the King’s Men. The fact that he is named before Shakespeare in the letters patent suggests, however, that by common consent Shakespeare was the leader or principal man of the Globe players.

Many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays were now revived for royal performance. The King’s Men put on new productions of The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry V and The Merchant of Venice. If James had not previously been acquainted with the work of Shakespeare, the oversight was now remedied. He seems particularly to have enjoyed The Merchant of Venice; he asked for it to be performed again, perhaps because the legal scene between Portia and Shylock satisfiedhis own taste for disputation. But it is more significant that all of Shakespeare’s new plays—those written after 1603, in other words—were performed at least once before the king. Some of them were performed several times. The records of payment demonstrate that, whenever the King’s Men performed at court, the king himself watched the proceedings.

The presence of the new monarch, then, had an effect upon the dramatist’s art. It could hardly be otherwise. The London theatre always had to look towards the sources of power and of patronage. The monarch was the lord of the spectacle. So it is no real cause of wonder to discover that, after the accession of James, Shakespeare was ready to shape certain of his plays to reveal the figure of the king somewhere in the design. This is the case with Macbeth and, to a certain extent, with Measure for Measure. The plays reflect, for example, James’s well-known fear of witchcraft—especially the form of magic aimed against a ruling sovereign. They reflect his fear of crowds, and his habitual dislike of Puritans. The ruling family’s great liking for masques also affects the staging of tableaux and dumb-shows in Shakespeare’s last plays, where music and dance play a large part in the concluding action.

But the King’s Men could not stay in London to enjoy their privileged position. The plague had returned to the city. John Stow later estimated that, out of a population of approximately two hundred thousand, some thirty-eight thousand died. After this date, the references to plague in Shakespeare’s plays take on a much darker hue than hitherto; there are references to death tokens and to plague sores. It was not some local difficulty but a pressing and ominous reality; at a conservative estimate some seven years of Shakespeare’s career were affected by what was known as “the death.” Contemporary Londoners believed that the plague came from planetary influences, blasting the air with fever. Yet of course, though Londoners did not know it, the rats and their fleas had come back.

The king eventually granted his new players some £30 for “maynte-naunce and releife” during the epidemic, but it was still necessary for them to go on tour. By the end of May 1603, the King’s Men had begun their travels to the plague-free regions of Maldon, Ipswich, Coventry, Shrewsbury, Bath and Oxford where, among other of Shakespeare’s dramas, they played Hamlet. It was in this year, too, that the first quarto of Hamlet was published; from its relative shortness, it may have been a version of the play prepared for this particular tour. The journey to Maldon and Ipswich is likely to have been conducted by sea. They travelled many hundreds of miles. They visited more towns than can now be shown in the official records, and must have given more than fifty performances. There is also a possibility that Shakespeare visited Stratford, since it is less than twenty miles from Coventry. It is certain, however, that he would not have remained in London.

The plague was particularly prevalent in Southwark. In Shakespeare’s own parish more than two and a half thousand people died within the space of six months. Two of Shakespeare’s old colleagues, William Kempe and Thomas Pope, expired; they had both been residents of Southwark. So the epidemic fury sent Shakespeare away. At some point in this period, he left the Bankside shore and moved to another part of London. He changed his address from Southwark to the more fashionable and affluent neighbourhood of Silver Street, between Cripplegate and Cheapside. He was once more a lodger, living in a house at the corner of Silver Street and Muggle (Monkswell) Street as a tenant of a Huguenot family called the Mountjoys. Christopher Mountjoy was a wig-maker and “tire-maker,” a maker of ornamental headdresses; he catered for the theatrical trade as well as for private patrons, and he was no doubt associated with the King’s Men in a professional capacity.

His was a large and commodious house of three storeys with jettied upper floor and attics; there is an image of it in the Agas map of London, executed in 1560, where even on a small scale it looks relatively imposing. Mountjoy’s shop was at ground level, shielded from the weather by a “pentice” or roof, with the living apartments above. Silver Street itself, as its name implies, was a rich street. John Stow described it as containing “divers fair houses.” It was also famous for its wig-makers such as Mountjoy himself. In The Silent Woman a wife’s hair is said to be “made” in Silver Street. Here Shakespeare shared the house with Mountjoy, his wife and daughter, as well as three apprentices and a servant called Joan. He was perhaps reminded of the time when he lived above a shop in Henley Street, also in the company of apprentices. By the standards of the period, however, this was a relatively small and quiet establishment. But it was not without its internal disharmonies. Madame Mountjoy had been conducting an affair with a local tradesman, and had consulted Simon Forman about a possible pregnancy. Her daughter was being pursued by one of the apprentices, with the active encouragement of Shakespeare himself.

When Shakespeare had resided in Southwark he had been close to the theatre, and subject to the appearance of uninvited colleagues and friends. But he was by no means isolated in Silver Street. He was close to his old Stratford friend, the publisher Richard Field; Mrs. Field, herself a Huguenot, worshipped at the same French church as Madame Mountjoy. In certain respects late sixteenth-century London still resembled a small town or village. He was also a few yards from the bookstalls of St. Paul’s Churchyard, where he would have seen his own plays on sale for sixpence. He could have picked up the short version of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke at Nicholas Ling’s new shop by St. Dunstan’s in the West near St. Paul’s in Fleet Street.

The subject of booksellers was close to Shakespeare. He needed books, expensive though the majority of them were, to furnish his art. By 1600 there were some hundred publishers as well as a score of printers and an indeterminate number of booksellers. The figures can only be approximate since one man or shop might combine two or three of these separate trades. All printers were, for example, in some degree also publishers; but not all publishers were printers. Many of the booksellers were established in Paternoster Row, that quarter of the city behind St. Paul’s Cathedral where the trade clustered, and there were at least seventeen bookshops in St. Paul’s Churchyard itself. The area remained the centre of the book-publishing business until the fire-storms of the Second World War entirely destroyed it. It was a relatively small trade, compared to the printing and publishing business of such continental centres as Bruges and Antwerp, but it was well established and well organised. The London publishers were skilful and professional with relatively high standards of type-setting, proof-reading and printing. The publication of plays, Shakespeare’s among them, comprised only a very small part of their overall trade. Books of sermons and of meditations, as well as books of history and domestic etiquette, sold far more. But sales must be set in perspective. The most popular books had an approximate print-run of 1,250 copies.

Close to Paternoster Row stood Stationers’ Hall, the centre of the guild of the publishers, printers and booksellers where were placed the registers of the books published and licensed in the city. They were inspected for any offence against state or religion, and were then duly entered at the cost of 6 pence. Although many books were not entered, any registered book was deemed to be under the copyright of the publisher. Severe penalties were imposed upon any breaches of copyright, which included fines and confiscations as well as the more serious punishment of the printing press being broken up. So it seems unlikely that many of Shakespeare’s plays emerged in “pirated” form, as has sometimes been suggested. But in the case of these plays there was a long history of transference from one publisher to another. John Busby registered The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, and on the same day transferred it to Arthur Johnson, who promptly published it. Andrew Wise registered and published three of the history plays in the late 1590s, and then five years later transferred them to Matthew Law. There are other publishers involved in the transmission of Shakespeare’s texts—Nicholas Ling, John Danter, Thomas Millington, James Roberts and Edward Blount among them. They were tradesmen principally, concerned to earn a profit, and were in no sense “patrons” of the dramatist.

Close to his new neighbourhood, too, was John Heminges; he rented a house in Addle Street owned by Thomas Savage, the goldsmith who was also a trustee of the Globe. Another colleague from the playhouse, Henry Condell, lived in the same parish as Heminges. In that sense the area was an extension of Shakespeare’s theatrical family. It seems very likely that he was the godfather to John Heminges’s son, William, who was christened in the autumn of 1603 at the church of St. Mary’s Aldermanbury a few yards away from Silver Street. If the three friends sometimes travelled together to the Globe, it was a matter of a few hundred yards’ walk to the wherries that would carry them over the Thames.

It has sometimes been surmised, however, that Shakespeare’s removal from Southwark was also a sign of some growing detachment from the life of the playhouse—and that, at some point in this period, he gave up acting without of course abandoning his career as dramatist. He is listed among the players for Ben Jonson’s Sejanus in 1603, but is not mentioned as playing in the production of the same dramatist’s Volpone in 1605. This is a significant omission, if in that interval there lies the decision to leave the stage. He had invested heavily in Stratford land, and did not need an actor’s income. He also earned money from his share in the Globe, as well as from his plays. He was forty years of age, middle-aged in Elizabethan terms, and may have tired of the endless activity of the stage. And was it right, for a landed gentleman, still to tread the boards? From 1603 to 1616, his company was engaged in a great deal of provincial travelling. Touring cannot have been a pursuit he still welcomed. He may have preferred to confine his travels to the route between London and Stratford, making the journey from Silver Street to New Place unencumbered by an actor’s duties.

Silver Street was itself not immune to the plague. In the course of the epidemic a royal musician, Henry Sandon, died together with his daughter. A painter, William Linley, succumbed with his wife. The porter of the Barber Surgeons’ Hall, nearby in Monkwell Street, also expired. So it is likely that in the summer and autumn of 1603 Shakespeare was either residing in Stratford or taking part in what would have been his last provincial tour.

The doors of the London theatres were of course shut for most of this year. The playhouses were automatically closed when mortality from the plague reached thirty a week, and the outbreak of 1603 far surpassed that figure. By October the companies had returned from their touring, and were hoping that the theatres might reopen. In a letter from their house on Bank-side Edward Alleyn’s wife wrote to her husband, staying at Bexhill, “my own self (your self) and my mother, and the whole house, are in good health, and about us the Sickness doth cease, and is likely more and more, by God’s help, to cease. All the companies be come home, and are well, for aught we know …”1

Yet all cannot have been entirely well, since the King’s Men then decamped to the estate of Augustine Phillips in plague-free Mortlake by the Thames. In this small riverine town also lived John Dee, the magus and scientist whose predictions and exploits had made him famous in late sixteenth-century society. He had even been consulted by Queen Elizabeth. It is possible that the actors encountered the notorious Doctor Dee during their residence in Mortlake. It would at least give a context to the persistent reports that Shakespeare in part modelled the character of Prospero on this contemporary magician.

The removal of Phillips from London did not delay his death. In the spring of 1604 he died at Mortlake, bequeathing “to my ffellowe William Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould.” To a former apprentice Phillips left a purple cloak, a sword and a dagger; to a newer apprentice he bequeathed his musical instruments. Shakespeare heads the list of colleagues and house-keepers in the will, however, a prominence which suggests that Phillips had an especial attachment to him.

Phillips may have acted towards the close of 1603, however, when the King’s Men performed for the first time before their new patron. From Mortlake they were obliged to travel to Wilton, the Earl of Pembroke’s estate near Salisbury in Wiltshire, where on 2 December they played for the sovereign. John Heminges was paid £30 “for the paynes and expenses of himself and the rest of the company in coming from Mortelake in the countie of Surrie unto the court aforesaid and there presenting before his majestie one playe.”2 There have been numerous reports that a letter once existed, written by the Countess of Pembroke from Wilton House. She is supposed to have counselled her son to come with the king from Salisbury, in order to see a performance of As You Like It; she also mentioned the fact that “we have the man Shakespeare with us.” The letter has disappeared, but the story lingers. It is not necessarily apocryphal, and the remark has the appropriate ring of noblesse oblige. But it cannot now be substantiated. There are even reports of an “amicable” letter from King James himself to the dramatist, but this is beyond conjecture. It may have been the Earl of Pembroke, however, who recommended that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men be given royal patronage; he had been closely involved with Shakespeare and Burbage, as we have seen, and he had also become a confidant of the new king.

From Wilton, the king and his retinue moved to Hampton Court. The King’s Men moved with them. They would not return to London until the early spring. One courtier observed that at Hampton Court “we had every night a publicke play in the great halle, at which the King was ever present, and liked or disliked as he saw cause: but it seems he takes no extraordinary pleasure in them. The Queene and Prince were more the players frendes, for on other nights they had them privately.”3 So the king was perhaps not enamoured of the drama. He was himself of a theatrical disposition, and went to some pains to announce his majesty in dramatic and symbolic way; his long delayed “entry” into London proceeded under great triumphal arches designed to renew the example of Rome. It is likely, then, that he viewed theatrical representations as but a shadow of the real spectacle of power and authority. The fact remains, however, that the players performed before him far more frequently than they ever performed before his predecessor. In this period, too, the dramatist himself was being described as “Friendly Shakespeare” in whose plays “the Commedian rides when the Tragedian stands on Tip-toe,” and thus manages “to please all.”4 “All” included the new sovereign.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!