The Early Years

Stratford and Staging Practices

Even in remote, provincial Stratford, Shakespeare would have been familiar with professional theatre, some of it of the highest quality. When he was born, in 1564, playing was an itinerant profession: actors more‐or‐less nominally in the service of an aristocrat or one of the lesser gentry toured the country. They would wear the livery of their patron as they traveled from town to town, advertising his prestige. We will examine the practical realities of such a way of life later on, but for now let us note that several of these companies visited Stratford at times when Shakespeare might well have been there. Thanks to the efforts of Alan Somerset in collecting evidence of drama in Warwickshire for the ongoing Records of Early English Drama series (an invaluable project, which has already transformed our knowledge) we now have a complete picture of this, from payments made by Stratford Borough Corporation.1

We learn that the Earl of Worcester’s Men played there in 1576–7, 1580–1, 1581–2, and 1583–4.2 (On this last visit they probably included Edward Alleyn, then at the beginning of his stellar acting career; we shall cross his path again in the course of the book: see Cerasano 2004a). The great Earl of Leicester’s Men came in 1576–7 and 1587, his brother Earl of Warwick’s Men in 1574–5; the Earl or Countess of Essex’s Men visited in 1578–9, 1583–4 and 1587. The Earl of Derby’s Men came in 1579–80, a year after a troupe patronized by the earl’s son, Lord Strange (who were probably acrobats rather than actors). Lord Berkeley’s Men (often written “Bartlett’s”) played in 1580–1 and 1582–3; and Lord Chandos’s Men (from whom Shakespeare’s company would one day recruit the great comic player, Robert Armin) played in 1582–3. The Earl of Oxford’s Men performed in 1583–4 and Lord Stafford’s Men in 1587. And the Queen’s Men visited in 1587, 1593, and 1594 (Mulryne, 2006, 20). These included some of the finest troupes of the era: Leicester’s, Warwick’s and Derby’s Men (as well as Strange’s “tumblers”) all played at court in this period, as well, of course, as the Queen’s Men, the preeminent company of the 1580s.

A significant number of these patrons had principal residences either in Warwickshire (Leicester, Warwick, Berkeley) or in neighboring counties (Essex at Stafford in Staffordshire, Chandos in Gloucestershire), so asserting their local stature (Tiner, 2006, 88). Others – Derby, Oxford, and, of course, the Queen – were underlining their national standing. Stratford itself was probably never a prime target for the players, but it conveniently straddled routes – Leicester and Coventry to the north‐east, Shrewsbury to the north‐west, Bristol and Bath to the south‐west, and Oxford to the south‐east – which most certainly were places where they expected to do well. The great and wealthy wool center of Coventry, with its magnificent guildhall, was the single most popular venue for traveling players in the era.

In earlier years young William may have had privileged access to their performances, because his father – John Shakespeare – was a man of some standing. Over the years he held several responsible offices in the borough: constable, chamberlain (administering property and revenue) and in 1568, bailiff, a position equivalent to mayor. In 1571 he was elected Chief Alderman and deputy to his successor as bailiff. While he held such positions he and perhaps some of his family would have had priority seating when the players performed in Stratford’s Guild Hall. The procedures for town visits by the players are described by R. Willis in Mount Tabor or Private Exercises of a Penitent Sinner (1639), written when he was seventy‐five years old. In it he recalls “a stage‐play which I saw when I was a child”:

In the city of Gloucester the manner is (as I think it is in other like corporations) that when players of interludes come to town, they first attend the Mayor to inform him what nobleman’s servants they are, and so get license for their public playing … and if the Mayor likes the actors or would show respect to their lord and master, he appoints them to play their first play before himself and the Aldermen and Common Council of the city; and that is called the Mayor’s play, where everyone that will comes in without money, the Mayor giving the players a reward he thinks fit to show respect unto them. At such a play my father took me with him and made me stand between his legs as he sat upon one of the benches where we saw and heard very well.

(Bentley, 1984, 189–94)

Did Shakespeare also stand between his father’s legs and watch some of the leading players of the day in his own home town? We specifically know that the “Mayor’s play” at Stratford would be staged in the Guild Hall for the back‐to‐front reason that in 1602 the town Corporation forbade such use. (As I have already flagged, much of our information comes to us obliquely, often because of legal disputes of one kind or another.) Whether this ban was as a result of growing puritanical resistance to theatre or because the Corporation wished to preserve the dignity and fabric of the building we do not know (Mulryne, 2006, 10–13).3 Moreover, we are not actually sure in which room performances had been given: I pursue this issue to tease out a number of matters associated with late sixteenth‐century playing.

The two‐storey building, formerly the property of The Guild of the Holy Cross, passed into the control of the town Corporation in 1553. They allocated the upper floor to the newly‐founded King Edward VI School, which William Shakespeare (as the son of an alderman) was entitled to attend; and they retained the lower floor for civic use. This leads some scholars to suppose that this lower room, on the ground floor, was where the actors performed. Alan Somerset, for example, describes this space: “with approximately eleven ft of headroom and a flat ceiling free of medial supports … It measures approximately sixty‐six ft long by twenty ft wide [20.1 m × 6.1 m]” (2006, 84). The few doors are not particularly convenient to a stage pitched at either end of the room, but the great length would give scope to curtain off one end, or set up canvas “houses,” as tiring room space (where actors changed costumes and kept props), allowing entrances and exits around the sides. Somerset estimates that it could have accommodated “an audience of between two hundred and three hundred seated … upon benches”; this seems quite realistic, not least since the Elizabethans were, on average, smaller than we are – one reason why the reconstructed Globe on the Bankside holds only half the audience of the original.4 And Somerset concludes that “[w]e cannot be absolutely certain, but we are reasonably certain that this commodious lower room in the Stratford guildhall is the room in which Shakespeare first saw a professional production” (84–5).

One objection to this theory, however, is that the 11' headroom would hardly have allowed for the construction of a stage giving the audience a full view of the actors. A stage less than 4' off the ground would hardly give many in the audience a view of the action, while higher than that it might well inhibit a player like Edward Alleyn, who was “apparently a man of exceptional physical stature” (Cerasano, 2008). This is one reason that J. R. Mulryne thinks “[t]he upper Hall seems marginally more probable” as the site of performances; it has a high, vaulted, timber‐beamed roof, like many Tudor halls. Another reason is that “any actor/producer/director, then or now, would prefer the commodious, bright and ample upper Hall” (2006, 15). He argues from archaeological evidence that by the time of the players’ visits the upper Hall was divided into a room in its south end, used for the School (with an access passageway running down its east side), and a larger open space at the north end, available for Corporation use and so for performances. Mulryne estimates that the space at the north end measured approximately 38'4“by 21'8” (11.68 m × 6.60 m), making it remarkably similar in size and general shape to one of the buildings where Shakespeare himself has been supposed to have first practiced as an actor (17, n. 45: see p. 55ff).

The positioning of a stage is not obvious, since once more the doors are not ideal. One possibility is that they used a raised dais at the north end of the room, a permanent fixture at the time; but it only measured 11' 8″ by 5' (3.6 m × 1.5 m), a very confined performance space. Another is that the stage might have been placed at the south end, with ready access to the passageway running down the side of the schoolroom, which might itself have been used as a tiring room. As in our consideration of the lower Hall, however, these are modern instincts about what would work best for the actors and we need to consider the very real possibility that this was not the primary consideration of the Elizabethans. Think back to the Queen “on stage” in Palamon and Arcite (pp. 1–6). Any theatrical event of the era involving figures of authority was first a social event and decorum required that the social hierarchy should be acknowledged and appropriately visible. This would later be true – though in rather different ways – in the purpose‐built commercial theatres. But in venues like this – colleges, guildhalls, private houses, and of course the court – it dictated that the hosts of the occasion (college masters and their fellows; mayors, aldermen, and members of the council; the lord and lady; the monarch) should be the real focus of attention, together with their honored guests. And the business of acting was secondary to this. We shall see this again clearly when we consider the first performances of Shakespeare’s company at court, given in the Great Chamber at Greenwich, during the Revels season of 1594/5 (see p. 118ff).

Alan Nelson has assembled considerable evidence, from records at the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, that stages there were normally constructed, not on the high‐table dias, but just below it. The set‐up might not have been as elaborate and spectacular as that for the Queen’s visit to Oxford, described in the Introduction, but the principle would have been similar. The Master, senior fellows, and visiting dignitaries were seated on the dias, literally overlooking the performance. Others present sat on benches lower down the hall, and possibly even in a minstrel gallery if there was one (Nelson, 1992). Doors at either end of the hall would thus facilitate the entrance of the audience rather than of the actors, who may have had to make do with cloth‐covered booths or ad hoc curtained‐off spaces rigged near the stage for entrance and exit points, costume changes, and keeping properties. Where, however, scaffolding was used to erect seating for the audience (both before the stage and to both sides) it was possible to provide something more substantial. The inventory for such scaffolding used at Queens’ College, Cambridge, mentions tiring houses on either side of the stage (Nelson, 1989, 691–2).

We may recall that in Bereblock’s account of the Great Hall of Corpus Christi in 1566 he observed “On either side of the stage, magnificent palaces and most sumptuous houses are constructed for the comedies and masques.” These were almost certainly the kind of structures (called “houses”) which were used by the actors at court at this time, when they had no convenient way of entering or leaving the performance space. In the 1571/2 Revels season, for example, we find William Lyzard paid the equivalent of a very respectable year’s salary just for the paints used for these: “for gold, silver and sundry other colours by him spent in painting the houses that served for the plays, & players at the court … [₤13 15s 1d]” (Feuillerat, 1908, 141). No college or city corporation would go to that expense when royalty was not there to be impressed. But such structures could be very cheaply made and easily constructed, and possibly carried around by traveling actors.

The same principle is true of the college seating arrangements described by Alan Nelson: the less privileged members of the audience, sitting lower in the hall, would have seen the action against a backdrop of the Master and senior members of the college. And there is every reason to suppose that this would have been replicated at civic events such as the “Mayor’s play” at Stratford Guild Hall, with the audience seeing the actors perform against a tableau of the bailiff, aldermen, and other dignitaries. In an unpublished paper of 2001, reflecting on the evidence accrued from the first eighteen volumes of the Records of Early English Drama, Sally‐Beth MacLean offered this opinion about staging in guildhalls and the like:

Here we can only speculate, as we seldom have evidence even of demountable stage construction. However I think it is important to bear in mind [Robert] Tittler’s emphasis on the symbolic significance of the mayor in his official capacity in the seat of town government – the power and authority of the host which would have been emphasized in these touring play performances. (a) If the mayor and other members of council were accustomed to sit at the high end of the hall, on the dais, how likely is it that they would have given pride of place there to mere players? The same question can be asked of players’ performances in the private halls of the nobility. Alan Nelson’s research and happy discoveries of descriptive documents for comparable performances in Cambridge college halls suggest that demountable stages were placed near the upper end, but not on the dais. (b) Certainly not at the lower or screens end where the honoured guests would have had to squint to get a view from their otherwise privileged seats at the opposite end! So much for another popular assumption. I would like to suggest that official performances in urban spaces were mounted with a keen awareness of civic hierarchy and that plays were more likely staged “in the round” but towards the upper end so that the mayor and council would have had the best view. And if we look at the stage sketch that survives of the Swan theatre in London, we will note the lords’ viewing room above the stage rather than below it.5

For these reasons I am inclined to think that the upper Hall, with its dias, is where performances took place in Stratford. I also think it likely that similar staging arrangements would have been the norm in the great halls of the nobility and gentry which the traveling players would also have graced as they moved around the country. I discuss the practices and protocols of the traveling players, which Shakespeare himself continued to experience even after he was normally settled in London, in the next chapters.

I must pause briefly to acknowledge that this argument about the staging flies in the face of one of the most popular theories about Elizabethan theatre, that advanced by Richard Southern in The Staging of Plays before Shakespeare (1973) and still often invoked. He was particularly struck by similarities between the hall screens at the bottom ends of many great halls of the era and what the De Witt/van Buchell drawing appeared to show of the interior of the Swan playhouse (see p. 8ff). The wooden screens, often quite intricately carved, separated the hall itself from the kitchens and ancillary rooms beyond, or sometimes from the outside doors of the building; they usually had two substantial doors (classically “one‐in, one‐out” when food was being served) and many of them had so‐called “minstrel gallerys” above. The drawing very clearly shows two large doorways at the rear of the stage platform. Above them is a row of six windows or openings, from each of which one or two persons look out: a single gallery or possibly a row of boxes. The doors and the upper openings translate so readily into the serving doors and “minstrel gallery” of the hall screen that it is very easy to suppose that the latter inspired the former. The supposition is thus that performances in great halls were organized to focus on the hall screen, which acted as the rear of the acting area; the doors very conveniently allowed for entrances and exits, and the introduction of properties; the kitchens or adjacent rooms served as ad hoc tiring houses; the “minstrel gallery” allowed for action on the upper level, like the “balcony” scene [2.2.] in Romeo and Juliet or the entry of “Brabantio above” [] in Othello. So felicitous was it, the argument runs, that this arrangement was later incorporated in the London amphitheaters.

There are, as we noted earlier, many caveats about the De Witt/van Buchell drawing. But the most compelling argument against this theory is that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have that social rank took precedence over all other considerations in the disposition of audiences at Elizabethan theatricals – certainly at court and in colleges but also, as I argue, virtually everywhere else as well. Social protocol and the very clear evidence of practice in the colleges and at court demand that the upper‐end of the hall was used, with senior dignitaries sitting on the dias, the stage below them, and the rest of the audience arrayed on benches (or, in bigger venues, scaffolding), watching both the performance and their superiors. The rooms “above” in the Swan drawing are the lords’ rooms, a symbolic embodiment of that order, not a mistrels’ gallery (see p. 234).

Unless there were convenient alcoves adjacent to the stage, they would have required one or more canvas booths as tiring houses: the recessed windows in the diagram of the Great Chamber at Whitehall and adjacent to the high table at Rufford Old Hall, for example, might well have been used (see pp. 120 and 57). But it is unlikely that the players would have been allowed to use doors that led to private quarters – such as that to the Queen’s Presence Chamber in the former venue or those to the Heskeths’ private rooms at the latter. They would have been treated with the respect due them as emissaries of their patrons, but there were limits to familiarity.


William Shakespeare may not have joined his father on the dias, but he would have seen him there – splendid in his robes and insignia of office, presiding over the players – from a relatively privileged position on the lower benches. But this cannot have lasted. John’s business evidently did not thrive; by the late 1570s he was in debt and stopped attending Corporation meetings. In 1586 he was replaced as alderman. The family would no longer have privileged access to Guild Hall performances, though William could have paid to attend the players’ commercial shows in town. Notice in R. Willis’s account that there is an implicit quid pro quo in the agreement between the mayor and the players. The “Mayor’s play” was offered in the spirit of a gift offering from the players’ patron to the worthies of the town (who did not personally pay to see it) and would be rewarded with a gratuity from the borough measured in proportion to the status of the patron. The audience in the limited space would be there by invitations only.

But the council would also permit a strictly limited number of commercial performances to take place in the town. So, for example, in 1580 the Gloucester Common Council authorized the Queen’s Men to play three times over three days in the town; those patronized by barons or nobles of higher degree (viscount, earl, or marquis) were permitted two performances over two days; and anyone with patrons of lower status would be allowed one performance. This is where the players would really hope to make their profit. In Stratford these shows probably took place in one of the inns in Bridge Street, of which the two principal were the Bear and the Swan – though records of such performances have rarely survived. I discuss playing in such inns in Chapter 2.

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