William Shakespeare enriched the English stage, and the stage returned the favor. This symbiotic relationship was made possible by a fortunate concatenation of historical circumstances, some of which Peter Thomson explores in his study of the theatrical milieu in which Shakespeare operated. Shakespeare’s genius would have found expression at any time, but both he and drama benefited from economic, social, political, and cultural conditions of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods.
In an exhibition of paradox that Clio, the muse of history, is very cunning in, the theatrical efflorescence that characterized this era resulted in part from efforts to suppress the stage. With the 1572 Act for the Punishing of Vagabonds, Parliament sought to limit if not abolish dramatic performances. The law declared that “all Fencers Bearewardes Comon Players in Enterludes &Minstrels, not belonging to any Baron of this Realme or towardes any other honorable Personage of greater Degree…shalbee taken adjudged and deemd Roges Vacaboundes and Sturdy Beggers,” unless they secured a license from two justices of the peace. Thomson notes that like many other laws, this one was honored as much in the breach as in the observance. The legislation did benefit and foster acting companies that enjoyed aristocratic patronage.
This support was more than nominal. In 1594, for example, the Lord Chamberlain asked London’s Lord Mayor to allow his actors to use the Cross Keys, within the jurisdiction of the city, for performances. Without such well-placed protection, the players probably would not have received the mayor’s consent because Puritan London was hostile to the stage. Patrons with court connections could secure royal favor as well as mayoral tolerance.
Thomson examined performances before the queen between 1597 and 1603. The Lord Chamberlain was responsible for providing entertainment for Elizabeth. It is not surprising that his own company acted before her eighteen times during these years, more than any other troupe. Close behind was the Lord Admiral’s Men, with fourteen appearances at court. Between 1597 and 1615, the Lord Admiral also held the post of Lord Steward and in this capacity advised the Lord Chamberlain on the subject of royal entertainment. Having less influential patrons, other actors performed far less frequently for Elizabeth. Among the adult companies, the next largest number of performances at court went to the Earl of Derby’s Men, who appeared before the queen three times in the six years from 1597 to 1603. When James I came to the throne, he converted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men into the King’s Men, thus assuring Shakespeare’s company powerful protection and plentiful court performances that could be rewarded richly. For the fourteen plays given at the celebration of the marriage of James’s daughter, Elizabeth, the King’s Men received the substantial sum of 153 pounds, six shillings, eightpence.
This system of patronage left its mark on the drama of the period. As Samuel Johnson commented in the mid-eighteenth century, “The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give,/ And we who live to please must please to live.” Thomson offers examples of Shakespeare’s efforts to appeal to the powerful. In August, 1592, Queen Elizabeth made Gilbert Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, a knight of the Garter. 1 Henry VI, Part I, first presented in that year, has a Talbot as its hero and gives a history of the Order of the Garter. The Merry Wives of Windsor, probably written for another Garter celebration, may have been performed in 1597 for the Lord Chamberlain’s installation as a Knight of that order. Before the Earl of Essex fell from favor, Shakespeare flattered him in the chorus preceding the fifth act of Henry V.
Neither the court nor the aristocracy was, however, rich or generous enough to maintain acting companies on its own. This seemingly uncongenial economic situation actually helped the drama by slowing...
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