A Common Playhouse

Charles Nicholl

  • Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe by Chris Laoutaris
    Fig Tree, 528 pp, £20.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 905490 96 7

The district of Blackfriars, a squeeze of old streets between Ludgate Hill and the north bank of the Thames, takes its name from the Dominican monastery built there in the 13th century. The Dominicans were known from the colour of their capes as ‘black friars’, as distinct from Franciscan ‘grey friars’ and Carmelite ‘white friars’. The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538, whereupon its five-acre precinct became a prime piece of Tudor real estate. Chris Laoutaris’s Shakespeare and the Countess gives a remarkably detailed account of its residents in the 1590s, some of them very distinguished, and of their efforts to exclude one who would become more distinguished than any of them.

Blackfriars is an area rich in Shakespearean associations, invisible but well attested. Down an alleyway running south off Carter Lane lies New Bell Yard. Now dominated by the glass-fronted atrium of the Grange St Paul’s Hotel, this was formerly the site of the Bell Inn. In the 1590s its landlady was a Mistress Greffine or Griffin, and among its frequent guests was a Stratford businessman called Richard Quiney. From here, on 25 October 1598, Quiney wrote a short letter addressed on the verso ‘To my Loveinge good ffrend & contreymann Mr Wm Shackespere’ – the only item of Shakespeare’s correspondence to survive. It is a request for a loan of £30: ‘I am bolde of yow as of a ffrende, craveinge yowre helpe with xxxli.’ It appears that Shakespeare responded positively, whether by letter or in person, for on the same day Quiney wrote to his brother-in-law Abraham Sturley in Stratford. That letter is lost, but we have Sturley’s rather guarded reply, dated 4 November: ‘that our countryman Mr Wm Shak would procure us monei … I will like of as I shall heare when & wheare & howe.’

Some fifty yards further along Carter Lane a curving street slopes down to the left: this marks the eastern boundary of the monastic precinct. It is now called St Andrew’s Hill but in Shakespeare’s day was known less salubriously as Puddle Wharf Lane. Here, straddling the entrance to Ireland Yard, was the gatehouse purchased by Shakespeare in 1613 – the only property he actually owned in London. It was a rambling old house with ‘sundry back-dores and bye-wayes, and many secret vaults and corners’. It had once housed fugitive Catholics and was said to have ‘secret passages towards the water’. Shakespeare bought it for £140 from Henry Walker, ‘citizen and minstrel of London’. The deed of sale is dated 10 March 1613: he put down £80 and the following day signed a mortgage agreement with Walker for the remaining £60. Whether Shakespeare ever lived in this house is a moot point. He was by then mostly based in Stratford, in what might be called semi-retirement (his last sole-authored play, The Tempest, had been performed two years earlier). He may have used it as a pied à terre, but by the time he came to write his will, almost exactly three years later, the house had a tenant living in it. During Walker’s ownership it had also been leased to a tenant, a haberdasher called Henry Ireland, whose presence is recorded in the name Ireland Yard. Odd that it is he rather than Shakespeare who is thus remembered, but a certain randomness of recall is one of the pleasures of street names.

These are associations which belong to the unromantically practical side of Shakespeare’s career – loans, mortgages, tenancies – but there is of course a more important, or anyway more literary, association in the form of the Blackfriars theatre. This was the indoor theatre his company, the King’s Men, took over in 1608, and in which they began performing in the winter of 1609-10 (the hiatus was due to a severe outbreak of plague which closed the London theatres for more than a year). The present-day Playhouse Yard, which runs from the western end of Ireland Yard to Blackfriars Lane, marks the site of the theatre – or more precisely the site of the yard that lay immediately north of the theatre, and which offered the principal access to it. The Blackfriars Theatre provided an upmarket, all-weather, all-seated alternative to the open-air Globe across the river in Southwark, and is generally considered an important influence on the staging and atmosphere of Shakespeare’s late plays, often called his ‘Romances’, among them Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which opened near the modern Globe earlier this year, is based conjecturally on the design of the Blackfriars, and emphasises those attributes of intimacy, candlelight and hush which distinguished the venue from its rowdier counterpart on the Bankside.

What is less well known is the long and troubled story of the Blackfriars theatre prior to 1608, and it is this prologue or prequel that Laoutaris investigates in his energetic and enterprising book. He has done much original research, adding new details to the history of the playhouse, and to our knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean Blackfriars, that ‘cluster of quirky buildings … erected within and around the shell of the monastery’, which exhibited – then as now – ‘the collision of ancient and modern’.

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The story begins in the early months of 1596. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had been formed less than two years previously (they would become the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603). They were already the most popular troupe in town, with their leading actor Richard Burbage and their star comic Will Kempe, and their player-poet Shakespeare turning out such hits as Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But 1596 would prove a difficult year: for Shakespeare it was a year of personal tragedy (the death of his son Hamnet at the age of 11) and for the whole company a time of professional setbacks, including the death of their patron – the queen’s chamberlain, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon – as well as the debacle at Blackfriars that is the centrepiece of this book.

On 4 February 1596 the company’s business manager, James Burbage (Richard’s father), purchased a large stone building in the western range of the Blackfriars precinct, intending to refit it as a theatre. It was a two-storey structure which had once housed the ‘frater’ or refectory of the monastery; its upper floor had more recently been subdivided into seven residential apartments. The building measured about 107 x 52 feet, with the long side running roughly north-south. Burbage senior was an old hand, indeed a formative figure in the development of English drama. A joiner by training and an actor in the Earl of Leicester’s company in the 1560s, he had been the prime mover in the creation of London’s first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch, in 1576. Now, twenty years later, the Theatre was the home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But their tenure was in jeopardy, because the owner of the land on which it stood, Giles Allen, was refusing to extend their lease, which was due to expire in April 1597. It was this imminent threat of eviction which brought Burbage to the Blackfriars in search of alternative accommodation for the company. He paid the owner of the former refectory, Sir William More, £600 for the freehold, and according to later computations spent a further £400 on refurbishing it for use as a theatre.

The idea of siting a new public theatre within the city walls was a gamble. None currently existed – the Theatre and the Curtain were in Shoreditch; the Rose and the Swan were in Southwark. These areas lay respectively in the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, beyond the writ of London’s mayor and aldermen, who generally viewed theatres as a threat to public order, health and decency. Two factors perhaps gave Burbage and his colleagues some cause for optimism. The first was that the Blackfriars, like other areas with old religious or monastic connections (the Whitefriars, the Minories, St Martin le Grand, St Katherine by the Tower), was one of London’s quasi-autonomous ‘liberties’, and so not governed by the lord mayor. The second was that there had already been a theatre in the area, immediately adjacent to the building on which Burbage’s carpenters were now at work. However, this was a much smaller and more exclusive venue, a private theatre featuring boy actors. These boys were nominally choristers using the space for singing practice, but they also put on plays for which they charged admission. This earlier theatre was first used by the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1576, under the directorship of Richard Farrant, and later by Oxford’s Boys, an amalgam of children’s companies put together by John Lyly, who was then secretary to the Earl of Oxford. Two elegant Lyly comedies, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, were premiered there in 1584, but in that same year legal wrangles over the lease led to the closure of the theatre.

If Shakespeare and his company had hoped these were auspicious circumstances for a new Blackfriars theatre, they were soon to be disappointed. In November 1596, the residents of the precinct presented a petition to the Privy Council, vigorously objecting to the opening of a ‘common playhouse’ in their select neighbourhood:

One Burbage hath lately bought certaine roomes in the same precinct … and meaneth very shortly to convert and turne the same into a comon playhouse, which will grow to be a very great annoyance and trouble … both by reason of the great resort and gathering togeather of all manner of vagrant and lewde persons that, under cullor of resorting to the playes will come thither and work all manner of mischeef; and also to the great pestering and filling up of the same precinct if it should please God to send any visitation of sickness as heretofore hath been, for that the same precinct is allready growne very populous. And besides that the same playhouse is so neere the church that the noyse of the drummes and trumpetts will greatly disturbe and hinder both the ministers and parishioners in tyme of devine service and sermons.

Having run through the familiar tropes of anti-theatrical rhetoric – the throngs of riffraff, the opportunities for crime, the dangers of infection, the drums and trumpets drowning out godly sermons – the petitioners entreat the honourable lords of the council to ‘take order that the same roomes may be converted to some other use, and that no playhouse may be used or kept there’. The whole thing is a paramount exercise in nimbyism, much as a residents’ association today might seek to block a noisy new music venue – or even, heaven forbid, a rave – in their area. (This analogy may usefully remind us that, despite our own bardocentric instincts, the petitioners of 1596 were not wholly unjustified in their view of the matter.)

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Subscribed below the petition are 31 names, the first of which is ‘Elizabeth Russell Dowager’. This lady was, in Laoutaris’s view, the orchestrator of the campaign. She is the countess of the book’s title: the antagonist of Shakespeare in this clash of interests which is also in some measure a clash of class, culture and ideology. She was certainly a remarkable woman, though she was not strictly speaking a countess, since her husband, Lord John Russell, the son and heir of the 2nd Earl of Bedford, predeceased his father by a few months and so never inherited the earldom. Despite this inconvenience she insisted on being addressed as the ‘Dowager Countess’, and when the Earl of Northampton had the temerity to question her status during a Star Chamber case (‘by the law of arms you are no Lady Dowager, nor [is] none under the degree of an earl’s wife’), she flew across the court, grabbed him by the cloak and vented her displeasure ‘nose to nose’ with him. In 1596 she was a wealthy and extremely well-connected woman in her mid-fifties, twice widowed, the mother of seven children, a committed Puritan, a scholarly linguist, an inveterate and bristling litigant, and – most germane to the fortunes of the Chamberlain’s Men – the owner of a large house on the corner of Carter Lane and Blackfriars Lane, a stone’s throw from the proposed playhouse.

Elizabeth Russell was a powerful figure. Words like ‘formidable’ and ‘redoubtable’ pepper Laoutaris’s chapters on her, evoking a fearsome Elizabethan version of Lady Bracknell or Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha. She was powerful both in terms of her combative personality – an early admirer compared her to a warrior who ‘marched in battle-gear’ – and her political and dynastic connections. Her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, had been tutor to Edward VI; her eldest sister, Mildred, was married to the all-powerful Lord Treasurer, Burghley; another sister, Anne, was the wife of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper. Elizabeth was thus aunt to two of Shakespeare’s most influential contemporaries, Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Bacon. The Cooke sisters were a byword for intelligence and high education. Their family home at Gidea Hall, near Romford, was described by the Cambridge scholar Walter Haddon as a ‘little university’, and here they learned Greek, Latin, French and Italian, plus a smattering of Hebrew. They were ‘all most eminent scholars … learned above their sex’, Thomas Fuller wrote in his Worthies of England, displaying the complacent gender assumptions that these women so admirably challenged. Elizabeth’s first husband was Sir Thomas Hoby, whom she married in 1558; she went with him to Paris, where he was English ambassador, and where he died in 1566.

Hoby is best remembered for The Courtyer (1561), his elegant translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, which disseminated that Italianate glow of style, courtesy, cynicism and all-round bella figura so influential on late Elizabethan writers, not least Shakespeare. It is plausibly suggested that Elizabeth contributed to the translation. She would later publish her own translation of a French devotional work by Jean Ponet, A Way of Reconciliation (1605), which argued eloquently against the ‘desire to strive’ and the ‘nourishing of contentions’ that disfigured the religious life of the period – a worthy argument somewhat vitiated by her own devotion to strife and contention. A full-length portrait of her hangs at Bisham Abbey, the old Hoby seat in Berkshire. It shows her wearing a long black widow’s gown and an enormous white hood, trimmed with lace and Venice gold, and stiffened with starch and wire so that it curves out in an expansive arc before flowing voluminously over her shoulders; it looks, in Laoutaris’s telling simile, like ‘the head of a cobra about to strike its victim’. Beneath the hood further fine lacework is displayed on her caul, which fits close to the head, with tight frizzes of ginger or auburn hair showing at the edges. The face is sharp and pale, the gaze challenging, the nose prominent, the mouth small, the lips bright red. In her left hand she holds a small book – probably a prayer book. She is a very stylish widow, if not a merry one.

It is no great surprise to find the soi-disant countess taking arms against the sea of troubles represented by the opening of a playhouse round the corner, but the second name on the list of petitioners is genuinely surprising. It is ‘G. Hunsdon’: none other than George Carey, 2nd Lord Hunsdon, the current patron of the play company whose livelihood the petition was threatening. Laoutaris, never one to underplay the situation, calls this ‘one of the most astounding acts of betrayal in theatrical history’, though there may be other more nuanced considerations. Carey had only been their patron since July, when his father, Henry, died; he had succeeded to the Hunsdon title but not, as he had hoped, to the chamberlainship – the post went instead to the aged and irascible William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham, who was no friend to the players. (Cobham was another Blackfriars resident, though not a signatory of the petition as he was a member of the Privy Council to which it was addressed.) Carey may have judged that this controversial project would bring the company – and therefore him – more problems than benefits, and that his opposition to it would show him in a responsible light that would aid his ambition to become chamberlain, which he duly did on Cobham’s death the following year. He may also have felt that his duties of patronage did not extend to having the company play right on his doorstep – his house lay immediately south of the refectory building, and shared an access lane with it. Laoutaris further notes that Carey had a family connection with Elizabeth Russell – his sister Margaret was married to her son Edward – and so may have been under pressure through kinship. Whatever the reasons, it seems no lasting strain was placed on his relations with Shakespeare: it is generally believed that The Merry Wives of Windsor was commissioned by Carey for a court performance at Windsor in March or April 1597 celebrating his admission into the Order of the Garter – this was just a few months after the Blackfriars debacle.

Another unexpected signatory of the petition was the printer and bookseller Richard Field, a fellow Stratfordian who had probably known Shakespeare since boyhood, and who had published his first book, the narrative poem Venus & Adonis, in 1593. Here Laoutaris has done some very valuable archival work and has discovered that Field was both a sideman (oeconomus) and a churchwarden (gardianus) at the Blackfriars parish church of St Anne’s – the one the playhouse drums and trumpets would allegedly have disturbed. This was probably reason enough for him to sign the petition, as did his fellow sideman Robert Baheire, the churchwardens Thomas Holmes and Edward Ley, and the minister Stephen Egerton. Laoutaris has also established the exact location of Field’s printing shop, in a property called (after its former monastic use) the Timber House. This lay off the western end of Carter Lane, abutting onto the back of Elizabeth Russell’s house. Field had been there since the mid-1580s, when he was apprenticed to the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier, whose business he took over and whose widow he married. This adds another Blackfriars location specifically touched by Shakespeare’s presence, certainly in the spring of 1593, when Venus was printing, and doubtless many times before and after.

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The residents’ petition was successful, and development of the frater site ground to a halt, leaving James Burbage £1000 out of pocket. He was known to be a truculent and ‘stubbern’ man. His response to the petition is not recorded, but reports of an earlier dispute at the Theatre in Shoreditch might give us some clues – on that occasion, when presented with a court order, he dismissed it as ‘a paper which he might wipe his tail with’. In the event Burbage died a couple of months later, aged about 66, and was buried in Shoreditch on 2 February 1597. He died intestate, but had made deeds of gift to his sons Cuthbert and Richard before his death. The latter inherited the unfinished Blackfriars theatre. It remained empty until 1600, when he leased it to Henry Evans, a Welsh scrivener who had been involved in the first Blackfriars theatre of the 1580s, and it was under Evans’s management that the new Blackfriars finally saw action, in late 1600, when it opened as a private theatre, featuring the boy actors of the revived Children of the Chapel. This more genteel type of establishment was apparently acceptable to the residents of the area, though the material performed there, written by the likes of Ben Jonson, John Marston and Thomas Middleton, was often pretty salty and satirical, and included some of the sallies of the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’.

The hard-pressed Chamberlain’s Men meanwhile – rebuffed from the Blackfriars in 1596, and evicted from the Theatre in Shoreditch the following year – played fitfully for a while at the nearby Curtain, and perhaps also at the Swan south of the river, before taking the bold, famous and arguably illegal decision, in the last days of 1598, to dismantle the timbers of the Theatre, and carry them across the Thames as building materials for a new playhouse on the Bankside, which opened its doors in mid-1599, and soon became the most illustrious and iconic of all London theatres. In this sense the Blackfriars clash proved to be – in the words of Laoutaris’s subtitle – ‘the battle that gave birth to the Globe’. Ironically, during the early years of the Globe, the new Blackfriars was one of its chief competitors. In Hamlet, produced at the Globe in about 1601, Shakespeare offers some sardonic comment, through the mouthpiece of Rosencrantz, on the success of the Blackfriars children and on their fondness for satirical mud-slinging at rival companies:

Rosencrantz: There is, Sir, an eyrie of children, little eyasses, that cry out on the top of the question and are most tyrannically clapp’d for it. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages (so they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills and dare scarce come thither …

Hamlet: Do the boys carry it away?

Rosencrantz: Ay, that they do, my lord – Hercules and his load too.

To gloss a couple of points: an eyass is a fledgling hawk, but the word doubtless carries an indecorous pun about young boys’ orifices; and Hercules in classical iconography is shown carrying the world on his shoulders, so it is the Globe itself that these diminutive rivals are threatening to ‘carry away’.

The story of the Blackfriars ‘battle’ has been somewhat neglected. It is certainly a story worth telling, and Laoutaris tells it well, though with a tendency to sledgehammer phrasing: to say that in 1596 Shakespeare ‘was engulfed by a catastrophe’, and that Elizabeth Russell ‘stormed into his life and shook it to the core’, is to overstate a vicissitude in a business that was perennially edgy, precarious and prey to oppressive officialdom (‘art made tongue-tied by authority’, as Shakespeare puts it in one of his sonnets). One reason the story has been neglected is that for a long time the crucial document in the case, the petition, was thought to be spurious. It is certainly genuine (though it is a contemporary clerical copy rather than the original petition), but it was for a while touched by the baleful influence of the 19th-century forger John Payne Collier, who decided to improve on it by fabricating a fictitious reply, or counterplea, from the Chamberlain’s Men. In this the players, including ‘Willm’ Shakespeare, bewail the command to ‘shut up’ the Blackfriars theatre, this being to their ‘manifest great injury’ as they ‘have no other means whereby to maintain their wives and families’. Collier perpetrated this fraud some time before 1831, which is the date he published his History of English Dramatic Poetry, including a passage claiming to have discovered the counter-petition. (This was his usual modus operandi: fabricate a document, or doctor an existing one, and then refer to it, openly or glancingly, in the course of one of his scholarly studies.) Collier’s palaeographic crimes were described by Sir Frederic Madden of the British Museum as ‘the most villainous series of forgeries ever planned or executed by man’. This particular confection, detected by Madden and others in 1860, led to doubts about the genuineness of the residents’ petition which even the great E.K. Chambers was still expressing some seventy years later: once a document contaminated with uncertainty it has now, after robust examination, been pronounced fully fit.