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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