The Elizabethan era saw the birth of modern theatre. This was the period of the first purpose-built theatres, and the first professionally organised acting companies. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, set a standard to which others could aspire.
A Revolution in Theatre
Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) heralded a revolution in theatre. Actors went from strolling players eking out a precarious living touring the provinces, performing in inns, squares and the grand halls of aristocratic mansions, to purveyors of a popular, if still not entirely respectable, art in permanent theatres under the protection of a noble patron.
Acting companies had become status symbols by the time Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558. Nobles collected them in much the same manner as modern oligarchs endow art galleries and collect yachts. For the talented and the lucky, it was a time of unprecedented opportunities.
As contemporary historian John Stowe put it, “Comedians and stage-players of former time were very poor and ignorant … but now being grown very skilful in all matters, they were entertained into the service of great lords.”
Acting: An Uncertain Life
The changing status of actors can be traced back to the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, which decreed that actors had to have the patronage of an aristocrat or two Justices of the Peace, or be liable to arrest as “vagabonds or sturdy beggars.”
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It was a precarious life, then as now. Companies formed and dissolved, and many actors and playwrights operated on a freelance basis. In a world of frequent plague outbreaks, harvest shortfalls and religious upheaval, nothing was certain. Outbreaks of plague could close theatres for years at a time, and the puritanically-inclined city authorities in London made their disapproval of any kind of entertainment obvious.
The theatre was just one of many battlegrounds in the struggle between the monarchy on the one hand and the more extreme Protestants, who felt the Reformation hadn’t gone far enough, on the other. The government of the City of London was in the hands of the Lord Mayor and his aldermen, who refused to license theatres within their jurisdiction. In 1574, they also banned the use of inns as theatrical venues.
Fortunately for the history of theatre, the aristocracy felt differently. Queen Elizabeth herself was a great devotee of the theatre. The official reason given for allowing the commercial performance of plays in permanent theatres, erected outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, was that it enabled the various companies to rehearse before performing at court.
Enter the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey
Henry Carey was the son of Mary Boleyn and Sir William Carey, and cousin to Queen Elizabeth I. An influential figure, his position as Lord Chamberlain was of particular interest to London’s theatrical world, as he was in charge of the Master of the Revels, who organised court entertainments. It was the Master of the Revels who licensed theatres and plays.
We first hear of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, when the theatres reopened after a bout of plague. The company’s membership included many of the most prominent performers of the day. The core membership were known as ‘sharers.’
These were the shareholders in the company, and included William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips and Henry Condell.
The company would prove to be long-lasting, and its members knew each other well. There is evidence that Shakespeare created parts with specific members in mind. One of the directions for the entry of Peter, the Nurse’s servant, in the 1599 edition of Romeo and Juliet, reads “Enter Will Kemp.”
Will Kemp was the most renowned comedian of the age. In addition to Peter in Romeo and Juliet, he also played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and it’s likely that he played other roles such as the Clown in Titus Andronicus, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
As for Richard Burbage, he was the star tragedian of the Shakespearean stage. The son of James Burbage, who had built the first theatre in London in Shoreditch back in 1576, Burbage junior played a great variety of roles.
It comes as little surprise that many of Shakespeare’s leading roles aged with his leading actor: from Romeo to Macbeth to Prospero.
We know less about the other members, although John Heminges and Henry Condell would go down in history for their publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623.
The company was originally based in Shoreditch, before moving to their new theatre, the Globe, in 1599.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had to cope with a number of changes in the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Henry Carey died in 1596, whereupon the company briefly became known as Lord Hunsdon’s Men.
Carey’s son, George Carey, became Lord Chamberlain the following year, and they resumed their previous title.
The Queen died in 1603, and her successor, King James I, took the company under his direct patronage. They were now known as the King’s Men. The sharers became Grooms of the Chamber, a minor and mostly honorific position which nevertheless conferred valuable social standing and came with a salary.
The association between the King’s Men and the monarch proved to be profitable. The company was paid for at least 107 performances at court between 1603 and Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
The King’s Men
The King’s Men continued to perform at the Globe until the theatres were closed in 1642 at the start of the English Civil War. It was the end of an era.