Shakespeare’s London: playing a dangerous game

He is one of Britain’s most famous and esteemed playwrights. But in 1598 William Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men, the theatrical troupe to which he belonged, faced near-demise. Here, Dr Chris Laoutaris investigates…

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No one said the business of playing was easy. In fact it could be downright dangerous. To those members of the Chamberlain’s Men, the theatrical troupe to which William Shakespeare belonged, this must have been more than apparent as they armed themselves with swords, daggers and axes on a cold evening on 28 December 1598. Anyone viewing the scene would have been in no doubt that these were desperate men and that they were expecting a fight.

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Their mission was to break into the site of the playhouse that had hosted Shakespeare’s early career, the Theatre in Shoreditch, even if it meant doing so in a “riotous, outrageous and forcible manner”. Anticipating resistance, they would accost “with great violence” anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. Once there they set to work dismantling the Theatre beam by valuable beam, with the intention of using the remnants to construct a larger playhouse on Bankside: the Globe.

We do not know if Shakespeare was present. If he wasn’t he would certainly have been following proceedings closely, for his future depended on this audacious escapade. The Chamberlain’s Men had little choice. The lease for the land on which the Theatre was built expired the previous April and all attempts to negotiate an extension with the stubborn owner, Giles Allen, had failed. Facing bankruptcy, the company needed a new playhouse and quickly.

It may have been some comfort to Richard and Cuthbert Burbage that their father, James Burbage – the founder-builder of the Theatre – had not lived to see what they had been reduced to. For London’s seedy Bankside, with its bear-baitings, brothels and bawdy entertainments, was not what any of them had initially wanted. They had been aiming far higher, but their dreams were sent crashing down by one formidable woman and her allies.

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Plan of Bankside, Southwark, London, c1570 showing the arenas for bull and bear baiting; the pike gardens and Winchester Park. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

The near-demise of the Chamberlain’s Men began in 1596 when James Burbage decided he was going to check-mate Allen by investing a total of £1,000, then a small fortune, in the purchase and renovation costs for a new theatre in the upmarket district of Blackfriars. This was an area of prosperous goldsmiths, merchants, feltmakers and printers, who could boast illustrious members of the nobility among their neighbours. The playhouse would cater to a sophisticated and wealthier clientele, and it would be ready before the lease on the Theatre expired… or so they thought.

Just a few paces north of the Blackfriars Theatre stood the mansion of Elizabeth Russell, the self-styled Dowager Countess of Bedford. This well-connected Puritan activist was far from pleased at the prospect of a “common playhouse” on her doorstep, and she was not a woman to trifle with. In command of a fortress and its armoury, she insisted she was the nation’s only female Sheriff and built her own prison in the grounds of her Berkshire estate to accommodate her enemies. Convincing 29 Blackfriars residents to join her in a campaign to ban the players from the theatre, she organised a petition that was presented to Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, claiming that it would draw to the district “vagrant and lewd persons” who would work “all manner of mischief”.

A tale of treachery and betrayal ensued, for two of those whose signatures appeared on this fateful document were Shakespeare’s own patron, George Carey, Lord Hunsdon and his publisher, fellow Stratfordian Richard Field. Solving the mystery of this scarcely believable act of disloyalty was a seven-year task, the results of which feature in my book Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe (Penguin). Long-forgotten manuscripts and documents revealed that Field was an administrator in nearby St Anne’s church, a Puritan enclave which was Lady Russell’s centre of operations from which she and her fellow radicals plotted to win over the populace to their spiritual cause.

The church’s hell-raising minister, Stephen Egerton, also signed the anti-theatrical petition, as did another member of Russell’s activist network, William de Lawne, who had only recently become Field’s landlord. The printing press of Shakespeare’s publisher, the exact site of which had been lost until it was disclosed in Shakespeare and the Countess, was discovered to have been located right next door to the tenacious Dowager’s own home. With one of the age’s most powerful noblewomen and two of her closest associates watching his every move, both at his press and in his local place of worship, how could Field refuse to sign the petition? As for Carey, his mansion was situated just beneath the Blackfriars Theatre. Perhaps too close for comfort.

Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays; copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. One of the earliest portraits of Shakespeare. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays; copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
 

As bleak as things looked for Shakespeare by the end of 1596, Lady Russell’s machinations had the unintended effect of increasing his prosperity in the long run. With the Blackfriars Theatre out of bounds, James Burbage’s sons needed capital to fund the building of the Globe. In exchange for a swift cash injection Shakespeare was therefore made sharer and part-owner, entitled to reap 10 per cent of the profits of a playhouse with a huge seating capacity of 3,000. By the end of 1599 the Globe had opened its doors to paying customers and Shakespeare saw his share in the company rise still further after one of the other co-sharers bailed out of the syndicate.

But the playwright would have had little time to gloat over his new entrepreneurial status. The repertories of the London theatres changed rapidly, with a different play staged virtually every day. While coping with the logistics of this, Shakespeare was writing on average two plays per year and, as someone with a large stake in the business, would have been involved with the more mundane administrative tasks that kept the whole enterprise afloat. The uncertain nature of this demanding profession would have added to these stresses. Playhouses could be closed at any time due to the plague; as a result of civil disturbances or riots; or as a consequence of edicts from the Privy Council in response to potentially seditious plays.

The censors had reason to keep their eyes peeled. London was a hotbed of political factionalism in which the Chamberlain’s Men became embroiled in 1601. In the February of that year Sir Charles and Sir Joscelyn (aka Joscelyne) Percy commissioned the players to perform Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe, a play about the deposition of a king. It must have seemed more than a coincidence when the following day the Percys were implicated in a rebellion against the Queen’s court led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

The insurrection was a spectacular failure. Essex and other conspirators were executed and members of the Chamberlain’s Men questioned. It must have been a particularly terrifying time for Shakespeare, who had in 1599 praised Essex extravagantly in Henry V as “the General of our Gracious Empress”.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566 - 1601), circa 1595. Once a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, he was tried for treason and executed at the Tower of London. An engraving by W. Holl from an original by Hilliard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, c1595. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

The Chamberlain’s Men evaded prosecution, but had they learned their lesson? Apparently not. In 1604, a year after they had become the King’s Men, servants to James I, they mounted a play dramatising the events that took place on 5 August 1600, when the then James VI of Scotland narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie. The play is now lost but, as a contemporary reported, was politically explosive and consequently “forbidden”.

Shakespeare took another gamble in 1606 with his daring tale of witchcraft and regicide, Macbeth. The second act of the play features a sinister porter who calls for the entrance of “an equivocator… who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”. This is an allusion to a suspected co-conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, whose conviction was based on evidence drawn from his notorious book, A Treatise of Equivocation. It seems that Shakespeare had by this time mastered the art of topicality, pandering to James I’s interests in dark magic while turning a political hot-potato into a money-spinner.

Despite Elizabeth Russell’s crusade against the players, the King’s Men reclaimed the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608 and the following year – coincidentally (or not) the year of her death – began mounting plays there. Shakespeare was now master of two playhouses, adding this elegant indoor theatre to his stake in the Globe (the latter would turn out to be so valuable to the company that it would be rebuilt within a year of burning down in 1613). Against the odds, the dramatist had weathered the storms of plague, censorship, angry neighbours, a mutinous noblewoman and even personal betrayal in the dangerous London theatrical circuit, to carve out a stellar career and lasting legacy. We have to admire him for playing the game so well.

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Dr Chris Laoutaris is a lecturer and Birmingham fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe (Penguin, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize.