Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

Born as the crest of two waves, the German Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, crashed into each other, the great poet and playwright blended these two often incompatible energies into the culture that has been England’s ever since.  Under the constraints of the Reformation, the passions that went into painting, sculpture, and architecture in the Southern European Renaissance, in England went into language: a bare stage, good costumes, superb actors, and the great human stories we know as Shakespeare, stories whose sources are to be found in the libraries where the Earl of Oxford spent his childhood.

Oxford’s development and survival as an artist was largely due to his patrons, surely among the best a writer ever had.  He sank low at times, but not so low that he ever had to quit writing, at least, not for long.  One of the most important research projects remaining to be done is on these patrons.  Burghley, Sussex, Walsingham, Hunsdon, Charles Howard, Southampton, the Pembroke brothers, are the leading figures, but there were others as well who contributed to his survival in various ways.  Even when they were disgusted with him, as Hunsdon must have been when the bum took up with his mistress, they kept him afloat because they knew his value.  For the great ministers of that time who had the dreams and aspirations of both Italian and Reformation humanism alive within, he was the great instrument of their policy, though this would be fully realized only when he was gone, as so well expressed by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory Ode in the First Folio.

Historically Oxford’s role in Early Modern theater is as a patron, a role that tends to get lost in the argument over his role as a writer, but his involvement as patron of the arts and sciences went a good deal deeper than what shows on the historical surface.  He patronized musicians and composers as well as other writers, and was praised by them as one of themselves.  When looking for a model for Oxford within our own times, the composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, an entertainment genius of the same all-encompassing nature, only, shall we say, considerably less fearful of recognition.

One question that hasn’t been dealt with yet, so far as I know, has to do with the company maintained by Oxford’s father.  Were they, perchance, the one we know as Leicester’s Men in the 1560s?  When Earl John died in 1562, Elizabeth gave Leicester control of the Oxford estates.   Though there’s no sign of it (so far) in the record, that could mean that he inherited what had been the sixteenth Earl’s acting company?  Unlike our world today, the arts community was very small.  Leicester’s Men were a handful of Court actors, some the same men who later became the core of the company that called themselves Hunsdon’s Men and operated out of Burbage’s Theater, just up the street from Fisher’s Folly.  Were some of these the same men who, decades earlier, had performed John Bale’s King Johan in Ipswich in 1561, just prior to the Queen’s entertainment at Hedingham Castle?  It’s worth considering.

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