Shakespeare, both the man and his work, stands at the heart of something much greater than just who wrote 38 old plays. It’s the cornerstone of an important piece of history, not just English history, not just literary history, not just theater history, but the history of Democracy. It belongs with events like the signing of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.
Here we find the first impulse towards that fundamental principle of democratic government, freedom of speech, an impulse that burst into being clothed in the English language, one that created the first real manifestation of what we call the Fourth Estate, the modern Media. Beginning in April of 1576, the following weeks and months would see the creation of two theaters in London, theaters that would be the first successful yearround commercial theaters built in England, possibly in the West. The result would be the first push in history towards functional democracy.
What is meant by functional democracy?
There were already murmurings of theoretical democracy, tracts by Continental philosophers, speeches in Parliament by dissidents demanding the right to preach to their congregations, speeches that only served to infuriate the Queen and get them incarcerated. It would take 100 years for members of Parliament to get the power to overrule the monarch. Two hundred years later, when the colonies were organizing after the American Revolution, there was a fight between those who wanted to try some form of democracy and those who wanted George Washington crowned King of America!
Freedom isn’t something that trickles down from some higher place. As James Baldwin would put it centuries later, it’s “not something that can be given, it’s something that has to be taken.” The kind of freedom guaranteed by modern democracy was a habit gradually acquired by large numbers of ordinary people, a habit first acquired in the West in London in the late 16th century. Modern democratic freedom of speech was born on the commercial Stage in 1576. And like Baldwin says, it was taken, not given.
So why the Stage? Why not the Press? The birth of the commercial press is certainly part of the story, an important part, in fact the man who later would call himself Shakespeare would be the great moving force behind the birth of the London commercial press just as he was behind the birth of the London Stage. But in 1576, few Londoners could read. If he was going to use his genius to become a moving force in the world around him, he was going to have to do it on the Stage.
The commercial theaters
To call the Blackfriars theater and Burbage’s public theater the first commercial theaters is of course a simplification. Whether in churches, village halls, fairgrounds, the halls of noblemen and princes or the great annual gatherings in the north for the mystery cycles, actors had always performed for money, whether by passing the hat or in a donation from the local lord. The difference is that, until 1576, commercial theater was never an industry––nor was acting a profession.
Technically the little theater attached to Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers of Paul’s performed on a regular basis, was the first (so far as we know) indoor commercial theater in London that put on shows on anything more than an intermittent holiday schedule, but these boys can hardly be considered professionals, at least, not until later.
An industry is something that can support a community of adult workers (not just children), that they can depend on to provide them, and their families, with enough to live on throughout the year, year after year. A professional is someone whose skills can rise above the level of amateur because there is an industry that supports what they do. In fact, until 1576, all but three or four English actors were amateurs whose livings were earned at other trades. They may have been good, they may have been brilliant, but they were still amateurs. Those who could be called anything like true professionals were all at Court. And even they were called upon to perform tasks that had nothing to do with entertaining.
The Church’s big mistake
Until the 1560s and early ’70s, what we have just described was no different than it had been for many hundreds of years up until that time. So what caused the change? Answers to such sweeping questions are usually complicated, but in this case a short and simple answer will do, for the door to the supernova of culture we call the English Literary Renaissance was opened by a single factor, the Protestant Reformation.
For centuries the Catholic Church had provided its parishioners with a regular yearround series of pleasurable events. Month after month, year after year, this parade of rituals surrounding Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and any number of Saint’s feast days, meant that it was rare that more than two weeks went by throughout the year without some festivity that culminated in a banquet on Church grounds or at the local village hall with plenty of food and ale, plus those entertainments rather mysteriously known as “May games.” No sooner would one such event be over than planning would begin for the next.
The first change came in the late 1540s when the radical reform government of Edward VI put a stop to most of this “merry-making” by eliminating the Corpus Christi processions and banning such rowdy folk figures as the hobby horse, the Green Man, and St. George and the Dragon. Some of these made a comeback under Catholic Mary Tudor, but once Elizabeth and her Reformation ministers took over, push came quickly to shove (Hutton).
This cultural revolution took awhile to take hold in the more distant shires, but in London, where the Reformation was strongest, the loss was keenly felt. Bored Londoners began filling the theater inns to an extent never seen before. Where in previous times a play might run out of audience in two or three days, now it could run for over a week. If a play was especially entertaining, a playgoer might even return a day or two later and see it again. And again.
Entrepreneurs took note. Here was a trend, one that might sustain a stand-alone theater. Most interested were forward-thinking members of the grocers guild because crowds meant markets for their wares. Carpenters and drapers were also interested since stages would need props and machinery and actors would need costumes. Most eager were the actors, for they were desperate for a permanent stage where they could build enough of a local audience that they could keep working all year. A stand-alone theater would have a door past which no one could get in without paying. No longer could an audience escape without paying. No longer would they have to rely on passing the hat or on the often empty, or delayed, promises of patrons, wealthy landowners, or courtiers.
Here then were two communities eager to see stand-alone theaters in or near London, tradesmen who were looking for new markets and the more accomplished acting companies seeking a permanent venue. So it’s no surprise to find that it was members of these two groups that get the credit for creating the London commercial stage. The leading figure in this story, James Burbage, belonged to both, the Carpenters’ Guild and the Crown company known as Leicester’s Men.
The horrendous difficulties that the actors and the owners faced over the next two decades in getting these theaters established and keeping them functioning have left plenty of records, as noted by historians like E.K. Chambers. But that this alliance of tradesmen and artists managed first to establish these theaters and then to withstand twenty years of attack by the City, the Church, their neighbors, and rival theater entrepreneurs, not to mention natural enemies like bitter winters and the plague, requires something more than a footnote or two.
Where are the patrons?
What never seems to occur to the historians is: how on earth did these two relatively powerless social entities manage this without support from above? Even more lowly than the actors and the grocers were the masters of the children’s acting companies, poor men with no social standing beyond their very tenuous connections to the Court. Nothing of any importance was accomplished in those days without the support of patrons. So where are the patrons in this story? If we take the history of these events as it’s been provided, we get a picture of bold, courageous entrepreneurs forging a path to the future with now and then a letter from some Lord written to protect some aspect of the theater from imminent disaster.
Most historians are like bird dogs. They go where the paper leads them. Where there’s no paper, they see nowhere to go, so they yawn and go to sleep. But in some cases, as we all know, a lack of paper is itself a fact of importance. Where are the patrons? We should be able to see that nothing so important, so momentous, so disturbing to the status quo could have happened without them. We know who they were, of course, it’s obvious. What we don’t know is what they did, not just to support, but to make these theaters happen. And we won’t know until we come up with a thesis and then look for evidence, for the evidence in this case is far from obvious.
There are no coincidences
The historians see no connection between these two theaters, both created in 1576. The fact is that Burbage’s public arena and the private room at Blackfriars did not appear through a series of unrelated actions, as history would have it. They were the result of a well-planned project on the part of a select group, not just of actors and tradesmen and the masters of the children’s companies, but also of high-placed peers and officials. Common sense alone should tell us that a large scale commercial enterprise like the building of a theater capable of bringing together 2000 or more paying customers every day, all hungry and thirsty and needing to use the toilet, must have caused a great deal of excitement in a city of 150,000 or so. Because this excitement fails to appear in the recorded minutes of any meeting does not mean it didn’t happen.
Both theaters would have required careful, complex, behind-the-scenes planning. That such planning took place is most evident with Blackfriars, but it would have taken place with Burbage’s theater as well. How else is one to explain why it is that both were created in the year 1576, Burbage’s outdoor theater in the spring so that he could take advantage of the long, warm, summer days; Blackfriars by November, when it could provide a warm haven on cold winter days.
Two theaters, one goal
There are coincidences in history, but this is not one of them. A coincidence is when two things that are alike take place at the same time in two different places, but these two theaters were not alike. On the surface they share only one thing, the year of their creation. Yet their very differences show their common origin. That each of these theaters was intended for a specific purpose intended to complement and augment the other, a difference that resulted in the close to total coverage of the entire London audience in terms of income, rank, education, and accessibility, cannot possibly be due to chance.
Burbage’s Theater was intended for the public, Blackfriars for the educated gentlemen of the Inns of Court; Burbage’s was big, Blackfriars was little; Burbage’s was outdoors, Blackfriars was indoors, Burbage’s was cheap, Blackfriars was expensive; Burbage’s was located northeast of the City, Blackfriars was located in the southwest corner of the City, Burbage’s was meant for the summer, Blackfriars for the winter; Burbage’s provided a home base for the leading adult companies; Blackfriars for the children’s companies; Burbage’s could seat two to three thousand at a time; Blackfriars no more than 50 or 60. Together these two locations provided theater for every conceivable sort of Londoner and visitor, East end, West end, rich, poor, illiterate, educated. At practically a single stroke, all neighborhoods of the City and all segments of the London populace were being reached by these two theaters working in combination. This was no coincidence.
So, what’s up with the historians?
Not one that I’ve read has suggested that the men who created these theaters even knew each other, namely, James Burbage, who built the public Theater, and Richard Farrant, Master of the Children of the Windsor Chapel, who created the Blackfriars theater. Of course they knew each other, for both had been involved in entertaining the Court over the past five or six years at least and probably much longer. So here’s a second disconnect, first between the men who launched the theaters and the patrons of their acting companies, and now between the men themselves. Without such connections there could have been no theaters, so why no evidence?
The answer is one of simple common sense. The lords who acted as patrons of the acting companies that would be using these theaters to make a living for themselves knew that they could not be seen, whether by the public, by the City officials, by the clergy, even by some other members of the Privy Council, to be as heavily involved in the creation of these theaters as they must have been. They could not be seen to be acting either singly or in unholy concert with each other, with their actors, or with the entrepreneurs who built the theaters. They certainly understood this, and so did their clients.
Why such caution? First, because the Crown had to maintain peace as best it could with both the Church and the City and because both of these authorities detested and feared the Stage, as the record clearly shows. And by the Church we mean not the Church alone, but the Anglican Establishment, of which the Church was only a part. Some members of the theater project were also leaders in this movement, so that if there were to be a showdown with the newborn Anglican Establishment, the theater project, and its patrons, were bound to be the losers.
In a small community like the government at Whitehall there were bound to be many conflicts of interest. So long as the councillors who patronized acting companies maintained a hands-off attitude, so long as they seemed to be involved only to the degree that they made sure that the men who wore their livery behaved themselves, they could be seen by the City and the Church as simply doing their duty. In short, it was a simply a case of the less said the better, all around, from the Queen on down.
So who were these patrons? From the beginning the strongest mover would surely have been the Earl of Sussex, Thomas Ratcliffe, whose position as Lord Chamberlain of the Household put him officially in charge of the Court Stage. In 1572 when he took office, it was not the Lord Chamberlain, but Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who, was running the Court Stage, as he had from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign (with perhaps to a lesser extent, Cecil’s crony, Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham). Before Sussex could do anything with the Court Stage he had to get it away from Leicester. Since the Queen was happy with things the way they were, this would have to be done carefully and by degrees.
Sussex’s rivalry with Leicester went deep. Years earlier, when Leicester’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, was making his power grab at King Edward’s Court, he had promoted his son while shoving Sussex aside. Now that Sussex was Leicester’s equal, or greater, in prestige, he was not about to allow his old rival to continue to control the office that was his by right of long tradition.
By 1576, Sussex was already pushing for a marriage between Elizabeth and the French Prince. Once negotiations began, the right atmosphere would have to be provided by the Lord Chamberlain. Sophisticated entertainment would be a necessity for the process of wooing both Elizabeth and the French into an alliance that, Sussex believed, would diminish the threat of war with Spain. The French Court was used to sophisticated plays. Such plays would have to be provided and the acting companies would need places to rehearse and test their plays with real audiences. This at any rate would have been the argument as presented to the Queen. And, although Leicester was dead set again the French marriage, he had his own reasons for seeing a commercial stage established in London, if only to benefit the company that wore his livery. If somehow Leicester’s Men got elbowed out of the use of a yearround theater space in London, they might not need his services any longer. So whether or not he cared a fig for drama, Leicester had to show support for the Stage for political reasons.
In addition there were at least three or four others on the Privy Council who were interested in having commercial theaters run, or at least managed, by the Court. Lords Charles Howard and Henry Hunsdon were both deputies of Sussex in his office as Chamberlain (Chambers 2.92-3); all three, Sussex, Howard, and Hunsdon, were closely related to each other through their descent from the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, while Howard was Hunsdon’s son-in-law (he was married to his daughter). The three were also related to the young Earl of Oxford, who, although he was not on the Privy Council was the patron of another acting company and was involved in organizing entertainments for Court holidays.
There were others, but these four men were the primary patrons of the companies that played at Court prior to the opening of the commercial theaters. With the addition of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1583, and all five of them would continue to be closely involved with the Court Stage until they died or until 1604 when King James I finally took the beleaguered Stage under his wing.
The all-important playbook
So why 1576? Why was it this year rather than another that this coalition of privy councillors, actors, and tradesmen lauched these theaters? Why not a year earlier or a year later? What was it about 1576 that made that the right moment for launching something that must have taken months, perhaps years, of planning? It must be that what was needed to make the move was finally in place.
What is needed to create a thriving theater? A theater needs four things: 1) a place to perform, 2) a dependable audience, 3) good actors and 4) good plays. No matter how strong may be three, if one of these is missing there can be no theater. We can see how the London audience was ready for a yearround theater. The coalition of patrons, actors, and tradesmen that created the theaters had probably had their eye on both theater locations for the very reason of their audience proximity. They had the actors, both the children who entertained the Court and the adults who entertained the public, and who may have been amateurs but who were certainly ready to turn professional as soon as possible.
But what about the fourth item, the plays? Ay, there’s the rub, for we know almost nothing about these early plays or who was writing them. We have several titles, but only one manuscript, supposedly written by one of the actors in Leicester’s Men. Surely this would have been the sticking point, for until you have professional actors you’re not going to have professional playwrights. And in fact, professional playwrights, that is, individuals who can hope to actually live on their writing, would not be appearing for 20 years, not until the mid-1590s.
Well, we do know of one early playwright, although he certainly didn’t consider himself a professional. The Earl of Oxford, later termed by Francis Meres as ‘best for comedy,” having spent most of 1575 soaking up the theater traditions of Florence and Venice, was on his way home right at the time that Burbage signed the lease on the Shoreditch property. Oxford had personal connections to both theater locations, the Holywell property that Burbage had just acquired and the complex of apartments in Blackfriars that Farrant was planning to turn into a theater for his children’s company.
By breaking with his wife and her family upon his arrival and moving to a location in Broad Street, not far from the theater inns on Bishopsgate and Burbage’s Theater at Norton Folgate, Oxford freed himself for the kind of writing that both these theaters were going to need. As for issues of authorship, such problems were probably never even considered. For decades, no one but the actors was the slightest bit interested in who wrote the plays.
What I am attempting to show is that the question of who wrote the Shakespeare canon is only a part of a much bigger mystery, one that encompasses every factor involved in the creation of the London Stage (and, beyond that, the Fourth Estate of our modern democratic form of government). Our ignorance of the truth about Shakespeare is due, not only to the nature of the author who used that name, but to the nature of the world in which he wrote, from its beginning in the early 1570s up to and through the 1590s, and well into the 17th century, long past the great playwright’s death.
So it was during the 1580s that, like the little blade of green grass that forces its way through a crack in the cement sidewalk in the heart of a modern city, the spirit of merry-making, of political discourse, of social protest, found its difficult path, in almost total silence, through whatever cracks it could find in the great stone blocks of political repression and religious paranoia that stood in its way, to manifest, seemingly from out of nowhere, as both a viable entertainment industry and the voice of the people.
How on earth did this happen? Let’s find out.