Why was Shakespeare never at Court?

So many things about Shakespeare make no sense.  Droeshout bloggie-2Constantly repeated in the traditional history of the British Stage is the notion that he showed no interest in his plays once they were performed.  That his name appears nowhere in any record of publication apart from title pages, that there’s no record that William of Stratford was even in London for almost a decade before his death in 1616, suggests to those attempting to explain this unique behavior on the part of a theatrical impresario that he was somehow “above” dealing with publishers.

In fact, as more recent studies have emphasized, nothing could be further from the truth.  As one of the literary giants of all time, Shakespeare understood very well the importance of getting his work published.  The idea, put about by biographers, that he took no interest in the publication of his plays, or by Walter Greg and company that they were utterly dependent on the whims of various actors and reporters who rewrote them for publication, violates common sense.

First, all but one or two of Shakespeare’s plays as published, whether in quarto or in the collected works known as the First Folio in 1623, are much longer than could be easily fitted into the traditional two hours “traffic” on the stage.  Why write so much more than what can be produced?  The answer is simple: while actors may have had no more than two hours, readers had as much time as they required.  From 1594 on, Shakespeare had two venues for his stories, the stage and the press, and prepared for both according to their differing requirements; if all we have are what he prepared for publication, in some cases with changes added by later editors), well, that’s the nature of publishing (some of the so-called “bad quartos” may in fact be the texts that the actors used).  If the print quality of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are far beyond that of most of the quartos, it simply argues that he had more control over the publishing of his poetry than he did over his plays.  It does not mean he sat back while––per Greg and countless editors––the actors rewrote and published his writing.

Second, the commonsense explanation for the many differences between the quartos, or pamphlet versions of his plays published between 1594 and 1619 and between them and the 1623 Folio versions, is that the varying qualities of the quartos testify to the period when they were written, the worse the earlier, the better the later.  Why replace this commonsense explanation with elaborate theories of reprehensible printers and unidentified spies and actors?  Because the dating scheme forced on the academy by the Stratford biography won’t allow for texts that reflect styles as early in some cases as the 1570s.

This is not to say that no play text was ever pirated or rewritten by later playwrights.  The effort by intelligent scholars like Brian Vickers to prove that other hands are to be found in a few of the plays can’t be discounted.  But it should be noted that none of these are among Shakespeare’s best, or even his better plays.  If the explanation for the variations in style in Titus Andronicus are due to later revision, not by the author but by some other writer, well, so what?  The importance of Titus has little to do with its value as a performable play, more in what it tells us about where Shakespeare began, a question for literary history based on text and publication, not on whether or not we would enjoy seeing it performed today.  While Vickers suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, his evidence works equally well as the later addition to an early original once Shakespeare was gone to his ancestors.  There’s no need to think, as he seems to, to see them sitting down together and discussing who will write what scene.

The same is true of Two Noble Kinsmen, what value it may have coming chiefly from the fact that Shakespeare’s name appears on its title page.  That TNK tells the same story from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale as was told by a play titled Palamon and Arcite performed for the Court at Oxford University in 1566 (during which Oxford got a Master’s degree), and that a (lost) play by the same name was performed by the Admirals’s Men at Henslowe’s Rose Theater several times in the fall of 1594, the first time labeled “ne” for “newly emended,” are facts that to someone under no pressure to conform to the Stratford dates might suggest point to a single play, one written in 1566, revised by its author in 1594, and again in 1613 by John Fletcher, rather than three separate plays based on the same source.   This desire to break up a work based on a particular story involving the same cast of characters into a series of works by a series of early (unnamed) writers is based, not on any hard evidence of such a process ever having actually taken place, but purely on the need to limit Shakespeare’s terminus a quo to the 1590s before which time William of Stratford was simply unavailable.

The importance of the Court

Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like Jame Burbage and Philip Henslowe, the Court and courtier patrons stepping in to protect them only that the Queen might have her “solace” over the Christmas holidays.  According to this scenario, plays performed at Court by the adult companies were, as are plays today, written for the public as commercial ventures, some enjoyed by the Queen and her minions, but none written specifically with them in mind.

Why this should be true of the adult companies when it’s obvious that plays were being written specifically for the children’s companies to perform for the Court isn’t addressed.  It’s clear from the Revels accounts that what the Queen preferred for her solace were comedies performed by her young choristers.  Eight of these survive, written for the chorus boys from Paul’s Cathedral and attributed to John Lyly.  For the dozen or more plays performed by other boy companies throughout this period we have but one text and no authors.  The Court was also the souce for a great deal of poetry that if the academics are to be believed, developed in a vacuum apart from what Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing.  Prof. Stephen May’s 2002 The Courtier Poets ignores the fact that London was a small city and that the plays of both poets were not only popular with the public, but were also frequently performed at Court.

Common sense should also tell us that in a culture like the England of the sixteenth century, nothing could prosper without noble patronage, certainly nothing on the scale of the three-story theaters that dominated the landscape and that faced the kind of violent opposition that Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage describes.  The idea that Burbage and Henslowe could build their theaters where they did and keep them going for as long as they did without more assistence from their Privy Council patrons than simply the occasional letter of support is absurd.  That the obvious battle over the London Stage was connected with a similar battle within the Court community and the Privy Council over its identical twin, the Court Stage, should be obvious, and would be if the English Departments who are supposed to be the guardians of truth about our literary past kept so much as half an eye on its history.

Accompanying this astigmatism is the even bigger blind spot relating to the close proximity of the Blackfriars theater to the politically influential West End.  With the perfectly located public theater on the major thoroughfare into and out of Central London, one might think that this location too was the result of careful planning.  But such gaps are endemic in a study that either cannot or will not see the connection between the works of Shakespeare and the politics of Elizabeth’s Court.  Literary critics continue to chase their tails around Stratford while evidence of Shakespeare’s connection to the Court lies unobserved in open view.

That Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, Baron Hunsdon, whose job it was to oversee Court entertainment, next to the Queen and the Principal Secretary, the most powerful man on the Privy Council, his fingers in every political pie, his hand close to if not actually on the rudder of the Ship of State, that this was just another acting company, its popularity the only factor in its importance, is the result of Hunsdon’s efforts and those of other powerful men and women, to keep his company’s connection to the Crown as hidden as possible for political reasons should be obvious to anyone with any grasp of the history of the period.

However modest its origins were made to appear, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was in fact England’s Crown company, following the dissolution of the Queen’s Men in 1589, the second ever to be created, its official status reaffirmed when, following Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King James, it was renamed the King’s Men.   Their sharers included James Burbage head of the first company ever to get a license, his son, plus the top players from both leading companies of the time.

How can the so-called critics be so obtuse as to miss the connection between the most celebrated plays of the day and the politics that raged around them and their audiences?  How can they fail to understand that the London Stage was the sixteenth century equivalent of America’s John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, England’s Chris Morris?   Forced by the Stratford bio to date the plays ten to fifteen years out of sync with events, they continue the mystification that was first conceived by men like Hunsdon and Burbage, Howard and Henslowe, to hide the connection between the London Stage and the Crown.  How can they fail to see that the elimination of Marlowe was the act of an angry Crown towards one who brazenly and wantonly violated its unwritten agreement to treat the Crown and its religion with respect.  If not the English Departments, who will write the true history of this period during which poets, one in particular, stood at the forefront of a groundswell moving inexorably towards not just talking about, not just demanding, but actually getting, freedom of speech.

While Moliére was the intimate friends of the French King’s brother, a member of French Court society; while the Poet Ronsard was born into French Court circles, the intimate of three French kings; while the Italian poet Tasso, a nobleman at the Courts of the Princes of Urbino and Ferrara, was the familiar of their highest circles; while the playwright Ariosto was the familiar of the Cardinal d’Este and the Duke of Ferrera; while the playwright Machiavelli was the familiar of the Medici; the orator Cicero the colleague of Caesar and Mark Antony; the poets Ovid and Virgil known at the the Court of Caesar Augustus; Lord Byron the intimate of the highest members of Regency society––why was the great Shakespeare never seen at Elizabeth’s Court?  Why was he never even introduced?

Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court?  Yes, there are Court figures who feature in the story of the birth of modern English literature: Sidney was an important writer as was Raleigh and Bacon, Harington and Donne.  But what about Spenser?  Wouldn’t it make sense that he was brought to Court, like these others, and not left to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Irish kerns in the wilds of County Limerick?

And what about the great master, the greatest of all, Shakespeare, whose plays were performed at Court for decades?  Why is Shakespeare never found at Court?

14 thoughts on “Why was Shakespeare never at Court?

  1. “Why does Spenser who wrote about the Court and clearly wrote primarily to entertain it, never appear at Court?” It is a rhetorical question but i would very much appreciate your answer.
    Keep up the great work.
    Francis Murphy
    Nashua, NH

  2. I’m open to the Spenser-Bacon theory. I studied the evidence for several years and discovered that Spenser’s authorship is almost impossible to prove. Harvey seems to be the only reliable witness. But I’m wondering what evidence you have to connect those works to Bacon. And by the way, I found that Sidney’s authorship is less provable than Spenser’s. But, the general context you describe sounds about right to me.

  3. Steve, I do not believe that anything bearing Harvey’s name in the 1590s was actually written by Gabriel Harvey. Although evidence is slim, it seems that Harvey was in trouble at that time, that having lost his position at Cambridge he had retired to Saffron Walden. The troubles brought about by his fights with Dr. Perne at the university and with the widow of his brother John following John’s sad and early death may have left him with no desire for such disputes, particularly with two such powerful antagonists as Oxford and Bacon. The so-called Second Letter in which Harvey describes the horrible death of Robert Greene sounds to me far more like Oxford than like the Harvey of the correspondence with Immerito (Bacon as Spenser). Why Bacon went after him as he did is not obvious. It may simply be that he knew too much and in Bacon’s view could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut.

    From then on, I believe that anything bearing Harvey’s name is by Oxford, including the Supererogation, which is so absurd that it’s impossible to think that anyone, Harvey included, could possibly have intended it to be taken as a serious work. At loose ends in the early 90s, Oxford had nothing better to do, and so was willing to join Bacon in this replay of the fun they had had a few years earlier while taking down Martin Mar-prelate. At some point I will have to do into detail on why I believe that until he got the Court post he craved, Bacon entertained himself and his friends first as Spenser, then as Nashe (and also as the Lyly of the Court plays).

    Bacon was an immensely energetic writer, with a genius second only to Oxford’s. It’s simply impossible that he wrote nothing for publication until he was thirty-six. Although the styles of Spenser and Nashe and Lyly (of the plays) appear to be different, Bacon was a chameleon who prided himself on being able to change styles. But there are similarities among the three voices that have to do with who he was that he simply couldn’t hide.

    There’s plenty of evidence that the works published as by Sidney were his own, with some editing perhaps by his sister, but only to hide a few dangerous suggestions. Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and perhaps Raleigh used phony names because they wanted to be published. Nothing by Sidney was ever published during his lifetime. He did not write for publication but only to entertain his coterie, so there was no need to use a phony name. His work was all published after his death by his sister, who was motivated largely to show Oxford that he wasn’t the only cock on the rock. Sidney’s voice is unique to him, unlike any other, including his sister. His immense popularity was well-deserved.

  4. Responding to: “Another impression we get from traditional histories of the English Literary Renaissance is that it had only a marginal connection to the Court, and that the Stage that played so important a role in the language that emerged from Shakespeare and Marlowe grew solely out of the efforts of working class entrepreneurs like James Burbage…”

    My recent research on the Burbages show that this ‘working-class’ family had rather more than ‘a foot’ in the Court since 1564. Hailing from Hertfordshire, it was Robert Burbage who sold the manor(s) of Theobalds to Cecil in 1564. Eight years later James Burbage is in London, supplementing his carpentry skills by becoming an actor with Leicester’s Men (1572). A year or two later he writes to Leicester asking protection for the troupe as his liveried servants. Then the Queen issues L’s Men the first official patent. In 1576 James helps to build the first public theatre. In the 1580s Cuthbert Burbage becomes a servant to Walter Cope, the personal assistant to Cecil, who secures The Theatre financially for the Burbages when they are in financial difficulty. By the 1590s, Richard Burbage is so well known to William Herbert that when he (Richard) died in 1619, Herbert wrote a letter saying he couldn’t bear to watch a play at court because ‘my old acquaintance, Burbage’ was not in it. It also turns out that Edmund Tilney (Master of the Revels 1579-1610) was related by marriage to the Queen, Edward de Vere and all of the four Lord Chamberlains under whom he worked. All of this is documented, and it suggests to me that the Elizabethan stage arose entirely from the Court under the sanction of the theatre-loving Elizabeth. Connections through marriage (however distant) and through land deals and real estate (the Burbage/Cecil transaction) stood for a great deal and led to preferments, and I think Elizabeth, Leicester, Oxford & other courtiers saw exactly what could be made of them. JC

  5. Thanks, Jan. Yes, all of this is certainly true (have you been able to prove that Robert Burbage was closely related to James?), but the impression given by the academics is that the London Stage was the creation of working or middle class entrepreneurs with only marginal assistance from their patrons, who were kindly allowing the masses their bread and circuses, when the truth is that the fight for the Stage was a brutal battle, not only between City, Church and Crown for the hearts and minds of their people, but ultimately between one Court faction and another. See The Cecils and History and Richard III: The Evidence.

    As for Elizabeth, although she enjoyed her “solace,” and no doubt her pleasure in theatricals was a major reason why the Court shifted from masques to plays during her reign (after she was gone it shifted back again, but by then the London Stage was so strong that nothing was going to stop it: “stop a stream from running and it will rage”), but as is obvious from a number of recorded incidents, she did not like or condone the use of the Court Stage for politics and was certainly one of those who felt that the actors should not be allowed to engage in politics. For which reason it’s unlikely that she was ever involved in discussions among Privy Council patrons and their foes over the Stage and its purposes as a political instrument. Had she been, they would certainly have feared that that would be the end of the Stage. She never contributed a penny towards it, and never gave the kind of gifts to anyone connected with it that she gave to composer William Byrd for instance. She left all support for the Court Stage and the companies that entertained her to her courtiers.

  6. I have been eagerly following the conversation on this entry and learning a great deal in the bargain. I was very interested in your line about Queen Elizabeth, “She never contributed a penny towards the Stage, and never gave the kind of gifts to anyone connected with it that she gave to William Byrd for instance.” Since I know it would be completely out of character for Elizabeth to give the Earl of Oxford 1,000 pounds a year unless she was sure she was receiving something even more valuable in return–do you believe that she was unaware of his writing for the public stage? Did she think that the 1,000 was only to help write against Spain and others who Walsingham, Cecil and she deemed enemies of England? It’s a shame that the Cecils seem to have been so successful in destroying so many pieces of the puzzle that we are still wondering how it all fits together 400+ years later. It’s fascinating, but also frustrating. I look forward to reading more about this subject–as always I love to read your understanding of this time and what took place. I think you are absolutely right that Elizabeth would be very upset about the political aspects of the plays shown to the common people–a part I never really thought about before. It seems that for every piece of illumination, it invariably leads to another piece of complication.

  7. Of course the Queen had to know that Oxford wrote plays for the Court, probably almost everything performed by the choir boys until 1581. How much she might have known about what else he was doing, particularly later, we can only guess. The logical assumption is that he and his patrons revealed as little as possible. It’s absurd to think that she ever saw the versions of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet that we know from the First Folio. It’s possible that she didn’t really want to know. So long as she got her Christmas plays and they were something she could enjoy and not have to bother with any political implications or annoying advice about marriage, she was probably content.

    I believe the £1000 annuity was the doing of Francis Walsingham. It’s written directly under the one he got in the 1585 warrant when he finally got the Queen to kick in towards the showdown to the Armada (until then he’d been paying agents and informants out of his own pocket). This enabled him to hire extra secretarial help for Oxford (Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe) so that Oxford would be free to write the first versions of the history plays for the Queen’s Men. I believe that most likely it was Walsingham who persuaded her to take Oxford back to Court for the same reason.

    Those who provided some service to the Crown were often rewarded with gifts of estates, sinecures, or annuities. Elizabeth was probably aware that by the mid-80s he had already used up most of his own inheritance, and that he was now coasting on his credit as a peer. The relatively small size of the annuity meant that he would have to use it to live on, that someone else would have to supply the funding for anything extra, which no doubt by then they did, Hunsdon for sure and probably others as well.

  8. Thank you for your very detailed reply. I like the idea that Walsingham was probably the man behind getting Oxford the 1,000 a year annuity from Queen Elizabeth (I find myself liking him more all the time). I also find the people involved with the actual author William Shakespeare, some of the most fascinating that the world has ever known and it only adds to the mystery of why the Stratfordians try so hard not to get to know their story and how the politics of the court and Elizabethan theatre were so intertwined.

    1. The Cecils saw to it that all Walsingham was left with was the epithet “spymaster” while they garnered to themselves all the credit they could for running the country. Their own biographer, Conyers Read, so absurdly prejudiced in their favor, could say nothing but good in his biography of Walsingham.

  9. On the Burbage family: when James Burbage’s son, Cuthbert, applied for a grant of arms (late in life at the age of 68 in 1634), he claimed that his family came from Hertfordshire (DNB entry for CB, written by Sidney Lee). The arms, incidentally, showed three boar’s heads, presumably a pun on Bur-Boar or perhaps ‘Burbage’ sounded like ‘Boarbage’ in Elizabethan pronunciation. The manor of Theobalds and the manor of Darcies or Cressbroke in the parish of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, came into the ownership of a Thomas Burbage in 1521, through his mother, Cecilia Bedell whose second husband was William Burbage. The manors remained in Thomas’s ownership until 1564 when they were conveyed to Cecil by Robert Burbage, possibly Thomas’s uncle (A History of the County of Hertford, vol.3, Parish of Cheshunt. pp.441-458). I’m fairly sure this is the same family. Moreover, one of the men who helped Richard and Cuthbert dismantle ‘The Theatre’ in Shoreditch in 1599 and rebuild it on Bankside as ‘The Globe’ was a William Smith of Waltham Cross, an area to the south in the same parish of Cheshunt (perhaps he was a Burbage relative or neighbour and perhaps also in the trade of carpentry or joinery). It may be possible to find a direct connection through genealogical research. My point was that, IF this is the same family, it seems that James Burbage made use of his kinsman Robert’s land-sale to Cecil as a leaver to get ‘in’ with Leicester and the Court in London, and eventually built ‘The Theatre’ using Leicester’s influence. Later, he uses the lever again to get his son Cuthbert a position as servant to Walter Cope, who was gentleman-usher (personal assistant or butler) to Cecil. This is what it looks like to me – the old story of ‘pulling strings’ in high places.

    1. Thanks for this information. (I hope you’re writing a book.) There’s no doubt but that Burbage had Court connections, and that the Privy Council patrons felt they could trust him not to overstep the bounds. It wasn’t until he (and Hunsdon) were both gone that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men took their revenge against Robert Cecil with Shakespeare’s devastating version of Richard III.

  10. Stephanie–Beautifully said, on this topic and so many ramifications. I would only demur slightly on the business of Elizabeth taking so aloof an attitude towards De Vere’s plays, and the role of Walsingham and De Vere’s other supporters. I feel she had at least to appreciate what the history plays could do to rally England (though read carefully, these plays contain highly cautionary ambiguities about power, even in the hands of Henry V). It is easy to suppose that Elizabeth was subsidizing Oxford officially (and secretly) to look into matters of feudal dues payable to the Crown and the like (I can’t remember the technical term an Oxfordian used in a recent article), while knowing full well that the “wages” thereupon spent were really abetting the “policy of plays.”

    The silence, I think, results in part from Elizabeth’s intent to maintain deniability about Oxford’s doings. Not because she felt answerable to the social norms, or even the laws, in the way Richard Nixon should have (that would be anachronistic thinking on our part), but because of her frequent policy of avoiding confrontation: it would never do to be seen supporting a playwright whose works issued first from the Court and thence into the public theaters (imagine the violent or virulent protests from the Puritanical element in the City of London, which were dreadful enough as it was).

  11. Not sure what you mean by Oxford “looking into matters of feudal dues payable to the Crown.” (??)

    There were several different policies regarding plays. What the history suggests is that there was a brutal battle for control of the Court Stage, and that the Queen was kept out of it as much as was possible by both sides out of fear that she might shut it down permanently, which she would have done had she gotten any idea that Court personalities were being routinely satirized on the public stage. Once she became aware of something, she would exert her authority, at which point they would be forced to obey. Assisted by the general policy of secrecy, the patrons dealt with the actors, and with each other, in the dark. Which is one of the reasons we have so little documentation on this period, and also why the Cecils found it so easy to get rid of whatever there was.

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