Oxford and the London Stage

Plainly put, before the Earl of Oxford there simply was no such thing as the professional stage in England. Without a permanent theater building there can be no theatrical profession, and there was no permanent stage in England until Oxford returned from Italy in 1576 when, not just one but two purpose-built year-round commercial theaters opened for business in London. This is a fact. Why is it that until now no one so far has connected these dots, that is, the connection between the date 1576, Oxford’s return from Italy, and the building of the first two successful commercial theaters?

Since time immemorial the spirit of the winter Solstice holidays had been expressed through communal celebrations like mumming and disguising during which actors and audience were pretty much one and the same.  Driving these was the need to escape from the miseries of the workaday world, the boredom of long winter nights, the burden of one’s tiresome and unchanging identity, and perhaps also by some darker force, unleashed by fermented spirits from long suppressed and forgotten stone age rituals.

From Christmas to Lent the Green Man was loosed at regular intervals from out the communal soul of the community, a wild and dangerous force that the Reformation was determined to stamp out.  Theater was born when the folk, denied their communal holiday sports, divided themselves into players on a stage and and an audience in the pit. This happened first at Court, because that’s the only place where such a change could have taken place, a Court ruled by a woman who, for the six to eight weeks of the dimly lit northern winter, was transformed by her in-house Oberon into a goddess of the wild wood, forever beautiful, pure and good.

Before Oxford, theater as active player/passive audience was limited to local performances at holiday fairs by travelling groups of different sizes and varying levels of ability.  Very few worthy of Court performance, mostly these were the sort who would be given a shilling or two by the town fathers to leave before they were tempted to abscond with something of value. In the larger, wealthy manors, shows were performed at holiday time by members of the household who had some talent for singing or performing comic routines.  The same was true at the schools and colleges, and at the Inns of Court, where holiday entertainments were provided for the students by other students. The trade Guilds that dominated London City government provided entertainment for the public on important occasions in the form of processions, ancestors of today’s parades, erecting elaborate temporary gates where costumed members of the guild gave speeches and sang as the officials passed through.

At Court, the masques, dances, and musicales that were still the major form of courtly entertainment were performed by musicians attached to the Court and the choral singers attached to the palaces, punctuated with comic interludes written by the wits of the Court, which is probably how Oxford began shortly after arriving in London.  During the two months of the winter when plays were tolerated by the City officials, plays written for the Court could be seen at one of two theater inns near the major thoroughfare used by travellers coming into London, or passing through.  In these the courtyard became the stage, the second and third level walkways the balconies.  Actors got paid by passing the hat halfway through the show, their take dependent on the mood of the audience.  This is how it was until shortly after Elizabeth took the throne.

The Lords Chamberlain and the records

Like all European Renaissance Courts, Elizabeth’s Court saw itself as self-contained and self-sufficient, relying on the talents and resources of its members for policy, tradition, vital goods and entertainment.  It was more likely to adopt a talented outsider than––as it would begin to do in the late 17th century and still does today––hire them for the occasion.

Court entertainment took several forms. There was the music provided for every event of the day by Elizabeth’s staff of 60 Court musicians. There were the tilts, performed once or twice a year, a display of military expertise and horsemanship left over from the Age of Chivalry for which noblemen invested in expensive armour that they’d wear for portraits but that in reality was less likely ever to be used in battle.  There was the Queen’s summer progress, during which upwards of 100 or more courtiers and retainers travelled from the country estate of one courtier to another, wined, dined and entertained anywhere from a day to a week at the expense of the householder.  Some actually added wings to their mansions to accommodate Her Majesty in style, in some cases for a visit of just a day or two.  And there were the plays and masques that provided her “solace” at one of her London palaces during the three months of the traditional winter holidays.

All these were managed by the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, whose job it was to arrange for and oversee such entertainments, making sure that everything needed was provided, from food for the banquets, carts and tents for transport, to the costumes for the chorus boys and the candies tossed during masques. We know more about this than about entertainments elsewhere because the Court Calendar kept track of events while the Revels office kept records of how much things cost.

As plays began to replace the homegrown forms of entertainment, it seems the Queen kept her distance from the adult companies that provided part of her entertainment. Caught between the puritanical attitudes of the City officials and her need to brighten life for her companions and visiting officials, Elizabeth left the business of the Court stage, and its costs, to those of her Privy Councillors who patronized the acting companies. With the birth of the commercial London Stage in 1576, it became their duty to see to it on the one hand that the theaters didn’t overgo their mandates, and on the other that they survived the constant efforts by the mayors to see them “plucked down.”

Where there is this kind of must-can’t situation, ministers tend to retreat to official silence and off-the-record deals, so historians can only piece the truth together together from proxy data, in this case what Court records remain as outlined in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage.  These consist mostly of payments to the acting companies, recorded every twelve months or so, from notes accumulated over the course of the preceding year.

Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of interest that it’s not always clear who was in charge of the Court Stage at a given time.  When Elizabeth took the throne the winter of 1559, she left a number of her sister Mary’s officials in place.  Among the holdovers was Sir Edward Hastings whom she kept on as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, though it was actually Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, who oversaw Court entertainment for the first decade of her reign. Yet right from the start it seems clear that, when it came to her yuletide pleasure, Elizabeth knew what she wanted, and what she preferred to watch were the choirboys from Paul’s Cathedral.

By December 1563, Oxford’s first Christmas in London, Dudley’s troop of adults had vanished from the record, replaced by Paul’s Boys and a number of other children’s companies.  Lacking children of her own, it must have pleased her to watch these clever and attractive boys, ages roughly six to thirteen, Hamlet’s “little eyasses”  in their great starched ruffs and satin breeches sing, dance and perform comic routines.  For centuries the primary duty for these boys had been singing Mass, along with performing less religious entertainments over the winter holidays. During the Reformation, as the Church calendar shrunk, so did the boys’ religious duties, giving them time for more secular entertainments.

The Revels records during Oxford’s teens and twenties

Keeping in mind that these listings in the Revels records and the Court calendar are based on what various Court scribes recalled from notes taken after the event, written into the record annually just before the beginning of the next season, the record necessarily varies in detail and dependability.  Even so, by following the accounts from the combined Chamber and Revels Office (as listed in Appendix B (158-165) in Volume IV of E.K. Chamber’s Elizabethan Stage) it’s possible to infer the changes in the winter holiday plays provided during the early years of Elizabeth’s reign.

The first winter following her coronation (1559-60) there was a masque and a play, no indication of subject or who provided them. The following winter set a pattern for the next three years, basically one play each by the adults, Dudley’s Men, and the major children’s company, Paul’s Boys.  Dudley’s Men was the company organized and managed by James Burbage that would be listed from 1572 as Leicester’s Men, Dudley having been raised to the peerage.

The following year, 1564-65, the second winter after Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, listings in the Court records suggest that this was beginning to change. Dudley’s Men no longer appear in the record.  Where formerly there had been three or fewer plays recorded, now there were nine performed over the course of the three months that constituted the winter holidays, all but one by children’s companies.  For the next six years, throughout Oxford’s teens, the number of plays produced at Court over the holidays ranges between three and six, all but a few by the various children’s companies: mostly Paul’s under headmaster Sebastian Westcott, a few by the students from the Westminster grammar school, a few by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under the direction of choirmaster Richard Farrant, and a few by the students from the Merchant Taylor’s Academy under Richard Mulcaster.

Almost nothing remains of the plays produced at Court during the 1560s by these boys.  There is one, The Marriage of Wit and Science––published in 1569-’70, but by its old-fashioned style surely produced from four to five years earlier, that can be assigned to Paul’s Boys, as it is clearly a revision of The Play of Wit and Science by John Redford, Master of the Children of Paul’s during the latter years of Henry VIII.  The style of this play is suggestive of other works from this early period that show signs of Oxford’s hand.  That the Court, and particularly the Queen, would find enjoyment in plays written for boys to perform by one who was a boy himself, is a possibility worth pursuing.

Thirty years later, when the publication of the chapbook Wits Treasury formally introduced the author of some ten popular plays to the literate public as William Shakespeare, that its author comments at the same time that the Earl of Oxford “is best for comedy,” comparing him to Richard Edwards, Master of the Children of the London Chapels, who was dead after 1566, should make it clear that Oxford, by then in his forties, was so well known for having written Court-style comedies as far back as the 1560s, that we can infer that this sudden influx of plays into the Court Calendar in the 1560s and ’70s was largely the work of the budding genius who would someday be published under the name William Shakespeare.

Oxford and the Court Stage

This was the pattern until the Christmas that Oxford turned twenty-one, the Christmas he married William Cecil’s daughter Anne, and (theoretically) took charge of his own finances, which in his case meant he was free to borrow from money-lenders without having to hear from Burghley.  Up to then, only twice had the name of a play been recorded, but beginning in 1571-’72, titles of plays begin to appear along with the name of the patron of the performing company. Four different children’s companies performed that winter, one play each.  Three of the four plays were based on classical themes: two on Greek: the story of Iphigenia from Hesiod, Ajax and Ulysses from the Iliad; and the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all found in works in his tutor’s or guardian’s libraries.  One adult company performed two plays, under the direction of the Dutton brothers, John and Lawrence, whose names are linked with Oxford’s throughout the recorded period.

The year that Oxford achieved his majority, a new figure entered the Court arena, one that would open the door to a fuller use of his talents.  On December 30, 1570, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  Changes in the record of Court productions from this time on suggest that Sussex had begun to wield the kind of authority over the Court Stage that by tradition was both his right and his duty as Lord Chamberlain.  A man of learning and sophistication, Sussex knew that control of the Court Stage meant more than just giving the Court community an annual Christmas party.  Taking the Court Stage away from Leicester was also a measure of his hatred for the rival who had been his enemy from their earliest days at Court.

Also working to Oxford’s benefit when Sussex came in is the fact that Burghley had recently moved from State to Treasury which made room for Oxford’s surrogate father, Sir Thomas Smith, to take over as Secretary of State, while Smith’s friend and colleague Sir Francis Walsingham came on as second Secretary.  At the same time Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard, were appointed Vice-Chamberlains by Sussex.  All (but Smith) were already patrons of acting companies or soon would be.

Surely this was the moment when the die was cast, that Oxford was enrolled, albeit off the record, as the main provider of Court entertainment, its Impresario, its Minister of May Games.  For almost an entire decade, from 1572 until 1581, when he was banished from Court for two years, there were never less than eight plays performed over the course of a winter holiday, sometimes as many as ten.

That same year, 1572, regulations dealing with vagabonds and beggars required that henceforth acting companies must be licensed through noble patrons.  One of the first of these was the company that years before had formed around James Burbage and that would henceforth be known as Leicester’s Men.  This is essentially the nucleus of the company, still managed by Burbage, that two decades later would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––Shakespeare’s company.

The record of plays performed that first season (1572-73) shows Leicester’s Men performing four plays, among them Chariclea and Theogenes, from the Greek romance by Heliodorus––the same story that would be published in 1587 in English translation as by the otherwise unknown “T. Underdowne.” Dedicated to Oxford, it’s praised by Henry Burrowes Lathrop (Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman: 1477-1620) (1967) as one of the first and best translations from a Greek poem.  Another was Andromeda and the Monster, the subject of plays by ancient Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, both known to Oxford (in the original Greek) from Smith’s library.

Other plays were performed by the Duttons under Lord Clinton, a new adult company patronized by Sussex, and by the four children’s companies. Confirmation from Oxford’s involvement in Court entertainment comes from Gilbert Talbot’s letter to his father of May 13, 1573: “My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other,” and from the 1598 acknowledgement in Wit’s Treasury that, as “best for comedy,” Oxford had dominated the Stage since as early as 1566.

Records from following seasons throughout the 1570s show both adult and children’s companies performing plays taken from sources available only in Greek or Latin.  Among these were Alcmeon, from a play by Euripides titled Alcmeon in Corinth––part of a trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis.  Only fragments remain, but because the plot was summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus, we know that it had to do with a king that went mad. (Protagonists that went mad onstage were favorites with Elizabethan audiences.) Titles like Timoclea at Alexander’s Siege of Thebes or Perseus & Andromeda also suggest classical sources.  Titles like these that can be tied to Smith or Cecil’s libraries point to Oxford, for who else at Court in the early 1570s had the kind of education that included so many as yet untranslated classics, some of them from Greek?

Lacking more direct evidence, we must look to patterns and anomalies.  The holiday season of 1575-’76––the only one during the 1570s when Oxford wasn’t at Court––is the only one during that decade when no record was kept of what titles were performed.  It was also the summer when Leicester put on his famous week-long bash at Kennilworth, a return to the kind of entertainment the Court had been given in the years when he was still Maestro of the Court Stage, the years before Oxford.

Theater #1: Burbage’s public stage

It’s impossible not to see Oxford’s return from Italy in April 1576 as the moment when the London Stage was born.  In Paris he would have seen the only European stand-alone theater of its time, the indoor Hotel Bourgogne.  In Italy, although there may have been an experimental round wooden stage in Siena created by the great architect Andreas Palladio before work began in 1585 on the marble Teatro Olimpico, according to one modern authority, Richard C. Beacham (The Roman Theatre and it’s Audience), at the time of Oxford’s visit, no permanent theaters had been created in Italy since ancient times.

Shortly after Oxford’s return, the first yearround commercially-successful, purpose-built theater ever created in England opened for business in London.  Within weeks, a three-story open-air stage holding upwards of two to 3,000 customers at a time, geared in price to a public audience, was built by James Burbage in an ideal location, just outside the city gate in the Liberty of Norton Folgate where the Crown, not the antagonistic City, had authority, and on the same major thoroughfare where the theater inns were located.

It appears that the Theatre, as Burbage or somebody close to him named it, was the first such permanent outdoor stage ever built in England, possibly in Europe. As Frances Yates has shown in her Theatre of the World (1969), it was built to specifications laid out in Vitruvius’s de Architectura (70-15 BC).  Four versions of this classical work in each of four languages are found on Smith’s library list of 1566.  As it was the first of its size, it was also the first to be constructed with the uniquely round interior shape, which, as Yates explains, based on Vitruvius, created accoustics that make it possible for two to 3,000 listeners to hear clearly what’s being said on a centrally-located stage.

It’s also significant that the land on which Burbage’s Theatre was built, though owned by one Gyles Allen, to whom it had been given by Henry VIII during the Dissolution, was still largely under the control of the Earl of Rutland, Oxford’s companion from Cecil House days. (On July 3, 1536, the Earls of Oxford and Rutland, fathers of the two companions, married sisters, Dorothy and Margaret Neville, daughters of the Earl of Westmorland, in a single ceremony at the parish church at Holywell, where tombs and other relicts of the Rutland earls and their countesses remain to this day.)  Both Burbage and Gyles would have had to get permission from Rutland, whose family had owned the land on which it was built since before the Dissolution (Stone Crisis 395), and whose permission would have been necessary for anything as disruptive as a great public theater to be built so close to his own mansion, located just south of what was going to be the biggest, tallest and noisiest building in the neighborhood.

Theater #2: the indoor stage at Blackfriars

By September that same year, backroom deals made possible the creation of a school for the choristers of the Children’s Chapel in the old Revels office at the Liberty of Blackfriars.  The school included a little stage, supposedly for the boys to use for rehearsals, but, as we know from the lawsuit brought by its landlord in 1584, was soon to become a private theatre serving the upscale West End community.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then.

This bit of the Agas map of 1560 shows how close the little school at Blackfriars was to the Inns of Court and the Palace of Westminster (Whitehall) where Parliament met then. (click to enlarge)

An easy walk for the residents of the West End, the little theater soon became an entertainment center for the law students from the Inns of Court, the lords who lived in the mansions on the river, and, what was probably more to the point, the 500 or so members of Parliament that flooded the West End every three or four years from all corners of the nation, men of education and influence in their home communities, men whose politics could be influenced by plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and The Merchant of Venice.

Thus within a single year, from the moment of Oxford’s return from Italy, the first two successful commercial theaters ever built in England opened for business; the outdoor stage catering primarily to the working classes of the East End, the little indoor stage to the lawyers and gay blades of the West End.  The big public stage would last for 20 years, the little private stage for almost a decade (possibly even longer).  Others would follow, by 1594 there were four public stages in or near London, by 1615 there were eight, but these two were the first, and for a full decade, the only commercial theaters in London.

The immediate effect this had on London is clear from the deluge of explosive sermons that erupt immediately (as recorded in Book IV of E.K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage), condemning them as “sinks of sin” and the cause of plague outbreaks, with angry demands by City officials that they be “plucked down.”  Most of what we know of James Burbage and his theaters come from court records of the constant legal battles they were forced to fight to keep going throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign.

The Court Stage: 1576 to 1589

Revels Office records were generally updated by a Court scribe once a year around the beginning of the winter holiday season.  Covering the previous year, probably from notes scribbled after each event, they provide the basis for the little we know of what was produced at Court during Elizabeth’s reign.  Some scribes were more descriptive than others, giving not only what group performed but the title of the play––or what they thought they heard it called.

Following is a selection from these accounts that suggest early versions of plays that we know today by other names.  All but a few suggest the kind of subject that Oxford, steeped in Roman and Italian history and based on his own adventures in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, plus the current fascination at European Courts with Greek Romance novellas, would have been most likely to write.

Court records show that a play labelled “Error” by the Court scribe was performed by Paul’s Boys the winter following his return from Italy.  Oxford may well have reached Ephesus during his travels through the Mediterranean, so that what we know as The Comedy of Errors, which takes place in that city, was based in part on his personal experience.  A play named Mutius Scaevola, was performed that winter by a combined company of boys from the Queen’s Chapel and St. Paul’s.  Oxford would have known about this hero of the early Roman Republic from Livy’s Ab Urb Condita, available to him through Smith’s library.  On February 17, the company patronized by Lord Charles Howard (soon to become the Lord Admiral whose company, under Edward Alleyn, moved to Henslowe’s Rose Theater in the late ’80s) performed a play the scribe called The Solitarie Knight, a good subtitle for Timon of Athens, whose story Oxford would know from Smith’s Plutarch, its plot perfectly reflecting his mood following his return from Italy, his notorious debt, and the disappearance of the “back friends” who had flocked so willingly to his table during his years of reckless spending.

On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men (who would soon switch to Oxford) performed Three Sisters of Mantua, a play that the Italian authorship scholar Noemi Magri connects, via a painting by Mantegna, with the same background as the Sforza-Gonzaga history that forms part of the background to The Tempest.  (Who but Oxford, who had just been there, would have been writing plays about Mantua in 1578?)  Two nights later, on December 28, Sussex’s Men performed A history of the Cruelty of a Stepmother, a good subtitle for Cymbeline, a play based (loosely) on the life of an early Saxon king that Oxford could have learned about from his tutor’s copy of Suetonius.  On December 26, 1579, Sussex’s Men performed The Duke of Milan and the Marquess of Mantua, suggesting knowledge of these Italian cities gained by Milord during his recent travels.

1580 saw an increase in the number of plays and in those related to Oxford’s interests.  On January 3, 1580, Paul’s Boys played Scipio Africanus, about the great Roman hero of the war with Carthage, whose life Oxford would have known from Smith’s copy of Livy (Titus Livius), and from Polybius in Cecil’s library. On February 2, Sussex’s Men performed Portio and Demorantes; no trace of either name in history suggests that this may be an early version of The Merchant of Venice, another play based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy.  On February 14th the Earl of Derby’s Men performed The Soldan and the Duke of (left blank).  Soldan was another word for Sultan, a term used only for the rulers of Islamic nations, all “Turks” to the English.  No academic has ever been able to explain why Elizabeth chose to call Oxford her “Turk.” So far as we know, he was the only writer at her Court who had travelled so deeply through what was then Turkish territory.

Trouble in Illyria

Riding high at Court ever since Sussex came on board, as the 1570s moved towards the ’80s, storm clouds began to gather around the Earl of Oxford. Raised in solitude, it may be that life at Court was simply too stressful for one of his temperament.  Reckless with his language, his behavior and his credit, angry at the Queen for slights real or imagined, he got sucked into plots fomented by his cousin, the devious Lord Henry Howard, and Howard’s co-conspirator, Charles Arundel.  In league with various “projectors” on the Continent, they dabbled in plots requiring the removal of Elizabeth and Burghley so their Catholic friends, exiled to the Continent, could return to England.

Gradually awakening to the gathering storm into which he was headed, one December morning in 1580 Oxford went down on his knees to the Queen before the unusually large gathering in the Presence Chamber, there for the beginning of the winter holidays.  Begging for forgiveness, he revealed to Elizabeth and his Court community what Howard and his friends had been up to.  The Queen had Howard and his friends imprisoned in the Fleet, then under house arrest (with Sir Christopher Hatton) where, aware that their lives were at stake, they composed lengthy depositions condemning Oxford for a thousand indiscretions and imagined crimes, ever since the primary source for his terrible reputation with historians.

Let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories of the deaths of Kings

Having escaped trouble this time, Milord would not escape the next turn of the royal screw.  The following March he was arrested while attempting to flee the country shortly after Elizabeth discovered that her Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, was giving birth to his by-blow in the maiden’s chamber.  Elizabeth went ballistic, as she always did when the veil was torn from the fantasy of her role as the goddess Diana, surrounded by mere mortals willing to dispense with a normal adult sex life for the honor of serving the Virgin Queen.

Oxford spent two months in an ancient stone chamber in the Tower where he had time to ponder the final thoughts of centuries of noble prisoners, carved into the limestone walls with spoon handles.  Doubtless his friends brought him his Geneva Bible, traditional in such situations, where, sitting on the ground, he marked passages in Job and planned the revenge he would take as soon as he could get back to his actors and the stages he had helped to build.

Throughout the two years that Oxford was banished from Court, the clerk who kept track of the seasonal plays failed to note titles, but the numbers tell us something.  From ten plays listed in the 1579-’80 season and seven listed in 1580-’81, produced while he was at Court, in 1581-’82, the first winter of his exile, the total drops to three.  The following year the number of plays is up to six (plus a night of “activities”), but none of the recorded titles suggest his interests.  Nor does it appear that, with his return to Court in 1583 he returned to writing the comedies the Queen preferred for her “solace.”  The plays that began with his exile and that continued to be performed by Paul’s Boys for the rest of the ’80s, plays attributed to John Lyly, are not in Oxford’s style.  Whether or not they were actually written by Lyly is a separate issue, but one thing is clear: Oxford was permanently finished with writing for the Court alone.

So what did Oxford do during the two years that he was banished from Court?  What clues there are suggest that, given this break from having to supply the Queen and her ladies with comedies, he turned to what would naturally have been his favorite audience, certainly the most influential, the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” men whose educations and interests were closest to his own, men he knew would understand and respond to his deepest concerns.  Weary of romantic comedies, his appetite now was for tragedies, stories of treason and betrayal performed, not by boys for women, but by men for men.

The plots of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet suggest that it was at this time, when he had ample cause to be angry with the Queen and Leicester, that their first versions were created.  Concerned with the accusations of treason with which he’d been attacked by Howard and Arundel, accusations that the envious were always happy to believe, he explored in Plutarch and other histories of Rome the plots that led to the deaths of the ancient Romans Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  These he produced in time for the Parliament of 1584-85.  As for where he produced them, again proxy data suggests that he used the little stage at Blackfriars, for nowhere else could he have appealed to the MPs at such close a range.   He was playing fast and loose in his social life at Court; it makes sense that he would do the same with the little stage that was supposed to be only for rehearsing the Children of the Chapel.

Believing that Vavasor had cast him off, he portrayed her unfairly as a faithless trollop in an early version of Troilus and Cressida. Then, having received the poem that showed she still cared for him, he revised the passionate narrative poem of his childhood, Romeus and Juliet, as a heartfelt appeal to his lost love. That the Queen never saw the play, or at least, not the version that we know from the First Folio, should be evident from the lines spoken by Romeo when Juliet first appears at her window:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

It is absurd to think that any playwright, even Oxford, would have dared to write in this way about the moon (“the envious moon”), which was always taken as a reference to Elizabeth, or to her livery, which was green and white, had he not been certain that she would never see it.  He was angry, but not to the point of insanity.

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and some others written at this time were not written for the Court; they were performed somewhere where he could be certain the Queen would not see them.  So far as we know, Elizabeth never traveled beyond her orbit. Concerned as much for her safety as her dignity, she would never have come in person to one of the commercial theaters.  Of course members of her circle would have seen these plays, but as a long-time Court insider, Oxford could be as certain as he was of anything that no one would tell her, for all were well aware that she was all too likely to take out her anger on anyone who dared to disturb her equanimity, or worse, on the Stage itself.  As for Burghley, however angry he must have been to hear from his informers what Oxford was up to, he would be the last to inform Her Majesty, since as the renegade’s father-in-law, on whom he depended to provide the heir that would gain him entry into the upper peerage, it behooved him to do whatever he could to see him returned to Court.

Exit Sussex, enter Walsingham

Shortly after Oxford was banished from Court, the health of his supporter and mentor, the Earl of Susssex, began to fail, probably from consumption, his death occuring within days of Oxford’s return.  What effect the loss of Sussex had on the Court Stage is hard to tell, but one thing seems clear, with the Lord Chamberlain too sick to work, the new Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham began making plans to create a Crown company headed, not by Burbage, who may have fallen out of favor along with Oxford, but by the Queen’s favorite comedian, Richard Tarleton.

For this he needed new plays, plays that would inspire the provincials along the coast to fight for their nation when the Spanish attacked, which Walsingham was convinced was coming at some point.  In line with the belief that was strong at the time that history was the great teacher, what would serve better than plays that demonstrated how men like the Bastard Falconbridge, kings like Edmund Ironside, Edward III, and Henry V, had successfully defended England from foreign intruders.  Who but Oxford could write such plays.  Persuaded by Walsingham, Elizabeth admitted Oxford back at Court (provided he returned to his wife).

Shortly after Oxford’s return the Earl of Sussex died.  For the following decade there’s no indication of who was actually in charge of the Court Stage.  In 1583-’84, the holiday following Oxford’s return to Court, the record is confused; apparently no one took notes that year.  The following year, 1584-’85, there were four plays by the Queen’s Men and three by “the children of the Earl of Oxford,” plus a payment to “John Simons and other his fellow servants to the Earl of Oxford for feats of activity.” On St. John’s Day (December 27), there was a play given by the boys, The History of Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida.  Obviously Oxford was back in the saddle as primary provider of Court entertainment.  After this, the notes become abbreviated; there’s no mention of Oxford; no titles are recorded.  From now until 1590, plays given at Court over the winter holidays invariably number anywhere from one to three by the Queen’s Men, one to four by the Lord Admirals Men, and at least one by the Children of Paul’s.

Another turn of the screw

In 1587, the rebellious Christopher Marlowe broke rank with the writers at Oxford’s think tank, Fisher’s Folly. Together with his friend, the actor Edward Alleyn, they deserted Burbage for Henslowe’s just finished Rose Theater, still after a decade only the second built in or near London, or in all of England for that matter, where they produced London’s first real blockbuster, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.

Although there’s no hint in any record of the trouble this caused at Court, all it takes is a little awareness of the unwritten but firmly fixed law that no depiction of the overthrow of a monarch was to be portrayed on any stage, plus a simple reading of Tamburlaine, Parts One and Two, to guess what kind of fury the play must have unleashed among members of the Privy Council, not just because it violated the rules against portraying the ouster of an annointed monarch, but most distressing because of its popularity.  Apparently Robert Greene’s 1592 warning to Marlowe in his “Groatsworth of Wit: “little thou knowest how in the end thou shalt be visited,” fell on deaf ears, as, true to his motto “What nourishes me destroys me,” Marlowe, like Icarus, zoomed towards the deadly sun of popularity.

London in the 1590s

Victory over the Spanish Armada in August of 1588, however glorious in the event, ushered in a “brave new world” that was in many ways far less brave than it had been during the earlier decades of Elizabeth’s reign.  With the death of Secretary Walsingham in 1590, the battle for power between the heirs of rivals Burghley and Leicester, created the kind of destructive polarization to which the Queen, having managed to stave it off for thirty years, finally succumbed.

As Hamlet suggests after he accidentally kills Polonius, the Reformation as it had been established in Elizabeth’s childhood, was, by 1598 when Burghley died, as dead as the old man. The crisis of the Armada once past, no longer so totally geared for the fight with their Continental enemy, the aging Queen having lost either her options or her cunning, the country began a slide into the kind of conspicuous consumption and greed abhored by Sir Thomas Smith and his generation of reformers.

As described by Lawrence Stone in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, both the nobility and the gentry, which until the ’90s had continued in their ancient fashion to keep Christmas at home on their country estates, began spending the holiday season in London. Where once they had come to town only when necessary for legal matters or to attend Parliament, now they came to spend, at first some of the winter, then the entire winter, then ultimately the entire year, bringing their families with them, eventually buying and building residences within or near the West End.  That “the Season,” in time one of the major factors in the lifestyle of the upper classes with their concerts, galas, and coming-out debutante balls, was created at the outset by the London Stage would seem to be obvious (to everyone but historians like Lawrence Stone). People began coming to London in the winter to see the new plays, as they do to this day.

The Cecils attack the Stage

That it was Walsingham who had been the primary force behind the Stage throughout the 1580s should be obvious, not from the record, but from what happened to it as soon as he died in April of 1590. Paul’s Boys, a staple of the Court Stage for three decades, never appeared again, nor were they replaced by anything else. The leading adult company, the Queen’s Men, continued at Court for another season, then they too were seen no more.

Like a deer in the headlights, the Queen, caught between the warring demands of Essex and the Cecils,  made no move to fill the office of Secretary, so the Cecils simply moved in and took it over.  Dividing the Secretary’s job between them, they found themselves in a position to regain control of the Court Stage, and by extension, its offspring, the London Stage, a phenomenon Burghley may have supported at its inception in the 1560s, but that had since escaped his control. The appearance of the plague the summer of 1592 gave his son Robert time to plan the sting that would throw the world of the theater and commercial press into chaos.

Prepared for what they knew would be the return of the plague as soon as the winter was over, by closing the theaters in February of 1593, by June the Cecils were able to have the renegade playwright Marlowe trapped, tried, and proclaimed dead, either murdered by agents formerly in the employ of Walsingham, or transported out of the country, his supposed corpse supplied by the recently executed John Penry, just convicted kangaroo style of writing (well, printing––almost as heinous) the Mar-Prelate satires aimed at the bishops who, with the Queen’s backing, were busy establishing the almost-Catholic Anglican Church.

Alarmed, members of the Privy Council and patrons of acting companies, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, set about to create a plan whereby the London Stage could be saved. There would be two companies, patronized by themselves, each made up of actors formerly with Burbages’s, the Queens Men or Marlowe’s companies. These would be the only companies allowed to perform both at Court and at theaters within the City.  In January of 1594 they began registering and publishing the plays written by Oxford over the years that would be divided between the two companies.  Those that Alleyn had branded as his own would remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men.  Those that several years later would be identified as by William Shakespeare (previously unknown) were reserved for Hunsdon’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

So where was Oxford?

In 1588, shortly after Anne’s death, Burghley––motivated either by revenge for Oxford’s treatment of his daughter or to clip his theatrical wings, or both––took measures to have his debts to the Crown called in, along with pressures applied to his patrons so they would not be able to continue to help him. Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly (to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis) and to let go of the staff of secretaries and other retainers that had been with him throughout the years when Walsingham was Secretary of State, what bits and pieces of Stage history that have surfaced suggest is that the author of the Shakespeare plays took rooms at one of the poshier inns in Central London where he and his friends ran up huge bills, a la Falstaff. Here, deprived for the time of access to the stage, he occupied himself with composing “sugared” sonnets, some to his mistress, Emilia Bassano, some to the teenaged Earl of Southampton, whose credit as a peer made it possible to get his long narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, elegantly published in quarto.  Deprived of his former pseudonyms, he used the name of an illiterate provincial from his printer’s hometown, a name that functioned as a marvelously expressive pun.

In 1592 Oxford’s financial problems had been eased through his marriage to one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting whose family saw an alliance with Milord, however problematic his behavior, as a means of getting their posterity into the peerage, that is, if the new Lady managed to produce a son.  This she accomplished the following February, at which point his new in-laws arranged for the purchase of King’s Place, a mansion on the outskirts of London, spitting distance from the Boars Head theater, located a few miles to the north in Whitechapell, home to a theater company that called itself Oxford’s Men.

While the Cecils may have hoped that this would put paid to their naughty lord’s theatrical escapades, these were just about to enter a new and far more lasting phase.

Enter the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Oxford was probably aware from early on of Hunsdon and Howard’s plans to create the new companies, and that it was largely based on his agreement to provide plays for what would be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they were able to move ahead. Those plays that were registered with the Stationers and published in 1594, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, must have been the ones he planned to revise for the actors chosen by Hunsdon and himself as founding members of this new company: Burbage’s son Richard, John Hemmings, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips and Will Kempe, all of whose talents and proclivities were well known to them both from many years of working together going back to the late 1560s and early ’70s.  Edward Alleyn was to remain with the Lord Admiral’s Men, along with those of Oxford’s plays that Alleyn had branded as his personal vehicles: The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, James IV, Orlando Furioso, Arden of Faversham, and A Looking Glass for London.

In 1598, when someone closely involved with the London Stage and commercial press published Wit’s Treasury, the handbook in which William Shakespeare is given credit for ten plays already well-known to the London public, we can be certain that it was these plays, plus those listed in Henslowe’s Diary written by his team of stringers, that were the main reason for the influx of gentry and nobility into London in the ’90s as described by Stone. These were Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummers Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet, all of them old plays revised and updated, the comedies and comic interludes given new and more topical material. Whoever had been satirized as Moth and Armado in earlier versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Armado was now a satire on Antonio Perez, Moth as Francis Bacon. With both Elizabeth and Burghley still alive, it seems that a revised version of Hamlet had not yet been performed for the public. Others not mentioned by Meres, like Alls Well, The Tempest, or Henry IV Parts One and Two, had either not yet been revised or were still seen by their author and his patrons as not for public consumption.

Like the characters in the old mummers play, killed by St. George and brought back to life by the Doctor, masquerading as the humble William Shakespeare, Oxford returned to the Stage for the final act of his career.

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9 responses to “Oxford and the London Stage

  1. Stephanie, I so admire your ability to get all this disparate information into a concise, clear narrative..! What a difference it makes to see the history of Elizabethan theatre through Oxford spectacles and with Oxford at the centre! The Stratfordians know without doubt that ‘Shakespeare’ was a towering genius, but have absolutely no way of explaining it, blinded by ‘absence of biography’ and their ‘dating’ that depends on Will Shax of Stratford’s life. I have only skimmed thru this post excitedly, but will return again and again to read slowly and carefully. Well done…!

  2. Burbage signed the lease to the land on which he built The Theatre whilst deVere was still abroad …

    • Yes, which suggests that there was already a plan in place before he left, and that the patrons of the acting companies were united in urging the Queen to allow him his Grand Tour, and that Rutland’s permission was also already obtained.

  3. Arguably funded by Leicester

    • What was “arguably funded” by Leicester? Burbage’s Theatre? Keep in mind that anything that Leicester did with regard to the Court Stage was done by orders from Elizabeth. There were areas in which he acted on his own, but this would not have been one of them.

  4. What a joy to read this clear and intelligent text.
    May we, the readers, wish, please, that you take this subject
    up to the end of Oxfords career – with this same quality

    • Thanks, Frank. I’ll do that. It’s all there, but in bits and pieces. Next year I will have been at this for 30 years! And the final piece fell into place just within the last year.

  5. Wonderful overview. Minor point but I did think that Oxford’s first association with the Duttons was in 79 when he stole them away from Warwick’s Men, just one more in a string of humiliations for the anti-Alencon faction that year.

  6. The Duttons first appear in the Revels account the winter of 1571-72, and frequently thereafter with different companies until 1577. Warwick doesn’t appear as a patron (on his own account) until 1575, when the Duttons moved from Ld Clinton to Warwick, doubtless with the entire company (the year that Oxford was away). Warwick’s name disappears from the Revels record after the winter of 1579-80, the year that Lord Strange’s name appears (patron of tumblers). As a client of Leicester’s, and a poet, Ferdinando Stanley Lord Strange may have begun to offer a threat to Oxford’s control of the Court Stage, moving from “activities” (probably the troop led by John Simons) to an acting company (probably the one led by Edward Alleyn) until his assassination in 1594.

    What seems likely to me is that when Oxford’s name got attached to a company in the record (always briefly), it’s because that company didn’t have a patron at that moment. If he was, as I believe, the impresario overseeing the Court Stage by the mid-1570s, he would have been seen as the fallback patron when a company was without one. But this needs a good deal more thought.

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