Reviewing Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe by Chris Laoutaris; Penguin, 2014
The great mystery, of course, is how and by what means the London Stage was brought to life during one of the most repressive periods in Western History. Laoutaris focuses on a small piece of that mystery, namely why the great Blackfriars theater, built in 1596 in the heart of London to stage the plays of Shakespeare, was shut down by order of the Queen’s Privy Council within weeks of its projected opening, then never allowed its use by the company that created it for almost ten years.
His premise, that it was the petition created by Lady Russell, Robert Cecil’s aunt and the self-appointed doyen of the Blackfriars district, that was what caused the Privy Council to close the theater, thus forcing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to move their operation across the river, is hardly new. Actually, despite the thundering claims of the title, there’s very little here that’s new, and what there is must be fished for in a sea of florid prose, almost 500 pages of it (in the paperback edition anyway), some of it in the cheesy “heart-pounding” style that literary historians have recently adopted from pop novelists like Dan Brown. I suppose this is meant to fool us into thinking that, like the optimist who dug his way through a room full of horse poop certain that there was bound to be a pony in it somewhere, the reader will eventually find satisfaction if the premise is simply repeated often enough. (Where are the editors? Where are the grammarians?)
Even the title is misleading: Shakespeare and the Countess, for of course Laoutaris, prize-winning professor from University College London, can show nothing that actually connects Shakespeare with Lady Russell or with anything, for that matter. Nor, in fact, was Russell ever a Countess, despite her great desire to be one. Nor was the move from Shoreditch to Bankside made by Shakespeare, but by James Burbage who never called himself “Shakespeare’s man.” In fact, the title is just another absurd effort, perhaps by the publisher, to use Shakespeare’s name to sell a book that has nothing to say about Shakespeare, certainly nothing new.
Laoutaris’s effort to make something out of some obscure connection between a member of a remote branch of the Arden family and the Throgmorton plot, plus his attempts to interpret bits of the plays in its light is just one more effort by the Academy to turn chalk into cheese. As for “the battle,” all Laoutaris dares to describe is a minor skirmish. He’s not about to go anywhere near the real fight.
The almost Countess and the not really Shakespeare
As everyone already knows who has been over this ground at least once, Elizabeth Hoby Russell ne Cooke, sister-in-law to Lord Treasurer William Cecil Lord Burghley and the aunt of soon-to-be Secretary of State Robert Cecil, was (probably) responsible for the petition that just before the winter season of 1596, robbed the Burbages of the beautiful new theater which they had just created in the Old Parliament Chamber in the Liberty of Blackfriars. Nor is it news that two years later it was the loss of this theater that led to the dismantling of their aging public stage in Shoreditch, and its resurrection across the river as The Globe. Nor is there anything new in the fact that the names of Shakespeare’s printer, Richard Field, and his company’s patron George Carey, were included in the list of signers, a fact that is certainly interesting––though hardly “astounding” or “shocking.”
All of this has been known for donkey’s years, though few may be aware that what we have today is not the original of the petition, if there ever was one, but a copy in which the signatures are all in the same hand! This is fine for those who can swallow whole the gargantuan anomaly that there ever was such a thing as a literary genius who couldn’t even write his own surname the same way twice. And although Laoutaris avoids the obvious conclusion offered by history that the closing of Hunsdon’s theater was something that Robert Cecil would have found a way to do had there never been a petition, he does provide us with some interesting new items that strengthen that conclusion.
History has gone along with the petition’s claim that the issue for the signers was the noise and disruption that a public stage would create in what they wished to keep as a quiet residential district. This is a dodge for at least two reasons. First, ever since the friars departed in the 1530s, the Liberty of Blackfriars was not and never had been a quiet residential district. Established as a “liberty” by Edward I in 1276, it had ever since enjoyed the freedom guaranteed such priories to provide folks in trouble with sanctuary from arrest by local officials. As such it was a place where social outsiders of all sorts sought refuge and ways to survive. All of the theaters built in the 16th and early 17th century were built in liberties, along with printshops, artists’ studios, and a variety of small manufacturies.
Second, Russell and most of her signers had personal reasons for wanting the theater shut down that had nothing to do with keeping the peace. Russell, who moved to Blackfriars in 1581 with her husband, Francis Russell, heir to the Bedford Earldom, was also attracted to what may have been the largest enclave of evangelicals to be found inside the City. Born as one of the five Cooke sisters, daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, his passion for the stricter forms of Calvinism was acquired in Strasbourg during Mary’s reign along with men like John Cheke, James Haddon, John Bale, and a handful of future deans and bishops of the English Church, Nowell, Grindal, Sandys and Aylmer.
This passion Sir Anthony transferred to his five daughters, whose educations in the Greek and Latin fundamentals of Church history placed them at the forefront of English evangelism. Four were then married to men who would soon be raised to power by Queen Elizabeth: Mildred to William Cecil Lord Burghley, Anne to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Catherine to Sir Henry Killigrew, and Elizabeth, first to Sir Thomas Hoby, then to John Russell, heir to the Earl of Bedford (who unfortunately died before his father, thus cheating his wife out of the title of Countess). Elizabeth in particular used her education and language skills to wheel and deal within a governing community uniquely trained to respect such things. Immediately upon moving to Blackfriars in 1581, she did what she did wherever she went, she took over the leadership of the little St. Anne’s congregation, where she encouraged the hiring of radical ministers.
The evangelicals vs the Stage
Blackfriars had been attracting radical protestants ever since 1550 when Edward VI’s grant of the district to Sir Thomas Cawarden, his Master of the Revels and a committed evangelical, gave him the freedom to dismantle the monks’ great church, mansions and quadrangle, and begin the process of rebuilding that resulted in the warren of residences, shops and little gardens that the precinct had become by the time the Russells arrived. For himself Cawarden had reserved one of the grander mansions and, as Master of the Revels, the west wing of the monks’ quadrangle which Henry VIII had used to store his party equipment. Bequeathing most of it to his neighbor and fellow evangelical, Sir William More, it was More who in 1576 had rented the old Revels apartment to Richard Farrant and his patrons for the little school that they turned into the first private theater in London. By 1581, when the Russells arrived, the little school’s rehearsal stage had been entertaining the surrounding community for almost five years, and, as Laoutaris notes, without complaints from their neighbors.
Lady Russell was bound to find the theater offensive; as a devout puritan she would have been against all theaters, and particularly alarmed by their increase. Still, she might have found it the better part of valor to have held her tongue, considering that so powerful a member of the Queen’s privy council, Baron Hunsdon, was involved in creating the Second Blackfriars theater, particularly since her son, Sir Edward Hoby, was married to one of his daughters. Instead she felt Lord Hunsdon’s presence as a threat to her control of the precinct. Laoutaris provides a quote from her letter of January 27, 1596, in which she urges Cecil to appoint the Earl of Kent to a particular position, “I beseech you, quod facis fae cita [whatever you do, do it speedily] or I fear one of the tribe will be before him Hercules Furens [with the energy of Hercules]” (228). Laoutaris explains that by “the tribe” she meant the “Tribe of Dan,” which he has discovered from other letters was code for Hunsdon and the Carey family. Russell, bent on using her influence with her relatives to bring Calvin’s Dream to life in England’s green and pleasant land, was using her connection to the Cecils to get fellow members of “the Elect” into as many key government positions as possible.
Laoutaris doesn’t bother to parse this, but what it suggests is that to Russell and her sisters, who saw all personalities and current events through the lens of their interpretations of the Bible, the Carey family were the equivalent of the biblical “tribe of Dan,” meaning that they were nonbelievers, Canaanites, Philistines, whose purposes were antipathetic to Calvin’s Dream. To the Crown politics in which she was ever inclined to dabble was added her attempts to control what happened within her local precinct, and to the moral disapproval of plays in general was added the religious loathing of a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist. For Lady Russell, the petition probably had very little to do with noise.
In January of 1596, Hunsdon still held the lofty post of Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household. Two years earlier, it was he who had organized the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and who, throughout the late 1580s, had become holder of the lease to the little school stage, the First Blackfriars Theater. By the time Russell created the infamous petition, Hunsdon had added to his earlier holdings other properties surrounding the Old Parliament building, doubtless as a move towards turning it into the great theater that he and Burbage were planning to establish within the City proper. Thus it may well be the case that in 1596, Russell had cause to see Hunsdon, not only of the “Tribe of Dan,” but as dangerously intruding into what she felt belonged to her and God.
By January 1596, when she wrote so dismissively of Hunsdon, the Court was being split down the middle by Robert Cecil’s power struggle with the Earl of Essex. With so many members of the Court community married into each others’ families, the split tore families into warring halves, particularly along generational lines, the older and more conservative standing (not always happily) with the Cecils, while the younger generally backed Essex. Russell’s family too was split down the middle, her sister Anne Bacon’s sons, Anthony and Francis, siding with Essex, as did her nephew Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, and her son Sir Edward Hoby. The only one who stuck with her and the Cecils was her youngest son Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby. Outraged by the disloyalty of her family members, Russell was driven ever more furiously to advise her nephew Robert Cecil, perhaps because he was positioned to get her what she wanted, and what she wanted at the moment was control of Blackfriars.
But by November, Cecil having finally been appointed to the post for which he’d been striving the past six years, that of the all-powerful Secretary of State, it may be that the petition was not all that necessary, since Hunsdon was dead by then (having been suddenly taken ill after dinner, two weeks after Cecil’s appointment), and with Cecil’s father a permanent Council member, and Cecil’s own father-in-law, William Brooke Lord Cobham, given Hunsdon’s place as Lord Chamberlain, the Privy Council was now so heavily weighted in favor of the Cecils that Robert could probably have managed to get the theater closed without any help from his aunt.
Laoutiras, of course, like most literary historians, has no grasp on the politics involved in the Cecil’s efforts to gain control of the London Stage, no notion of what it would have meant to Robert Cecil to have to face Parliament in October 1597 for the first time as Secretary of State, aware that as soon as the session was adjourned for the day, the MPs would be headed for a stage dominated by his enemies, one of them being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s primary playwright, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford. By the early ’90s the Cecils had seen to it that Oxford could no longer use his credit as a peer to continue to support the Stage, but short of killing him, they could do nothing to prevent him from writing the Henry IV plays with which, the winter of 1596-97 he and his actors destroyed the reputations of his father-in-law, Lord Chamberlain William Brooke, and Brooke’s son, Henry Cobham.
Whether or not Cecil was responsible for the death of Lord Hunsdon, or six months later the death of James Burbage, or two years earlier the death of Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange, or three years earlier, the murder of Christopher Marlowe, or six years earlier, of Francis Walsingham, each death dealing a devastating blow to the London Stage, it would have been hard for the theater community, both actors and audience, not to have been suspicious. When certain writers and actors retaliated that summer with a play titled The Isle of Dogs, a title that points to Marlowe’s murder, Cecil closed all the theaters, forcing the entire theatrical community to hit the road.
So when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men returned in the fall to a West End filled with MPs gathered for Elizabeth’s ninth Parliament, they came loaded for bear. With their livelihood threatened, and their manager and major patron both dead, the actors hauled out the big gun, devised over the summer by their great playwright, and aimed it right at Cecil. A version of the True Tragedy of Richard III had been revised into his caricature. Having been given by one of their supporters space to perform in one of the mansions on the river, the MPs hadn’t far to go to see Richard Burbage, cast as Richard III but dressed and behaving like Cecil, create the role that would bring him permanent fame as a great actor. And there wasn’t a damn thing Cecil could do about it. He had to ignore it. Retaliation would only confirm it. His revenge would be to erase every trace of Oxford’s connection to the Stage from the records collected by his father or within his power to survey as Secretary of State, Lord Treasurer, Master of the Court of Wards, and Chancellor of Cambridge University under King James.
Hunsdon and Field
As for their seeming disloyalty to Shakespeare in signing Russell’s petition, Laoutaris understands that by November 1596, both George Carey, the new Lord Hunsdon, and Richard Field were in something of a bind. He details how Cecil undercut Carey, how Cecil blocked his inheritance of any of his father’s offices so that all that stood between him and bankruptcy were his desperate letters to Cecil, begging his help in relieving what he termed “the burden of a naked honour,” pleas that “fell on deaf ears,” while Cecil insinuated to Elizabeth that “some thought” that Carey was behaving in a treasonable fashion. As Laoutaris puts it, in November 1596, “Hunsdon was walking a tightrope. He could not afford to anger the Queen or his mediators in the Cecil faction [meaning Russell]. His livelihood depended on it” (241-2).
As for Richard Field, first of all it must be said that printers in general were rarely bound by their personal religious or political affiliations. Printing was a business and so long as a book was properly registered with the Stationers, they were bound to print it. Now in his forties, with his own printing establishment and a family of his own, Field desired to be seen as a respectable member of his community. In addition, by 1592 he had become an important member of the St. Anne’s congregation. Nor was this purely a business move, for years earlier he had been apprenticed by his father, the tanner of Stratford, to the London printer Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot who had fled religious persecution in France in the early 60s, when, with Burghley’s protection, he became the leading printer of works of Protestant theology. Thus Field was an evangelical by persuasion, not just because of where he was located. And finally, if he had ever had a particular relationship with the Earl of Oxford, or at any time had looked to him as a patron, by 1596 Oxford himself was in so much trouble that he would have been useless to someone like Field.
There is much of use in this book, for, however inadvertently, Laoutaris includes details that are important to the fullest possible picture of the period, particularly of the family into which Oxford married, and which both made it possible for him to create the London Stage and prevented his getting much satisfaction from it, including the credit for creating it. The only problem for those of us in search of such details is the miserable style in which so much of it was written.