Shakespeare under Two Elizabeths

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview
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Shakespeare under Two Elizabeths


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


SHAKESPEARE did well under the first Elizabeth and is thriving--if with a few heart tremors--under the second. It's a complex story, but there are deep patterns and continuities in the two reigns.

Elizabeth I was a patron. It is said that she 'loved theatricals but hated paying for them'. It was the duty of her noble hosts to lay on entertainments as she went about the country. Hence the most plausible of all the direct connections between the Queen and Shakespeare is the legend that The Merry Wives of Windsor was commissioned at her particular wish. The available dates make sense. The comedy is set very precisely in Windsor, with references to Datchet Meads, the castle, the Windsor bell, and much else that is locally knowing. There was a Garter installation ceremony on April 23rd 1597, on which the play was probably performed. The text makes graceful allusion to 'Our radiant Queen', 'the Garter's compass', 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' (the Motto on the Garter) as homage to the monarch and setting. Pistol and Mistress Quickly are not the most likely of speakers for these compliments, but something must be allowed to the exigencies of theatre. All this must have been set up by Lord Hunsdon, who was Lord Chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare's company. He paid.

Royal patronage went up several notches with the accession of James I. The old Queen died in March 1603. In the summer James journeyed down from Edinburgh to London, pausing at such country houses as Althorp to be entertained (by an open-air Jonson masque). Within a few weeks of ascending to the throne, James changed the name of Shakespeare's company from the Lord Chamberlain's Men to the King's Men. That was unprecedented royal favour: Shakespeare had become house dramatist to the premier company in the land.

This was a great leap forward. Elizabeth had been a discerning but slightly detached patron. She saw to it, for example, that the theatres were re-opened after plague closures, thus out-manoeuvring the Puritans who wanted permanent closure. James was an enthusiastic supporter of the theatre, and his Queen, Anne, was an ardent patron of the masque. She actually took part in some masque performances at the court. And the statistics bear out the reality of the shift. Alvin Kernan, in Shakespeare, the King's Playwright, says that between 1603 and 1613 the King's Men played 138 times at court, an average of nearly 14 performances a year. Under various names, the same company had played only 32 times at court in the last ten years of Elizabeth's reign. The economic benefits to the players were substantial. Like everyone else in the company, Shakespeare's fortune was enhanced by the tendencies of the new reign.

The working pattern was for Shakespeare's plays to be produced at the Globe, polished and run in there, and then taken to Whitehall or Hampton Court for the Christmas runs. Thus Shakespeare took his place among the great patronage playwrights of the era, Calderon and Moliere.

That, if you like, was a reflection of a change of monarchy, a style shift conditioned by the personal tastes of James I. But arguably an event of far greater long-term importance had happened in the latter years of the old Queen. The key date is 1594.

The theatres re-opened after a couple of years of closure due to the plague. Two companies were then seen to be pre-eminent, the Admiral's Men whose star was Edward Alleyn--and the Lord Chamberlain's Men, whose star was Richard Burbage. The Admiral's Men performed, among others, Marlowe's plays; the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's. And in 1598 the Privy Council confirmed this arrangement by granting them a joint monopoly. Only two men's companies were licensed to play in London.

Why is this significant? Because the two-company principle took hold, and endured. Charles II, in the early years of Restoration, granted the joint monopoly to two theatres: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (both of which he patronized impartially).

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