Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare and the Second Blackfriars Theatre

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare and the Second Blackfriars Theatre

Article excerpt

THE SECOND Blackfriars theater has drawn the attention of scholars in the last several decades either because they have been interested in the kinds of dramas that were performed in this new playing place or because they wished to determine the architecture of the playing area itself. (1) It is in some ways unfortunate that such competent and knowledgeable attention has remained focused largely on these issues because another (and admittedly speculative) area could benefit from further and more extensive questioning. The results of such questioning are likely to be of particular interest to theater historians and to biographers of Shakespeare.

The questions that I have in mind, let me hasten to say, are not for the most part original. Just when did Shakespeare and his fellows begin presenting plays in the Blackfriars playing space? And why did the King's Servants perform plays there in the first place? Inevitably caught up in ideas about the "final comedies" as a homogeneous group, and about the trajectory of Shakespeare's "final years," these issues remain unresolved. Thus it should be useful to review once more the historical documents that deal with Blackfriars, bearing in mind of course that such documents do not themselves "reveal" events. They present indications from which historians construe events, and these indications are in turn configured by the interpreter to fit the narrative he or she has espoused.

Admitting to these conceptual difficulties, I nevertheless wish to offer new observations about when the King's Servants began presenting plays at the Blackfriars location, and also about their motivation for moving there. However tentative my conclusions, they are meant to prompt a reassessment of a still frequently held critical assumption that in starting a second playing place, the King's Servants were able in 1608 to envisage the kind of theatrical situation that would characterize the London scene from, say, 1615 to 1642, when the Blackfriars and other private playhouses replaced the public theaters in prestige.

I move first to the question of when the King's Servants began playing at the Blackfriars because it is from the context of a proposed initial date that one generally speculates as to why, in fact, they began playing there at all. I would like to approach this matter by reviewing briefly the situation preceding the move, adding my own observations to what is otherwise familiar material.

It has long been known that on February 4, 1596, James Burbage had a deed executed by which he purchased space in the old Blackfriars building in the city of London. (2) Nine months later, however, the upper-class residents of the area surrounding the Blackfriars monastery petitioned the Privy Council to stop Burbage from developing this space, complaining that "the said Burbage is now altering and meaneth very shortly to convert and turn the same into a common playhouse." (3) Evidently the Privy Council supported this complaint, for in responding it "forbad the use of the said house for plays." (4) Following this episode Richard Burbage and his brother, Cuthbert (their father now being dead), extended their Blackfriars holdings by additional purchases. In fact, they launched a purchasing program, first buying interest in a property they would possess only after the death of one of the other owners. (5) They then continued to buy space in the Blackfriars structure in 1601, 1610, and 1614.

Thus it is possible that the Burbages at least initially had a long-range plan for Blackfriars that did not involve drama. (6) For it seems likely that the two brothers would be wary of continued resistance by the neighborhood to any future theater enterprise--especially since many of the residents were quite powerful and would, in fact, prevent the establishment of a new playhouse in this area in 1619. (7) Further, Privy Council orders of 1600 and 1601 stipulated the allowed number of playhouses in the city: only two theaters--those two that were already in place. …

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