The Fortune Contract in Reverse

By Cerasano, S. P. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Fortune Contract in Reverse


Cerasano, S. P., Shakespeare Studies


Introduction

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 1626, just two months before Edward Alleyn died, he wrote a lengthy "Memorandum" relating to Dulwich College. (1) It is a little-known document, and the state of Alleyn's health at the time of its writing is unclear; but given the contents of the manuscript and the proximity of its writing to Alleyn's demise, it is difficult not to think of the memorandum as a set of instructions outlining the business that was to be carried out upon his death. The first sheet, in Alleyn's handwriting, lists properties that he bequeathed to the college upon his death; the second sheet, also in Alleyn's hand, catalogs the names of persons who owed him money. For most of us, the second list is the most interesting because Alleyn notes that, among others, Richard Gunnell, an actor who had performed at the Fortune with the Lord Palsgrave's Men since 1613, was 50 [pounds sterling] in debt; and even more impressive, "the kinges Maiestie in the Exchequer" owed Alleyn the staggering sum of 800 [pounds sterling]. Yet an assertion in the preamble to the Memorandum might be more useful for exploring the history of the Fortune playhouse. Here, Alleyn stated that most of his "evidences"--that is, papers verifying entitlement--were kept in "a chest at the bedsfeete in the yellow chamber, the keye where of is in the till of my deske." And although only a portion of the manuscripts relating to Henslowe and Alleyn's theatrical ventures could have been stored within this chest, one of these might have been Alleyn's copy of the contract for Fortune Playhouse which indicated that Henslowe and Alleyn constructed the playhouse in 1600. Moreover, the First Fortune seems to have been important to Alleyn from its inception. As events unfolded, it became the theater that he oversaw following Henslowe's death in 1616; and after its accidental destruction by fire in 1621 Alleyn replaced it with a second playhouse on the same site (also called the Fortune).

But despite the importance that the Fortune held for Alleyn--as a site for theatrical artistry, a setting offering opportunities for commercial success, and a home for actors, many of whom became Alleyn's lifelong friends--we normally study the playhouse from the standpoint of bricks and mortar, which is only natural in light of the fascinating specifics that the front of the Fortune contract provides. I will say a bit about that here, as well, but, I hope primarily to enlarge our sense of the Fortune and its creation by placing the front of the contract in a different context, one that can only be produced by a more careful reading of the back of the contract. Examining historical circumstances from this angle alters our understanding of the physical conditions that produced the playhouse in a unique way; and, also, it has significant ramifications for our interpretation of the human, economic, and political framework in which the theater was erected. Furthermore, reading the Fortune in reverse highlights the ways in which the physical fabric of the playhouse, as we envision it, is bound up in our sense of the contract. The manuscript of the Fortune, after all, provides the only setting in which the playhouse finally "exists."

The Manuscript

The Fortune contract is a manuscript measuring under one meter from side to side, and it is slightly shorter from top to bottom. (2) Written on parchment, in order to stand the test of time, it would have been identified by the legal establishment of Henslowe's time as a document called an "indenture"; that is, the manuscript represents an "agreement between two or more parties with mutual covenants" (that is, in legal terms, "accords"). (3) The part of the manuscript that has survived would have been only half of the original document because the term "indenture" takes its name from both the legal purpose and the shape of the manuscript. Originally, identical copies of the agreement were written on a single piece of parchment or vellum, and then these were cut apart in a serrated or sinuous line. …

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