Playing Companies and the Drama of the 1580s: A New Direction for Elizabethan Theatre History?

By White, Paul Whitfield | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Playing Companies and the Drama of the 1580s: A New Direction for Elizabethan Theatre History?

White, Paul Whitfield, Shakespeare Studies

THE 1580S HAS BEEN A PERPLEXING DECADE for theater historians. For one thing, scholars writing surveys or histories of a theater in which the dominant figure, William Shakespeare, does not appear until the following decade, are not quite sure how much of the 1580s to include in their chronological range of materials, if any. Some include all of it (for example, The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama [1580-1642]), some part of it (for example, The Oxford History of English Literature's The English Drama 1586-1642), and some none of it (for example, The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642). The most recent volume of this type, A New History of Early English Drama, covers the 1580s but attempts to avoid the pitfalls of periodic designations altogether by using the term "early" to describe its chronological range.(1)

For scholars interested in plays of high literary merit, a major problem is that the decade lacks sustainable focus from beginning to end. In so far as it is treated as a period at all, the 1580s tends to be carved up into unequal halves to highlight development or change. Critics are fond of referring to the post-1587 period as the "breakthrough years," marking "the expansion" and "flowering" of Elizabethan drama, a time when the first playhouse on the Bankside (the Rose) opens and when the drama emerges from the inexplicable dumbshows, jog-trot verse, mongrel-tragicomedy and primitive stage effects described in such works as The Schoole of Abuse (1579) and The Apology of Poetry (1581).(2) Without denying that the drama of Kyd, Marlowe, and the other University Wits represents a major artistic advancement, this scenario underestimates the extent to which the theater was already a complex, technically sophisticated--not to mention highly popular--institution in London at the beginning of the decade. We need to keep in mind that as early as 1567 England's first known playhouse, the Red Lion, opened in Stepney with an enormous stage, forty feet wide by thirty feet deep, equipped with a trap door and a "turret of Tymber" supporting a floor eighteen feet above the stage which was probably used for ascents and celestial figures.(3) Since the Red Lion discovery effectively dislodges "1576" as the year in which the urban playhouses were established, we are now looking at a London theater industry well into its second decade of operation by 1580. Indeed, by that year at least ten professional acting companies were performing plays, many regularly on weekdays, at nine or ten different commercial playing venues in the London area.(4) When the city politicians and preachers raised a storm of opposition to their existence in the early eighties, the players were sufficiently self-confident and self-asserting to respond with perhaps the first "antipuritan" play of the period, "The Play of Plays." Unfortunately, this play (described by Gosson) has vanished into oblivion along with most others of the 1580s.(5) For the period 1580 to 1589, The Annals of English Drama lists 86 titles, for which 53 texts survive, most of the latter dated in the final years of the decade.(6) Yet these numbers represent a fraction of what once existed. William Ingram offers a plausible argument for upwards of 200 plays written per year in the late 1570s, and I see no reason for a significant decrease during the 1580s.(7)

The implications of this loss for researchers of the 1580s is far-reaching. It certainly raises questions about when, and at what pace, linguistic, artistic, and technological advances occurred during the decade. To be sure, playhouse audiences may not have seen, or heard, anything like Tamburlaine when it debuted on the London stage in the summer of 1587. On the other hand, Peele's Arraignment of Paris was already experimenting with flexible blank verse for court drama as early as 1581, and who is to say that Peele or one of the other Wits did not write blank-verse plays designed for the professional stage between then and 1587 which anticipated Marlowe's poetic dialogue?(8) Indeed, Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy may be such a play, although a few critics have been willing to posit an early-to-mid-1580s date, despite the fact that the play's action covers the pre-Armada years in Spain and makes no mention of the event itself.(9) Considering the sophistication of Lyly's plays of the early 1580s (often overlooked as relevant to the professional stage because Lyly is misleadingly labeled a "court playwright"), and the fact that Queen's Men, with their twelve full-time actors, were performing "large-cast" plays as early as mid-1583, we should perhaps reconsider the theory that the "great drama" of Elizabethan England suddenly burst upon the scene in the late 1580s.

In what follows I wish to consider several recent books and articles which raise just such questions and problems about the 1580s I have touched on here. They challenge us to reconsider our assumptions and perceptions about professional acting companies, theatrical conditions at the court and in the universities, the relationship between major playwrights like John Lyly and their patrons (both noble and public), and the career of the popular playwright in the 1580s and after. These topics are important in themselves within the 1580s timeframe, but they also have significant implications for our understanding of Shakespeare and the theater of the following decades.

Some of the best new scholarship produced on the 1580s has to do with the playing troupes, defying a long tradition in theater history that attempting to approach the Elizabethan theater from the perspective of the players constitutes an exercise in futility. "To treat intelligibly any of the several dramatic companies at the end of the [sixteenth] century," wrote W. W. Greg in 1908, "demands a knowledge of the constitution of other companies and of the sequence of other events such as at present can hardly be said to exist."(10) Greg was writing two years before John Tucker Murray's two-volume English Dramatic Companies 1558-1642 and fifteen before E. K. Chambers four-volume Elizabethan Stage, both of which vastly increased the body of material known about the troupes. Nevertheless, his general pessimism, combined with literature scholars' focus on individual authors and plays, held sway, with very few exceptions, until the present decade, and even today G. K. Hunter, who highlights the above-quoted passage by Greg in the opening pages of his English Drama 1586-1642 (1997) echoes Greg's conviction when he asks rhetorically, "Can we ... say anything that will make linkage between company and repertory more than a historical pipedream?"(11)

Two important new books on playing companies respond affirmatively to this question, but before considering them we should draw attention to the Records of Early English Drama project to which recent scholarship on the troupes owes much of its source material.(12) The REED volumes, of course, supply records for all aspects of drama from the Medieval period through to 1660, but their findings with respect to touring acting companies and their patrons represent the most important archival work on the troupes since the days of Chambers and Murray. Quite strikingly the published volumes to date indicate that the touring of professional companies peaked in the 1580s (with the 1590s not far behind), with 435 performance incidents (including dismissals) by fifty-seven playing troupes, most of which were sponsored by the higher nobility.(13) The implications of this are potentially explosive when we consider the now-prevalent view that increasingly as Elizabeth's reign went along, dramatic activity withered away in the provinces. Might we now consider the possibility that in many communities in the provinces there were more, rather than fewer, opportunities to see plays at the mid-point of Elizabeth's reign?(14) Another interesting finding of the REED research is that in a decade when many of us thought that Protestant religious authority was firmly estranged from the popular stage, we find among the patrons of these acting companies names typically associated with advanced Protestants--Warwick, Huntington, Essex, and of course Leicester. This linkage between moderate puritanism and the stage is one of the claims of Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillan, as we shall see shortly.

The first major book in the past decade to address troupe playing in the 1580s, and for the early modern period as a whole, is Andrew Gurr's The Shakespearean Playing Companies. Drawing on the author's vast knowledge of Elizabethan theater history over the past thirty-five years, this book traces the operations of some thirty-five professional adult and boys' troupes performing in the London area under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts. The study divides into two chronologically ordered sections, the first discussing aspects of the companies as an industry, such as patronage, travelling, day-to-day operations and significant general developments and changes over an eighty-year period; the second section treating the histories of the individual companies. The two-part design results in some overlap and repetition, but of the kind we have grown to accept from reading Chambers Elizabethan Stage. Gurr's best insights concerning company/repertory linkage apply to the later years when the rivalry between London-based companies, fixed in their own playhouses, forged differences in the repertories. Yet as he observes, through the 1580s there is no evidence of any one company working exclusively in London and affiliated with a single playhouse, not Leicester's (often linked to the Theatre in Shoreditch by virtue of its being built by James Burbage, a Leicester player) not even the Lord Admiral's (often thought to be based at the Rose from 1587 onwards). It was not until 1594 that their patrons arranged for the Admiral's Men and the Lord Chamberlain's Men to settle at the Rose and the Theatre respectively. His claim that troupes resolutely stuck to their traditional practice as nomadic entertainers well into the 1590s is born out by REED records and by the work of Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillin on the Queen's Men noted below. While Gurr believes that no one company or individual took a controlling or interventionist role in the changes experienced by companies during the era, he does regard the establishment of the Queen's Men in 1583 as pivotal in securing legitimate status for professional playing in London during the decade, in popularizing the all-important large-cast play, and in providing a model for setting up the "duopoly" of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Lord Admiral's Men a decade later in 1594.(15) He is especially illuminating about the activities of theater patrons on the Privy Council, favoring Charles Howard as the prime-mover on behalf of the theater community from the early 1580s through the remainder of Elizabeth's reign. (As we shall see, Gurr's view of Howard's early prominence does not square with Maclean and McMillin's account of events of 1583.) There is much new information in this book about the professional troupes operating in the 1580s, eighteen of which are identified--most notably Sussex's, Leicester's, Warwick's, Worcester's, Derby's, Oxford's, the Lord Admiral's, and the Queen's, although the book limits its analysis only to companies who operated in London and appeared at court.

If Gurr's study is comprehensive in the sense that it analyzes and surveys the companies across the early modern era, The Queen's Men and Their Plays, by Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillan, explores in depth all aspects of a single, major playing troupe's operation and history--personnel, repertory, touring itinerary, and patronage, along with its broader social and political contexts. This approach is not unprecedented,(16) yet in devoting an entire booklength study to a major troupe in the heyday of Elizabethan professional theater, The Queen's Men is a first, and its findings and conclusions not only provide a model for future projects of this kind, but have important implications for a range of related fields in the discipline, from textual criticism to Shakespearean biography. Because the history of the Queen's Men is so central to our understanding of the English theater of the 1580s, it will be worth considering that history in some detail.

The Queen's Men begins by focussing in on 1583, the year the court, in an extraordinary move, hand-picked the twelve best actors in the nation to form a new company under the Queen's patronage. Past critics have accounted for the company's formation in two ways: first of all, as a grand gesture by the court to demonstrate to the anti-theatrical City fathers the monarchy's endorsement and protection of professional playing, and secondly, as a means by which to end the embarrassing rivalry among the leading noblemen's troupes--Sussex's, Leicester's, Derby's, and Oxford's--for holiday performances at court.(17) MacLean and McMillin, however, downplay the court's supposed adversarial role against the city, observing that in draining the best acting talent from the nation's most celebrated companies to form the Queen's Men, the Privy Council was hardly offering protection to the playing community; rather they were in effect "reducing the number of companies and the number of theaters active in London, a point on which the council may have been the silent and unacknowledged allies of the city."(18) The authors see the amalgamation of Paul's Boys with the Chapel Children to form one royal juvenile company as part of this court policy of reduction implemented in 1583, although, as Gurr suggests, this merger may have taken place at least one year earlier.(19)

Where the authors most boldly depart from previous scholarship, however, is in their claim that Sir Francis Walsingham was the prime mover behind the Queen's Men's formation. Since the days of Chambers, critics have been baffled by the role of the Queen's puritan-leaning secretary in authorizing the Revel's Office to create the company and in subsequently defending it against the City government. Surely Walsingham was merely filling in for the ailing Lord Chamberlain Sussex in 1583, Gurr suggests, when the real initiative for the royal troupe came from those truly appreciative of the stage, namely Charles Howard and his relative, Edmund Tilney, the Master of the Revels.(20) Yet why did not Sussex's deputy, Lord Hunsdon, or the Vice-Chamberlain, Sir Christopher Hatton, both also Privy Councillors, act on his behalf? Why instead was it Sussex's political opponent who appointed the company? Maclean and McMillin, I believe, are right on target in arguing that Walsingham followed earlier secretaries of state (Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s, Lord Burghley under Edward VI and during the opening years of the Queen's reign) in recognizing the political usefulness of a popular acting troupe to advance the monarchy, propagating a centrist-oriented Protestantism that exposed the dangers of international Catholicism and the indigent religious radicalism which, in the 1580s, emerged as presbyterian puritanism. Walsingham was allied throughout the 1580s with the Earl of Leicester's moderate puritan policies, and the authors' note that Leicester's own documented support of drama to advance his political interests, as well as his close links with the new troupe (three of his own troupe's players joined it, the Lord sponsoring the troupe on several occasions) suggest that he played a mentoring role to the company, advising Walsingham on decisions concerning them. More speculative is the book's claim that the Queen's Men contributed to Walsingham's espionage operations while travelling the realm. This is difficult to prove but it is entirely plausible considering the extensive research linking artists of every kind--including travelling entertainers--to intelligence work in England during this period and earlier.(21)

With their interlude-style dramaturgy and repeated emphasis on "truth" and "plainness," especially in their history plays (which they popularized, if not invented, in the 1580s), the Queen's Men's repertory confirms for Maclean and McMillin that the company was formed "to spread Protestant and royalist propaganda through a divided realm and to close a breach within radical Protestantism."(22) This propaganda is most evident, at least in its anti-Catholic aspect, in The Troublesome Reign of King John, where the laying on of hands and swearing of allegiance to the Pope at the altar of St. Edmundsbury was a piece of iconoclastic theater popular since the days of John Bale and continuing through the 1630s when The Cardinal's Conspiracy attacked the ceremonialism of the Laudian church in a similar fashion. Yet, in complicating our understanding of religion/theater relations in the 1580s, the authors observe the central role the Queen's Men in challenging presbyterian puritans (as well as Catholics) near the end of the decade when they were embroiled in the Martin Marprelate controversy, staging plays in defense of the Elizabethan bishops and established church. As far as I can see, however, the Queen's Men were, for the most part, engaged in religious propaganda with a small "p." In such plays as The Famous Victories and even Friar Bacon comic buffoonery and pronounced visual effects dilute any serious religious message intended. We need to keep in mind that whenever didacticism enters the commercial domain of the public playhouse its teeth are inevitably blunted by the tacit agreement that paying spectators come to be pleasured, not preached to. The Queen's Men and Their Plays, nevertheless, contributes to the reconfiguring of religion/theater relations during the 1580s and after. Until fairly recently, the professional theater was seen as a purely secular institution--forged out of humanist and capitalist interests, if not forced to be secular by censorship against religious matters in plays. Shortly, we'll note that Catholicism also had its place on the stage.(23)

Some of the most original research in The Queen's Men and Their Plays concerns the touring itineraries of the company. The Queen's Men were the most widely traveled, the most profitable, and the best known acting company in sixteenth-century England, sometimes splitting into two troupes (this they did from their inception, not later on as is usually thought). They followed routes well established over half a century earlier; the main circuits were in East Anglia, the Southeast, the Southwest, the Midlands, the West Midlands, the North East, and the North West. Contrary to received opinion, they did not tour because of any failure to gain a foothold in London; the road was their political mandate and the provinces their targeted audience and main source of revenue. Records indicate that they sometimes had a spring tour, usually a summer one, and often spent the fall in London, though not apparently lodged in a resident playhouse but "touring" the city's many venues, mostly the inns within the city walls. They were, needless to say, attendant at court where they held a monopoly among professional troupes during the 1580s. They visited London less later in their career, and indeed may have lost their acceptance there, where they usually performed only during the fall and Christmas seasons anyway, due to the Marprelate controversy of 1588-90. Ironically, the Marprelate writers appropriated the jesting, satirical rhetoric of Tarlton and the Queen's Men in attacking the established church. Whether they were staging unlicensed plays or were initially backed by the Revels Office only to have that support withdrawn when the attacks and counter-attacks got out of hand, remains unclear.

The company's reduced market in London, however, was also related to the popularity of Marlowe whose poetic artistry and magnificent characters the Queen's Men could not match in their own plays. That the company attempted to fight to get its audience back is evident from the printed edition of The Troublesome Reign (published in 1591), where Marlowe is slighted in the address to the reader's attack on Tamburlaine, that "infidel," and in the play itself where the hero closely echoes Faustus in his expressions of spiritual despair; however where Faustus succumbs, John overcomes despair to attain Christian faith and be the forerunner to Queen Elizabethan and England's Protestant monarchy: "The anti-Marlowe motive is neatly dovetailed into the celebration of Elizabeth's lineage, these being the Queen's Men to the last."(24) Whatever happened to their London market in the late 1580s, the company went back on the road to resume their busy touring schedule, performing in cities, towns, and private households throughout the realm. Their playing venues varied but included guildhalls, great halls in private homes, church houses, and some churches as well. The guildhalls, such as the famous surviving one at Leicester, were remarkably small in comparison to the venues of a thousand spectators or more that the Queen's Men were accustomed to in London, and the book might be pressing it a bit in saying that at the Leicester guildhall "the Queen's Men would have performed before audiences conservatively estimated at three hundred."(25) I would guess audiences of at least three-hundred for a Tarlton-led Queen's company, but not within the cramped quarters of the guildhall. We might seek them, rather, next door within the spacious nave of St. Martin's Church where playing troupes had entertained (probably much larger) audiences earlier in the century. Missing from the book too is an analysis of performance settings within the four royal palaces where the company played before Queen Elizabeth and the court. This gap is filled, however, by John Astington's study discussed below.

The question of Shakespeare's relationship with the Queen's Men has been repeatedly debated. The Queen's Men and Their Plays convincingly shows that the extant published texts of the troupe's monarchical history plays are not "bad quartos" resulting from later memorial reconstructions of Shakespeare's comparable histories. On the contrary, Shakespeare is indebted to the Queen's Men's repertoire for the plots of his second Henriad, King John, and King Lear. It is therefore not implausible that Shakespeare may have joined the Queen's Men in some capacity in the mid-to-late eighties. This hypothesis competes with E. A. J. Honigmann's explanation of "the lost years," that Shakespeare's schoolmaster years "in the country" led him to a Catholic household in Lancashire, and from there on to the rival professional company of Lancashire's leading magnate, Fernando Stanley, Lord Strange.(26) Several players in this troupe, it has been noted, eventually restructured to form, along with Shakespeare, the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1594. Yet Park Honan's cautious new biography of Shakespeare suggests that these hypotheses are not entirely incompatible. Following his return from Lancashire to Stratford where be married in his early twenties, Shakespeare might have "attached himself to the Queen's Men," and "he could have gone with the actor John Heminges from there straight into Strange's Men."(27) Assuming this were the case, it would be ironic to find that while Marlowe was changing the face of Elizabethan drama, Shakespeare was sticking it out with the Queen's Men in the late 1580s waiting for the chance to make his own contribution to the stylistic demise of the Queen's Men's plays through his participation in the blankverse revolution.(28)

Much of what Gurr, Maclean, and McMillin say about the conditions leading to the increased sophistication of professional drama in the 1580s is reaffirmed in John Astington's English Court Theatre 1560-1642, the first full-length study of the theater at court under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts.(29) As Astington documents, the partnership between the Revels Office and the professional players underwent a kind of reversal around the mid-point of Elizabeth's reign. Up until 1580 or so, the Revels Office set the standard for scenic spectacle through its lavishly produced plays and masques, and it supplied the theater community with costumes for lease. However, with the Office's sharp curtailment of expenditures following Lord Treasurer William Cecil's restructuring of court finances, the Revels became increasingly dependent upon the professional companies who now replaced court-produced masques and lavish "shows" with their own staged productions. By the time Henslowe was turning a major profit at the Rose in the 1590s, the London playhouses may have been better equipped than the Revels Office itself. A theme emerging from Astington's book is that the Revels Office significantly stimulated the development and continued success of professional drama in the 1580s, not only by the enlightened regulation of its new Master, Edmund Tilney (granted authority to license plays and players nationwide by a 1581 patent) but by its policy of reliance on professional players for holiday entertainment at the royal court.

Yet there is much more in the book to discover besides Revels/ players relations. Working very much in the vein of such theater historians as John Orrell, Alan Nelson, and William Ingram, Astington spells out in considerable detail the highly varied architectural and performance conditions at the mainly temporary court theaters constructed at the four royal palaces of Hampton Court, Richmond, Greenwich, and St. James. Repeatedly contradicted in the evidence is Richard Southern's universal model of Tudor hall performance with the actors set up before the lower screen and extending their action across the broad expanse of the hall floor. Astington states that we also need to be suspicious of the old view that the Revels' budget cuts resulted in a much simpler use of performance space at court in the late eighties,(30) since the platform stages built by the Office of the Works's carpenters and joiners and decorated by its painters for some events were elaborately equipped with mechanical traps (for ascents and descents) and three-dimensional (and often curtained) stage houses. Many of the stages were remarkably small in scale, like the 14-foot square stage built in the Great Chamber at Richmond where several troupes performed in 1588-89. Astington's chapter on "Artists and artisans" gives some much deserved attention to the virtually never-mentioned craftsmen working behind the scenes to produce, in some instances, spectacular effects: the stage-machinist John Rose who build the mechanical trap inside a gigantic rock for the Knight of the Burning Rock in 1579 and an apparatus for moving clouds around the same time; the Lizard family of painters--William, John, Nicholas Jr., and Lewis who decorated various stage houses, properties, and ceilings, through to the mid-1580s; the wire-drawer Edmund Burchall who rigged up chandeliers and other hanging lights with wire cables for performances by the Queen's Men and Paul's Boys in 1587. The book draws on recent historical scholarship in its discussion of court audiences, noting that with a woman monarch on the throne, her female companions, maids of honor, and wives and daughters of leading nobles were both visible and prominent at court performances,(31) which helps to explain the many direct addresses to female spectators in a play like Lyly's Gallathea (ca. 1584). English Court Theatre is not for those looking for political or cultural readings of drama staged before Elizabeth and her early Stuart successors; rather, in concentrating "on the physical and aesthetic conditions under which actors worked when they performed at the Tudor and Stuart courts"(32) and in providing twentyone plans and illustrations of the theaters and an index of court performances between 1558 and 1642, Astington's study establishes itself as the standard authority and most comprehensive reference source on English court theater during the early modern period.

Whereas Astington and others have explored the relationship of court theaters to the commercial playhouses of the London area, less attention has been given to the connections of both types to staging at the universities. Alan Nelson's Early Cambridge Theatres advances our knowledge considerably on these fronts. As with theaters at court, one is struck by the considerable scale and complexity of the staging apparatus in the typical college hall, transforming it from a rather sparsely decorated space into a full-fledged theater, marked on all sides by timber structures for galleries, platforms, staircases, and multiple leveled stage houses. Rarely, if ever, at Cambridge, was the lower hall screen used as a backdrop or second-level balconies used for acting. While Astington argues that temporary court stages were build anew for each occasion, with the lumber reused for other purposes afterwards, Nelson shows that at Cambridge even the most complex stages were prefabricated and demountable, placed in storage after their use each year. His book gives us a vivid sense of the process involved in putting on a play performance. Actors and musicians (the non-students among them drawn from the town waits, others brought in from London) rehearsed as much as a month in advance in a nearby acting chamber (usually somewhere within the master's quarters); carpenters, painters, and other hired artisans began preparations a week in advance, with students paid to dine in the town while the hall was detained. Prior to and during the performances, costumed guards called stagekeepers wore visors and carried torches to control crowds and potential rivalries between colleges.

In redating the sophisticated staging in Queen's College Hall from 1638 (Leslie Hotson's long accepted claim) back to 1546, Nelson suggests that Cambridge may have been instrumental in developments leading up to the early Elizabethan playhouses. Challenging John Orrell's claim that classical models of architecture influenced Burbage's design of the Theatre, Nelson offers a powerful counter-argument that medieval English principles of stage construction took precedence over imported models in London, as in Cambridge. He also raises questions about the use of trapdoors and upper galleries for stage action (neither are much evident in Cambridge) and supports recent claims about audience seating and configuration in the amphitheaters (e.g. seating directly behind and above the stage). But, as Nelson suggests, the Cambridge discoveries may be more useful in reconstructing Blackfriars and other "private" indoor theaters in London, with which college halls such as Queen's had the most in common.(33)

In an earlier article Nelson notes that the twenty-five plays on record for performance at Cambridge during the 1580s were, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, "more noticed, more remembered, more admired, and more imitated" than those of any previous decade, and despite their coming after the heyday of the 1550s and 1560s.(34) With Latin the dominant language of the college stage, the most influential play was Pendantius (1581), a debunking of Gabriel Harvey which established a trend in stage satire lasting into the 1630s. The most important Cambridge playwright of the decade was Thomas Legge, among Francis Mere's "best for tragedy," who wrote the historical trilogy Richard Tertius (1579), followed by Solymitana Clades, or The Fall of Jerusalem, another trilogy and "the longest play ever written in England," recovered after 400 years in 1973.(35) Chambers suspected that the latter piece might have been the same play as The Destruction of Jerusalem, which was performed at great expense and with much fanfare at Coventry in 1584 in place of the recently defunct mystery cycle (see note 14 above).(36) This would have made the young scholar of St. John's College, Oxford, whom the city paid the handsome amount of 13.6s.8d [pounds sterling], into a plagiarist, but the identification now seems highly unlikely. Oxford's theatrical culture was no less fully developed than Cambridge's in the 1580s, with the famous William Gager presiding at Christ Church, but Oxford's heyday lay ahead in the first two decades of the next century. Unfortunately, apart from a few articles by John Elliott, Jr., we do not have either updated records or commentary on Oxford for the early modern period (Elliott's REED volume on Oxford is forthcoming),(37) and indeed a full-length survey of drama and theater at the universities together has not been undertaken since Frederick Boas's now somewhat out-dated University Drama in the Tudor Age published in 1914.

Elizabethan Oxford's most distinguished and influential playwrighting graduate was John Lyly, the one major English playwright for whom we have extant plays extending across the decade of the eighties. Lyly's relation to the royal court and to the public theater has been significantly revised in the past few years. A casualty of recent criticism is the perception of him as an obsequious (if belatedly disgruntled) panegyrist of Queen Elizabeth who steered clear of controversial issues. Thus, in an article on Endymion and Midas, David Bevington sees Lyly calling for a tolerant policy towards loyal English Catholics such as his own patron, the Earl of Oxford, during the years when England witnessed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the failed invasion of the Spanish Armada.(38) In the first book-length study of Lyly since the 1960s, Michael Pincombe argues that while Lyly complimented the Queen through his panegyical figure of "Eliza," he "became increasingly sceptical and hostile of courtliness as he went on."(39) If an early play like Campaspe expresses the anxiety of the court poet who fears the political misinterpretation of his art, late plays such as Gallarhea are more overtly critical of the Elizabethan cult of the virgin queen. Pincombe shows that Lyly's Ovidian-inspired eroticism sometimes ran counter to his panegyric of Queen Elizabeth. He partially accounts for this ambivalence by the fact that Lyly's plays were at least as much produced for the paying gentry spectators at Blackfriars and Paul's playhouses as for an audience before the Queen.

Taking Pincombe's lead in this respect, Kent Cartwright reconsiders Lyly's place within the commercial London theater and the popular dramatic canon of the late 1570s and 1580s. Challenging the persisting view that Lyly's drama is exclusively court-centered, static, and intellectual, Cartwright demonstrates that the plays are full of the theatrical vitality and visceral delight of the popular chivalric romances and moral interludes contemporaneous with them and condemned by the antitheatricalists.(40) Moreover, Lyly may have been England's first "serial" dramatist, repeating in play after play the same mixture of mythological and romantic characters, Ovidian transformations, and witty prose dialogue, which his audiences at the commercial indoor theaters and at court came to expect. Lyly's debt to the public theater raises the question of whether he may have penned some of these other popular plays, and may have done so before he shows up in court records in 1583/84. According to Pincombe, Lyly's career as playwright occurred quite by accident in 1583 when his patron, the Earl of Oxford, secured for him the lease of Blackfriars to manage, and write plays for, the new children's company created from the merger of the earl's own boys with those of the St. Paul's and Chapel Royal companies.(41) Thus Pincombe places Lyly as a mere spectator of plays prior to this and the writing of his accomplished comedy Campaspe presented at court on 1 January 1584. Yet the Paul's/Chapel troupe may have merged as early as 1582 with Lyly at the helm. Gurr suggests that Thomas Giles, successor to Sebastian Westcote as Almoner to St. Paul's on the latter's death in 1582, "appears to have linked Paul's Boys with the Chapel Boys, and to have taken on John Lyly as his deputy."(42) Be that as it may, the earl of Oxford patronized both an adult company led by the famous Dutton brothers who were active at the Theatre in Shoreditch and a children's playing troupe--one man and nine boys--who traveled in the provinces during the early 1580s (the latter were paid two shillings each for performing at Bristol in 1581).(43) It is therefore plausible that Lyly wrote for one, possibly both, of these companies, as might be suggested by Gabriel Harvey's remark that Lyly had "played the Vicemaster of Poules, and the Foolemaster of the Theater for naughtes ... sometime the diddle-sticke of Oxford, now the very bable of London."(44) Writing in 1593, Harvey might have been alluding to Lyly's involvement with the Marprelate controversy in the late 1580s when, it now seems clear, Lyly was writing comedies, possibly for performance at the Theatre as well as at Paul's, in support of the ecclesiastical establishment. But I would not discount Chambers' conjecture that Lyly's fellow Euphuist Stephen Gosson may have been praising Lyly when in 1579 he spoke of "the two prose books played at the Belsavage, where you shall find never a word without wit, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain."(45) I think it unwise, therefore, to single out Lyly as the one University Wit who managed to avoid writing for the popular stage. Like the rest of them, he was constantly in debt, and writing for the common players was a way of avoiding poverty.

The University Wits--Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe--are generally recognized to have been at the center of the drama's transformation during the late 1580s. This is not the occasion to discuss the criticism of their plays individually, yet the most compelling recent discussion of their collective importance is found in the long-overdue Oxford History of English Literature volume, English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare (1996), by G. K. Hunter. Hunter argues that the Wits (he gives the non-university Kyd and Shakespeare "associate memberships")--were socially positioned to arrive at the right historical moment in the Elizabethan theater's development to enrich the drama in quality and significance.(46) This humanistically educated and short-lived generation of writers were somewhat estranged from a political and religious establishment which had no suitable place for their prodigious talents and liberal views. Most of them, therefore, found themselves writing for the rapidly burgeoning professional stage with its demand for playscripts, despite their disdain for such work. For Hunter, however, the Wits' importance for the future of Elizabethan drama is not to be found initially in their plays but in their prose fiction where the personalized mode of the genre's narration, combined with the Wits' marginalized lifestyles and viewpoints, enabled them to give individuated voice to prodigals, outcasts, and subversives opposed to the current social order.(47) It was not until Marlowe's Tamburlaine came along in 1587, however, that his fellow Wits were provided with a model of adapting such "outsiders" from prose fiction to the popular stage, which until then was hemmed in creatively by demands for social consensus and conventional morality, most clearly exemplified in early Elizabethan "estates moralities." As Kyd's Spanish Tragedy demonstrates, however, the innovations of the Wits did not bring an end to the older dramaturgy; instead, those innovations were absorbed into the mainstream dramatic tradition.

Hunter aligns the Wits with a Burckhardtian model of individualism ushered in by the Renaissance, a model dismissed by the 1980s postmodern critique of Francis Barker and Catherine Belsey who countered with their own theory that the modern, autonomous, inward-looking self did not develop until the latter seventeenth century, although signs of it first appear in English drama with Hamlet ("I have that within which passes show").(48) However, Hunter's notion that the Wits forged individualism out of the "unbridgeable gap between self-valuation and the values of the world" coheres with other recent literary studies on the history of the subject by David Aers (exploring the late Medieval period), Alan Sinfield, and Katherine Maus.(49) Where Hunter stresses Humanism as the main ideological source of the Wits' self-identity, these critics stress the importance of religion, and particularly Protestantism, in the development of interiority and in opening the way for sceptical, heterodox subject positions found in such plays as Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, and The Spanish Tragedy. Where I think further exploration can be done in this vein is with the Wits' prose writing downplayed or ignored by Hunter: Greene's The Repentance of Robert Greene and Nashe's Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem, both of which show their authors' Calvinistic credentials, often overshadowed by their Humanism. As Deborah Shuger observes, while Christ's Tears is a politico-religious diatribe against the decadence and spiritual indifference of late Elizabethan London, this Protestant "passion narrative" introduces the reader to an interior spiritual landscape of sin, fear, violence and eroticism. The extent to which the warrior culture of Marlowe's Tamburlaine is yoked together with Christian retribution is found in Nashe's depiction of a Christ spurned by his bride, the Church. "Emulating Tamburlaine, Christ first offers `the Jewes the White-flagge of forgivenesse and remission, and the Red-flag of shedding his Blood for them, [and] when these two might not take effect ... the Black-flagge of confusion and desolation."(50) Nashe and Greene both project in their religious prose writings deeply personalized expressions of suffering and spiritual alienation that are useful in further illuminating the plights of Faustus and Hieronimo.

That the Wits perceived themselves as serious writers who resorted to playmaking only out of financial necessity is well established, yet few critics have explored their connection with the specifically literary culture of the 1580s and 1590s. One recent book that does, however, is Patrick Cheney's Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, and Counter-Nationhood.(51) We tend to) think of Marlowe first and foremost as a playwright, but Cheney convincingly shows that Marlowe self-consciously conceived of himself as a poet whose identity was shaped by and subsequently modified the Elizabethan literary system. At the center of Cheney's book is the rivalry Marlowe had with Edmund Spenser, whose verse is echoed (always ironically, often in parodic form) repeatedly in Marlowe's surviving plays and poems. Cheney argues that Marlowe self-consciously pursued an Ovidian career path, countering the Virgilian course of his rival, and that in satirizing the pretensions of "the Brytayne Orpheus" to be England's great poet, Marlowe substituted himself as the age's new poet, a "counter-nationalist" who championed pleasure over didacticism as the main end of poetry. What comes clearly into focus in both Hunter's and Cheney's studies is that playwrighting for the public theaters throughout the eighties continued to be considered professional hackwork, undeserving of the individual recognition accorded to poets, and it was, of course, as poets that the Wits aspired to be recognized. Only in the nineties did dramatists' names begin to appear on playbills, and it would be another decade or so--with the increasing popularity of published plays--that they would be accepted as serious writers, yet even then they remained associated with "common players." It is only because of a contemporary's passing remark that we know Kyd's authorship of The Spanish Tragedy, the most talked-about play of its time, and it would be well into the seventeenth century before Marlowe's name would be published on the title page of his Tamburlaine plays.

The names of acting companies and their patrons, not playwrights, are what counted for playgoers, and if we are to learn more about the 1580s and its importance for English theatrical culture both in London and in the provinces, we need to research their histories in more depth. Current studies are limited by the existing records, but REED and other archival researchers are adding new materials every year. By bringing to our attention new evidence, by working imaginatively with already existing materials, and by questioning old, weakly supported assumptions, future scholarship will bring the theatrical landscape of the 1580s more clearly into focus and by doing so, show that some parts of the terrain are very different than we currently suppose.


(1.) A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway, eds., The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); G. K. Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, The Age of Shakespeare, The Oxford History of English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996); Gerald Bentley, The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); John Cox and David Kastan, eds., A New History of Early English Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

(2.) See Philip Edwards, "William Shakespeare," 112-59 in The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature; Eric Sams, The Real Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale, 1995), 64; Muriel Bradbrooke, The Rise of the Common Player (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962], viii-ix. For a fine, book-length study of the 1580s, see Elizabethan Theatre XI (Port Credit: Meany, 1990], and particularly the essay by John Astington, "The London Stage in the 1580s," 19-32.

(3.) Janet S. Loengard, "An Elizabethan Lawsuit: John Brayne, his Carpenter, and the Building of the Red Lion Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 298-310; see also Astington, "The London Stage," 4-5.

(4.) These included the four city inns--the Bull, the Bell, the Cross Keys, and the Bell Savage; three, possibly four, suburban amphitheatres--the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts (it is unclear how long the Red Lion remained open after 1567); and the two indoor children's playhouses--one at Paul's and the other at Blackfriars. For more on the acting companies, see the discussion of REED below.

(5.) Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in Fiue Actions (London, 1582), 202; cited in The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), 4:217-18.

(6.) Alfred Harbage, S. Schoenbaum and Sylvia S. Wagonheim, eds., Annals of English Drama 975-1700, 3d edn. (London: Methuen, 1989).

(7.) William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of Adult Theater in Elizabethan London (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillin, however, suggest that after 1583 the theatre decreased in size but became more stable and profitable. See the discussion of The Queen's Men below.

(8.) On Peele's blank verse, see G. R. Hibbard, "From `iygging vaines of riming mother wits' to `the spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasillabon,'" Elizabethan Theatre XI, 55-74.

(9.) But see Arthur Freeman, Thomas Kyd: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967).

(10.) W. W. Greg, ed., Henslowe's Diary, 2 vols. (London, 1904-8), preface to part 2; cited in G. K. Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, The Age of Shakespeare, vi.

(11.) Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, 362.

(12.) The six (out of fourteen total) volumes published this decade by REED are as follows (all volumes published in Toronto at University of Toronto Press): Herefordshire/Worcestershire, ed. David N. Klausner (1990); Lancashire, ed. David George (1991); Shropshire, ed. Alan Somerset (1994); Somerset, including Bath, ed. James Stokes and Robert J. Alexander (1996); Bristol, ed. Mark C. Pilkinton (1997); Dorset/Cornwall, ed. Rosalind Conklin Hays and C. E. McGee/Sally L. Joyce and Evelyn S. Newlyn (1999). For other work on the troupes not addressed below, see Peter H. Greenfield, "Touring," A New History of Early English Drama, 251-68; and various essays in Elizabethan Theatre X.

(13.) I want to thank Alan Somerset for supplying me with data and statistics on the troupes and their patrons from REED's computer files. The files are based on all published volumes of REED. Somerset and Sally-Beth MacLean have undertaken a joint project to make the REED patron data available electronically. Some of those files are currently available at

(14.) Consider the city of Coventry in 1584 when unprecedented civic funds were spent on the one-time performance of The Destruction of Jerusalem, a great outdoor spectacle in the manner of the town's old mystery play cycle (retired in 1579). According to REED records, Coventry citizens also enjoyed thirteen visits by touring acting companies that year (actually down from eighteen visits the previous year).

(15.) Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 65.

(16.) Suzanne Westfall devotes a chapter to the Henrician Duke of Suffolk's Men in her Patrons and Performance: Early Tudor Household Revels (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), and I have done the same for John Bale's company under Thomas Cromwell in Theatre and Reformation: Protestantism, Patronage, and Playing in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), chapter 1.

(17.) See The Elizabethan Stage, 1:291; J. Leeds Barroll, "Drama and the Court," The Revels History of Drama in English Volume III, ed. Clifford Leech, et al. (London: Methuen, 1975), 4-27.

(18.) Sally-Beth Maclean and Scott McMillin, The Queen's Men and Their Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 10.

(19.) Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies, 222.

(20.) Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies, 197.

(21.) See Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992); John Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993); Curtis C. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era (London: MacMillan, 1986).

(22.) Maclean and McMillin, The Queen's Men, 166.

(23.) See the discussion of Lyly below. For a new study on Protestant culture and the Renaissance stage, which includes works by Marlowe and Kyd from the fifteen-eighties, see Huston Diehl, Staging Reform: Reforming the Stage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). This is an important book, but it overstates its case about the extent to which plays like Doctor Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy demystify the dazzling and potentially idolatrous images of the popular stage. I review it elsewhere, in Review of English Studies, forthcoming.

(24.) Maclean and McMillin, The Queen's Men, 158.

(25.) Maclean and McMillin, The Queen's Men, 68.

(26.) E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: The "Lost Years" (Totawa, NJ: Barnes and Nobles, 1985). The theory about Shakespeare and the Queen's Men is developed by Eric Sams, The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 (New Haven: Yale, 1995); see especially chapter 14.

(27.) Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 109. Honan calls Honigmann's evidence for the sojourn among the Hoghtons and Heskeths "inconclusive" in his discussion of biographical traditions, yet earlier in the book he owes a good deal of a chapter (5) to this evidence which he treats in sympathetic terms.

(28.) Maclean and McMillin, The Queen's Men, 165.

(29.) John Astington, English Court Theatre 1558-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(30.) On page 89, Astington says this view is expounded by E. K. Chambers in his chapter on "Staging at Court" in volume II of The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), but I find no such thesis expressed in the chapter, which appears in volume 3, not in volume 2.

(31.) Astington, English Court Theatre, 164.

(32.) Astington, English Court Theatre, ii.

(33.) Alan Nelson, Early Cambridge Theatres (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 8.

(34.) "The London Stage in the 1580s," Elizabethan Theatre XI, 19-32; 22.

(35.) Nelson, Early Cambridge Theatres, 22.

(36.) See Chambers, Elizabethan Stage 3:408-9.

(37.) John R. Elliott, Jr., "Early Staging at Oxford," A New History of Early English Drama, 68-76; and Elliott, "Queen Elizabeth at Oxford: New Light on the Royal Plays in 1566," English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 218-29.

(38.) David Bevington, "Lyly's Endymion and Midas: The Catholic Question in England," Comparative Drama (Special Issue: "Drama and the English Reformation"), 32 (1998), 26-46.

(39.) Michael Pincombe, The Plays of John Lyly (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), viii-ix.

(40.) Kent Cartwright, "The Confusions of Gallathea: John Lyly as Popular Dramatist," Comparative Drama, 32 (1998): 207-39. The discussion is given a broader context in Cartwright's Theatre and Humanism: English Drama in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 167-93.

(41.) Pincombe, Plays of John Lyly, 16.

(42.) Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies, 222.

(43.) Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies, 222.

(44.) A. B. Grosart, ed., The Works of Gabriel Harvey, 3 vols. (London, 1884); cited in Gurr, Shakespearean Playing Companies, 222.

(45.) Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 3:412.

(46.) Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, chapter 3, "The Emergence of the University Wits."

(47.) Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, 31.

(48.) Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, 31; Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body. New York: Methuen, 1984; Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. New York: Methuen, 1985.

(49.) Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642, 33. See David Aers, "A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; Or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the `History of the Subject," Culture and History 1350-1600, ed. David Aers (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992); Katherine Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

(50.) Debora Kuller Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 119.

(51.) Patrick Cheney's Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, and Counter-Nationhood (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

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