A SERVANT OF THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN
I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream.
( Falstaff, 1 Henry IV)
In the bleak, cold spring of 1594, plague abated in southern England and players returned under grey skies to London. Few people could remember such an odd, dismal spring. The past two years had punished the acting troupes; none had thrived on the road and plague had brought total chaos to the entertainment world. Pembroke's men had broken up and had sold their playbooks, which thus came into print like debris from a sinking ship. Keen to advertise themselves, it seems, and stay afloat, other troupes released plays for publication. Hertford's small troupe faltered, and after losing their own patron, Sussex's men disbanded. Then, on 16 April, Ferdinando Lord Strange (lately fifth Earl of Derby) died in such bizarre circumstances that it was rumoured he had been poisoned, as likely he was, and his death, a few months after that of the Earl of Sussex, meant the theatre had lost two of its keenest patrons. Ferdinando's troupe performed in the name of his widow, the Dowager Countess Alice -- who will concern us -- but his death was like a bad omen. Cold skies, moreover, foretold a poor grain harvest (the first of four utterly disastrous annual failures) with rising prices and new hardships.
So far, Shakespeare had kept his options open: in the letter accompanying Lucrece he looks ahead to writing poems, not more dramas, while implying he will accept patronage. In May the government interfered -- as if a giant were regrouping the children in a vast urban