The Lord Chamberlain's Man: 1594–1603

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Date: 2015
The Shakespeare Book
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Series: Big Ideas Simply Explained
Document Type: Biography; Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Lord Chamberlain's Man: 1594–1603

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By the time the theaters reopened after the plague epidemic of 1592–94, the literary success Shakespeare had achieved with the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1594 helped him engineer a uniquely secure position in the theater world.

With the theaters back in business, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, reconstituted his theater company as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It brought together leading actors of the day, such as the tragedian Richard Burbage, who would launch some of Shakespeare's greatest roles; the clown William Kemp, who triumphed as the comic creation Falstaff; and Shakespeare himself. Crucially, the leading actors all owned shares in the company; Shakespeare had a 10 percent stake.

That stake ensured Shakespeare had an income of between £200 and £700 ($325 and $1000) a year—by no means a fortune, but far above any other playwright's earnings. Shakespeare chose to live frugally, renting various places to live in London, and by 1597, he had saved enough to buy his family a large house in Stratford—New Place. He went on to buy land nearby, and even a coat of arms.

Creative drive

Creative drive

Shakespeare's position in the company gave him a platform for his plays—and he made the most of it. In the two-year break caused by the plague, he had honed his poetic and dramatic skills, and over the next nine years, he wrote 17 plays, ranging from the romantic comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night to the stirring history of Henry V and the tragedy of Hamlet. Many thousands packed the theater to watch them.

Evidence for the dating of the early plays is limited, but reference to several of Shakespeare's plays is made by the little-known writer Francis Meres in a book called Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury published in 1598. Meres asserts that “Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labour's Lost, his Love Labour's Won, his Midsummer's Night Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.” Thus scholars have been given a date by which all of these plays must have been written.

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Theater on the edge

Although the Lord Chamberlain's Men often performed before the queen, theater life was precarious. The company was always playing cat-and-mouse with authorities keen to control what they saw as salacious entertainment, and theaters stayed on marginal land beyond the city walls. In 1598, the landlord of a Shoreditch playhouse known as The Theatre demanded a huge rise in rent, then decided to tear down the building altogether. Shakespeare's company secretly dismantled it beam by beam and carried the timbers over the river to Southwark to erect a new theater, The Globe, which was owned by the company. The Globe was an instant triumph. In its opening year, 1599, it saw performances of Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Henry V, and Hamlet. The company's worries, however, went beyond capricious landlords. Theater at this time could be political dynamite, and actors faced a constant battle to get scripts past the Master of the Revels, who vetted every play.

Dangerous times

Just how far this censorship went is clear from the cuts made to the script of Sir Thomas More. This play, which Shakespeare had a hand in but which has several authors, portrays the Chancellor of King Henry VIII, who refused to grant the king a divorce, in a favorable light. Some have argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic rebel, who stuffed his plays with coded symbols designed to evade the censor but convey a powerful message to anyone who understood them. If this is true, he was playing a risky game. It is true that the Lord Chamberlain's Men were not afraid of political controversy. On February 7, 1601, Sir Gelly Meyrick, acting on behalf of the Earl of Essex, commissioned a special performance of Richard II at The Globe, including the scenes in which the monarch is deposed and murdered—scenes too incendiary to publish at the time. The performance went ahead, and the very next day the Earl of Essex led a small army toward Whitehall Palace to bring down the queen and replace her with James VI of Scotland. Essex's revolution ended in farce and the Earl was executed. It could all have turned out badly for Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men, but somehow they managed to escape punishment.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6240800020