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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (2000) 277-292

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The Globe and Henry V as Business Document

Melissa D. Aaron

Early modern dramatic texts have been read as political documents, aesthetic statements, and instruments for social change, but they were also the property of a working company, as Roslyn Lander Knutson and others have pointed out. 1 In order to assess the place of these texts in early modern culture, it is critical to understand their economic value and impact. A play and its economic workings can reveal a great deal about the daily business of a theatrical company and about that company's relation to London markets and culture. A Shakespeare dramatic text, such as Henry V, can, therefore, be read in a detailed economic context, exposing possible commercial pressures upon and opportunities for the Chamberlain's or King's Men and opening up new interpretations.

I begin from the following assumptions: early modern plays are in their primary state in performance and are recoverable only in an incomplete archeological sense. Since I am emphasizing the text I shall be discussing in its performed state and in its function as an owned, saleable commodity, one might well call it the Chamberlain's Men's play, to stress its joint ownership, rather than Shakespeare's play. I also suggest that when a play added a new prop or a new actor, when it was revived or performed in a different locale, it sometimes underwent such a change that it almost became a different play. In these assertions I agree with Stephen Orgel. 2

Henry V, positioned during the critical move from the Theatre to the Globe, can serve as a case study for this kind of economic close reading. It tells a story of continual repositioning, good and bad decisions, business errors, and the workings of a company that was trying to succeed financially but was far from assured of success. From 1598 through 1599, the [End Page 277] Chamberlain's Men dealt with a series of difficulties. One of these difficulties was related to politics: the company's choice of Henry V as a topic, assuming that it would be topical and popular, and the subsequent return of the earl of Essex in defeat. But most of the company's problems were internal and economic. 3 The search for a theatrical home took up most of the company's energy, through the Blackfriars financial fiasco, in the bitter battles with Giles Allen over their lease (which resulted in pulling down the Theatre), and through their commissioning of Peter Street to build a new theater in Southwark, the Globe. Another major blow was the departure of William Kempe from the company. Henry V shows the strains of making a series of accommodations to fit financial and internal crises: casting changes, location changes, and changes in topical references. These accommodations can be seen in the prologues, in the accommodations to the casting, in the break from 2 Henry IV, and finally, quite possibly, in the "Bad" Quarto text of 1600.

In 1597, James Burbage died, leaving his sons' capital invested in the Blackfriars Theater. He had bought the Blackfriars on 4 February 1595/96. 4 His plans to move the company there had been frustrated by the petition of the inhabitants, including the company's own patron, Lord Hunsdon:

[W]hereas one Burbage hath lately bought certaine roomes in the same precinct neere adjoyning unto the dwelling houses of the right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine and the Lord of Hunsdon, which romes the said Burbage is now altering and meaneth very shortly to convert and turne the same into a comon playhouse, which will grow to be a very great annoyance and trouble . . . both by reason of the great resort and gathering togeather of all manner of vagrant and lewde persons that, under cullor of resorting to the playes, will come thither and worke all manner of mischeefe, and allso to the great pestring and filling up of the same precinct, yf it should...


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