- The Shakespeare Company: 1594-1642
Over several decades Professor Gurr has made a considerable contribution to our understanding of the context of playing in Shakespeare's time. The most obvious form this has taken is a wealth of articles and his various books, including: The Shakespearean Stage, 1576 -1642; Playgoing in Shakespeare's London and The Shakespearean Playing Companies. Another equally important contribution, for modern playgoer and academic alike, is the New Globe theatre on the London Bankside. In the United Kingdom Gurr was the great academic champion of this reconstruction and both the theatre itself and its related exhibition benefit from his scholarly efforts. I mention this here to suggest that his interest in Shakespeare has always emphasized the practical aspects of playing. He understands that it was the particular contexts – the size and shape of the stage, the nature of the audience, the relationship with the patron, company organization and economic necessities – that shaped performances, rather than the words written by even the most celebrated playwright. As he suggests in the Preface of this latest work: 'there is strong evidence to show that even Shakespeare, himself a company co-owner and a performer of his own scripts, never expected his texts to be transferred to the stage as he wrote them'.
Gurr's focus in this latest book is to examine the history of the playing company, known from 1594 as the Lord Chamberlain's Men and from 1603, until the closing of the theatres in 1642, as The King's Men. The Chamberlain's Men were deliberately set up with Shakespeare's plays in their repertoire (the other company in the duopoly, The Admiral's Men, secured Marlowe's), so Gurr uses the playwright's name to characterize the company. He is aware of an irony here, because, not only does much of his hard information come from the later Jacobean and Caroline period, but as he admits: 'in many respects it is Fletcher [End Page 139] rather than Shakespeare who stands at the heart of the company repertory for its last thirty years'. He admits it would be almost one hundred years after he retired from the stage that the plays of Shakespeare gained in performance the primacy they have held ever since.
Gurr once offered this revealing description of his own work: 'I use sketch-pad metaphors because my object is to put together a picture…it has to be a sketch because it is ultimately a subjective exercise.' (Preface to the Second Edition of The Shakespearean Stage). By adding further details he believed he could make the sketch more complete. There is a problem associated with this way of proceeding. Gurr's great skill is in creating a complex narrative overview of his subject from the array of facts, but because he is constantly adding to the sketch, there will always be much that we have read before.
The current work is basically in three parts. The first three chapters consider the economic and social conditions in which the company played, the next three the repertory of plays the company performed, their relationship with their Royal patron and their 'afterlife', a quick look at the company's fortunes after the Restoration. The final third of the book is given over to six appendices in which factual information is deployed: biographical details of the company's various players; documents about the company, including in full the important papers relating to the sharers dispute of 1635; the details of all the plays performed; a list of the surviving printed playtexts, and dates of Court performances. While much of this information has been published elsewhere, it is valuable to have it gathered together here in one place. Gurr's 'sketch' approach also means that there is much ground in this new book that we have seen him cover before. The history of the setting up of the Chamberlain's Men, the effect of James Burbage being refused permission to play at the Blackfriars and the building...