- The Shakespeare Company: 1594–1642
The Shakespeare Company: 1594–1642 is a comprehensive and definitive study by an eminent scholar whose expertise includes the history of acting, staging, and criticism of Shakespearean drama.
Shakespeare's acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, gained stature and stability in 1594, when the Lord Mayor of London, wishing to ban all players from London, devised a plan to allocate each company to suburban playhouses. [End Page 742] The two most popular companies at that time would henceforth be identified with particular venues. The Theater and The Curtain, built by James Burbage in Finsbury Fields north of London, became the main London venues of The Lord Chamberlain's until 1598, when they moved and built the Globe on the south bank of the Thames. The Rose, also in Bankside, housed "The Lord Admiral's Men," managed by Philip Henslowe, who shortly after also moved his company to a new venue at the Fortune Theater, northwest of the City. This created a "duopoly" which dominated the English Stage in Elizabeth's time and that of the Stuarts (1603), when both companies came under Royal patronage, Shakespeare's being renamed, "The King's Men." This book, however, does not end discussion of the company with its demise, along with that of the Monarchy, in 1642. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he prolonged the duopoly — no doubt influenced by Louis XIV's iron control of theater in Paris — by establishing two new companies: The King's Company and The Duke's Company. Gurr describes this as the "afterlife" of the company, since it sustained and developed theater traditions established before the Restoration: namely, maintaining a canon of English classics (sometimes grudgingly performed as "old plays"), the creation of new plays to fit the changing fashions, and the diverse processes involved in staging drama and lyric theater.
In discussing the daily work of the company, Gurr emphasizes that anElizabethan acting company demanded teamwork. He claims it "is misleading to pick out individual members as the key creative forces" (18). The (eight-to-ten) shareholders in the company, several of who were the "master actors," owned not only the building, but also performance and copyrights, play scripts, and properties. The uniquely progressive and democratic nature of the company helped shape its spirit and repertoire. Though William Shakespeare became the "resident playwright" and Burbage's son Richard the lead actor, this did not diminish the democratic nature of the enterprise. With its increased popularity and unique form of governance, the company gained ascendancy over its rival, which had the more traditional structure of ownership by the "housekeeper," Philip Henslowe, for whom the actors worked. In 1608 Richard Burbage and the company increased their power by permanently obtaining a second venue: the "private" theater in Blackfriars Monastery, which they had used only intermittently before and which catered to the upper classes. This influenced the selection of repertoire, the style of comedy, the politically relevant content of tragedy, and even the use of dances, music, and scenery for the aristocratic audience. The Blackfriars connection and especially the company's designation as servants of the king added to developing a more conservative repertoire. Gurr points out the paradox that the most democratic theatrical organization increasingly became the most conservative because of its dependence upon the monarchy. In his overview of the long list of The King's Men's productions, Gurr points to the uniquely adventuresome presentations of Richard II during the Essex Rebellion and a strong critique of Jacobean policy in A Game at Chess in 1624. A theater historian, or at least many a theater-history buff, will revel in a veritable feast of detail, ranging from actors' choices of southern [End Page 743] or northern accents on the stage, tables of annual revenue for the company, sizes of audiences, the fortunes of favorite playwrights like Shirley, Massinger, Marston, and Webster who outshone Shakespeare, for a time, and Davenant's gradual transition from...