- Shakespeare's Other Career
W. R. Streitberger
Oxford University Press
http://global.oup.com 319 Pages; Print, $99.00
While this book might seem an unusual choice to showcase for readers of the ABR, its concluding chapters clearly illustrate that this is a time in historical studies when Shakespeare's career and his place within the commercial theater are being radically re-evaluated. It used to be thought that William Shakespeare didn't really have a career in the modern sense, or perhaps even discernible work habits. There was no mug of designer coffee to stimulate the Muses, no Varidesk to ease lower back pain. Instead, he was off in a lofty garret conjuring up astonishing poetry.
Of course, Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love (1998) has done much to promote this kind of image, while older critical studies, concerned with the arc of Shakespeare's productive output—the period of great tragedies or daughter comedies—bypass entirely the subject of the dramatist's workaday life. We know full well that the company for which Shakespeare wrote and acted was invited to perform, with some regularity, at the court, especially in the years between roughly 1593 and 1613, bridging the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI and I. Yet until recently, we have held on to old notions concerning the interface between public and court performances, concluding—quite erroneously, it seems—that the large commercial playhouses, such as the Globe, were the primary concern of playwrights, and performing at court was something of a frill, occurring only periodically and reaching but a small, select audience.
Now, creating a surge of fascination and surprise seldom generated by academic books, comes W. W. Streitberger's Masters of the Revels and Elizabeth's Court Theatre, a study much anticipated in a series of essays published previously by the author that broached a subject of much greater complexity and significance than scholars formerly imagined. Not only does it turn out that the Masters of the Revels (in the simplest terms, royally-appointed officers who managed court entertainments) had responsibility for the scheduling of court performances and the power of censorship over plays performed at the public playhouses, but they were men with a substantial knowledge of drama and performance whose functions were numerous. They also interacted with acting companies in a spirit of collaboration in order to promote the aesthetic and artistic sides of performances, rather than spending their time as the censors of commercial theater.
Streitberger's history begins in the first years of Elizabeth I's reign when she inherited a revels office in which the entertainments (whether bear-baiting matches, martial exhibitions, or theatrical displays) were all managed by one court officer, Sir Thomas Cawarden, a master with loosely-defined duties. This was before the development of the professionalized playing companies and the construction of purpose-built playhouses. During Cawarden's era, a few small companies, patronized by aristocrats and with a limited repertory of interludes (largely short morality plays), would perform at court during the weeks after Christmas, through January, and during the period leading up to Lent. At other times they might perform in the great houses of their patrons, on special occasions, and on tour in the guild halls or inn yards of provincial cities. The theatrical businesses of Shakespeare's day didn't yet exist, and the early playing companies were a bit like entertainment on demand. Consequently, Cawarden's physical and administrative "offices" were rudimentary, consisting of workspace and storage space for costumes and properties (located in various buildings within dissolved monastic structures located in and around London); housing for a few underofficers hired to assist Cawarden; livery for the officers; and some modest rehearsal space for the players. Cawarden paid expenses from an allowance set aside by the exchequer and grossly overspent his budget.
As to the plays performed, Cawarden engaged his office in a serious agenda. From the first year court entertainments "were put directly in the service of politics and diplomacy, some to call attention to the suitors for...