The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642

The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642

by Gerald Eades Bentley

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This book is a comprehensive study of the customary practices of English players of the period—how they lived and worked and were paid, organized, and cast for parts in the phenomenally popular theaters of England. Gerald Bentley discusses sharers, hired men, boy apprentices, musicians, touring groups, and managers, showing that players in general led

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This book is a comprehensive study of the customary practices of English players of the period—how they lived and worked and were paid, organized, and cast for parts in the phenomenally popular theaters of England. Gerald Bentley discusses sharers, hired men, boy apprentices, musicians, touring groups, and managers, showing that players in general led difficult but seriously professional lives.

Originally published in 1984.

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The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642

By Gerald Eades Bentley


Copyright © 1984 Gerald Eades Bentley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06596-0



The phenomenal popularity of English theatrical entertainment in the half century from 1590 to 1642 is vaguely known to many, though perhaps not fully realized even by many writers on dramatic subjects. During these years there were professional performances of English plays in English not only all over Britain, from Folkstone and St. Ives to Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, and even in France.

This unusual popularity of the London theater was recognized at the time by travellers. Fynes Moryson wrote in the second part of his Itinerary, licensed for printing on 14 June 1626:

The City of London alone hath four or five companies of players with their peculiar theatres capable of many thousands, wherein they all play every day in the week but Sunday, with most strange concourse of people. ... as there be, in my opinion, more plays in London than in all the parts of the world I have seen, so do these players or comedians excel all others in the world.

Though there were many amateur performances, especially in the schools, at local fetes, at noblemen's houses, and in nearly all the thirty or forty colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, the vast majority of the performances were in the hands of professionals. During this half century more than a thousand players are known by name. And it is likely that there were many others, for more than one hundred of these thousand named players are identified as such from the chance survival of only a single record. That record, usually a citation in a lawsuit or a parish register, sets down the profession of the man as "player" or "stage-player." New names keep turning up, and they are often those of men of some achievement in their profession. Simon Jewell, a sharer in Queen Elizabeth's company, was unheard of until Mary Edmonds published his will in 1974. Two sharers in Queen Anne's company were totally unknown until references to them were discovered in the testimony of the dramatist Thomas Heywood and of the distinguished player Richard Perkins in the 1623 Chancery suit of Ellis Worth and Thomas Blaney v. Susan Baskervile and William Browne. (See Chapter III, "Sharers.")

An enterprise so popular and so allegedly profitable as this inevitably developed certain standards or customs of organization, of procedure, of remuneration, of division of labor, of conduct, of hierarchy, of the acquisition of property, and even of providing for the widows of deceased members. These customs and the evidence for them are the subject of this book.

Generally speaking, the London professional players in the time of Elizabeth, James, and Charles were poor men, as they have been in almost all ages of the theater. This basic fact, reflected in the constant breaking up of companies and in the flight to provincial or foreign fields, has been somewhat obscured because a few widely celebrated players — perhaps twenty out of approximately one thousand performing in the time — are known to have accumulated respectable estates. One who amassed a proper fortune was Edward Alleyn, a very famous player. He retired from the stage before he was forty and spent the next twenty years or so building and renting theaters; buying and selling costumes, play scripts, houses, and land; running the Bear Garden as Master of the Royal Game of Bears, Bulls, and Mastiff Dogs; and administering Philip Henslowe's estate, most of which he inherited. He bought the manor of Dulwich and established Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich, furnishing it with an endowment that still supports it. Alleyn, however, was unique.

No other player is known to have amassed such a fortune in these years, though wills and various property transactions show that several players managed their investments well: John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Shakespeare, Christopher Beeston, Michael Bowyer, John Shank, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Greene.' These men who are known to have accumulated respectable estates, it must be noted, were all sharers, not hired men. At least six of the eight were housekeepers, i.e., owners of shares in theater buildings, as well as sharers; it is not unlikely that Thomas Greene also owned shares in the Red Bull, but no such direct evidence has survived. Furthermore, they had all belonged to major London companies: the Lord Admiral's men, the Lord Chamberlain-King's men, or the Queen's men. They did not come from the score or more minor London companies, nor from the many struggling provincial troupes.

The few "Elizabethan" players who became prosperous were not only members of the superior companies and usually housekeepers in theaters, but none of them is known to have been a hired man for any length of time. Hired men of all companies, members of minor troupes, and provincial players made up the bulk of actors in this period, and most of them were poor.

Though there was no London guild of players like those of the Cordwainers or Drapers or Stationers, the players used the general principles of guild organization common to the time. The organized acting companies of London did not employ the same names for their ranks as the Grocers, Stationers, or Merchant Tailors did. They divided themselves into apprentices, hired men, and sharers; the basic hierarchy was nevertheless similar to that of the guilds.

The players also differed from the older London guilds in that they had no central organization of all troupes in the profession, like that of the Lord Mayor and Council, and nothing like the tight organization of the regular guilds such as the Ironmongers or Stationers with their own system of Master and Court and set regulations for all units of the same trade. Of course they had nothing like the prestige of the Goldsmiths or Grocers and ho Hall of their own.

One of the consequences of this lack of professional organization and structure is that material concerning players of the time is not to be found in one place but is exasperatingly scattered through lawsuits, parish registers, licenses, plays, contracts, correspondence, financial accounts, letters, court orders, joke books, pamphlets, wills, prefaces, commendatory verses, prompt manuscripts, and sessions of the peace records.

Where the Players Lived

In London there were certain neighborhoods that were popular with players. A few are easy to identify because the clerks of those parishes frequently wrote the occupations of parishioners into their registers. As one would expect, the parishes favored by the players were close to theaters, and this proximity must have made rehearsals, special summonses, play readings, and new member consultations convenient.

The most certain of such districts was the Bankside, especially Paris Garden and the Clink, convenient to the Globe, the Hope, the Rose, the Swan, and rather less so to Newington Butts. The parish church was St. Saviour's, sometimes still called St. Mary Overies. The registers contain the names of many players, scores of them with their occupations named. This parish still preserves its old token books, so that for many players it is possible to ascertain the exact houses in which they lived.

Another popular players' neighborhood was St. Giles without Cripplegate, a very populous parish just outside the city walls, which included the Fortune theater. In the registers of this church the clerks also frequently mentioned the occupations of players, members of whose families were christened, married, or buried there. And so in St. Botolph's Aldgate. This parish was popular with players in the early period rather than the later because its nearby playing places fell into disuse early — the Bull Inn, the Bell Inn, the Cross Keys, The Theatre, and the Curtain.

Later a fairly popular area was the parish of St. Giles in the Fields, where in 1616 Christopher Beeston built the Phoenix, a playhouse which struggled on into the Restoration. A number of players lived near this theater, tenanted at different times by the Lady Elizabeth's men, Prince Charles's (I) company, Queen Henrietta's men, and for the last few years of the period by the King and Queen's Young company. Since the parish clerks at St. Giles in the Fields did not record occupations, the players can be identified with less certainty than in three of the other parishes, but several of the names of actors at the Phoenix or Cockpit are distinctive, and a number of others with less distinctive names probably represent players who are known to have performed at Beeston's house. Other parishers in which several players have been found to reside are St. James's Clerkenwell, St. Leonard's Shoreditch, St. Mary's Aldermanbury, and St. Anne's Blackfriars.

The Status of Players

A great deal has been written about the low status of the players' profession in Shakespeare's time, mostly bolstered by quotations from the moralists and some of the preachers of the sixteenth century. Of course the opposition to plays and playing cannot be doubted, but not quite so familiar is the fact that the status of players rose notably before the closing act of 1642; the general attitude toward the profession was not the same in 1635 as it had been in 1580.

In the late years of the reign of Elizabeth and throughout those of her two successors most of the players were no longer "masterless men," "rogues," and "vagabonds," though their enemies often called them so. All the London companies and a great many of the provincial ones held licenses or patents or charters which established their connections with some noble or royal household and assigned to them rights and privileges that could not have been claimed by the wanderers of the early sixteenth century. Opposition to the players had always been heard from certain elements in the city as well as in the country. But performers who carried a document with the seal of a great nobleman, like the Lord Chamberlain or (after 1603) that of the King or Queen or Prince, were not generally treated with the contempt some of the Puritan preachers or William Prynne would have liked.

Not without influence in the somewhat improved status of the players was the great increase in the number of times they were called to perform before royalty and the assembled court. While Elizabeth in the last decade of her reign summoned the companies to play before her four to eight times a year, twenty or more performances in a season were not exceptional in the time of James and Charles. Such displays at Whitehall and St. James's and Hampton Court were not unknown to the London populace, and the status of the performers was not lowered thereby.

Perhaps the most tangible impetus to the slowly altering status of the players was the publication of the Jonson folio in 1616. For many years the normal form of publication for those plays that did achieve print was cheap pamphlets looking like joke books, almanacs, coney-catching pamphlets, and other such ephemera, frequently with no author's name on the title page. In contrast this handsome Jonson folio volume was set up like a collection of sermons or The Works of King James, printed in the same year. Furthermore the individual plays were dedicated to persons of standing, like the great historian Camden and Lord Aubigny, Lady Wroth and the Earl of Pembroke. Never before had English plays been treated with such dignity.

But even more significant for the players was another innovation in the Jonson folio. Each of the nine tragedies and comedies in the volume was accompanied by a list of the names of the players who had created the principal roles; they are called either "Comœdians" or "Tragœdians." Such formal recognition for the lowly players had never been shown in an English book before. It was followed in a different form in the Shakespeare folio of 1623 and in the second Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1679.

Possibly of some influence in the gradual improvement of the status of the players was Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors in 1612 and Nathan Field's "Field the player's letter to Mr. Sutton, preacher at St. Mary Overs, 1616." Both works of these player-dramatists were reasonable and informed. Heywood's is bolstered with a good deal of classical evidence. Field's letter, first printed separately by Halliwell-Phillips in an issue of twenty-five copies in 1865, is pious with a good display of Biblical knowledge.

Another event that tended to enhance the status of the players in these years was Edward Alleyn's deed of foundation of his College of God's Gift at Dulwich in 1619. This deed was read before a gathering of notables in London. The influence of such an event was recognized by the contemporary historian, Sir Richard Baker. In his Chronicle of the Kings of England he wrote:

About this time also Edward Allen of Dulwich in Surrey founded a fair hospital at Dulwich. ... This man may be an example, who having gotten his wealth by stage playing converted it to this pious use, not without a kind of reputation to the Society of Players.

The rising status of the players — especially the King's men — is reflected about this same time in Ralph Crane's The Works of Mercy, 1621, in which the scrivener says:

And some employment hath my useful pen
Had 'mongst those civil, well-deserving men,
That grace the stage with honor and delight,
Of whose true honesties I much could write,
But will compress 't (as in a cask of gold)
Under the Kingly service they do hold.

It should be remembered, of course, that these remarks apply primarily, if not exclusively, to a few superior companies and their leading sharers, like Heminges and Condell who were longtime churchwardens at St. Mary's Aldermanbury. Though the whole profession of players was less vilified in the later days of James and the reign of Charles I, the hundreds of hired men and most of the provincial players were far from enjoying positions of dignity.


The Player and His Company

For the professional player in London during the years 1590-1642, the primary focus of his life was usually the theatrical troupe to which he was attached at the moment. One must say "at the moment," for life in the theater is always precarious. Only one troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's-King's company, had a continuous existence throughout the period; other troupes came and went, usually overwhelmed by their debts but sometimes dispersed because a theater landlord like Henslowe or Beeston or Meade or Langley had reason to expel them from the playhouse he owned. Since about twenty different commercial companies performed in London during this period at one time or another, the failure rate is striking. Even so, not nearly all the commercial companies were primarily metropolitan ones. Well over a hundred troupes are known to have been touring in the provinces at some time during these years, and the majority of them are never heard of in London.

All normal London commercial companies of adult players in these years were made up of the same three groups: sharers, hired men, and boys or apprentices. Of course there were many changes as the years passed and prosperity and inflation increased. Since all troupes were repertory companies whose principal assets were their costumes and their exclusive library of dramatic scripts, most of the plays were kept out of print — at least until they were obsolete or the failing company was forced to sell its most precious assets in order to eat. The Red Bull and the Blackfriars theaters in the Caroline period tended to draw the preponderance of their audiences from different social classes, so there were differences in the play requirements of different theaters and in the requisites of their performers. Jig dancers were long in demand at the Fortune, seldom if ever at the Blackfriars.


Excerpted from The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642 by Gerald Eades Bentley. Copyright © 1984 Gerald Eades Bentley. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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