I’ve been listening to a book called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt which is a biography of Shakespeare from a holistic world-view perspective. How did a provincial young boy, who was the son of a glover, who may or may not have been a recusant Catholic wind up being the most famous playwright in history? It looks at the environment surrounding Shakespeare, who his influences were, and the world in which he grew up and matured.
Goodreads reviews seem to be mixed on it – there is a lot of speculation along the lines of, “If Shakespeare was exposed to xyz, which we have no way of knowing if he was or not… it would have possibly affected him like this…” Which on one hand is infuriating if you’re trying to get to some facts about the man. But Shakespeare was incredibly private, left little in the way of records or letters, and there really isn’t that much to go on. The best you can do is try to speculate based on the facts you do know. For example, Queen Elizabeth spent a lovely holiday at Kenilworth, which was only a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Would he have had a chance to go see the spectacles of masques and celebrations when the Queen was in town? Who knows, but based on the role of his father it seems likely. And if so, then how might that have affected him? The reviewers seem really upset by this type of “biography” even going so far as to say that it should be labelled “historical fiction,” but I’m actually really quite enjoying it. Maybe if I was more of a Shakespeare fan, or had much knowledge of him beyond the Bill Bryson book I read several years ago, I’d feel the same.
One of the groups that keeps being mentioned is The Queen’s Men, a theater troupe with whom Shakespeare had worked. It was formed in 1583 with actors from other companies including the Earl of Leicester’s Men and Sussex’s Men, and the idea was to form a sort of fantasy-league team of actors. It’s interesting to think about how theater was developing in the Elizabethan world. Players, like the Queen’s Men and others, would travel around the countryside putting on plays, the way musicians go on tour now. The difference was that outsiders of any sort were generally frowned upon and looked at suspiciously, and so any touring troupe needed to have a letter of protection and introduction from someone very high-up who would be known and respected. So you couldn’t just roll into town like the carnival and start putting on plays. Oh no, you first needed to go to the Mayor’s house (or whoever the most important person in town was) and show him your letters of introduction. Then, when he gave you his blessing, you could start to announce your play and get things set up. You’d stay a few days, put on several shows, and move on, repeating the whole thing at the next town, until you had exhausted your stay in, say, Hertfordshire.
What makes the Queen’s Men interesting is that, besides their all-star lineup, they were put together by Francis Walsingham, who is famous in history as Queen Elizabeth’s Spymaster. I did a podcast on him over the summer – the guy had a serious ax to grind against Catholics, which really isn’t surprising given that he was in Paris for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when Catholics throughout France went running around willy-nilly killing Protestants, and then stopping for a pint in between. It had a huge affect on Protestants in England who became fearful that the Catholics were just waiting until the time was right to pull off their own St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. So Walsingham, who was a strict Protestant who has very little interest in the frippery of the theater puts together this troupe to go touring in the provinces, where Catholic spirit runs a lot higher. Hmmmmm.
Yep, it’s possible that the Queen’s Men were actually the Queen’s Spies who were sent round to find sleeper cells of Catholics. Which wouldn’t have been that unusual for the artistic scene in general – almost 50 years earlier Henry VIII was given a choirbook by Petrus Alamire, who was most definitely a musical spy – also not particularly unusual. So really, this whole post is starting to remind me a lot of the whole terrorism situation in Paris. The fear that Catholics were really ready to rise up and kill the Queen, and the Protestant population, thanks to the papal excommunication bull was real and tangible. Elizabethan Protestants lived in fear of it.
But back to the theater. Shakespeare almost certainly borrowed heavily on the plays performed by The Queen’s Men, specifically their histories. They did their own history of Richard III for example, way before Shakespeare made a hunchback villain who could barely walk (despite the historical record showing that he fought valiantly and bravely on the battlefield, which would have been hard, in a suit of armor, if he was really truly a hunchback). They also would have performed ideologically popular plays, plays which, like their history plays, showed a strong monarch who was able to govern effectively and fairly, even with outside threats all around.
Yeah, they were kind of a propaganda troupe. But they got paid well for it, they brought theater to more people, and they helped mold Shakespeare. They finally fell apart in the mid 1590’s as bubonic plague shut down all the theaters in London, and they were never really able to survive that economic blow. They’re a fascinating study in the role of the arts in smaller towns, and in espionage.