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The most interesting and important fifteen years in the records of English dramatic literature are undoubtedly those between 1588 and 1603, within which limit all of Shakespeare’s poems and the majority of his plays were written; yet no exhaustive English history, intelligently co-ordinating the social, literary, and political life of this period, has ever been written.

Froude, the keynote of whose historical work is contained in his assertion that “the Reformation was the root and source of the expansive force which has spread the Anglo-Saxon race over the globe,” recognising a logical and dramatic climax for his argument in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, ends his history in that year; while Gardiner, whose historical interest was as much absorbed by the Puritan Revolution as was Froude’s by the Reformation, finds a fitting beginning for his subject in the accession of James I. in 1603. Thus an historical hiatus is left which has never been exhaustively examined. To the resulting lack of a clearly defined historical background for those years on the part of Shakespearean critics and compilers who are not as a rule also students of original sources of history may be imputed much of the haziness which still exists regarding Shakespeare’s relations to, and the manner in which his work may have been influenced by, the literary, social, and political life of this period.

The defeat of the Armada ended a long period of threatened danger for England, and the following fifteen years of Elizabeth’s reign were passed in comparative security. The social life of London and the Court now took on, by comparison with the troubled past, an almost Augustan phase. During these years poetry and the drama flourished in England as they never did before, or since, in any such space of time. Within a few years of the beginning of this time Shakespeare became the principal writer for, and later on a sharer in, a company of players which, at about the same time, was chosen as the favourite Court company; a position which under various titles it continued to hold thereafterwards for over forty years.

When we compare the plays of Shakespeare with those of his contemporaries and immediate successors, it becomes evident that this dominant position was maintained by his company largely through the superior merit of his work while he lived, and by the prestige he had attained for it after he had passed away.

In the time of Elizabeth the stage was recognised as one of the principal vehicles for the reflection of opinion concerning matters of public interest; the players being, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” The fact that laws were passed and Orders in Council issued prohibiting the representation of matters of Church or State upon the stage, clearly implies the prevalence of such representations. It is altogether unlikely that the most popular dramatist of the day should, in this phase of his art, have remained an exception to the rule.

I hold it to have been impossible that such an ardent Englishman as Shakespeare, one also so deeply interested in human motive, character, and action, should have lived during these fifteen years in the heart of English literary and political life, coming, through his professional interests, frequently and closely in contact with certain of its central figures, and should during this interval have written twenty original plays, three long poems, and over one hundred and fifty sonnets, without leaving in this work decipherable reflections of the characters and movements of his time. That these conscious, or unconscious, reflections have not long ago been recognised and interpreted I impute to the lack of an intimate knowledge of contemporary history on the part of the majority of his critics and biographers.

Competent text critics, in their efforts to establish the chronological order of the dramas, have long since displayed the facts that Shakespeare’s earlier original plays were largely comedies of a joyous nature, and that, as the years pass, his work becomes more serious and philosophical; in time developing into the pessimistic bitterness of Lear and Timon of Athens, but softening and lightening, at the end of his career, in the gravely reflective but kindly mood of Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest; yet no serious attempt has ever been made to trace and demonstrate in the personal contact of the writer with concurrent life the underlying spiritual causes of these very palpable changes in his expression of it. Until this is done no adequate life of Shakespeare can be written.

Now, in order to be enabled to find in Shakespeare’s personal observation and experience the well-springs of the plainly developing and deepening reflections of human life in action, so evident in his dramas when studied chronologically, a sound knowledge of contemporary social, literary, and political history is the first essential; possessing this, the serious student will soon realise in the likenesses between Shakespeare’s dramatic expression, and his concurrent possibilities of observation and experience, that he portrayed life as he himself saw and felt it, and that he used the old and hackneyed stories and chronicles which he selected for his plots, not because he lacked the power of dramatic construction, but in order to hide the underlying purposes of his plays from the public censor. While no intelligent student needs any other warrant for this belief than the plays themselves, when chronologically co-ordinated with even an elementary knowledge of the history of the period, we have Shakespeare’s own assertion that this was the actual method and spirit of his work. When he tells us in Hamlet that “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” he is not attempting to describe the dramatic methods of ancient Denmark, but is definitely expounding the functions of dramatic exposition as they prevailed in actual use in his own day, and as he himself had then exercised them for over ten years.

Any attempt to visualise Shakespeare in his contemporary environment, and spiritually to link his work year by year with the life of his time, would be impossible unless there can first be attained a far clearer idea than now exists of his theatrical connections, the inception of his dramatic work, and of the literary and social affiliations he formed and antagonisms he aroused, during his first six or eight years in London. The purpose of this book is by casting new light upon this period of Shakespeare’s career to show the inception and development of conditions and influences which continued from that time forward materially to affect his and his friends’ lives, and in turn to shape and colour the expression of life in action which he gives us in his works.

Though there is nothing known definitely concerning Shakespeare between 1587 when his name is mentioned in a legal document at Stratford regarding the transfer of property in which he held a contingent interest and which possibly infers his presence in Stratford at that date and 1592, when Robert Greene alludes to him in his posthumously published A Groatsworth of Wit, it is usually assumed that he left Stratford in 1586 or 1587 with a company of players, or else that he joined a company in London at about that time.

As the Earl of Leicester’s company is recorded as having visited Stratford-upon-Avon in 1587, some time before 14th June, and as James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage, with whom we find Shakespeare closely affiliated in later years, was manager of the Earl of Leicester’s company as late as 1575, the year before he built the Theatre at Shoreditch, it is generally assumed that he was still manager of this company in 1586-87, and that Shakespeare became connected with him by joining Leicester’s company at this time. This assumption is, however, somewhat involved by another, nebulously held by some critics, i.e., that James Burbage severed his connection with Leicester’s company in 1583, and joined the Queen’s company, and that the latter company played under his management at the Theatre in Shoreditch for several years afterwards. It is further involved by the equally erroneous assumption that Burbage managed the Curtain along with the Theatre between 1585 and 1592.

Certain biographical compilers also assert that Shakespeare, having joined the Earl of Leicester’s company, continued to be connected with it under its supposed varying titles until the end of his London career, and that he was never associated with any other company. They assume that Leicester’s company merged with Lord Strange’s company of acrobats in 1589, the combination becoming known as Lord Strange’s players; and that when this company left James Burbage and the Theatre, in 1592, for Philip Henslowe and the Rose Theatre, that Shakespeare accompanied them and worked for Henslowe both as a writer and an actor. They suppose that Edward Alleyn became the manager of a combination of the Admiral’s company and Strange’s men for a “short period,” but that the companies “soon parted,” “Strange’s men continuing with Henslowe for a prolonged period." It is also asserted that “the Rose Theatre was the first scene of Shakespeare’s successes alike as an actor and a dramatist,” and that he “helped in the authorship of The First Part of Henry VI., with which Lord Strange’s company scored a triumphant success in 1592."

These assumptions, which were advanced tentatively by former scholars and merely as working hypotheses, have now, by repetition and the dogmatic dicta of biographical compilers, come to be accepted by the uncritical as ascertained facts.

While it is now generally accepted that Greene’s “Shake-scene” alludes to Shakespeare, and that his parody of a line from The True Tragédie:

“O Tyger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide”

denotes some connection of Shakespeare’s with either The True Tragédie of the Duke of York, or with The Third Part of Henry VI. before September 1592, when Greene died, and while the title-page of the first issue of The True Tragédie of the Duke of York informs us that this play was acted by the Earl of Pembroke’s company, and no mention of the play appears in the records of Henslowe, under whose financial management Shakespeare is supposed to have been working with Strange’s company in 1592, nothing has ever been done to elucidate Shakespeare’s evident connection with this play or with the Earl of Pembroke’s company at this period.

In the same year 1592 Nashe refers to the performance by Lord Strange’s company under Henslowe of The First Part of Henry VI., and praises the work of the dramatist who had recently incorporated the Talbot scenes, which are plainly the work of a different hand from the bulk of the remainder of the play. This also is generally accepted as a reference to Shakespeare and as indicating his connection with Henslowe as a writer for the stage. It is erroneously inferred from this supposed evidence, and from the fact that Richard Burbage was with Strange’s company in 1592, that Shakespeare also acted with and wrote for this company under Henslowe.

No explanation has ever been given for the palpable fact that not one of the plays written by Shakespeare the composition of which all competent text critics impute to the years 1591 to 1594 is mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary as having been presented upon his boards. It is generally agreed that The Comedy of Errors, King John, Richard II., Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III., and Midsummer Night’s Dream, were all produced before the end of 1594, yet there is no record nor mention of any one of these plays in Henslowe’s Diary, which gives a very full list of the performances at the Rose and the plays presented between 1592 and 1594.

During the same years in which records of Shakespeare are lacking they are also very limited regarding Edward Alleyn, whose reputation as an actor and whose leadership in his profession were won during these years 1586-92. Nothing is at present known concerning him between 1584, when he is mentioned in the Leicester records as a member of the Earl of Worcester’s company, and 3rd January 1589, when he bought Richard Jones’ share of theatrical properties, owned conjointly by Edward Alleyn, John Alleyn, Robert Browne, and Richard Jones. As Edward Alleyn, Robert Browne, and Richard Jones were all members of Worcester’s company in 1584, it is erroneously assumed that they were still Worcester’s men in 1589, and that it was Jones’ share in the Worcester properties that Alleyn bought at this time to take with him to the Admiral’s company, which he is consequently supposed to have joined some time between 1589 and 1592. The next record we have of Alleyn is his marriage to Joan Woodward, Henslowe’s stepdaughter, in October 1592. In the following May we find him managing Lord Strange’s company in the provinces, though styling himself a Lord Admiral’s man. Where, then, was Edward Alleyn between 1585 and 1589; where between 1589 and 1593; and when did he become a Lord Admiral’s man?

Worcester’s company, with which Alleyn was connected in 1584, is last mentioned in the records as appearing at Barnstaple in 1585; it then disappears from view for five years, and is next mentioned in the provincial records as appearing at Coventry in 1590. Between 1590 and 1603 it is mentioned regularly in the provincial records. Where was Worcester’s company between 1585 and 1590?

I propose to demonstrate by new evidence and analysis that James Burbage ceased to be an active member of Leicester’s company soon after he took on the responsibilities of the management of the Theatre; but continued his theatrical employees under Leicester’s protection as Lord Leicester’s musicians until 1582, when he began to work under the licence of Lord Hunsdon, his company being composed of his own employees and largely of musicians, to act as an adjunct to the companies to whom, from time to time, he let the use of the Theatre during the absence in the provinces of the companies, such as Leicester’s and the Admiral’s, with which I shall give evidence he held more permanent affiliations, and, seeing that he was owner and manager of the Theatre, that these affiliations were somewhat similar to those maintained by Henslowe the owner of the Rose Theatre with Lord Strange’s company between 1592 and 1594, and with the Lord Admiral’s, and other companies, at the several theatres he controlled in later years. I shall indicate that from the time Burbage built the Theatre in 1576 until early in 1585, he maintained such a connection with Leicester’s company, and shall show that the disruption of this company in 1585 by the departure of seven of their principal members for the Continent where they remained until July 1587 necessitated a similar connection with some other good company to take its place, and that he now secured Edward Alleyn and his fellows, who, ceasing to be Worcester’s men at this time, and securing the licence of the Lord Admiral, affiliated themselves with the remnant of Leicester’s men and joined Burbage and Lord Hunsdon’s men at the Theatre. In this year the latter became the Lord Chamberlain’s men through the elevation of Lord Hunsdon to that office. These companies, while retaining individual licences, continued to play when in London as one company until the end of 1588, or beginning of 1589, when another reorganisation took place, a number of the old men being eliminated and new blood being taken in from the restored Leicester company and Lord Strange’s company of youthful acrobats, who had now become men. I shall give evidence that this organisation continued to work as one company for the next three years, though the Admiral’s men still retained their own licence, and consequently that the company as a whole is at times mentioned in both Court and provincial records under one title and at times under the other. The principal reason that a number of companies, combining at a London theatre as one company, preserved their several licences was no doubt the greater protection afforded them by the patronage of several powerful noblemen against the hostility of puritanically inclined municipal authorities. Recorder Fleetwood, who was noted as an enemy of the players, in his weekly reports on civic affairs to Lord Burghley, frequently complains of the stoppage by Court influence of his prosecutions of alleged offenders. Upon one occasion he writes: “When the Court is farthest from London then is the best justice done in England.”

Some time between the beginning of 1591 and the end of that year, James Burbage’s disfavour with certain of the authorities, as well as legal and financial difficulties in which he became involved, made it necessary for the combined companies, which in December 1591 had attained to the position of the favourite Court company, to seek more convenient quarters and stronger financial backing than Burbage and the Theatre afforded. Under its various titles Strange’s company continued to be the leading Court company for the next forty years. I shall indicate the probability that Strange’s company in supplanting the Queen’s company at Court at this time also supplanted it at the Rose Theatre, which was built by Henslowe in 1587 as a theatre. Henslowe repaired and reconstructed it late in 1591 and early in 1592 for the uses of Strange’s men. I will show the unlikelihood that this was Henslowe’s first venture in theatrical affairs, and the probability that the Queen’s players, under his financial management, occupied the Rose Theatre from the time it was built in 1587 until they were superseded by Strange’s men in 1591.

I shall also give evidence that Shakespeare did not accompany Strange’s men to Henslowe and the Rose, but that he remained with Burbage, who backed him in the formation of Pembroke’s company, and that he and Marlowe wrote for this company until Marlowe was killed in 1593, and that Shakespeare was probably its sole provider of plays from the time of Marlowe’s death until the company disrupted early in 1594. I shall show further that during the time Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote for Pembroke’s company, and for some years later, George Peele revised old and wrote new plays for Henslowe and Alleyn, and that it was he that revised Henry VI. and introduced the Talbot scene in 1592, and consequently that it was to Peele, and not to Shakespeare, that Nashe’s praises were given at this time. Evidence shall be given to show that Nashe was antagonistic to Shakespeare and co-operated with Greene against him at this period.

It shall be made clear that Titus Andronicus, which was acted as a new play by Sussex’s company under Henslowe on 23rd January 1594, was also written by Peele, or rewritten from Titus and Vespasian, which is now lost, but which being written for Strange’s men in the previous year we may assume was also Peele’s, or else his first revision of a still older play.

Some time before the middle of 1594 a new reorganisation of companies took place, the Admiral’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s separating and absorbing men from Pembroke’s and Sussex’s companies, which ceased to exist as active entities at this time, though a portion of Pembroke’s men while working with the Admiral’s men between 1594 and 1597 retained their own licence and attempted to operate separately in the latter year, but, failing, returned to Henslowe and became Admiral’s men. A few of their members whom Langley, the manager of the Swan Theatre, had taken from them, struggled on as Pembroke’s men for a year or two and finally disappeared from the records.

A consideration of the affairs of Lord Strange’s men now the Lord Chamberlain’s men while under Henslowe’s financial management between 1592 and 1594, and of Pembroke’s company’s circumstances during the same period, with their enforced provincial tours owing to the plague in London, will show that these were lean years for both organisations, and for the men composing them; yet in December 1594 as is shown by the Court records of March 1595 Shakespeare appears as a leading sharer in one of the most important theatrical companies in England. I shall advance evidence to show that his position in this powerful company, and its apparent prosperity at this time, were due to financial assistance accorded him in 1594 by his patron, the Earl of Southampton, to whom in this year he dedicated Lucrece, and in the preceding year Venus and Adonis.

If these hypotheses be demonstrated it shall appear that though Shakespeare, as Burbage’s employee in the conduct of the Theatre, had theatrical relations with the Earl of Leicester’s company that he was not a member of that company, and that if he may be regarded as having become a member of any company in 1586-87, when he came to London, he was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company, which was owned by James Burbage, but as a bonded and hired servant or servitor to James Burbage for a term of years which ended in about 1589; that his work with Burbage from the time he entered his service was of a general nature, and more of a literary and dramatic than of an histrionic character, though it undoubtedly partook of both; that he worked in conjunction with both Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn from the time he came to London in 1586-87 until 1591; that neither he nor Burbage were connected with the Queen’s company, nor with the Curtain Theatre, during these years, and that the ownership by the Burbage organisation of a number of old Queen’s plays resulted from their absorption of Queen’s men in 1591, when Pembroke’s company was formed, and not from the supposed fact that James Burbage was at any time a member or the manager of the Queen’s company; that Robert Greene’s attack upon Shakespeare as “the onely Shake-scene,” in 1592, was directed at him as the manager of Pembroke’s company; that the Rose Theatre was not “the scene of Shakespeare’s pronounced success, both as a writer and a dramatist,” and that in fact he never was connected with that theatre, nor with Henslowe, either as a writer or an actor; that Nashe’s laudation of the Talbot scenes in Henry VI. was complimentary to his friend Peele, and that whatever additions Shakespeare may have made to this play were made after he rejoined the Lord Chamberlain’s men in 1594; that he had no hand in the composition of Titus Andronicus, acted by Sussex’s company and published in 1594, which is the same as that now generally included in Shakespeare’s plays; and finally that his business ability and social and dramatic prestige restored Burbage’s waning fortunes and enabled his new organisation to compete successfully with the superior political favour and financial power of Henslowe and Alleyn, and started it upon its prolonged career of Court and public favour.

As a clear conception of Shakespeare’s theatrical affiliations between 1586 and 1594 has not hitherto been realised so a knowledge of his relations with contemporary writers during his entire career still remains nebulous. Greene’s attack in 1592 in A Groatsworth of Wit and Chettle’s apology are the only things regarding Shakespeare’s early relations with other writers that have been generally accepted by critics. Until the publication of Shakespeare and the Rival Poet in 1903, nothing was known of his prolonged enmity with Chapman; while the name of Matthew Roydon was unmentioned in connection with Shakespearean affairs until 1913. The revelations of the present volume regarding the enmity between Florio and Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s dramatic characterisations of Florio, have never been anticipated, though the possibility that they may have come at odds has been apprehended. The Rev. J.H. Halpin suggested in 1856 that the “H.S.” attacked by Florio in his Worlde of Wordes in 1590 may have been directed at Shakespeare, but advanced no evidence to support his theory, which has since been relegated by the critics to the limbo of fanciful conjecture. I was not aware of Mr. Halpin’s suggestion when I reached my present conclusions.

There has hitherto been no suspicion whatever on the part of critics that anything of the nature of a continuous collusion between the scholars existed against Shakespeare in these early years, and consequently, when at a later period it was manifested in plays presented upon rival stages, it was regarded as a new development and named “The War of the Theatres”; but even this open phase of the antagonism and the respective sides taken by its participants are still misunderstood. This critical opacity is due largely to the fact that Shakespearean criticism has for many years been regarded as the province of academic specialists in literature who have neglected the social and political history of Shakespeare’s day as outside their line of specialisation. It was probably Froude’s recognition of this nebulous condition in Shakespearean criticism that deterred him from continuing his history to the end of the reign of Elizabeth, and prevented Gardiner beginning his where Froude’s ended. These great historians realised that no adequate history of that remarkable period could be written that did not include a full consideration of Shakespeare and his influence; yet, making no pretensions themselves to Shakespearean scholarship, and finding in extant knowledge no sure foundations whereon to build, they evaded the issue, confining their investigations to the development of those phases of history in which they were more vitally interested.

Froude’s intimate knowledge of the characters and atmosphere of Elizabethan social and political life, acquired by years of devoted application to an exhaustive examination of documentary records and the epistolatory correspondence of the period, convinced him that Shakespeare drew his models and his atmosphere from concurrent life. He writes: “We wonder at the grandeur, the moral majesty of some of Shakespeare’s characters, so far beyond what the noblest among ourselves can imitate, and at first thought we attribute it to the genius of the poet who has outstripped nature in his creations, but we are misunderstanding the power and the meaning of poetry in attributing creativeness to it in any such sense. Shakespeare created but only as the spirit of nature created around him, working in him as it worked abroad in those among whom he lived. The men whom he draws were such men as he saw and knew; the words they utter were such as he heard in the ordinary conversations in which he joined.... At a thousand unnamed English firesides he found the living originals for his Prince Hals, his Orlandos, his Antonios, his Portias, his Isabellas. The closer personal acquaintance which we can form with the English of the age of Elizabeth, the more we are satisfied that Shakespeare’s great poetry is no more than the rhythmic echo of the life which he depicts.”

As this book is intended as a precursor to one shortly to be published dealing with the sonnets and the plays of the Sonnet period, the only plays here critically considered are King John and The Comedy of Errors, which I shall argue are the only plays now extant written by Shakespeare before the inception of his intimacy with the Earl of Southampton, which I date, upon good evidence, in the autumn of 1591. In the former we have probably the best example of the manner in which Elizabethan playwrights dramatised contemporary affairs. In this instance Shakespeare worked from an older play which had been composed with the same intention with which he rewrote it, and as the old play had passed the censor and been for years upon the public boards, he was enabled to develop his intention more openly than even he dared to do in later years, when, owing to the influence of Lord Burghley and his son, Sir Robert Cecil, the enforcement of the statutes against the representation of matters of State upon the stage became increasingly stringent.

Though the political phases of Shakespeare’s dramas become more veiled as the years pass, I unhesitatingly affirm that there is not a single play composed between the end of 1591 and the conclusion of his dramatic career that does not, in some manner, intentionally reflect either the social, literary, or political affairs of his day.

In order that the reader may approach a consideration of the rearranged sonnets with a clear perspective, and to keep the Sonnet story uninvolved by subsidiary argument, I now demonstrate not only the beginning of the acquaintance between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton which has not hitherto been known but also take a forward glance of several years in order definitely to establish the identity of John Florio as Shakespeare’s original for Falstaff, Parolles, and Armado. His identity as the original for still other characters will be made apparent as this history develops in the Sonnet period.