As excitement surrounding the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death mounts this year – with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebratory dramatic season firmly underway, and no end of conferences, festivals, and special events chiming in with the general air of universal bardolatry – it may surprise some to learn that Shakespeare wasn’t popular with everyone during his lifetime… not always even with his own patron and publisher.
In the autumn of 1596 Shakespeare and his fellow players and business partners in the theatrical troupe known as the Chamberlain’s Men were preparing to unveil a brand-new state-of-the-art theatre in the upmarket Blackfriars district of London. This would be unlike any other playhouse the age’s avid theatregoers had seen before. Shakespeare’s current premises, the Theatre in Shoreditch was open to the elements. The Blackfriars Theatre, on the other hand, would have a roof, enabling the company to play all year round and significantly increase its revenues. It would boast the latest in jaw-dropping special-effects technologies, with controllable lighting and cunningly-concealed ceiling winches and trap doors which would allow actors dressed as deities, witches or fairies to make dramatic entrances. It would cater to a deeper-pocketed and more sophisticated clientele.
But it wouldn’t come cheap. The canny entrepreneur behind the scheme was the impresario James Burbage, the same who had built the Shoreditch Theatre in 1576, where Shakespeare had honed his craft. In the February of 1596 he sank £1,000 into the venture, a fortune at the time. Burbage knew it would be worth it, particularly since the theatre’s lease would be expiring in the April the foll owing year. The Chamberlain’s Men would soon be without a home venue and have no guaranteed means of income. So it was a forward-thinking Burbage to the rescue, determined to avert the financial ruin the company was facing and, in the process, catapult the theatre industry into the 17th century. What could go wrong?
Enter the stage Elizabeth Russell, self-styled Countess of Bedford and the only weapon-wielding female Sheriff and Governor of a castle in the country. The star of my book, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe, Lady Russell just happened to be living less than 187ft north of the Blackfriars Theatre. Perhaps some would have been pleased to hear that a new playhouse would soon be opening on their doorstep. Today we might pay a premium – could we afford it – to live within walking distance of the RSC. Not so for Elizabeth Russell, who was outraged at the prospect of a “common playhouse” in her genteel district. And she wasn’t the only one.
With a penchant for starting trouble, and a fondness for badgering Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council about what she saw as infringements to her property rights, Russell did something that we would perhaps think of as thoroughly modern. She got up a petition, persuading, or perhaps where necessary intimidating, 29 of her closest friends and neighbours into joining her in opposing Burbage’s theatre. Among them were, quite astoundingly, Shakespeare’s patron George Carey, also known as the Lord Hunsdon, and his fellow-Stratfordian and publisher Richard Field.
Shakespeare and the players were clearly not popular with many in the local community. Russell and her allies argued that the Blackfriars Theatre would “grow to be a very great annoyance and trouble” and a magnet for “all manner of vagrant and lewd persons”. To make matters worse, it would result in the narrow winding streets being clogged up with horses and carriages, cause the spread of the plague, and disturb the local parishioners of St Anne’s church during religious services.
In November the petition was dispatched to the Privy Council where Elizabeth Russell’s own brother-in-law and nephew, William and Robert Cecil, were distinguished members. The Dowager was triumphant, so much so that she would later threaten to serve no less a personage than the Queen’s Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, in the same fashion after he tried to commandeer her fortress. No doubt uncomfortable with the fact that Russell’s governorship of Donnington Castle near Newbury in Berkshire put her in charge of a personal armoury (and Russell loved her weapons!), he attempted to seize it for himself… by force. She, in turn, promised to rally her followers and lead them in another petition to the Council. The dispute led to pitched battles, riots and armed clashes between the two sides.
So this was the woman Shakespeare was facing in 1596. But how did she convince his own patron and publisher to betray him? George Carey was in fact related to Elizabeth Russell by marriage. His home was practically attached to the Blackfriars Theatre, perhaps too close for comfort. Richard Field had other motives. During my research I was able to discover that Field had a secret double life. He was one of the religious radicals, or non-conformists, who had served as administrators in Russell’s favoured church, the Puritan-controlled St Anne’s. His printing press – the first to immortalise Shakespeare’s words and give him an authorial identity beyond the theatre itself – had been lost for over four centuries. Searching through the area’s ancient indentures and leases, covered with the dust of centuries, I was able to determine its precise location. Where was it? Only right next-door to Elizabeth Russell’s mansion. For poor Field there was no way of escaping the Dowager. He may, however, have been a willing champion of Russell’s anti-theatrical crusade. The Puritans were no friends to the playhouses.
Ultimately for Shakespeare it all worked out for the best. Facing bankruptcy, the theatrical troupe was forced into a new venture: the Globe Theatre. In 1608 the players, now known as the King’s Men, got the Blackfriars Theatre back and the next year – coincidentally or not the year of Elizabeth Russell’s death – they began mounting plays there. It’s strange to think that in her attempts to bring the company to its knees in 1596 the formidable Lady Russell actually set the scene for the intertwining of Shakespeare’s legacy with the Globe. As we celebrate the dramatist’s life and works in this anniversary year, it’s worth considering the fact that the way we remember him today may owe a little something to his lack of popularity with a certain feisty Dowager Countess and her disgruntled neighbours. So, “all’s well that ends well” after all.
Shakespeare and the Countess, available as a Penguin paperback, was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize, listed as one of the ‘Best Books’ of the Year by both the Telegraph and Observer, and is one of the New York Post’s ‘Must-read books’.