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Acting Companies and Their Patrons

William Shakespeare is best known today for writing his plays and sonnets. But he also worked as a professional actor, and we can see the influence that Shakespeare had based on the recorded history of theater companies and their changing patronage.

In 1595, William Shakespeare was listed as “leading member” of the company he was a part of, which was at that time referred to as The Lord Chamberlain Players. This meant that he had enough seniority to serve with William Kempe and Richard Burbage as financial trustees for the company. The “Lord Chamberlain” referred to is Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, and this is a position he holds in Queen Elizabeth’s court. We can also see where the company was paid to perform at court over the Christmas season, and that Shakespeare, Burbage, and Kempe are paid 20 pounds in their capacity as financial trustees for two days of performances. This gives us a glimpse in how influential Shakespeare was in the Elizabethan theater world.

Courtesy of the National Archives (UK)

As the theater business began to grow quickly in London, government officials and eventually the monarch moved to control the theaters and the acting companies. Queen Elizabeth I realized the political power that theater could have, and she wanted to have a say in what went on the public stage. In a speech in 1596, she compared her royal position to that on someone on the stage: “the sight and view of all the world... the eies of many.” The Queen and her advisors were very sensitive to how the Queen, and monarchy in general, were portrayed in stage. Given the history of different performance types being used to mock the ruling class, this is a realistic concern. This is likely why a member of her court was the patron to Shakespeare’s company. Another company, the Lord Admiral’s Players, had Charles Howard, also a member of court, as their patron.

When King James ascended to the throne, he moved quickly to secure the services of The Lord Chamberlain’s players. Even though the theaters were closed due to plague, James only took ten days after his arrival in London to put out a legal document called a Signet Bill. This bill put the players directly under the patronage of the King. Shakespeare is listed by name in this document, along with other prominent members like Burbage. The document allows the company to perform at The Globe and around the country, once the plague had subsided. It also stipulated that the company would perform for the king’s "solace and pleasure when we shall thinke good to see them." From then froward, Shakespeare would be working in a company known as the King’s Men.

Courtesy of the National Archives (UK)

The patronage of wealthy nobles supported England’s budding theater scene, especially during the precarious years when plague shuttered the theaters. Can you think of any comparisons with how we support the arts today? The patronage was meant to be mutually beneficial, as it gave the crown implied control over the subjects of the plays. Think about Shakespeare’s plays, and the different ways the monarchs are portrayed. How might the crown’s patronage have had an effect on Shakespeare’s characters?


Shakespeare Undocumented: Exchequer, Pipe Office, Declared Accounts: Listing Shakespeare as a leading player of the Lord Chamberlain’s company Shakespeare Undocumented: King James establishes the King's Men: warrant under signet sea





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