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In 16th century England, Christmas time was a season of disorder, with many of the holiday celebrations centering around the idea of Misrule, role reversal, and a celebration of general chaos as part of the festivities. Which makes it surprising that the one place you would expect to find extreme order, the Inns of Court, which were essentially Law School for England’s budding lawyers, was also the establishment where Shakespeare staged a performance of Comedy of Errors on Dec 28, 1594, which was so riotous, that members of the audience would refer to that night as the Night of Errors, setting up a subsequent mock trial for the law students to sort out who was the culprit behind the holiday disorder in the court.

Here to help us explore the wild and out of order nature of Shakespeare’s 1594 performance of Comedy of Errors, and why it seems Gray’s Inn in particular was such a hot spot for budding law students to quench their thirst for theater, is our guest Dr Joe Stephenson.

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Joseph F. Stephenson is the James W. Culp Distinguished Professor of English at Abilene Christian University (Texas). He earned his PhD in 2007 from the University of Connecticut, where his dissertation focused on intersections of Anglo-Dutch geopolitics and early modern drama. In addition to teaching courses in Shakespeare and early modern drama both in Texas and at his university’s study abroad programme in Oxford, Joe enjoys reviewing for journals like Shakespeare and Shakespeare Bulletin as well as the website Reviewing Shakespeare.

In 2017, Joe was privileged to notice a play called The Dutch Lady deep in the archives of the Boston (Massachusetts) Public Library. He has published several articles on the play since then and is working on a scholarly edition of the play.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Joe Stephenson about :

  • Shakespeare is thought to have performed Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn Hall on Dec 28 1594, which is right at the beginning of the records we have for Shakespeare’s performances in London at all. Joe, does this performance record suggest Shakespeare was pretty well established by Christmas of 1594 since Gray’s Inn was such a prominent place? Would they have invited an upstart crow to perform there?

  • How did a playwright get the chance to stage a production at the Inns at Court? Did you have to be invited by someone in particular?
  • Gray’s Inn, had since 1539 had the Carthusian monastery as it’s landlord, but transferred its ownership to the Crown after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Under Elizabeth I’s patronage, Gray’s Inn flourished and really saw its most prominent period during her reign. Joe, what did Elizabeth do to grow the reputation and success of Gray’s Inn, why was that important to her, and did Shakespeare’s performances play a role in her plan?


… and more!

Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London

Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have houses plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter right here and immediately download this map as our free gift.

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the very same day did I fight with one Sampson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's Inn.
Robert Shallow

Henry IV Part II (III.2)

This is part of a map of London from 1591. It was drawn by Ralph Agas, and this section shows the location of Gray's Inn. “The Inn's buildings and walks, in a compound on the left hand side of “Greys ynne la.”, shown on the “Woodcut” map of London of the 1560s” | Ralph Agas (c. 1540-1621) – Fletcher, Reginald (1901) The Pension book of Gray's Inn (records of the honourable society) 1569-1669, I, Chiswick Press OCLC: 59205885. | Public Domain | Source

Gray's Inn Was a Popular Elizabethan Location

Gray's Inn was, officially, a location for law students. It was part of the Inns at Court, which is where budding law students (baristers, as they are called in England) were trained. Gray's Inn was, in that sense, a location of extreme order, being the place where students were taught, quite literally, the letter of the law. However, true to Elizabethan standards for Christmas celebration, that very fact of it being a location known for order and law might have been what made it the perfect spot for staging Christmas plays. 

In Elizabethan England, Christmas was a time of misrule. Part of the fun and festivity was changing up traditional roles and creating mischief. Shakespeare is thought to have performed Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn Hall on Dec 28 1594, which is right at the beginning of the records we have for Shakespeare’s performances in London at all (the years just prior being called his Lost Years because we do not know for certain what Shakespeare was doing at that time.) 

Joe suggests that despite having records of Shakespeare performing a play at a prominent location may not neccessarily indicate Shakespeare was well established at this time, sharing,

“This was two years after Greene’s insult and while he was pretty established, he wasn’t the high level dramatist that we know him for today. Gray’s Inn was prominent, this was a good gig. Newly created this same year –1594 Records show [The Lord] Chamberlain’s Men performed before Elizabeth twice that year, as well. Possibly Comedy of Errors.”

 

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Gray's Inn Illustration

1895 Herbert Railton's illustration of Gray's Inn | Loftie, William John (1895) “Gray's Inn” in The Inns of Court and Chancery, London: Seeley and Company, pp. p. 235 Retrieved on 23 October 2009 by Jappalang | Original Image Source

Christmas Had a Tradition of Misrule

Joe explains that the tradition of misrule was a common, and celebrated, part of Christmas traditions in Elizabethan England. Joe explains, 

“Part of the Christmas season involves the festive cheer, drinking, and excessive disorder. Shakespeare’s play cannot be blamed for causing the particular disorder that happened that day and this performance day Feast of the Holy Innocence, (Matthew), if Shakespeare wrote this play for this performance at this play on that day…Dec 28 =4th day of Christmas. That connected to Agean and Amelia (the parents), because they thought their children were dead and were miraculously reunited. ..Each of the Inns of Court had their own Master of the Revels (like Thesius in A Midsummer Night's Dream) who was in charge of arranging the entertainments annually. We know they bought huge amounts of candles around this same time of year. It could be for study (they are law students), but certainly used during performances to light the space.”

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
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Unto Southampton do we shift our scene.

Chorus

Henry V (II.0)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) | C. 1600 painting |National Portrait GalleryNPG L114 | This work was published before January 1, 1925 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or fewer since publication. | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Henry Wriothesley was a member at Gray's Inn

One of Shakespeare’s most notable patrons, The Earl of Southampton, was a member at Gray’s Inn. When it comes to whether or not Southampton would have been involved in Shakespeare's aquiring that particular gig, Joe shares, 

1593 was the dedication of Venus and Adonis (one year prior to Comedy of Errors) and Rape of Lucrece was dedicated same year…Indicates he was in Shakepseare’s circle, and that supports the idea he would have secured this lucrative gig for Shakespeare.”  

Gray’s Inn, had since 1539, enjoyed the Carthusian monastery as it’s landlord, but transferred its ownership to the Crown after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Under Elizabeth I’s patronage, Gray’s Inn flourished and really saw its most prominent period during her reign. Joe shares that Elizabeth's actions helped grow the reputation and success of Gray’s Inn.

“Broadly speaking: She nurtured things like theater and legal study. Third university (after oxford and cambridge) She wasn’t interested in the plays necessarily, as she ordered plays herself to perform in her court. More a product of the time than a particular influence of Elizabeth.” 

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you had not four swinge-bucklers in all the Inns of Court again.
Robert Shallow

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Comedy of Errors Lithograph

A lithograph image depicting a scene from a Comedy of Errors. | Unknown author | Uploaded byAzotochtli  | This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or fewer. | This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925. | Source

Plays Often Staged For Christmas at Inns of Court

Joe shares that the performance of Comedy of Errors that Shakespeare staged here at Gray's Inn in 1594 does support popular celebration traditions for Elizabethan England, it was not a masque because the play,

“Does not contain the elements we associate with a masque (music, dance, etc) needs tobe stately, and perfect order. Comedy of Errors is diametrically opposed to that, and might be an anti-masque–before the masque. Possible that this play was the “disorder” and the following mock trial was the “masque”

According to tradition, at Christmas the students of the Inn ruled the Inn for the day, appointing a Lord of Misrule called the Prince of Purpoole. Tthe idea of appointing a Lord of Misrule is a broad tradition in England, not just applying to the law students, Joe explains how that cultural tradition may have influenced the choice of location for Shakespeare in 1594, 

“at the beginning of comedy of errors when Lucentio shows up at Padua to study, he brings Tranio,…and we know that during the Christmas time part of the tradition of the Lord of Misrule involves switching roles…and in Comedy of Errors…playing tricks on each other… [When it comes to choosing Gray's Inn, it is] not so much the location, but the Lord of Misrule. Carnival. Appropriate to Christmas, this was a Christmas play. Masters and Servants switching roles. Each of the gentlemen at the Inn would have had a manservant accompanying them to the events at the Inn.”

Shakespeare performed plays at the Inns of Court more times than this record in 1594 (though this particular Christmas was, according to suriving accounts, quite memorable for it's riotous nature). Joe shares that Shakespeare,

“…performed here quite often. There’s one other play we know for sure, Twelfth Night at Middle Temple in 1602 (and he used the garden of Gray’s inn for Henry VI Part 1) 12th night is the end of Christmas, and Candlemas was the utmost end of the Christmas season, the last day to leave up decorations. Holiday involves a lot of candles, Jesus a light to the Gentiles.”

Joe also explains that law students, in particular, were “Famously loyal and frequent playgoers, they did go to the Globe, and they performed at the Inns themselves (not just Shakespeare but all kinds by all playwrights).” which certainly explains why the Inns at Court was so attractive to a playwright like Shakespeare. 

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
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Books & Resources Joe Stephenson Recommends

Joe Stephenson also recommends the Lost Play Database as a great resource for learning about plays which no longer survive in print. Access that catalog here. 

Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London

Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have houses plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter right here and immediately download this map as our free gift.

Get Shakespeare Weekly

Join today, and I'll send you this hand illustrated map of Theaters in 1600s London to welcome you.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit


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