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Welcome to Episode #167 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
When William Shakespeare first arrived in London sometime in the 1580s, James Burbage was already making waves in the early modern performance industry by establishing a shareholders agreement at The Theater, a playhouse which the Burbages owned. After a fight with the owner of the land on which The Theater was built, the building itself would be dismantled by the Burbages and William Shakespeare who helped the Burbages clandestinely move the building timber by timber across the Thames to create the theater known as The Globe. Today, we refer to The Globe, as well as the first indoor playhouse, the Blackfriars, as Shakespeare’s theaters. Of course, the bard was intimately involved and arguably held a position of leadership in these establishments (he was one of the shareholders) but defining terms from his lifetime like “shareholders”, “leaseholder”, and “housekeeper”, all help us take a closer look at who exactly owned the theater and how being one of the shareholders was different from being an owner in a theater. Our guest this week, Lucy Munro, is the author of the article for King’s College London, titled “Who Owned the Blackfriars Playhouse” and she is here with us today to share the mechanics behind theater and playing company ownership in the 16-17th century, as well as to answer the question of whether Shakespeare really did own the theaters we give him credit for today.
Lucy Munro is Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at King’s College London. She teaches, researches and writes on the plays and poetry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, theatre history, histories of gender and childhood. Her publications include three books, Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre History (2005), Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674 (2013) and Shakespeare in the Theatre: The King’s Men (2020), and editions of plays such as Shakespeare and Wilkins’s Pericles, Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, Richard Brome’s The Demoiselle and The Queen and Concubine, Massinger’s The Picture and Dekker, Ford and Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton. Her edition of Shirley’s The Gentleman of Venice is forthcoming in The Complete Works of James Shirley in summer 2021. Her most recent essays include studies of the Blackfriars playhouse in English Literary Renaissance and Shakespeare Quarterly. She is a contributor to two collaborative research projects, Before Shakespeare (beforeshakespeare.com) and Engendering the Stage (engenderingthestage.humanities.mcmaster.ca)
In this episode, I’ll be asking Lucy Munro about :
- In the early 17th century, Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men were “placed” in the Blackfriars. Lucy, who was it that sent the King’s Men to this theater and what does it mean for a company to be “placed” there?
- How did the shareholders, leaseholders, or housekeepers make money on the performances?
Did actors from the playing companies ever act as leaseholders on the building? Did Shakespeare hold any ownership in the Blackfriars building?
- … and more!
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Shareholders were Co-Owners of Theater
The Shareholder setup between Shakespeare, the Burbages, and other actors in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), was standard operating procedure for early modern theater industry.
Mainstream playing companies has this setup. Back to the 1570s and probably operating before then. There was a hierarchy.Some of the members are sharers and they directly take a share of the profits, whereas their members were just hired men, paid a weekly wage. The boy actors are apprentices, so through moist of their apprenticeship they were not paid ut learning on the job. Towards the end of their apprenticeship they would start to get paid. You oculd work your way up to be a shareer in the company.
The term “placed” gets used by Cuthbert Burbage in the 1630s to describe how the King's Men playing company came to perform at the Blackfriars. Lucy explains that “placed” may refer to the difficulty the company had in getting established there. The term comes from a reply the group of actors wrote in response to a petition from the residents opposing the Blackfriars being used for an adult company. Lucy explains,
The location has a history of children’s performance there, and the residents do not want an adultcompany there. After James dies, Ricard inherits it and rents it out to a children’scompany. That situation lasts until 1608,the Childrens company gets into political and financialtrouble which returns the lease to Richrd Burbage, who decides the residents night mow be more amenable to the adult company, so richard leases the blackfriars tohimself and a group of sharers in the King’s Men.
May we cram within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The Old Globe theatre — a print of the original theatre in London. Created in 1642 by Wenceslas Holler for his Long View of London. The label “The Globe” has been superimposed; in the original drawing, the building was mistakenly labelled “beere baiting.” Public Domain. Source
Shareholders Separated Theater from Building
Lucy’s work on the Blackfriars theater calls attention to the leaseholders of the property as distinct from shareholders in the playing company. Today we identify theater by the container in which performances take place. For example, the Old Vic, or even Broadway. However, for Shakespeare’s lifetime, and for the King’s Men at the Blackfriars in the early 17th century, there a distinct separation between the building and the company who performed there as separate entities. Lucy explains,
The Globe is built in 1599, using timbers from the theater in shoreditch. Richard Burbage takes on a lease on land in Southwark to setup a consortium and issues shares in this project to his fellow actors. At that point, the building and company are closely aligned. The major sharers are sharers of both. Playhouse shares and company shares diverge because if you’re acn actor and a shareholder, your share goes back into the company with some money paid our to our beneficiary, but it doesn’t get inherited by those heirs. A playhouse share, though, is inhertibale (The share in the location).
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Avoid the gallery.
Diagram of the Globe Theater, showing the various parts of the theater. Housekeepers made money from the Gallery and Tiring House. Drawn by Cassidy Cash. Copyrighted, please do not reproduce without permission. (Though do please share this page!)
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Shareholders Could Own Multiple Parts of the Company
Shareholders, leaseholders, and housekeepers all took money from the income generated around performances and events at a playhouse. Lucy explains where each faction made their moeny:
The housekeepers got to keep the money that was taken at he entrances to the gallery and the Tiring house all went to the housekeepers. The groundlings area and the events happening outside the performance space went to the actors.
When it came to the ownership of the buildings, and specifically the Blackfriars, different shareholders could own multiple parts of the company. Lucy explains,
Blackfriars is owned by Burbage (and odd because Richard is younger, specifically left to Ricard by James even though Cuthbert was older). Richard owns Blackfriars and when he takes it back from Henry Evans in 1608, he creates a new lease, giving part ot himself and part of Cuthbert, and the others are William Sly, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Shakespeare, and a man caled Thomas Evans. This last one is an enigma hard to tell what his connection was (same surname as Henry Evans).
Lucy’s research confirms that Thomas was Henry’s son, sweetner for giving up the lease. Shakespeare would have been getting two cuts, as an actor and as a shareholder
…performance is a kind
of will or testament…
Shareholders Were Entrepeneurs
The Burbage family can be considered a kind of royal family when it comes to describing 16th century theater. They were quite familiar with the shareholder agreement, and arguably taught Shakespeare what he knew about it since James Burbage originally established The Theater that would go on to be rebuilt as The Globe with Shakespeare in the late 16th century. However, the Burbages seem to show up pretty heavy handedly in the history of not just The Globe, but also the Blackfriars, as Lucy writes “members of the Burbage family were the “grand Land-lords”–which she writes is a term used in a 1643 pamphlet to describe owners of the Burbage’s position. This status meant the Burbages controlled the playhouse as well as the profits. Lucy explains how this setup was beneficial to a family dynasty (and why the Shakespeares did not have a similar situation).
Burbages were in the right place at the right time with an entrepreneurial instinct that goes beyond anything Shakespeare had. Burbages go into business with JOhn Braine (speling) who was a grocer that put most of his wealth into tbuilding the tehater, he dies, and widow creates legal fight to get her share, and the Burbages emerge with sole ownership of the theater. Ownership is where you made really big money in this industry (Henslowe and Alleyn as an example.) Burbage wasn't dependent on a leasholder being amenable, and it’s telling that the Burbages hang onto the Blackfriars, quite into a period when acting and playing has been restricted. It’s only sold in 1651, at a point when it looked as if theater would never revive.
Shakespeare only owns shares in leases, not in the real estate itself. That makes it different and there’s much speculation about his shares, because while some of them would have been absorbed back into the theater, others he would have owned and could have passed on (arguments think they went to Anne or Susanna, who could have sold them on). Women who inherited shares in the Globe or Blackfriars, widow of Augustine Philipps, and she ultimately ([along with] her not very trustowrthy second husband), sold them to Heminges.
Book & Resources Lucy Munro recommends:
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