There are many articles online and even history books that claim Elizabeth I was a patron of Shakespeare. But was she?
In this week’s episode of Did Shakespeare from That Shakespeare Girl, Cassidy Cash, we dive inside the world of Elizabethan theater to examine the truth –and myths—of patronage, the plague, and exactly who supported Shakespeare’s acting company financially.
You may be surprised with what you learn!
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Like to read instead of watch? Here’s a the text from this week’s episode:
Did Shakespeare Work for Elizabeth I?
So many history books, articles, and other history resources will tell you that Elizabeth 1 was a patron of Shakespeare. He is lauded as having been supported by two monarchs, Elizabeth and James. But was he?
This week, we explore Did Shakespeare work for Elizabeth I?
Theater was popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Before he was born, this move was shifting to where popoular entertainment was focused on theater performances. When Shakespeare was small, theater companies would travel around from town to town performing plays for the locals, and Stratford was one of these towns. For Shakespeare, the experience was even more personal as It was William Shakespeare’s Dad who was in charge of approving the visiting theater company to perform in the town.
Many historians, including James Shapiro in his book 1599, suggest that little William Shakespeare could have been influenced in his path to theater greatness by not only witnessing these theater productions as a young child, but by forming some of the friendships with people like Richard Burbage which would serve him so well once we arrived in London as a grown man.
Once Shakespeare did arrive in London, one popular performing company were The Queen’s Men.
These men had been brought together selectively by Elizabeth I who went around selecting the best in the business and making them her theater company. She did this on purpose after a fight among her courtiers over who was going to impress the Queen best. It was an act of preserving her power as Queen to essentially make her own playing company and have them be the best.
While The Queen’s Men were the best at the time, the close second was Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Now, in order to be a theater company and not be put in jail two things had to be true:
- You had to claim that you were perfoming plays for the Queen, or in preparation to present plays to the Queen, otherwise it was illegal to play act on stage.
- Theater companies had to be legitimized by working in the service of a noblemen whose associataion essentially vouched for the playing company and said “These guys are legit. Don’t put them in jail, they work for me.”
Shakespeare’s player’s company was legitimized through The Lord Chamberlain. Originally, the Lord Chamberlain was Henry Carey and he founded this playing troupe in 1594, during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Henry died two years later in 1596, and his son George took over the company. Briefly, the troupe became known as The Lord Hudson’s Men for that year, until George was promoted officially to Lord Chamberlain, at which point they went back to being called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men once again.
The interesting part is that, while supportive of Shakespeare, and even calling him to perform at court on numerous occasions, Elizabeth I herself was never the patron to Shakespeare’s playing company.
So the answer to this week’s question is a firm NO. Shakespeare never worked for Elizabeth I directly.
Directly probably matters here, because she did support the arts and she was probably extremely supportive of Shakespeare’s players in particular after what happened to her company with the onslaught of the plague.
Throughout the 1580s, Queen Elizabeth’s playing company ruled the theater. They dominated the industry until the early 1590s when an outbreak of plague wiped out a huge portion of the population, closed the theaters, and decimated Elizabeth’s playing company in particular.
In fact, all of the theater companies at the time were left rather disabled and in tatters, having many of their members succumb to plague.
The entire theater community was hit very hard, and The Queen’s Men were no exception. Once the actors were reassembled, most went to work with Shakespeare or the Lord Admiral’s company. While some reports indicate the core of the company would continue acting in some capacities around England into the early 17th century, the company itself never recovered to any measure of popularity they had enjoyed previously and were effectively dissolved.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were, at the same time piecing together an expert crew of players from among the best in the business. Choosing from the tatters of the surrounding companies, Shakespeare put together a group of shareholders to start his new company.
With strong business minds like James and Richard Burbage, combined with the talented writing of William Shakespeare and comedic styles of actors like Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s company was well poised (and perhaps intentional) to fill the void left by now defunct Queen’s Men.
It’s obvious from their choice of plays, along with their strategic avoidance of scandals and political turbulence which plagued other companies, that Shakespeare’s company held pleasing the Queen as a high priority. Due to the death of her personal playing company, Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men were solving a problem for the Queen.
We can tell that Shakespeare was shrewd in his choices because he was obviously playing to Elizabeth’s agenda and continuing through his company the original purpose she had laid out for The Queen’s Men.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, this was a keen example of paying attention to your target audience and making sure you solve their problems with your work.
Shakespeare knew that Elizabeth relied on the theater companies to help promote her agenda and he took advantage of situation presented after the plague to launch his company into waiting opportunity. Elizabeth valued and supported the theater. She could have, by royal edict, closed the theater, which she did not. And she invited Shakespeare on numerous occasions to perform for her at court. Her support was highly valuable to Shakespeare and contributed to his success in London. What it wasn’t, however, was actual patronage.
Why Elizabeth didn’t pick up The Lord Chamberlain’s Men as her own, we can’t know. She was, after all, a people’s Queen and perhaps she felt some loyalty to the Lord Chamberlain, fearing taking it from him would cause riots? Maybe she supported Shakespeare’s company in other ways that made her a de facto patron and official patronage wasn’t deemed necessary.
We can’t know all of the reasons why, but what we do know upon closer inspection, is that Queen Elizabeth was, in fact, NOT a patron of Shakespeare or his playing company.
That’s it for this week here at That Shakespeare Girl. I’m glad you joined me. As always, the best conversations happen after the video in the comments below or on www.cassidycash.com
So hop on over there and share with me your thoughts on this week’s question.
Great to see you again, and I hope to talk with you again next week.