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For Shakespeare’s lifetime, the concept of welcoming hospitality was considered a uniquely English virtue. We see this opinion reflected in the play, As You Like It, when Shakespeare’s character Corin suggests that doing deeds of hospitality was one way to get to heaven. Nowhere was hospitality reflected more clearly, or extended more often, than at the country house estate. Now before you think of a small cottage in the countryside, when I say it was a Country House Estate, an example of a famous one is Kenilworth Castle where Queen Elizabeth was welcomed and entertained by Robert Dudley in 1575. In homes like this one, nobility were expected to keep the grounds and the interior rooms in prime condition with supplies on hand to provide accommodation, meals, and entertainment for both travelers as well as visiting dignitaries who visited as a part of official negotiations for both local and national politics. Here today to help us understand the world of Country House Estates and the sorts of entertainments that were offered there by the hosts, is our guest and author of the award-winning book, The Elizabethan Country House Entertainment, Elizabeth Kolkovich.
Elizabeth Zeman Kolkovich is an Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University who specializes in Renaissance drama and early modern women’s writing. She is the author of The Elizabethan Country House Entertainment: Print, Performance, and Gender, along with essays in academic journals and collections. Her research has been supported by fellowships at the Huntington Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
I’ll be asking Elizabeth Kolkovich about:
- With elaborate entertaining spaces like Whitehall Palace, for example, at her disposal, why was it important to Elizabeth I for locations like Kenilworth Castle or Sudeley Castle to be participating in the welcome and entertainment of the nobility of England?
- Why were performances considered an essential part of entertaining a guest, and what kind of performances would have been used—was it plays or music or something else?
- What are some examples of country house performances we know of that were used specifically for political gain?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Mary Hill Cole’s The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony(originally published in 1999, paperback in 2011)
Vanessa Wilkie’s A Woman of Influence: The Spectacular Rise of Alice Spencer in Tudor England (2023)
John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Elizabeth: A New Edition of the Early Modern Sources (2014).📚 Note From Elizabeth: It’s a five-volume set, and I think volume 3 is especially useful for reading examples of country house entertainments. It’s incredibly expensive, though.
What “Going to Court” Actually Means
Explore what it meant to “go to court” and how the societal structure of seeing and being seen might have meant that someone like William Shakespeare could have used court appearances as a kind of 16th century social media, with the bard being something of a social influencer, with our guest, Natalie Mears.
“…if you give him not John Drum’s entertainment, your inclining cannot be removed.”— First Lord, Alls Well That Ends Well (III.6)
Why did Elizabeth I travel to country houses instead of using her own palaces?
With elaborate entertaining spaces like Whitehall Palace, for example, at her disposal, I wondered why was it important to Elizabeth I for locations like Kenilworth Castle or Sudeley Castle to be participating in the welcome and entertainment of the nobility of England. Elizabeth explains that it was about connection and display.
Progress was a journey outside London that stopped at various locations around England (most monarchs did this) Her progress and entertainments did them and were a big part other reign. Several reasons why, and it might have had to do with her gender. Never ruled before my an unmarried female monarch and by going out in to the people she was able to navigate that reputation better. They served her desired persona. She was loving, walked among her people, and allowed her to seem accessible and interactive. And she could also monitor her subjects obedience and announce her authority.
Performances were an essential part of country house entertainments
As Shakespeareans, the word “performance” immediately calls to mind staged entertainments and the production of a play. However, for country house entertainments, keeping your guests amused during their stay involved all kinds of performance, including music, games, and feasting.
When a queen visited a host, there was always impressive food—feast and a banquet, figurines made of sugar, for example.. Always music (instrumental as well as singing)_ some entertainment included acrobatics, hunting, fireworks, and plays, too. When plays were involved, they didn’t follow a thorough plot like a Shakespeare play, instead at country houses they were episodic, performed out of doors, and the actors and the audience would walk around from place to place for small skit like performances at each location. It was also interactive, actors would talk to the audience and sometimes the audience would talk back, following generally a three part structure. There was a welcome address when she just arrived, then there was a central skit, or a selection of pageants that went to gather as a main episode, then when Elizabeth left there was a farewell speech who couldn’t survive without her, could last several days or even all in one day depending on how long she was there. It became an important part of her progresses towards the end of her reign. The earliest is 1571, more than a decade into her reign, so Country House entertainment emerged in response to the queen’s preferences, and when we explore why entertainment was important is because the house was intended to show the hospitality of the owner, and if they were good at welcoming someone it meant the owners had good character.
“I prithee, shepherd, if that love or gold Can in this desert place buy entertainment,— Rosalind, As You Like It (II.4)
Bring us where we may rest ourselves and feed.”
Examples of Country House Performances
Country house entertainments were always political negotiations, especially [between] the host family and the queen but tangential families were involved, too. The host family asked the queen for increased favor and power, and the host family would give the queen political advice. Elizabeth provides three key examples:
Kenilworth Castle 1575, hosted by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite and possible romantic interest. This reading at Kenilworth was creating a new public identify not just as a favorite but as a military leader in his own right. He is prepared to lead an expedition for the Queen, and this political gain was somewhat attained, because he did have an expedition to the Netherlands, but it didn’t happen for another decade after Kenilworth.
1591— William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor. His house, a place he called Theobalds (pronounced “Ty-bald”). He hosted an entertainment that asked for two things :Retire from active court duty and please promote my son, Robert Cecil, to a top post at your court.
Cowdray House – home of Viscount and Lady Montagu (Anthony and Magdalen Browne). Elizabeth’s Catholics were supporters of the Crown and Elizabeth should be lenient in her treatment towards Catholics. Elizabeth did promote Cecil but she didn’t intervene in a strong way.
1596 Hospitality Proclamation
Elizabeth I issued a proclamation in 1596 essentially admonishing England’s nobility for not doing enough towards what she saw as their essential role in hospitality. Elizabeth Kolkovich explains what Elizabeth’s expectations were for the country house owners:
Noble families should be providing food and charity to the poor so there wouldn’t be a riot or uprising. She expected the country house owners to help keep order outside of London. When she visited, she expected more than essential hospitality. She expected all the house to be open to her, as the owner of all of England. She expected sleeping quarters and food to be provided for her and everyone she brought with her, along with a provision of entertainment.
“To think, my lord, if you delight not in man, what lenten— Rosencrantz, Hamlet (II.2)
entertainment the players shall receive from you. We coted them
on the way, and hither are they coming to offer you service.”
Funding for Country House Entertainment
Entertaining at the highest level of government, as a matter of course, was outstandingly expensive and required a great deal of staff to accomplish. One reason Elizabeth might have travelled around as she was known to do, was that if she visited those outside of London, Elizabeth was not required to pay for the entertainment. Of course the crown did contribute funds, but the village where the event was hosted gathered together to raise funds and equipment needed to entertain the Queen and her courtiers when they visited.
In addition, the host family was charged with providing the bulk of the funding themselves. Occasionally, Elizabeth would announce she was visiting a smaller house, whose capacity was not sufficient to provide sleeping quarters for the court planning to arrive, and records indicate the houses would structurally add additions to the building itself to accommodate the Queen. For a sense of scale, Elizabeth points out that the Kenilworth entertainments of 1575 and the Harefield entertainments of 1602, both costs an entire year’s budget.
The Women Hosting Country House Entertainments
In her book, Elizabeth Kolkovich outlines the lives of several women who were in charge of running such Country House Estates including Elizabeth Hoby Russell and Alice Egerton at Harefield. Country House entertainments were performed in domestic spaces, like dining halls. When the Queen arrived, the entire location became a hub for political activity. The nature of the location being a home meant that women had the right to plan, write, and perform in the dramas being presented, while still carrying out their traditional roles of wife, mother, daughter, etc. The women of the house supervised the entire event, making sure meals were prepared appropriately, and sleeping quarters were arranged. The women tended to the decorations and the pageantry, as well, acting as a producer to make the entire show happen.
Elizabeth Russell is a great example of how playing this role was productive for the family and their children. Elizabeth Russel’s three daughters were given speaking roles in a drama production before Queen Elizabeth, making the case in their speeches that women made the best advisors for an aging female Queen. As a result of this performance, as well as a subsequent one featuring Russell’s daughter at Sudeley Castle a month later, the Queen appointed all three of Russell’s daughters to be ladies in waiting for the Queen.
Susanna Hall, entertaining the Queen
Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s daughter, entertained Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of England’s King Charles I, at New Place in 1643. Susanna was clearly the woman of New Place, having inherited the property from her father, William Shakespeare. Susanna would have been the primary host for this event. One interesting thing about Susanna’s event for the Queen is that it was taking place at the beginning of the English Civil War, which makes it possible that the Queen was there to learn about Shakespeare as a theater lover, but more probably had some urgent political issues on her mind given the timing. It makes you wonder what motivated Henrietta Maria to visit Stratford Upon Avon.
“I have deserved no better entertainment…”— Coriolanus, Coriolanus (IV.5)
Entertainments in Shakespeare’s Plays
It’s possible Shakespeare attended the Kenilworth entertainment, and was certainly an enormous event, which drew large crowds but not all of them elite people, commoners as well, but there’s no evidence there directly. It is very likely Shakespeare knew about these entertainments, and one way he could know was reading about them. Studying 17 country house entertainments with surviving texts, of them, 11 were printed, and most printed in London, sold in London bookshops, sometimes the same ones that would later sell Shakespeare ’s plays, and these books constituted news for those that couldn’t attend in person, and they also served as printed drama. Some even popular enough to be reprinted, making it very likely Shakespeare encountered some of these events from the printing. Fellow actors later could have told him about them, since professional actors were brought in on occasion.
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!