The idea is simple: every day, I'll tell you about the play that was being performed in Philip Henslowe's Rose playhouse exactly 424 years ago. I hope this site will be of mild interest to anyone who'd like to know more about the Elizabethan theatre and the world that Shakespeare knew at the beginning of his career. The posts in this blog will not be long or detailed; there'll be just enough words for you to read while queuing for coffee.
|Extract from W.W. Greg's transcript of Henslowe's list|
The list looks strange to modern eyes, because Elizabethan 'playing companies' (that is, companies of actors) performed using a 'repertory system'. Unlike modern theatre companies, which typically perform only one or two plays for months at a time, Elizabethan companies had a stock of about 20 or so plays that they would rotate through day by day, so that each day's play was always different from the previous day's. Changes to the repertory took place gradually: the company would cease performing the plays that did poor box office, and would introduce new plays, trying them out to see whether audiences liked them, and making them part of the repertory if they did (for more information, click here).
So, what does that mean for this blog? Well, for the first couple of weeks, you'll be introduced to a different play each day. Some will be famous works that are still performed today, including plays by Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Others will be little-known plays that may surprise you. And some of the plays are lost: they were never published and are thus known only by their titles, but we can still learn a lot from those titles about the subject matter that pleased Elizabethan audiences.
After a while, you'll start to see plays being repeated. Some will be repeated a lot, because they were popular; others will appear less often, and will gradually fade away to be replaced by new ones. And you'll see how plays rise and fall and sometimes rise again in popularity (for more information, click here). You'll start to get a sense of how it felt to be an actor (or a keen playgoer) in an age when there was a great hunger for theatre and companies had to rapidly adapt to please their audiences.
There are lengthy gaps in Henslowe's records, which will result in occasional hiatuses in the blog. Then, upon the blog's return, there will be a new batch of plays to learn about, and to see being slowly rotated.
So, that's how this site will work. The posts will be concise; the site is intended only to be briefly eye-opening rather than exhaustively detailed. But I hope to provide a glimpse into another world, one that you can imagine existing day by day alongside your own.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Isn't this a bit nerdy?
Why are you doing this?
I'm trying to improve my knowledge of 1590s theatre, and this seemed like a slow but amusing way of doing so.
What is Henslowe's Diary?
Philip Henslowe was a successful entrepreneur in Elizabethan London (he is played by Geoffrey Rush as a bumbling businessman in the film Shakespeare in Love, but was a lot more canny in real life). Among various other business activities, he owned theatres, and is perhaps best thought of as a landlord to the playing companies who performed at them. There were many other men like him, but Henslowe is unique in that copious records of his work have survived in the archives of Dulwich College. These records have become known as "Henslowe's Diary" (although it was actually more like an account-book than a diary). For further information, click here.
If the companies rotated their plays, won't this blog be full of repetition?
Yes, but I think that's part of the interest. At first, every blog post will be a description of a play on the list. Then, after a while, plays will start reappearing, so I will simply link you back to the original description. The interest lies in the way the changing frequency and box office takings show you which plays were popular favourites, and which were not. For more information, click here.
What's the connection with Shakespeare?
Two plays by Shakespeare appear in Henslowe's lists - Henry VI Part One and Titus Andronicus - along with a few plays that seem to have inspired Hamlet, King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew.
Most of Shakespeare's plays were written for other companies, so you won't see them in this blog. But that doesn't mean there's no interest for Shakespeare fans here. Shakespeare probably saw many of the plays that will be described in this blog, and he and his fellow playwrights must have discussed and debated them, and in their work may have tried to imitate them, react against them, or outdo them. Henslowe's Diary opens our eyes to an exciting city where theatre was being reinvented in a hotbed of the imagination. I hope that this blog will inspire you to take a look at some of these plays, many of which have been forgotten - some deservedly, but others very unjustly - and through them understand the theatrical world that Shakespeare lived and breathed.
How long will you be posting for?
If my stamina matches my ambition, this blog will last several years, probably until 2021. But there will be long periods of silence due to gaps in Henslowe's records. Here's what to expect:
- Strange's Men at the Rose, 19th February 1592 to 22 June 1592 - 2016
- Strange's Men at the Rose, 29 December 1592 to 1 February 1593 - 2016-17
- Sussex's Men at the Rose, 27 December 1593 to 6 February 1594 - 2017-18
- Queen's and Sussex's Men at the Rose, 1 April 1594 to 8 April 1594 - 2018
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 14 May 1594 to 16 May 1594 - 2018
- Admiral's and Chamberlain's Men at Newington Butts, 3 June 1594 to 13 June 1594 - 2018
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 15 June 1594 to 14 March 1595 - 2018-19
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 21 April 1595 to 26 June 1595 - 2019
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 25 August 1595 to 27 February 1596 - 2019-20
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 12 April 1596 to 18 July 1596 - 2020
- Admiral's Men at the Rose, 27 October 1596 to 28 July 1597- 2020-21
- Admiral's and Pembroke's Men at the Rose, 11 October 1597 to 5 November 1597 - 2021
Who are you?
My name is David Nicol, and I teach Theatre Studies at the Fountain School of the Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Canada.
How do you know all this stuff?
I provide specific sources in the individual blog posts. But this project would have been very difficult only a few years ago. That's because many of the plays mentioned in Henslowe's diary are lost, so that we often known only their titles. Recently, though, some excellent scholarship has brought new life to these titles by gathering together information that helps us recreate what those lost plays might have been about.
The first is the Lost Plays Database, an online wiki created by Roslyn L. Knutson, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle. The second is a print resource, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, edited by Martin Wiggins in association with Catherine Richardson (currently being published in volumes, beginning in 2012). The third is Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley's Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (2014), which has also provided many insights into the lost plays on the earliest Henslowe lists. This blog is greatly in debt to the work of these scholars.
I know a lot about this subject and I think one of your posts has made a mistake, or has failed to comment on something interesting. What should I do?
Please post a comment - feel free to make a correction, or to point out things that I should have mentioned.