Shakespeare’s Opposites is a welcome addition to the world of Elizabethan theatre. This is a thorough and fascinating critical study of The Admiral’s Men, the company that were the chief rivals of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Andrew Gurr details the steps that led Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council to establish a “duopoly,” permitting two companies to become the only professional theatres certified to perform in Greater London from 1594 to 1600. Council members Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain, and his son-in-law Charles Howard, Lord Admiral were patrons of this duopoly. The arrangement represented a deal struck between the Councilors, who were clearly theatre lovers, and the Lord Mayor, who wished to ban all stage plays from the city inns where they had been performing in preceding years. The compromise entailed moving all playhouses to the near suburbs—mostly to Southwark near the south end of London Bridge, and Cripplegate outside the city walls to the northeast.
The new arrangement would lend stability to a rather chaotic London professional theatre scene, which was often laden with theatre closings due to the plague. There was a precedent to Court patronage and control, and the establishment of the Queen’s Men in 1583 brought together some of the most talented players and playmakers under Elizabeth’s protection.
Many of the Admiral’s and Chamberlain’s players were veterans of this earlier patronage. The newly-formed companies divided up not only the cream of the city’s acting pool, but they divvied up performing rights to the plays already in the repertory of the Queen’s Men, as well as some of the smaller companies (Lord Strange’s, the Earl of Derby’s). Also included in this attrition were some of Shakespeare’s early plays, which were passed to the Chamberlain’s Men, and all of Marlowe’s, which went to the Admiral’s.
An interesting footnote to the creation of the duopoly is Gurr’s speculation that the establishment of the Chamberlain’s Men, with their promise of a more stable repertory structure, may have turned William Shakespeare from establishing himself as a Court-sponsored poet, back to focusing primarily on his playwriting. This is viable, as Shakespeare published both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece during the previous year. If true, the sanctioning of the two theatre companies is a key turning point in the career of our greatest dramatist.
The story of the Admiral’s Men is, to a great extent, a tale of two theatres: the Rose and the Fortune. It’s also the tale of two outsized personalities: Edward Alleyn, the tall, imposing lead actor who created Marlowe’s greatest protagonists, and Philip Henslowe, the impresario whose diary is the richest trove of information on the Elizabethan theatre that we possess. Gurr shows how the Admiral’s Men distinguished itself from its rival by a heavy reliance on devices of disguise. It’s estimated that the average Elizabethan playgoer attended the theatre up to twenty times a year. With just two professional companies monopolizing the theatre scene, over-familiarity with the players might have been a problem. The Admiral’s men met the challenge by making the impressive Alleyn—his acting style characterized as “stalking and roaring”—their trademark actor. They also specialized in plays in which Alleyn and others in the company could adopt a number of disguises. Gurr’s close analysis of one of the company’s stock plays—the Robin Hood melodrama, Look About You—demonstrates how the script was designed to allow the players to show their virtuosity in a proliferation of disguises. Almost every main character assumes at least one disguise (some take on four or five), and the convoluted scenario—Gurr calls it a “steeplechase of a plot”—invites the audience to see their favorite actors play a range of characters of both sexes. This was all well calculated to show off their versatility and let the spectators admire the players’ expertise.
The comparatively complete documentation of the architecture of the company’s two theatres is also rich with suggestions of how the plays were physically produced. The Rose, whose sketchily excavated foundations can be seen today in the basement of a high-rise building scarcely a hundred yards from the new Shakespeare’s Globe, furnishes a wealth of archeological treasures, from its ground plan (enlarged in the mid-1590’s to increase audience capacity), to building materials, pottery fragments, items of clothing and even food scraps. The builder’s contract for the larger Fortune, constructed about the same time as the Chamberlains’ Globe in 1599 or 1600, is extant and tells us a lot about Elizabethan theatre architecture. From this, much can be extrapolated about staging and stage practice.
The reader may be challenged in places, especially in deciphering the quaint spellings in Henslowe’s diary, which mixed records of his theatre management with accounting of various sums disbursed to players, playwrights, builders, and backstage workers, as well as payments for costumes and materials. It’s also slow going in a few stretches. But overall, the story behind the company who were Shakespeare’s greatest rivals—and at times, very likely, his friends and collaborators—makes for fascinating reading.