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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2009

1 - Raiding the nest: a company biography


Of course, the managers of the private theatres were not interested in disseminating infection; their only guilt was to be embarked on a commercial enterprise.

Many readers' first introduction to the children's companies of early seventeenth-century London are the somewhat jaundiced comments of Rosencrantz in the Folio version of Shakespeare's Hamlet:

[T]here is Sir an ayrie of Children, little Yases, that crye out on the top of question; and are most tyrannically clap't for't: these are now the fashion, and so be-rattle the common Stages (so they call them) that many wearing Rapiers, are afraide of Goose-quils, and dare scarse come thither.

In his reference to the rival theatre as a nest of little eyases (untrained hawks), Rosencrantz alludes specifically to the Chapel/Queen's Revels company, the more ‘flauntingly outrageous’ of the children's companies, whose Blackfriars playhouse was located in an area associated with the trade in feathers. His comments seem to set up a division between the ‘common Stages’ – large public theatres such as the Globe, used by adult companies – and the private, indoor theatres, suggesting that the latter are stealing upper-class spectators (swords were traditionally worn only by gentlemen) from the former. This idea of an antagonistic divide between public and private and a polarisation of their audiences was most famously developed by Alfred Harbage in his classic account of the ‘rival traditions’, a critical model based on the assumption that the masses supported a popular drama at the amphitheatres and a decadent aristocratic coterie patronised the private children's theatres.