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Efforts to control professional theatre in London in the 1570s contained echoes of the authorities’ previous reactions to the commercialization of tennis and bowling. As early as the 1470s, the London authorities had cracked down on tennis playing in the city, and records of the sale of tennis balls by the Ironmongers’ Company show that this attempt was successful in the short term. Over the next 50 years, those records provide a surprisingly detailed account of the surging popularity of tennis in the city, punctuated by occasional attempts by the authorities to ban it. Records from crackdowns on tennis and bowling in 1516 and 1528 provide information about the people who were trying to make money off these sports.
Keywords: tennis; bowling; Ironmongers; balls
The 1570s were a crucial decade in the development of the Elizabethan professional theatre, and attempts to control and regulate the growth of the theatre played an important role in that development. A 1572 Act of Parliament restricted patronage of playing companies to noblemen, and in 1574 the Earl of Leicester's Men became the first such company to receive a royal patent. Such patents gave companies more security than they had enjoyed before, but they were also a key element in the crown's efforts to exert more control over the burgeoning professional stage, after decades of intermittently trying to quash it altogether. In late 1574, the London Common Council passed an act regulating playhouses and plays within the City, and within a few years the first commercial playhouses began to sprout up in and around London. It is sometimes stated that the 1574 act banned playing in the city and thus drove the players to build their playhouses in the suburbs, but this is not really accurate. William Ingram has argued (rather persuasively) that the law was simply trying to regulate and make money from city playing, and that the building of playhouses in the suburbs was an unintended consequence.
These actions by the royal and city authorities were not ad hoc responses to the growth of professional plays; rather, they were similar in many ways to the responses of earlier authorities to other leisure activities that grew rapidly in popularity, in particular tennis and bowling.
William Shakespeare made his fortune in London during more than two decades as an actor, poet and playwright, but he never kept his primary residence there, as far as we can tell. The few traces of his London residences in the historical record suggest that he moved every few years, presumably renting rooms along the way. Nearly a century after the fact, John Aubrey recorded that Shakespeare had lived in the northern suburb of Shoreditch, location of the Theatre and Curtain playhouses. There is no contemporary record of this, but Aubrey's source was William Beeston, whose father Christopher had performed with Shakespeare in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (Honan 1998, p. 122). Shakespeare appears in the London subsidy rolls as a resident of St Helen's Bishopsgate parish in October 1597 and November 1598. St Helen's was in the north-east part of the city, convenient for walking to the Shoreditch playhouses. Further subsidy records in October 1599 and October 1600 show that Shakespeare had moved across the river to the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark, the location of the newly built Globe playhouse, though he does not appear in the records of the Globe's parish, St Saviour's Southwark (Schoenbaum 1975, pp. 161–3).
We do not know exactly where or with whom Shakespeare lived in St Helen's or in Southwark, but we know quite a bit about one of his next London residences, thanks to a lawsuit discovered in 1909 by Charles William Wallace and his wife Hulda. Probably by 1602, and certainly by 1604, Shakespeare had moved to the parish of St Olave Silver Street, in the northern part of the city inside Cripplegate; specifically, he rented a room in the house of Christopher and Marie Mountjoy, French Huguenot immigrants, on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Streets. We know this because of a lawsuit in the Court of Requests in which William Shakespeare gave a deposition on 11 May 1612. This deposition is of great interest for including the earliest of the six known surviving signatures of William Shakespeare, but it, and the lawsuit of which it is a part, are also very interesting for the details they give us about Shakespeare's life in London in the first decade of the seventeenth century.
Shakespeare's landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, was a Huguenot (French Protestant) tire-maker, or maker of ornamental headdresses for wealthy ladies.
Ever since some people began openly to question William Shakespeare's authorship in the mid-nineteenth century, attacks on Stratford-upon-Avon have been a common anti-Shakespearian theme. For example, Ignatius Donnelly wrote in his 1888 pro-Baconian book The Great Cryptogram that ‘the lives of the people [of Stratford] were coarse, barren, and filthy’, and that ‘the people of Stratford were densely ignorant’. J. Thomas Looney similarly wrote in his Oxfordian tome ‘Shakespeare’ Identified (1920) that ‘dirt and ignorance…were outstanding features of the social life of Stratford in those days and had stamped themselves very definitely upon the family life under which William Shakspere was reared’. More recent anti-Shakespearians are usually not quite so blunt, but they typically present a bleak picture of sixteenth-century Stratford, and lament an alleged lack of correspondence between ‘the mundane, wholly uninspiring record of the Stratford man's life’ (as the Oxfordian Charlton Ogburn Jr. put it) and the great works of Shakespeare.
As with so much else that anti-Shakespearians write, such claims are based on distortions and ignorance of historical context. It's true that a time-travelling visitor from the twenty-first century would probably not find sixteenth-century Stratford to be very clean or progressive, but in the context of English society at that time, it was a prosperous market town with a fairly educated populace. Despite the picture painted by anti-Shakespearians, books were relatively common in Stratford, and middle-class people such as Shakespeare were typically literate in both English and Latin. William Shakespeare's friends in and around Stratford were a rather cultured bunch with numerous literary ties, not the ignorant dolts one might expect from reading anti-Shakespearians. Shakespeare's works are peppered with signs that the author came from the area around Stratford, which was famous from the 1620s onward as the home of the poet and playwright William Shakespeare.
Female roles on the pre-Restoration English stage were played not by women but by boys dressed as women. This well-known fact has occasioned much comment in recent years by critics interested in the gender implications of boys playing women who sometimes disguised themselves as boys. Many such critics have implicitly assumed that the ‘boys’ in question were pre-adolescent children, perhaps eight to twelve years old, whose ability to play the complex female roles of Shakespeare or Webster would be questionable. They have thus suggested that such roles must have been played by adult sharers, much as in modern all-male productions at Shakespeare’s Globe and elsewhere. From a psychosexual perspective, it makes an obvious difference whether Cleopatra was played by a ten-year-old child, a thirty-year-old man, or by a ‘boy’ of some intermediate age, such as seventeen.
Such discussions have tended to be short on hard evidence, often relying on subjective notions of what would or would not have been plausible for an Elizabethan playing company. It is often assumed that little or no documentary evidence survives about these boys, and that we must rely mostly on guesswork and speculation. In fact, a substantial amount of documentary evidence does survive about pre-Restoration boy players, but much of it has remained buried in archives or scattered across various books and articles. When gathered and analysed, this evidence points to a consistent conclusion: until the early 1660s, female roles on the English stage (including the most demanding, complex parts) were played by adolescent boys, no younger than twelve and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two, with a median of around sixteen or seventeen.
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