2. A little history…

(Note: if you haven’t already done so, you should first read the Datasheet, explained page.)

Usually a company of travelling performers is identified by the name of its patron – e.g., “Item to the earl of Bath’s players”– rather than by the name of its leading actor or company manager. Why might a record of a reward to performers or for a performance lack a patron’s name? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. The scribe forgot, or didn’t know, the name: e.g. “in reward to my lord (blank) players commanded by mr maior” (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1592). The blank in the manuscript, left for a later insertion, might be the result of a ‘senior moment’ somewhere in the transmission of the information. These explicit blanks occur in ten records.
  2. Perhaps from carelessness, ignorance or habit, a company name could be simply omitted: e.g. “to a company of players” (Naworth, Cumbria, 1621).
  3. Composite payment-records of several types commonly omit the patron name(s): e.g. “players that Come with Commisions at two severall tymes” (Liskeard, 1631-2). Significantly, none of the Liskeard records includes the patron-name of the company involved. Sometimes one company will be specified and the others thrown in, as if the scribe was running out of space, or energy: e.g. “to the Queen’s & other noble mens players att dyuers & sundry tymes…” (Faversham, 1564).
  4. It’s not unusual to find companies identified by the name of a chief player: e.g. “to Peter Seyntley and his felowes for playinge of an Enterlude” (Barnstaple, 1561-2).
  5. It’s always possible that the players in question could be amateurs; however, I’ve attempted to exclude references to amateur performances, by concentrating on travelling performers.

(Records referring to players/companies that were dismissed or forbidden are dealt with later.)

How much do you know about your own history?  Our pockets or handbags are crammed with licences, passports, birth certificates, health cards, pension records and the like, allowing us to recall most details of our pasts at will.  So it amazes us to learn that many people in Shakespeare’s day often had only a foggy idea how old they were!  Shakespeare himself was called as a witness on 12 May 1612 in a court case, and he gave his age, inexactly, as “of the age of xlviij yeres or thereaboutes.” (I acknowledge Herbie Taylor for his help here, with a correction). Shakespeare was right — he was 48, but he had been so for only, approximately, 16 to 19 days. Did Shakespeare know, exactly, on what date he had been born? Does the “thereaboutes” (which often occurs in such witness depositions) indicate uncertainty about the actual birth date? But stop and think for a minute…inessential data about our pasts are usually lost in the sands of time. On what day of the week were you born? At what time of the day?  Few people know, because there’s no need to know. In the seventeenth century, there was for most people no need to know their precise age or birth date.

In 1709 curiosity about Shakespeare’s date of birth gave rise to what was likely the first local records research.  Nicholas Rowe, for his edition of Shakespeare’s works asked Thomas Betterton, the famous actor,  to look into this.  Betterton travelled to Stratford, looked up the parish register in Holy Trinity Church and supplied Rowe with an approximate birth date for Shakespeare, ‘April 1564’. Only later was a more accurate date estimated (three days before the date of baptism, 26 April, that is recorded in the parish register), and now we commonly speak of 23 April 1564 as the birth date.

Record research really got underway in the nineteenth century; before that, the records lay unpublished and pretty well unexamined in provincial borough offices and muniment rooms. Successive researchers and projects have been undertaken, limited by (or focused upon) particular questions. What follows is a brief survey of previous record-searching projects, to show  what limitations researchers have placed on their efforts, and how they have attempted to extrapolate beyond localities, to compare and generalize. After all, within a single lifetime, where do you start and stop? Are the boundaries that were set by various researchers appropriate and defensible?

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889) was the first person to undertake an ambitious and systematic investigation into borough records. Beginning in Stratford, and then foraging first in boroughs within forty miles, and then more widely, Halliwell-Phillipps examined every document dating between 1585 and 1614, hoping to find Shakespeare’s signature, or at least his name or some evidence of his activities. His searches ultimately ended, in his eyes, in failure; as he tells us, his “minute investigation failed to unearth a single allusion to him [Shakespeare].” He did publish his findings about the Chamberlains’/King’s Men, in his little book, The Visits of Shakespeare’s Company of Actors to the Provincial Towns and Cities of England (1887) – the first published collection of theatre extracts from local records, perhaps whetting other appetites for more.  Halliwell-Phillipps had begun from the narrowest biographical basis – “where is Shakespeare?”

How wide must a search be?  What is ‘enough’ context, enough evidence? John Tucker Murray’s English Dramatic Companies 1558-1642 (2 vols, 1910) exhibits a hierarchical bias, categorizing his materials under Royal companies, ‘greater’ men’s companies, ‘lesser’ men’s companies, and children’s companies, further sub-divided into London and non-London companies; Murray’s interest in taxonomy is apparent, and his diminishing interest as he goes through his categories is also evident. Although his title claims to extend to 1642, his transcriptions end in 1616; perhaps Shakespeare’s death in that year made Murray (like Halliwell-Phillipps) run out of steam in a project that was, we realize, far beyond the capacity of any single man in a single lifetime.

E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols, 1923), narrows his scope to considering only companies with a London and/or court connection, and this leads him to exclude much. At Norwich, for example, he excludes 80 of 100 records because they refer to non-London companies. Chambers was interested in tracing, chronologically, the activities of each company in London and the provinces, and he does not distinguish the type of record in question (payment, prohibition, prosecution, etc) because he focuses on where and when the company in question visited, to construct company histories/itineraries. Chambers’s interest is, really, akin to being biographical, to construct the ‘story’ of each company. Most amazing, Chambers did not consult local records first-hand at all, but based his work on secondary sources, chiefly Murray, whom he often finds in need of corrections about particular events.

Chambers, like Halliwell-Phillipps and Murray, ends his account in 1616; the story is carried forward in G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (7 vols, 1941-68). His diminished interest in provincial records is apparent. Bentley’s chronological accounts of company activities deal only with London and the court, whereas provincial tour information is given in tabular form only. Payment amounts are omitted. Bentley casts his net beyond Murray, who as he notes missed a great deal.  Presenting the data in tables likely proceeds from a desire to generalize and analyze, as well as lack of interest in the gritty details of provincial activities.

Finally, another survey of activities, this time of a single troupe,  is Andrew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company 1594-1642 (2004). Interestingly, his title echoes that of Halliwell-Phillipps’s little volume.  Gurr includes a twenty-five page chapter on ‘Travelling’ in which he sometimes prints complete records, while in other entries he omits the payment amounts.

In their research into the fortunes of London-based companies these five scholars understandably  relegated provincial activities to second place. However, increasing interest in provincial records led to two projects that based their activities upon particular provincial localities and have attempted more comprehensive coverage.

First, the Malone Society published some collections of records of single locations (e.g. Ipswich, Aldeburgh, Sherborne) and several volumes of county records in its ‘Collections’ series between 1923 and 1981, chief of which cover Lincolnshire, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk. Because there were few guidelines, individual editors made their own decisions about inclusion/exclusion, chronological limits, and the like. As a result, these collections vary considerably, but they did serve to indicate the rich results to be found in local archives.

The desire for more led to a push for an inclusive and complete records research series, Records of Early English Drama (REED). That’s my next subject.