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Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Lord Chamberlain’s Men

by William H. Benson

July 16, 2015

     In the spring of 1594, twenty-six London actors joined together to create an acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. These actors included London’s leading dramatic actor at the time, Richard Burbage; plus Will Kempe, London’s leading comic actor; as well as Richard Cowly, William Slye, John Heminges, Alexander Cooke, Henry Condell, and the thirty-year-old actor from the small town Stratford-on-the-Avon, William Shakespeare.

     He, as well as the others, were most fortunate, because this acting company brought together the talents of extraordinary men, rarely seen before in theatrical history.

     Because of the bubonic plague in 1693, Queen Elizabeth’s court had shut down London’s theaters, but by the spring of 1594, the plague had dwindled, the theaters opened up, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were ready to perform plays.

     Acting upon a London stage demanded strenuous work, talent, determination, and intelligence. The men were expected to fence, dance, tumble, memorize dozens of lines for each play, and depend upon each other. They had to cooperate. Many were called, but few chosen.

     In order for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to achieve success, they had to find a dazzling set of plays, scripts worthy of staging, that would prove popular among London’s penny public. At that time actors were actors, and playwrights were playwrights. The playwrights wrote their plays, sold them to the several acting companies, but received little, if any, royalties if their plays proved successful.

     William Shakespeare, the actor, decided that he could write plays for his acting company. Of all of London’s actors, he alone wrote plays, a fact that did not set well with the playwrights. The same is true today. Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Cruise do not write their movie scripts. Perhaps Eastwood, but not Cruise, and definitely not Nicholson.

     The record is clear. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men collaborated, worked well together, trusted each other, grew fond of each other, as they performed play after play. There was little display of anger, hostility, threats, or the filing of lawsuits that so often tore apart other acting companies. For sixteen years, until 1610, a series of astonishing plays unfolded. Others described the men as “sober, discreet, properly learned, honest householders, and citizens well thought of among their neighbors.”

     William Shakespeare may have set the tone for his acting company. His colleagues described him as a “relaxed happy man,” “almost incapable of taking offense,” never litigious, quarrelsome, or deep into a literary feud. He displayed “a natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.” Ben Jonson called him “gentle Shakespeare,” and Sir John Davies said, “Thou hast no railing but a reigning wit.”

     In the spring of 1594, Shakespeare was well-known in London, first as a respectable actor, but more so as a poet. He had written and published two literary poems—Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece—that went through ten editions. Also, he had written three plays on the War of Roses, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III; a farcical comedy, The Comedy of Errors; and a tragedy, Titus Andronicus.

     Shakespeare could have continued writing literary poems that, he knew, would sell well, but he laid the poems aside and directed his talent to the business of writing plays for his acting company. The turning point in William Shakespeare’s life occurred when he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

     “Everything else that Shakespeare wrote for the rest of his life belonged to the company of actors that he joined in the spring of 1594.” For sixteen years, his creativity was “unparalleled in literary history.” Not a solitary guy who wrote his plays in an attic alone with quill pen and ink bottle, he contributed to his acting company, his colleagues recognized his talent, and he delivered.

     He grabbed raw material, the stories he pulled from history books, and then he visualized them on London’s stage. He imagined what Richard Burbage and Will Kempe would do and say, and then he coined words, phrases, characters, conversations, all designed to play with the audience’s emotions.

     In 1610, Shakespeare retired from London’s stage, a wealthy man, moved back to Stratford, where his wife, Anne, and their children had always lived. Six years later, he passed away at fifty-one, which means that next year the world will mark the four hundred year anniversary of his passing.

     In 1623, two members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—John Heminges and Henry Condell—assembled thirty-five of Shakespeare’s plays and published them as the 900-page First Folio. The two men printed an estimated 800 copies, but only 233 survive today, and of those, 82 reside in the the Library of Congress’s Folger Library. Heminges and Condell action preserved Shakespeare’s plays.

     What does this history mean? Two things. First, genius can display itself within the context of intelligence and civil behavior. Second, the actor William Shakespeare displayed little interest in achieving immortality as an author. Instead, he wrote for the stage, for those magical moments when Richard Burbage stepped forward and became King Lear or Hamlet. O to have been there!

     ‘Tis the season for a tempest, but instead, strive to enjoy a pleasant midsummer night’s dream.