The Last Years of Elizabeth I: Before March 1603

A history of seventeenth-century English literature - Thomas N. Corns 2014

The Last Years of Elizabeth I: Before March 1603

This chapter deals with the literary history of the concluding years of the Tudor era. In terms of the material circumstances of literary production and consumption, much that is described remained substantially unchanged from the 1590s, nor were there major discontinuities with literary life in the Jacobean decades. There were some highly significant shifts of emphasis, particularly in the structures of patronage, as the fall of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, disrupted the complex web of protection and praise that had developed around his circle. The arrival of the Stuart court, with radically different cultural aspirations and a diverse and polycentric organization, would open new opportunities. Few of the writers who shaped the literary culture of the Elizabethan golden age lived into the new century. Sir Philip Sidney died in 1586, Edmund Spenser in 1599, Robert Greene in 1592, Christopher Marlowe in 1593, Thomas Kyd in 1594. The figures who dominate Jacobean literary culture, Francis Bacon (b. 1561), John Donne (b. ?1572), Ben Jonson (b. 1572), and William Shakespeare (b. 1564), were all writing, but only the last had achieved an eminence to match his Jacobean status. Sidney and Spenser, both available in print before 1600, offered a subtle and pervasive influence deep into the new century, and many earlier Elizabethan plays remained in the repertoire of London drama companies, but inevitably those deaths closed off some aspects of Elizabethan culture, despite the continuities, as surely as others with different aesthetic assumption and different strengths moved the tradition on. Yet late Elizabethan and Jacobean literary cultures shared much common ground.

Literary Consumption and Production

Literacy in the early modern period reflected gender, class (and more particularly profession) and geography. In all social groups, men were more likely to be more literate than women, reflecting, no doubt, assumptions about gender roles, though literacy rates among the upper classes were so high and among the very poorest so low that this factor lost its significance. Some professions required good literacy skills, though for others in the same social echelon the issue was less pressing. Once those factors are allowed for, it emerges that literacy rates in London were generally higher than elsewhere. Rates improve over the century, although, based on a simple test of whether people made a mark or signed their name, literacy levels were low. By 1640, 20 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men were signing official documents, rather than using a mark.

The test of literacy in this account, which rests entirely on David Cressy’s classic study (1980), is undemanding, though social historians have often argued that the ability to read may have been enjoyed by some who were not able to write (see, for example, Spufford 1979 and Thomas 1986: 103, both discussed by Watt 1991: 7). This may well be the case; I can read modern Greek with facility, but find it exceptionally difficult to write. The skills needed to write one’s name or indeed to make out the words in a simple text belong to a different order from those required to read, let alone write, literary English. Indeed, only tentatively may we surmise the literary experience of the poor and often unlettered majority of Elizabethan England. Certainly, we may identify a folk culture, resting in an oral tradition, of popular song, of dance and of tale-telling, most fully realized in seasonal festivals — preeminently Christmas, May Day, harvest-home — and the annual celebration of church-wakes, holidays commemorating the patron saints of parish churches. By the late Elizabethan period, some kinds of popular culture were to be found in print: ballads and chapbooks, sold by itinerants, have a place here, and the illiterate could still share some aspects of that print-mediated culture by learning songs from those who could read printed ballads, or listening to chapbooks read aloud. Arguably, popular ballads constituted one of the few points of cultural connection that transcended social division. As Tessa Watt puts it: ’Ballads were hawked in the alehouses and markets, but in the same period they were sung by minstrels in the households of the nobility and gentry, who copied them carefully into manuscripts’ (1991: 1). The ballad tradition resonates widely across high-culture genres and throughout the century. Ballad sellers and their songs figure in plays by Shakespeare and Jonson; the political and social satires of Rochester and his imitators were sometimes sung to their tunes. Indeed, estimates for the number of ballads printed in London in the half century to 1600 range from 600,000 to more than 3 million.

The very poorest were substantially excluded from written literary culture by indigence as well as illiteracy. A ploughman, a semi-skilled agricultural day labourer, earned five or six old pence a day (5d or 6d: about 2.5p) (Palliser 1983: 118). A penny would have got him into a public theatre or bought him a couple of single printed sheets (Gurr 1980: 197; Bennett 1965: 299); both expenditures seem improbable indulgences for a poor cottager, though the latter could have come to him as a hand-me-down, and there is ample evidence of ballads being posted decoratively in alehoues (Watt 1995: 253). Moreover, through the 1590s the gap between rich and poor increased and the conditions of the latter, through rural overpopulation and bad harvests, deteriorated very significantly (Sharpe 1995).

Yet among the middling sort, as they were contemporaneously termed, there emerged a general readership and elements of a theatre audience. In the rural context, the yeoman class and the lower gentry and, in towns and cities, the tradesman class below the ranks of the higher professions and prosperous burgesses bought and reflected on printed matter and sometimes had access to plays in performance. These consumer groups became more substantial over the Elizabethan period, in part because their disposable income grew (Palliser 1983: ch. 4), and in part because of growing literacy rates among them (Cressy 1980). Tessa Watt, considering the role of itinerant booksellers in disseminating print culture outside towns large enough to support their own booksellers, has analysed disposable income and assessed how this may have produced a market. Whereas a labouring man lived close to subsistence level, a small farmer working 30 acres could average 14d—18d surplus a week, sufficient to meet a taste for twopenny pamphlets, though probably more substantial works would have remained an infrequently purchased luxury (Watt 1995: 256).

The demand was reflected in publishing trends. The number of extant titles recorded per annum averaged 125 between 1558 and 1560, rising to 202 per annum between 1580 and 1589, although the figure slipped back a little thereafter (Bennett 1965: 271). Practical and devotional works predominated, and recreational literary genres constituted a small but growing minority; among those, high literature was, quantitatively, slight. H. S. Bennett somewhat disdainfully observes:

The increase in the number of books published … fails to reflect the degree to which all classes of the public were being catered for, or that for one work such as the Arcadia there were a dozen ballads, or news pamphlets available for those whose ability to read and to reach any serious intellectual level was limited. (1965: 248)

Scarcely ’all classes’, for the illiterate and penniless cottager had little stake in this culture. Nor should understanding and class be so readily equated. As we shall see, by the mid-seventeenth century, readers of modest attainment devoured texts aimed at a wide readership with a discerning and evident intelligence that alarmed their social superiors.

Indeed, among the most striking features of early modern literary culture is how profoundly fragmented it is. Apart from a pervasive interest in ballad ephemera, the only texts that all English men and women would have been exposed to were the instruments of institutionalized religion. The Elizabethan church settlement had returned England to Protestantism, and attendance at Sunday worship was legally required, under sanctions that sought to eliminate residual Catholicism and discourage the development of Puritanism. Such attendance brought even the illiterate into repeated contact with three texts: the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible readings it prescribed throughout the liturgical year, and the Book of Homilies. Here, and only here, may we identify a substantial and unified English literary culture in the early modern period.

Sunday worship was driven by the Book of Common Prayer, the ’sombrely magnificent prose’ of which, in Eamon Duffy’s eloquent summary, ’read week by week, entered and possessed [the] minds [of worshippers], and became the fabric of their prayer, the utterance of their most solemn and vulnerable moments’ (Duffy 1992: 593; cited and discussed in Maltby 2000: 5). The concern for religious uniformity ensured that the child of a cottager and the heir to an earldom may have entered the Christian community hearing the same prayer. When marrying, they would have made the same pledge. They would have descended to their graves as the priest read the same office for the dead. By 1600 Protestant uniformity was something of an objective and aspiration of the Anglican hierarchy, threatened variously by adherents to the displaced Catholic faith and by Puritans for whom the prayer book itself was an obnoxious remnant of England’s Catholic past. Yet the Book of Common Prayer, revised in 1559, permeated the collective consciousness of all English people. Its strengths were enormous. Founded, albeit somewhat covertly, on its Catholic predecessors, it drew on the psychological benefits of comforting ritual. As David Cressy and Lori Anne Ferrell shrewdly observe, it offered English worshippers ’an idiosyncratic form of Protestantism that was reformed in doctrine but traditional in liturgy’ (1996: 40). It was endlessly reiterated. Cranmer and the team that produced the 1549 version from which, with significant changes of emphasis, subsequent editions derived, absorbed much of the vocabulary of the English Bible and recast that language into a balanced, sonorous style perfectly suited to ceremonious, ritualized delivery, producing a grave, eloquent and decorous prose. Moreover, the ceremonies it supported, requiring antiphonal exchange between minister and congregation, drew the laity into the act of corporate worship. The same service was conducted on the same day, at approximately the same time, in every English parish throughout the liturgical year. Many participants must have possessed their own text, both as an aid to participation and as a source of private solace and pious meditation. Judith Maltby estimates that 290 editions of the Book of Common Prayer were produced between 1549 and 1642, and more than half a million individual copies were in circulation by the end of that period, many in small print appropriate for personal use (Maltby 2000: 25). The Book of Common Prayer, though criticized by Puritans, in the phrase John Milton honed much later in the century, as ’the Skeleton of a Masse-booke’ (Milton 1953—82: I, 597), assiduously asserted its Protestant faith, in its studied silences about the role of saints, in its explicitly Reformed eschatology (for example, in the Order for the Burial of the Dead), and in the symbolic, rather than mystical, interpretation of Holy Communion, though here the 1559 liturgy returned to some of the ambiguities of the 1549 which the more challengingly Protestant formulation of the 1552 version had excluded (Cressy and Ferrell 1996: 45). Moreover, its loyalty to the Crown is repeated explicitly: for example, the Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, includes prayers for the monarch.

The Church of England, like all Protestant churches of the early modern period, promoted the vernacular translation of the Bible. In periods when Catholicism was the state religion, translators and promoters of English Bibles faced considerable difficulty. William Tyndale produced his translation of the New Testament in a cautiously selfimposed exile in Lutheran Germany, while the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was initiated by exiles from Marian persecution working in Switzerland, where the first edition was produced. The Elizabethan church settlement which returned England to Protestantism at first confirmed the official status of the so-called ’Great Bible’ (second edition, 1540, and subsequently reprinted), but a new translation, the ’Bishops’ Bible’ was shortly commissioned, and published in 1568. At the start of our period, this was the version appointed for use in churches. This version sought, in part, to oppose the Calvinist theology inscribed in the translation and more explicitly in the head-notes and marginal commentaries of the Geneva Bible, viewed by Matthew Parker, then Archbishop of Canterbury, as ’bitter’ (quoted in Berry 1969: 12).

Whatever the aspirations of Parker and his episcopal colleagues, the Bishops’ Bible proved to be only a limited success in competition with the Geneva. Certainly, in the services of the Church of England its adoption was uniform. However, just as many worshippers had their own prayer books, so too did they have their own Bibles as an aid to personal devotion and study. While the Elizabethan settlement could legislate for uniformity of belief and promote it in corporate worship, the emphasis of the Protestant Reformation on believers’ obligations for their own piety empowered individuals outside the clergy to seek their own interpretation of the primary text and understand his or her own salvation. Here, in part because of its extreme utility in private study by theological amateurs, the Geneva version routed the official alternative (Corns 2000: 103). Each book has an abstract, as does each chapter. Each page has a header. The margins are crammed with glosses, interpretation, cross-references, and further pointers to context. Its evident concerns with personal salvation carry through to its final motto, appended to its penultimate page:

IOSHUA CHAP. 1 VERS. 8. Let not this boke of the Law departe out of thy mouth, but meditate therein daye and night, that thou mayest obserue and do according to all that is written therein: so shalt thou make thy way prosperous, and then shalt thou haue good successe. (Berry 1969: sig. LLl3v)

Note the singular form: ’thou make thy way’. This was a version tailored to the needs of single and private readers, not the corporate congregation, but those needs were met in ways that simultaneously drew them to a distinctively and polemically Calvinist interpretation, especially of the issue of salvation.

In statistical terms, the victory of the Geneva version is striking. Between 1560 and 1611, there were 7 editions of the Great Bible, 22 of the Bishops’ Bible and more than 120 of the Geneva version. While statutory requirements sought to secure exposure to the state religion in acts of corporate worship, in the homes of the literate and godly another interpretation, unsupported by the Church, guided them through personal and private reflection.

The Church of England brought two other texts into nationwide familiarity: the books of homilies, the first instalment of which had been published in 1547 as Certayne Sermones or Homelies, Appoynted by the Kynges Majestie to Be Declared and Redde by All Persones, Vicars, or Curates, Every Sondaye in Their Churches Where They Have Cure, and John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes, first published in 1563 and generally know as the ’Book of Martyrs’.

The homilies originated in the recognition in the earliest days of the English Reformation that the clergy required a preaching resource to carry the Protestant theology to newly converted or compliant congregations. At the restoration of Protestantism on the accession of Elizabeth, the first collection was reissued and a second collection was published in 1563, to which a final piece, A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion, was added in 1570, against the background of the abortive Catholic uprising known as the Northern Rebellion. Elizabeth herself was the most enthusiastic promoter of the homilies as an instrument towards the confirmation of religious uniformity, and oversaw the second collection herself (Bond 1987: 11). Every church was charged with keeping a copy, and each minister, unless specially licensed to preach (as only a minority were), delivered by way of a sermon each Sunday the homily appointed for that day. Homilies dealt in Protestant fashion with the events of the liturgical year, with matters of popular morality and with the obligations of the congregation to the Church and state. The message was simple and usually uncompromising. The latest of them, against rebellion, solemnly traces oppositionalism to Lucifer, ’the first aucthour and founder of rebellion’, and counsels the most passive obedience:

What shall subjectes do then? Shall they obey valiaunt, stoute, wyse and good princes, and contemne, disobey and rebell against children beying [being] their princes, or against undiscrete and evyll governours? God forbid. For first what a perilous thing were it to commit unto the subjectes the judgement which prince is wyse and godly and his government good, and whiche is otherwise, as though the foote must judge of the head — an enterprise very heynous, and must needes breede rebellion. (Bond 1987: 210, 213)

Such sentiments, proclaimed from the pulpit of most English churches on the appointed day each year, achieved a signal resonance after the Essex uprising of 1601 and set the official position against which contemporary discussions and depictions of sedition and rebellion should be placed.

Elizabeth’s own commitment to the pulpit dissemination of her version of orthodoxy did not command the unanimous support even of her own church leaders, some of whom recognized that it inhibited the development of a preaching ministry and felt uneasy about its doctrinal crudeness, while those of more Puritan leanings regarded the homilies as obstacles to further reformation. Nor do we find much evidence of the laity’s enthusiasm for them as aids to private devotion; only in 1687, as they were falling out of use in church services, does an edition appear apparently intended for the private use of families (Bond 1987: 9—13).

Foxe’s Actes and Monuments was not appointed to be read aloud as part of church services, but the Elizabethan state certainly promoted its success, recommending, but not requiring, that each parish acquire a copy to be kept available for the godly. For a large and expensive book costing over £6, its circulation was evidently considerable and it went through numerous editions: 10,000 copies may have sold by 1603 (Palliser 1983: 355). It was the only extensively illustrated book to which all English people could have claimed access. Numerous woodcuts in the early editions depict graphically those sufferings of the godly under Catholicism which its text narrates. The enthusiasm of the Crown for its promotion no doubt reflected anxiety about Catholic insurrection and, as the reign continued, the war with Catholic Spain. Its legacy in terms of popular anti-Catholic sentiment was protracted and profound. But Foxe commemorated for the most part martyrs of faith who opposed their ruler’s right to determine their religious belief. Implicitly, the rights claimed for Elizabeth by the homily of 1570 are irreconcilable with celebration of that heroism. When Anne Askew, a young provincial gentlewoman racked and burnt under Henry VIII for her plainly Protestant critique of the Catholic faith, retorts to her interrogator, ’I had rather to reade five lines in the bible, than to heare five masses in the temple’ (Beilin 1996:166),she expounds Reformed values, but she also asserts the rights of the individual believer to defy the requirements of Church and state in ways that are ultimately subversive of the programme which was to develop under Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, Foxe retained his influence longest on suffering and defiant Puritan writers like John Lilburne and John Bunyan, for whom the experiences of the early Protestant martyrs provided paradigms for their own conduct and the representation of their personal defiance.

Books of popular piety appeared in increasing numbers through the later sixteenth century to meet the demand from the godly and literate for supplementary study materials to aid devotion, to improve their prospects for salvation, to solace them with recognition of their justification (Bennett 1965: 156). Probably about 40 per cent of all publications in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods were religious, and the proportion remained large among those cheaper items available to the literate among the poorer sort. Ballads on moral or religious themes constituted a very sizeable minority of that genre (Watt 1991: 333—53). Foxe profoundly influenced popular piety, and undemanding derivatives of his martyrology appear in the broadsheet ballad tradition. Indeed, a ballad purportedly written by Askew while in Newgate awaiting immolation appeared in a brief allusion in Thomas Nashe’s prose work Have With You to Saffron Walden (1596), though the first extant printed version dates from 1624 (Beilin 1996: xxxix). The gap between first mention and first extant printing may suggest some evidence of the relationship between oral performance and print culture, though earlier editions may simply not have survived. Though clumsily phrased, the ballad assiduously rehearsed the dangers to individual consciences and salvation that would have been posed by a national return to Catholicism within a framework of pious reflection on the speaker’s own frailty and the mercy and salvation extended to those who turn from sin, here, of course, represented by her own earlier subscription to the Catholic faith:

Strength me good Lord in thy truth to stand

for the bloudy Butchers have me at their wil

With there slaughter knives ready drawn in ther hand

my simple carkas to devour and kill.

       (Beilin 1996: 197)

Opposition to Catholicism was profound and commonplace among English Protestants of all classes.

Pious dross like the Askew ballad is far removed from the achievements of high literary culture of the late Elizabethan period, although of course probably much better known to most English people alive in 1600. The uniform devotional culture inculcated by the state church touched everyone, even those who resisted it. In comparison the market for those texts that are now most valued was tiny and fragmented.

In part the problem was one of scale. In 1600 the total population of England stood at about four million. Of these, about 30 per cent were under 15 years of age (Palliser 1983: 45), and probably 70 per cent of adults were illiterate or had only very rudimentary reading skills. Effectively, the maximum adult reading public was about 900,000, though only a small fraction had the learning or opportunity to participate in high literary culture. Many of the writers to be considered in detail in the early Stuart period had matriculated at Oxford or Cambridge, and much of their writing assumes some familiarity with classical culture; typically, the combined annual cohort for both universities numbered about 750 (ibid.: 363). Metropolitan London, that is the City and immediately adjacent conurbations, had about 200,000 inhabitants, and, as Cressy has demonstrated, literacy rates among these were higher than in the rest of England. No other city had more than 15,000 inhabitants, and probably only three (Norwich, Bristol and York) had more than 10,000 (ibid.: 203). The demography has far-reaching implications for literary consumption.

Only London was sufficiently large to sustain a developed system of booksellers and printers, although printing was allowed in Oxford and Cambridge, provincial cities and towns supported occasional booksellers, and itinerant chapmen served the rest of the country after a fashion. There is evidence from the mid-seventeenth century of a developing system of mail-order trading. However, for non-academic writers to get into print, their manuscripts, from whatever source, had to be available to the London book trade because there were no appropriate presses elsewhere. Moreover, a print culture, with habitual readers seeking out literary publications from a range of suppliers, only developed in the metropolis.

Only London could sustain professional theatres on a permanent basis. Amateur dramatics played some role in the recreational life of schoolboys and Oxford and Cambridge students. The performance of Latin plays combined both recreational and educational purposes. London companies and less formal bands of actors toured provincial towns and cities. Even quite modest houses sometimes provided performing spaces. Aristocratic households sometimes supported companies of actors, though the evidence comes from the sixteenth, rather than the seventeenth, century. Overwhelmingly, however, theatrical performance was a metropolitan phenomenon, and in 1600 there were almost certainly no purpose-built or dedicated performing spaces outside London.

But, again, that London market was fragmented by class, by profession, by generation, by gender and by geography. We may identify several cultural communities, though each in turn was subdivided.

Until her declining years Elizabeth frequently made summer ’progresses’ through the shires (though never north of Stafford). But the royal court resided for most of the year in palaces around the Thames Valley, and predominately in the large complex of buildings in Whitehall, to the west of the City (Palliser 1983: 10). Here dwelt the queen and her household, and those closest to her in the administration of government had accommodation too. By the 1630s the royal household had grown to between 1,800 and 2,600, and with their dependents Whitehall probably had a population little short of that of Exeter or Norwich (Carlton 1995: 124). The population of Elizabeth’s court, though certainly smaller, would still have been considerable. Aristocrats also kept substantial London households, with a hierarchy of retainers, from senior agents, ’secretaries’ (in effect personal assistants), chaplains and advisers, down to domestic servants, again many with their dependents. Many, though not all, of these great houses lined the north bank of the Thames from the City to Whitehall. This social cluster of monarch and aristocrats supported a court culture, of which literature was a fairly important component, made up a highly literate and prosperous readership and acted as the principal source of patronage and protection. Court entertainments involved actors and musicians drawn from the professional companies, and court performances of plays from the repertoire of the companies were lucrative if infrequent.

All but one parish of the City was within the medieval walls in an area a little more than a mile from west to east, and less than that northward from the Thames. It had a complex system of local government, with a corporation dominated by prominent members of the more prosperous guilds, and a Lord Mayor, who was chosen annually. Its principal businesses were organized through a series of guilds, ’the livery companies’, each with a guildhall and its own system of governance. Among these, the Stationers’ Company controlled and regulated the manufacture and sale of printed matter, and is given closer attention below. But guilds also commissioned writing, particularly texts for their corporate ceremonies, pre-eminently the pageant associated with the annual inauguration of the Lord Major. The corporation of the City exercised fairly strict control over all public activities, and towards the end of the Elizabethan period drama companies tended to establish themselves outside their jurisdiction.

Around the City, and particularly in Southwark, on the opposite bank of the Thames, and to the north and east of the City walls in a series of parishes extending along the north bank with its docks and quays and inland towards Hackney and Stepney, there rapidly developed a sprawling conurbation collectively known as the ’suburbs’. Indeed, as the metropolis more than quadrupled its population over the early modern period, nearly all the growth took place outside the City wall (Beier and Finlay 1986b: 8). Here, local government control was slacker, providing a more straightforward area of operation for London’s theatres. Certainly, the suburbs contained some of the poorest areas, and plague lingered longer and took more victims than in the City itself. But here, too, manufacturing industry flourished outside the control of the guilds, and the enterprising, aspirational and literate, with some disposable income, lived here in their thousands (Beier 1986: 155), making, with similarly affluent citizens of the City, a large market for printed matter and a potential component of theatre audiences.

A strip of territory, about a quarter of a mile across and running from what is now High Holborn southwards to the north bank of the Thames, contained (as it still does) the four Inns of Court. These served (as they still do) the legal profession with an operational base and functioned as an educational institution for lawyers. Legal studies at Oxford and Cambridge were restricted to Civil Law, based on Roman Law, which was of limited application, being the basis of proceedings in the Chancery, the Admiralty Court, the Court of Requests and the ecclesiastical courts. Common Law operated in the rest of the judicial system. The Inns were governed by senior practitioners of the Common Law (usually termed ’benchers’), men (and only men) typically with two decades of experience, who practised law from their chambers and who regulated entry into and promotion through a profession which could be lucrative and which carried some prestige, though also, perhaps, some lingering taint of the social stigma which adhered to anyone in early modern England who had to work for a living (Prest 1972: 22, 61). The Inns were described during the Elizabethan period as England’s ’third university’, since they enrolled students, provided instruction and granted a higher education qualification, but as Wilfred Prest sagely observes, they ’were at once both more and less than a university’ (ibid. 115).

They were much smaller. Membership was for life (as it still is) but actual residence was irregular, and while the records indicate the numbers entering each Inn, how many were living there at any point remains more speculative. Prest suggests that by the beginning of the seventeenth century there were probably about 1,000 members in all during term time, though with some fluctuations. Oxford and Cambridge probably had more than 2,000 undergraduates each, plus other categories of residents. However, the Inns were socially more exclusive, in part because no scholarships subsidized the expenses of more needy students, there was no scope for working one’s way through by acting as servants to richer students (another option at the universities) and costs were high — about £40 per annum, at a time when the most wealthy yeomen farmers were typically drawing £100 from their lands (ibid.: 16, 27). Not only were the Inns’ young members the children of the wealthy, they often showed very little interest in the law. Certainly, the legal profession had its attractions, not least because it could lead to a range of appointments and careers outside the law courts, as accountants, brokers, financiers, entrepreneurs and land agents (ibid.: 22). In such a litigious age, when men of property had frequent recourse to law, some familiarity with Common Law could prove a useful accomplishment. But significant numbers, by the late Elizabethan period, were attending the Inns as a sort of finishing school, and such a cluster of young men with time and disposable income had an impact on the economy and the cultural life of the capital disproportionate to their mere numbers.

The Inns directly patronized the professional theatre companies, hiring them for private performances, particularly over the Christmas festivities, and they intermittently staged masques, sometimes presenting them at the royal court. They also supported chaplains and a preaching ministry, adding to the diversity of religious life around the City. Most obtrusively, members of the Inns attended the professional theatres. At a time when performances were usually given in daylight in the afternoon, these men were more likely to have the leisure to attend than citizens engaged in business and trade. That leisure promoted their most significant, though less visible, literary activity: the writing, circulating and collecting of verse, particularly lyric poetry. This was predominately a manuscript culture, for which the most influential model and inspiration was John Donne, a member of Lincoln’s Inn in residence in the early 1590s. But, of course, they also bought printed books.

Latin, Neo-Latin and English

The literary culture of early modern England was further fragmented along language divisions. Elite male education sought to produce people who could read, write and converse in Latin with facility. Latin was largely the medium of instruction in the grammar schools that prepared boys for the universities and learned professions, and, outside the Inns of Court, it dominated teaching and learning in higher education. It held a similar place in the private education favoured by the upper gentry and aristocracy for their children (sometimes including girls). Among the principal achievements of the pan-European humanist movement of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had been the major overhaul of Latin education. At its foundation was the re-establishment of spoken and written Latin on classical models, achieved by purging medieval neologisms from its lexis and replacing them with classical equivalents. To support this transformation, educational reformers placed fresh emphasis on learners’ assimilation of the classical idiom through extensive reading and memorizing of approved authors from the classical canon. Almost as a by-product, the classical literary tradition became a central part of the educational experience of England’s educational and social elite, through familiarity with Cicero (especially his letters), with Terence and with Virgil. Neo-Latin style was conceived as perfectible through imitation of such models, and the practice of Latin composition — that is, of literary production in neo-Latin — was concomitant with educational reform, though by 1600 schools were relying more heavily on a new generation of textbooks at the expense of early exposure to primary classical texts (Jensen 1996).

Such an education, for those with an aptitude for second-language acquisition, meant access to a fairly extensive literary culture available in print, the literary culture of ancient Rome. But widespread competence in the Latin language also supported another cultural movement of enormous importance in England as elsewhere in Europe, although one whose extent and achievement are now largely forgotten: neo-Latin writing. The cultural elite of England frequently produced in Latin not only technical or administrative or academic prose, but also a wide range of creative genres. New plays in Latin were performed in the universities, sometimes in circumstances of great celebrity and acclaim. Elizabeth attended such performances at least three times, and James I at least four (Binns 1990: 136). Continental neo-Latin poets were reprinted in England as part of a substantial print culture in this medium, foreign-printed works were extensively imported, and, as J. W. Binns has so comprehensively demonstrated, hundreds of items were printed in England as part of a rich, varied and extensive print culture (ibid.: 553—601).

On Binns’s account, the Latin-medium material offered to its readers an experience so fulfilling as to render vernacular literature unnecessary and unsought for:

[N]eo-Latin books furnished all the material needed for the creation of self-contained, self-sufficient, rich and satisfying, literary and intellectual culture. To those who moved freely within it in the age of Elizabeth and James I, there can have seemed little need to turn to popular vernacular writing. Virtually every taste was, after all, catered for in Latin. There were novels, poems and plays in profusion, books of history and travel, letters, tracts and treatises on a wide variety of topics. Neo-Latin could provide ample material for serious study, and for leisure reading too. This, perhaps, is why vernacular writing is so rarely referred to in neo-Latin works. Vernacular writing belongs, on the whole, to a different world; and much of the English vernacular writing of the time may have seemed crude, clumsy and uncouth to the average reader and writer of neo-Latin literature, apparently offering nothing which could not more agreeably be found in Latin. It is for this reason that Latin literature dominated the high intellectual culture of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. (1990: 393—4)

Binns is a stirring advocate for a largely forgotten literary culture, and the case he makes for its range and currency is convincing. Moreover, any alternative literary tradition, in competition for a readership already narrowly circumscribed by demography and social exclusion, necessarily contracts further the demand for high-culture vernacular literature. But the sharpness of the division may be questioned. Neo-Latin writing may not allude to vernacular literature, but among the most accomplished vernacular writers of the late Elizabethan and Stuart periods there are those whose oeuvre embraces both cultures: Donne, Bacon, Jonson, Milton and Marvell, for example, write in both languages. Neo-Latin and vernacular poems were sometimes published in the same books (see below, chapter 5). Neoclassicism develops across the seventeenth century as the most dynamic and pervasive cultural ideology in English vernacular literature. It is surely fed by an admiration for and familiarity with the classical literary tradition, both of which find parallel reflection in the production of and demand for neo-Latin writing.

Manuscript, Performance, Print

Most of the literary legacy of the late Elizabethan period began in manuscript. Songs may have had a rather different early life, as lyricist-composers may have performed new work experimentally before committing it to paper, though the lag may well have been trivial: manuscripts of lyrics with tablature are not rare. Generally and unsurprisingly, most works of literature, including play texts, were transmitted first as ink on paper.

Few working manuscripts of significance survive from this period. Perhaps the most famous — and most disputed — is the play text, Sir Thomas More (British Library, MS Harley 7368). The main part of the manuscript is a fair copy of a play sometimes assigned to 1600—1, into which, by way of revision, have been inserted pages in a hand that has been identified as William Shakespeare’s (Schoenbaum 1975: 156—60). Yet here, though worked over with a few deletions and additions, the document appears to be a fair copy or late draft. The disappearance of first and early drafts, however, is unsurprising. Writing paper was expensive. Little was manufactured in England, where paper production was overwhelmingly directed to producing brown paper. Nearly all paper for both manuscript and print was imported from France and the Low Countries until very late in the seventeenth century. The two kinds were distinguished primarily by the finish given to them. Paper for pen and ink was sized (that is, sealed with a glutinous wash to render it less porous) more heavily than printing paper, which had a greater absorbency, a technical distinction that reflected the differing characteristics of the ink and modes of application (Love 1993: 105; Woudhuysen 1996: 21). White paper was made from bleached rags in a labour-intensive process that required each sheet to be formed in an individual tray, to be carefully dried, to be hand-treated with size and to be dried a second time. Its materials, its manufacture and the transport costs meant that paper remained expensive, a fact that shaped significantly the operations of the printing and bookselling industries. Allusions abound from the early modern period to rejected or spurned texts variously used to line pie-trays, wrap fish or wipe bottoms. The paper from rough drafts retained a utility and even a value: recycling precluded survival.

Numerous factors retarded the progress of literary texts from manuscript to print. Play texts belonged to theatre companies, which operated on a repertory system, reviving old plays as well as performing new ones. Some plays from the 1590s were performed late into the seventeenth century. That mode of operation meant that play texts constituted a major asset of the companies. But the right to that intellectual property was unguarded in a law, which, as we shall see, protected only the rights of manufacturers of printed books. Plays were traded, but they were not readily given away. Quite probably, the manuscript of Sir Thomas More (and the associated opportunity to perform it) was transferred from the Lord Admiral’s Men to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as the former temporarily quit London (Schoenbaum 1975: 158).

Playwrights had no right to their work once they had delivered it to the companies that had bought or commissioned it. (Shakespeare stands outside these generalizations, since he was a part-owner of the company that produced his plays.) While the authors may have had an interest in selling to the press copies of plays that had succeeded in production, such a practice would have been professionally hazardous, since it would have forfeited the good will of the companies, which provided their primary source of income. Writing frequently for performance constituted the only way to secure a steady living. Certainly, publishers recognized a market for printed plays, and sometimes purchased manuscripts from companies, but the majority of works existed only in manuscript and performance, at least until they ceased to draw audiences.

The case of Henry Chettle is instructive. Chettle was among the most prolific dramatists of the late Elizabethan period, writing mainly for the companies managed by Philip Henslowe, whose diary records their dealings. Henslowe bought 13 plays written by Chettle and another 36 plays in which Chettle was a collaborator, usually for a couple of pounds each. Of the first group, only one is extant — in a corrupt edition of 1631, a quarter of a century after his death. Only four of the collaborations survive in print. Despite his seemingly frenzied activity, Chettle evidently experienced periods of extreme financial difficulty. The diary notes payments to support him during incarceration in the Marshalsea prison, Southwark, perhaps for debt (for example, see Henslowe 1904—8: I, 100). He was immensely popular in his own age. Yet the circumstances of literary production rendered him virtually invisible to posterity. By trade, curiously, he was a master printer (Schoenbaum 1975: 117).

The owners of play manuscripts had so obvious an interest in withholding them from print that the emergence of a supply of printed plays needs some explanation. Piracy has long been recognized as an important component. Besides occasional indiscretions by the writers, some works became available to publishers through the memorial reconstructions by actors who had taken part. In the case of Shakespeare, the most printed dramatist of the late Elizabethan period, the presence of a pirated version in print seems to have stimulated his company to release manuscripts, in part because the damage was done and the risk sustained, in part perhaps to spite those responsible by displacing their publications with authorized editions, and no doubt in part at times to earn cash payments from publishers.

Though dramatists wrote primarily for performance, the theatre business stimulated the emergence of professional writers who diversified into other genres that typically were print-based. Around the turn of the century, the London stage and the London publishers supported a literary culture of talented men, often of modest social standing, who lived off their writing (while seeking patronage and support on the basis of their cultural eminence). George Chapman published translations of passages from Homer and an edition of the epyllion Hero and Leander, seemingly left incomplete on Marlowe’s death in 1593, but now concluded by Chapman himself. Thomas Dekker began in 1603 the first of his prose pamphlets depicting London life in the age of plague epidemics. Michael Drayton wrote narrative poems based on English history. John Marston penned plays for companies of boy actors and published verse satires that contributed to the tightening of censorship in 1599 (see below). Anthony Munday wrote for the press newsbooks, anti-Catholic propaganda and translations of French romances, and wrote the texts for civil pageants, while writing at least 18 plays, only four of which are printed and extant. Ben Jonson diversified his activities, as actor, dramatist and soon-to-be-printed author of pageants and masques, and Chettle also published pamphlets.

The pattern had been set in the early 1590s by Robert Greene, dramatist, prose-fiction writer and pamphleteer, John Lyly, dramatist, romance writer and political pamphleteer, Christopher Marlowe, dramatist and Ovidian imitator, and Thomas Nashe, dramatist, brilliant novelist and political pamphleteer. It is sometimes remarked that the professional writers of the late 1590s differed from the generation of Greene and Marlowe in social and educational terms. For the most part the older men were university-educated and technically gentlemen, whereas Shakespeare, Jonson, Chettle and Munday came from a tradesman-class background and had little or no experience of higher education. The distinction has some merit, though there are numerous exceptions: Chapman studied at Oxford, Marston at Oxford and the Middle Temple, for example. The London stage and the London press were content-hungry and driven by a competitive market of readers and audiences that had plenty of alternative ways to spend their money. The writing they supported was performed or printed because it was in demand. The size of the market, especially for print, remained too small to produce for its authors the kinds of rewards they could live off, and the organization of stage and press served the interests of entrepreneurs, rather than creative writers. Yet together these alternative income-streams supported an emerging class of professionals who, while often seeking preferment through patronage, and while sometimes pursuing other professions in parallel, could after a fashion live off their writing, and who sought out working relationships with printers and booksellers as well as theatrical managers.

Poets who were not professional writers took a different view of print culture, from which they had little to gain materially (relative to their typical personal wealth). Certainly there was a demand for printed verse. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis had been a publishing sensation since its first appearance in 1593; there were 16 editions before 1640. By the second edition, its publishers surely had a good sense of the market for it, and print runs were probably longer than the usual 250 or 500 copies, though few copies of each individual edition survive, perhaps supporting the conclusion that their owners read them to pieces (Schoenbaum 1975: 131). But Sir Philip Sidney proved a more influential model for poetic conduct.

Sidney was a unique figure in Elizabethan literary history. His eminence derived in part from his political and social status. He was a prominent figure in the court faction most implacably hostile to peaceful coexistence with Catholicism at home or abroad, and a fierce advocate of open hostility to Spain. He manifested little political acumen, but his sister was the Countess of Pembroke and, more significantly, the Earl of Leicester, for a time the most influential of Elizabeth’s counsellors, was his uncle. Though his own influence at court did not survive once he was banished for his overly vehement opposition to the (subsequently unrealized) match between the Queen and the Catholic Duke d’Alençon, internal banishment to his sister’s home, Wilton House, can scarcely have been a hardship. His political commitment led to his participation in the English campaign in the Low Countries, in support of Dutch Protestants in arms against the Spanish. Death at the battle of Zutphen, documented and carefully related, secured his status as heroic martyr in the Protestant cause, and his lavish funeral attracted large crowds of mourners, becoming in effect a state funeral of almost regal proportions. Those on whom his wide influence was felt for the most part had little in common with a writer connected closely with the peerage, a glittering figure of immense distinction and — almost a new phenomenon for an English writer — celebrity.

Collecting poems emerged strongly from the 1590s onwards as a major cultural activity of the universities and Inns of Court, and the practice perhaps acquired there had currency among the gentry class and aristocratic families even in provincial England. Manuscript collections, usually termed ’miscellanies’, were sometimes the collective project of a family, an Inn of Court or a university college, though often individuals copied into booklets or loose leaves poems that they had encountered, most commonly in manuscript circulation, constructing a kind of personal and incremental anthology. As H. R. Woudhuysen observes, ’some miscellanies were undoubtedly very private collections’, whereas others were ’social documents, shared among fellow students, passed between family and friends, who might be invited to contribute to them, so that they may be written in several different hands’ (1996: 157).

The practice of miscellany-building certainly reflected the paucity of printed poetry. Once an author was available in print, the number of manuscript copies of his poems tended to decline. Most strikingly, the posthumous printing of Sidney’s works eroded their status as treasured manuscript items that presumably had been acquired with some difficulty (Woudhuysen 1996: 386). Again, the excess of demand over supply is evident in the marked-up price of printed poetry. In 1598, the Stationers’ Company, the guild representing the book trade, attempted to regulate maximum prices per printed sheet; books of poetry (like lawbooks) commanded a higher price than other kinds of publication (Bennett 1965: 300).

Manuscript circulation brought with it an informed and appropriate readership whose earliest access poets could control by withholding or vouchsafing access to their writing. In the search for patronage (see below), the gift of a poem, particularly an occasional poem addressed to a named individual, represented as valuable a present as a writer could bestow on a potential benefactor. If the benefactor allowed others access to it, to read and indeed to copy, then the panegyric achieved currency, the patron celebration and the poet a degree of celebrity. Eventually, such circulation spread far beyond authors’ control, and sometimes resulted in unwelcome and unauthorized publication in print. Woudhuysen vividly describes the social circumstance for the enjoyment of contemporary poetry in manuscript circulation in terms of its fashion among the young, leisured and wealthy and of the evident enthusiasm of such aficionados. No doubt, but the experience of some poetry-lovers in late Elizabethan England must often have been a frustrating one, excluded from access to texts still circulating only in the tightest coteries defined by social networks, by consanguinity, by structures of patronage. Such circulation also inhibited the development of authorship as an element in interpretation. We have noted the celebrity of Sidney. But the work of most poets was infrequently encountered in any quantity in any one location, and individual poems frequently occur in miscellanies under a false ascription. Most readers could have formed only the most imperfect sense of the characteristic style or themes of particular authors, let alone any idea of their development. Miscellanies are sometimes organized thematically, though eclectically, and a distinct enthusiasm emerges for juxtaposing poems which in some sense answer other poems. But typically, each poem must have been read as an autonomous text, rather than a component of something more complex. This is profoundly limiting for both author and reader, though it may usefully inform our own interpretative strategies in engaging with internally inconsistent works such as Donne’s ’Songs and Sonnets’ (see below, chapter 2). Yet it may in part explain the most significant exception to the predominance of manuscript circulation in late Elizabethan poetry: the sonnet sequence. Woudhuysen argues that the sudden availability in print of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella may have stimulated imitation and a sense that public exposure in print was not so demeaning after all (1996: 386). The kind of larger structure that Sidney built from his 108 sonnets and 11 songs, with its intricate numerological symbolism premised on its totality (Fowler 1970: 174—80), cannot be communicated in the piecemeal assemblage of the miscellanies; even its more evident thematic development would be lost.

The Press and its Controls

All printing in England, except for single presses at Oxford and Cambridge, was controlled by the Stationers’ Company, a guild invested with very considerable powers and responsibilities through a series of government measures. Its earliest history was as the trade association for those engaged in the production of manuscript documents, the scriveners or copyists, the lymners or illustrators, the bookbinders and the manuscript sellers. In the late fourteenth century, scribes specializing in the production of legal documents separated to form the Scriveners’ Company, and in time diversified to include activities like financial advice, money-lending and brokering loans. Milton’s father is now perhaps the most renowned scrivener active in that business from the late Elizabethan period. The Stationers’ Company developed to incorporate participants in the book trade, and included printers as well as bookbinders and those engaged in both retail and wholesale bookselling. The craft of the lymner was displaced by print illustration as the trade in manuscripts substantially halted.

To the Company fell the usual restrictive practices that characterized early modern capitalism in London. Its internal organization invested most of the power in coteries of master craftsmen and leading entrepreneurs, who acted to control prices and wages and regulated an apprenticeship system that ensured a convenient excess of trained journeymen. But a unique relationship between the stationers and late-Tudor government distinguished them from all other London guilds.

While numerous problems confronted anyone attempting to do business in the City of London without full membership of a guild recognized by the Corporation, generally, if one had achieved that ’freeman’ status, one could diversify into activities outside the sphere of one’s own guild. Not so with the book trade. Although there is strong evidence that stationers themselves diversified into other businesses (Bennett 1965: 271), by 1600 only stationers could print books, and the Company had powers to police the industry to ensure there were no violations — and to ensure that seditious writing had no currency.

Much of this special status can be traced to its Charter of incorporation, granted by Philip and Mary in 1557. Its preamble declares that the king and queen, wishing to provide a suitable remedy against the seditious and heretical books that were daily printed and published, gave certain privileges to the stationers. Specifically, the Company had a monopoly of printing, except for holders of particular royal permission, and was commissioned to search for, seize and confiscate any material printed contrary to any statute or proclamation. An assumption that press control fell within the royal prerogative was much older. By a proclamation of 1538, for example, pre-publication censorship had been introduced into England for the first time through a requirement that no book could be printed without the approval of a royal licenser (Blagden 1960: 20—1, 30).

It was in Elizabeth’s reign, however, that, in the judgement of Siebert’s classic account, ’the high point’ of control was reached, measured by ’the number and variety of controls, stringency of enforcement, and general compliance with regulations’ (1952: 2). Elizabeth had confirmed the Charter granted by her late sister shortly after accession, and began a fruitful working relationship with the more powerful figures in the book trade. Under her reign, and particularly from the Ordinances of the Company of 1562, a notion of copyright developed which invested ownership not in the authors who wrote works, but in the printers or booksellers who registered with the Stationers’ Company their ownership of the title. Such registration followed scrutiny by an appointed censor (initially a Warden of the Company) and in effect protected the officers of the Company from any general responsibility for the circulation of forbidden books. The right to reprint was frequently traded among stationers; authors had no part of such transactions (Blagden 1960: 42—5). At the same time, Elizabeth secured close support from leading printers by selectively granting monopolies to individuals which gave them the privilege of producing particularly lucrative classes of publication, such as bibles, psalters and alphabet books; increasingly large areas of the market were parcelled out to loyal clients whose continued compliance was ensured both by the easy income it secured and the recognition that monopolies could be withdrawn as easily as they were granted. The practice produced deep disparities across the trade, impoverishing some and ensuring that new start-ups often floundered (Siebert 1952: 39—40).

Government control of the intellectual life of England certainly tightened in the latter half of the reign. As Jim Sharpe comments:

The Tudor period was one in which the treason laws were constantly elaborated, one step in this process being the statute of 1581 against seditious works. This legislation, which, inter alia, prescribed that first offenders unable to pay a £200 fine should be stood on the pillory and have their ears cut off, was fairly comprehensive. (1995: 199)

As laws against oppositional discourse were made more severe, so too were the mechanisms of press control refined. The Star Chamber Decree of 1586 assumed that the best way to control the book trade was to scrutinize especially closely the earliest phase of book production: the work of printers. The Company’s rights and obligations of search and control were strengthened, while, most significantly, the actual number of printing presses and of their operatives was reduced. A census of presses and materials was expeditiously instituted, and no new presses were to be permitted until the number of master printers had been reduced by natural wastage to a total to be determined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, who emerged as powerful figures in the control of the trade. All presses had to be ’openly displayed’ and accessible to the officers of the Company; presses used in any way illicitly could be ’defaced, sawn to pieces, battered or broken at the smith’s forge’ (Greg 1967: 41). No presses could be set up outside London. In Blagden’s telling phrase, the Decree ’does not make pleasant reading’ (1960: 71—3).

In 1599 the final significant Elizabethan measure of control, the so-called ’Bishops’ Ban’, amounted to a decree from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London instructing the Stationers’ Company to address five issues. The decree required the calling in, and in some cases the burning, of recent satires, presumably in an initiative to control the spirit of too-free witty censure. It announced similar measures against the erotic verse of Sir John Davies and the late Marlowe. It demanded a total ban on publishing any works by Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe, and the confiscation of their titles already in print; again, both were active satirists. It required that ’noe Englishe historyes be printed excepte they be allowed by some of her maiesties privie Counsell’. Finally, it required ’that noe playes be printed excepte they bee allowed by suche as have aucthorytie’ (Arber 1875—94: III, 316). At a stroke, the authorities sought to reform morals, limit oppositional writing and perhaps even prevent the acrimony and social friction satire could engender. How effective the measures were may be questioned, though certainly Harvey, who lived on until the 1630s in provincial retirement, was effectively silenced; no later work by him appears in print. Nashe lived to see the publication of Summers Last Will and Testament in the following year. He died in 1601, and so conclusions are harder to draw. Plays were subject to pre-performance censorship, and the ordinary rules applied if they were to be printed; the measure here no more than insists on the strict observation of current procedures. The Ban targets specifically literary genres, in the case of satires, presumably because of their topicality; in the case of erotic verse, on grounds of decency. Book burning had precedents in England, though typically for works of religion; suddenly, literary criticism had assumed a militant and repressive form. The new procedures for English histories — it is unclear whether it means books about England or books in English; perhaps both — whether implemented or not, demonstrate the extraordinary attention deemed appropriate for politically sensitive material. The Privy Council, in effect the executive wing of the crown and the highest council in the land, was, in theory at least, impanelled as licensers. Elizabeth’s reign closed on a book trade more mindful than ever of its subservient and client role within the power structure.

How well did the stationers serve late Elizabethan literature? Certainly, as Bennett has demonstrated and argued, there was a copious supply of reading material in the London bookshops and stalls at the turn of the century. But such evident success requires qualification. English books were poorly printed in comparison with the best products of continental Europe. They were poorly designed, sometimes scarcely designed at all. They relied on copy that was sometimes unauthorized and unreliable. Their sloppy standards reflected the cosy security of the guild that produced them. The investment of all legal and financial advantage relating to intellectual property in stationers rather than in authors inhibited the development of professional writers, ensuring that those who lived by their pens worked frantically and dissipated energies in necessary diversification. Moreover, the arrangement meant there was little commercial incentive to persuade writers with a secure income from elsewhere to seek exposure in print, and thus the trade was starved of appropriate content. The privileged and monopolistic retention of lucrative parts of the trade by a favoured few produced disparities that made it difficult for new publishers, perhaps better attuned to the market or closer to authors, to break in. The Company’s willingness to police the trade in return for privileges encouraged every government of the seventeenth century to entertain the notion that press control was a feasible project that could be achieved using a seemingly effective structure that required no funding. As government and industry collaborated, to their apparent mutual advantage, the implications for the reading public and for authors were malign.

The Final Years of Elizabethan Theatre

The London theatres were closed during the final illness of Elizabeth in March 1603, and remained closed through a period of mourning. Thereafter, the long and devastating plague of 1603 required a further period of closure, which kept them shut till April 1604 and brought about a major crisis of viability (see below, chapter 2). Before those reversals, the stage was for the most part in quite good health, if somewhat cowed by recent events. Five companies played regularly in the City. The three adult companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Lord Admiral’s Men and the Earl of Worcester’s Men, securely occupied new and purpose-built theatres outside the City itself. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men played at the Globe on the south bank of the Thames, owned by a partnership which included Shakespeare. They were technically the servants of George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the duty of whose royal office included the highest responsibility for the regulation of the English stage and the provision of theatrical entertainment for the monarch. As a privy councillor, he was plainly a powerful patron and protector. The Globe itself was a polygonal amphitheatre, open to the sky and made in part from the timber frame of the theatre in Shoreditch, quit by the company in 1598 and subsequently dismantled. Three tiers of galleries provided the more expensive accommodation, and there was standing in the ’pit’ around the stage itself. Its capacity, based on late Jacobean evidence, is usually estimated at about 3,000, considerable by the standards of any period of English theatre history. The Fortune, the home of the company patronized by the Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, Earl of Nottingham and also a privy councillor, opened in 1600 outside the City wall on the north-west side. Square rather than polygonal, though in other respects broadly resembling the Globe, this too was a considerable venue. The company itself had a long history, and its migration north across the river from its earlier Bankside site may have reflected anxieties about competing with the Globe in such close proximity. Both companies were competently managed and were established on a sound legal and financial basis. The third adult company was newer and less stable. Its patron, Edward Somerset, Earl of Worcester, had recently been advanced to some of the court offices stripped from the Earl of Essex (see below). However, his company had been established with difficulty at a time when there was pressure to limit to two the number of adult troupes. Its performing space was built within a courtyard of the sprawling and ancient Boar’s Head Inn, in Whitechapel, close to the City wall on the east side. When in 1598 it became a theatre, it ceased to be an inn. Though its location was fairly propitious, the theatre was smaller than the rival amphitheatres, its design seems to have been somewhat improvised, and its owners dissipated much energy and expense in legal squabbles among themselves. The Earl of Worcester’s Men were not properly sanctioned to play till 1602. (This account and what follows rest largely on Wickham et al. 2000: Pt III, which in turn draws on earlier work; and Gurr 1996: Pt II.)

Two companies of boy actors performed within the City itself. The adult companies had located in the suburbs because of the longstanding antipathy of the authorities of the City to theatres. Their petitions typically cite threats to civil order, the ’lewdness’ of the theatrical business and the vice trade it allegedly attracted to its locations, and the idleness it promoted among employees lured from work by its afternoon performances. Suburb dwellers often shared these objections, though in the case of the Fortune their powerful patron intervened swiftly and effectively to protect the project (Wickham et al. 2000: 537—9). The City authorities were evidently, though rather mysteriously, more tolerant of the boy companies. Paul’s Boys, founded on the participation of choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, performed in an indoor theatre accommodated within its precinct. The company was revived in 1599 after a long interruption. The other, the Blackfriars Boys, appeared in 1600 as a revival of a much earlier company based on child choristers of the Chapel Royal. They performed at Blackfriars in a venue adapted from earlier buildings by entrepreneurs associated with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who were themselves forbidden to use it, because of its situation within the City, until 1609. Boy companies performed a repertoire as adult in its content as the public theatres, but theirs were smaller venues, technically ’private’ (as opposed to the ’public’ amphitheatres) and it is customarily surmised that their audience may have been drawn from a narrower social range. Both venues were indoors, an obvious advantage for much of the year.

The boy actors in their ’private’ performing spaces may have enjoyed some immunity from the controls which governed the public theatres. In general, though, that regime was comprehensive and effective. It emanated directly from the crown, where an ambiguous attitude to the stage prevailed. The Lord Chamberlain was responsible for royal entertainment, most significantly during the protracted festivities around Christmas. To this end, a flourishing London stage was necessary to provide command performances in temporary performing spaces at court. All early Privy Council discussions of stage control prioritize the provision of entertainment at court, which constitutes its primary raison d’être. Yet the court evidently shared some of the City authorities’ concerns and there was a recurrent anxiety lest the stage were to foment sedition through hostile depiction of the political establishment. Legislation was tightened over the late Elizabethan period. Edmund Tilney became Master of the Revels in 1579, with the combined responsibilities of regulating the theatre and securing performances at court. By the end of the reign, those powers included licensing powers over the companies and over the plays they performed, which had to be approved after his inspection.

The professional theatre in 1603 was still mindful of its own dependence on protection and its susceptibility to sudden and potentially very punitive intervention. A scandal of 1597 had starkly asserted their powerlessness before the will of the regime. The Earl of Pembroke’s Men performed a comedy, Isle of Dogs, co-authored by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. The content of this lost play has been the subject of some speculation. However, it seems likeliest that, in the spirit of contemporary satire, it approached too closely the critical representation of living persons. The Isle of Dogs, a muddy spit in the Thames downriver from the City, confronts from the north shore the royal complex at Greenwich along the south shore, and the probability must be that it included some allusion to or reflection on the court.

The Privy Council’s response sharply reminded theatrical companies of their dependence and vulnerability. The play contained ’very seditious and slanderous matter’ constituting ’lewd and mutinous behaviour’. Those terms are a stark reminder that, for all the interest of literary historians in the statutory framework of censorship, far more draconian measures became available once a transgressive text strayed into what could be represented as blasphemy or sedition, which carried a range of spectacular corporal and capital punishments. Jonson and some of the leading actors of the company were arrested and imprisoned, while Nashe escaped, to live on the run till the storm passed (Nicholl 1984: ch. 16; Wickham et al. 2000). Chillingly, the Privy Council instructed ’Mr Topcliffe’ ’to examine … those of the players that are committed … what is become of the rest of their fellows that either had their parts in the devising of that seditious matter, or that were actors or players in the same; what copies they have given forth of the said play and to whom; and such other points as your shall think meet to be demanded of them’ (Wickham et al. 2000: 102). Richard Topcliffe was the notorious chief inquisitor of recusants, a man licensed to use torture in extracting information. Indeed, his involvement leads Charles Nicholl to speculate that the objectionable play had some recusant elements within it (1984: 254), though there would seem to be no supporting evidence. In the event, nobody seems to have been interrogated by rack or strappado, or sentenced to be branded, mutilated or flogged, and certainly nobody was executed.

But the stage had had its lesson. At the same time, the regime took action against the other adult companies, ordering their immediate though temporary suppression. When the theatres reopened in London, only the Lord Admiral’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were licensed. Pembroke’s Men reformed only as a company permitted to tour the provinces. ’Playhouse owners and acting companies had learned that … they must either accept the Court as their master or forfeit the right to work in their chosen profession’ (Wickham et al. 2000: 104).

A major brush with authority, though more limited in its impact, resulted from the peripheral involvement of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the abortive Essex coup of 1601. The larger intentions of the earl remain as uncertain to modern historians as they were among his contemporaries. To repair his political eclipse after the failure of his military expedition to Ireland and his rash response to that, he had assembled a small private army in his London mansion and attempted to take over both the Tower of London and the royal court. Even on the scaffold he maintained his innocence of any attempt to hurt or kill the queen. On the eve of the uprising, he entertained his followers at the Globe with a performance of ’the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second’ (evidence of a player in the company to Chief Justice Popham and Justice Fenner — Wickham et al. 2000: 195). The event has posed problems and provoked varied speculation. Shakespeare’s play, as we know it, seems like a text arguing against uprising: was it altered or was this some other play on the same theme? Perhaps Essex wanted to distinguish the intended coup from an act of sedition, like that depicted. Practically, using the Globe had advantages for conspirators in that it was perhaps the only venue where 3,000 people could meet without seeming like a riotous assembly. Theatres were closed later in the century at times of uncertainty about civil order, for a long period during the 1640s and 1650s and again during the Monmouth rebellion of 1685. Andrew Gurr, eschewing wider speculation, simply concludes that ’Essex’s judges accepted their story [of their innocence of any larger involvement in and knowledge of the coup]. The players … got away lightly’ (1996: 289). But, as the minor figures in the failed uprising followed Essex to execution, they had another reminder of the nature of power in the last years of Elizabeth and of their own lowly status.

Patronage and Court Culture

Elizabethan writers could rarely live well from the direct fruits of their labours. Those who were not privately wealthy needed employment, perhaps in the learned professions, or as a servant of the crown or an aristocrat, or as an office-holder of some sort. Competition for preferment was fierce, and men of letters offered limited attractions to potential benefactors, who may have wished to reward or advance people with rather different skills. Among leading writers of the period, Francis Bacon was the most successful in securing powerful aristocratic patronage, though the second Earl of Essex no doubt valued his shrewd legal mind at least as much as his prose style. At an early stage of his career, Bacon was engaged, for example, in ’drafting position papers’ (Jardine and Stewart 1998: 131). Some great families had, over several generations, a record of offering protection and financial reward to creative writers, as we might call them. Over the Tudor and early Stuart period the Herbert family, the Earls of Pembroke prominent among them, attracted tributes and dedications from more than 250 writers. In the late Elizabethan period, these included George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Nashe and Edmund Spenser (Brennan 1988: xii). No doubt to some they extended some protection and largesse, though the second Earl of Pembroke could do little to protect his servants’ theatrical company when crisis came (see above). Other great aristocratic families, the Dudleys, the Cecils and the Howards, were similarly courted. In the 1590s, Essex, assiduously building his retinue, was recognized as a major source of patronage and preferment. He was courted by numerous writers, and had a remarkable number of published works dedicated to him, which clearly reflected ’a perception that he was a likely source of preferment, protection or financial reward’. However, although dedications to the mighty, to the queen and her courtiers, flowed from the presses, ’there is no proof that a dedication ever secured for an author the desired reward, or even the benevolence of the patron to whom the work was addressed’ (Fox 1995: 231). Essex, though, plainly did extend some small-scale rewards for artistic services. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in the aftermath of the coup, may well have thought the two pounds they received to play Richard II a poor deal for the risks they ran. But he did pay for other performances in other contexts. For example, he hired a troupe of Oxford ’scholars’ to put on an entertainment at an Ascension Day tilt (Hammer 1999: 202). His fall certainly disrupted a major network of dependency and protection.

Patronage in the early modern period functioned on principles other than kindness and charity. Typically, clients gave to patrons something they thought the patrons wanted — material goods or services, perhaps even sexual favours — and patrons gave to the clients something that cost them nothing but which was ’in their gift’ — a court office, a nomination to a living or an academic appointment, perhaps. Of course, the rich and powerful needed servants, employed at their own charge, and hiring one, rather than another, constituted another kind of patronage. Where state appointments were concerned, a market in offices emerged. For a minor post £200 would be offered, with competitive bids of between £1,000 and £4,000 for lucrative offices such as the receivership of the Court of Wards or the treasurership at war (Guy 1995b: 8). In markets like this, dedicating a book or delivering a birthday ode did not carry much weight, although if that was all one had to offer, the persistence of the practices is understandable.

Setting the style for her leading aristocrats, Elizabeth was notoriously parsimonious in her support for creative artists. In fairness, as a monarch at war she was relatively hard up. She would accept dedications, ’but she gave nothing in return. An author might as well dedicate a book to the moon for all the benefit it brought’ (Parry 2002: 125). Moreover, the wider cultural activity she supported appeared increasingly insular, stagnant and outmoded. While her great adversary, Philip II of Spain, was collecting the work of Titian and Bosch and building El Escorial, Elizabeth eschewed major expenditure and patronized portrait painters in the old iconic English tradition. As Sir Roy Strong puts it, ’Stylistically England was a backwater, for [Elizabeth’s] reign [was] a rock against change’ (1986: 87—8). (Elizabethan miniature painting should probably be exempted from the general censure.) But the queen demanded entertainment, and the theatre companies left standing after the Isle of Dogs scandal often played at court. They did so, in part, because it was much cheaper to hire them than to stage court entertainments, and ’most of the surviving Elizabethan entertainments were not performed at court, but were presented to the Queen on her progresses around the country’ (Lindley 1995: xvi). The rich achievements of late Elizabethan literary culture, the work of Spenser and Marlowe, the early writing of Shakespeare, Bacon and Donne: all owe virtually nothing to Elizabeth herself or the cultural microclimate she inhabited.