As some of you may know, I’ve published a number of essays taking issue with the claim that London’s theatre world became a “duopoly” in 1594, a system in which two companies chosen by the government, the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, each got half the city’s theatrical market for at least six years. This idea is mostly Andrew Gurr’s invention. It has absolutely no documentary basis.

The only evidence for such a duopoly comes from the records of court performances in the 1590s: it is true that no company but the Lord Admiral’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s performed for the queen between December 1594 and 3 February 1600 (on 5 February 1600, Derby’s Men were asked to play at court). This is an even longer and more exclusive run than the Queen’s Men’s in the 1580s, when that company was the only adult troupe to play at court from December 1583 to 26 December 1585; after that, other companies started creeping in again, though the Queen’s Men remained the clear favourites at court until February 1591. However, no theatre historian would argue that only the Queen’s Men were allowed to perform in and around London in those years of court monopoly or dominance. Similarly, it makes little sense to conclude that just because two companies had exclusive access to court performances from 1594-1600, they were the only acting troupes with access to London’s much bigger, much more diverse, and much less controlled theatrical marketplace.

I would suggest that it makes significantly better sense to understand the developments of 1594 as analogous to those of 1583, and as the Lord Chamberlain’s office’s last effort to separate the court from the world of theatre at large. It also matter that this effort ended in 1603, when the court began adopting a very different strategy.

So here is my alternative to the duopoly narrative from the perspective of the Office of the Revels — excerpted from the draft of a new introduction to the history of Shakespeare’s theatre that I’m currently writing. Comments would be very welcome!


Thinking of theatre as a commercial enterprise taking place in venues accessible to all who could pay the price of admission means leaving out one important aspect of the early modern actor’s life: performances at court. Companies occasionally were paid to stage their plays inside the London houses of noble clients, but those interactions with the highest social ranks were sporadic in nature. The court, on the other hand, annually required acting troupes to provide entertainment during the lengthy revels between Christmas and Twelfth Night and usually at Shrovetide (the three days before Ash Wednesday) as well. Under Elizabeth I, there was only one court, her own, and theatrical activities were limited to those two holiday periods. Once James I ascended to the throne, though, the number of royal courts multiplied—besides the king’s own, Queen Anne, Prince Henry, and later Prince Charles also maintained their own courts with their own occasions for entertainment—and playing was no longer limited to holidays. The records show that any of the three, later four, royally sponsored adult companies could be summoned at any point during the year to perform in one of the palaces (though not usually in the summer). Officially, the courts’ desire for theatrical performances was one justification for allowing actors to play all year round in public venues, even when the City authorities raised concerns: the companies needed to be allowed to rehearse and try out their plays in front of live audiences on a regular basis so they could be ready whenever a member of the royal family needed them. But the players always came to the royals; the royals did not come to them. No queen, king, or even prince visited a playhouse or indoor theatre in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The person in charge of organizing royal entertainments was the Master of the Revels, an officer who worked for the Lord Chamberlain. Under Elizabeth, the office was held by Edmund Tilney. Tilney’s job was not an easy one: he was responsible for choosing the appropriate companies and plays from the multitude of performers and performances on offer in London. In his early years, his approach seemed quite scattershot, with up to seven different troupes playing at court per season. The sheer complexity of keeping that many companies organized may have prompted Tilney to help form an elite troupe under Elizabeth’s own patronage, the Queen’s Men, who dominated court entertainments for a few years after 1583. In 1594, the Master of the Revels seems to have undertaken a second effort to streamline holiday performances, this time relying not on a single troupe, but on a pair of them—and his superior, the Lord Chamberlain, played his part in taking over the patronage of one of those companies. For five years thereafter, Tilney could again draw on two consistently excellent troupes, the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men.

As in 1583, though, this streamlining of court entertainments gave the queen’s revels a complexion rather different than that of the world of popular theatre. The Queen’s Men were the leading company of their day, but far from the only one, and those other troupes eventually reappeared in the court season as well; similarly, Shakespeare’s company and their colleagues at the Rose were prominent actors but far from alone in London’s theatres, and their competitors also turned up on Tilney’s payroll again before too long. Derby’s Men, Worcester’s Men, Hertford’s Men, and especially the boy companies all performed at court within a few years of the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s own troupe. Tilney’s tenure as Master of the Revels is therefore marked by repeated, ultimately futile efforts to create a tightly controlled system of limiting actors’ access to courtly employment—a system that in its simplicity seemed designed to shut out the sheer variety of the theatrical marketplace beyond the court, and in every case failed in that mission within a few years.

Under James I, the Lord Chamberlain’s office finally acknowledged the size and diversity of London’s theatre world. Instead of continuing the efforts to maintain a separate set of companies with access to the court, all the major London companies gradually came under royal patronage. By 1615, there were five adult troupes officially sponsored by a member of James I’s family; only those companies were asked to perform at court, but they were probably also the only acting outfits regularly playing in London. There were simply not enough playhouses to accommodate more than five permanent adult companies.

2 Responses to I see your Duopoly and…

  1. Tom Reedy says:

    What are your thoughts on the “policy of plays”, Holger–the idea that Elizabeth used licensed playing companies as propaganda media who traveled the kingdom to promote secular theatre to take the place of Catholic mystery plays and promote a national kingdom through patriotic dramas?

    • Hi Tom,

      I’m not sure, to be honest. Did Elizabeth think that way about acting companies? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Did Walsingham? Possibly. I can sort of buy that argument for the Queen’s Men (it’s basically Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean’s view), but even for them it’s difficult to sustain. I don’t find it easy to see the clear ideological line in most of the Queen’s Men’s plays. For the 1594 companies, I don’t think one can really make that kind of argument.

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