Generally, I think of the posts I write on my blog as related to but separate from my academic work. With the exception of a few conference papers and a handful of other pieces, what I publish here shares some intellectual common ground with my research on contemporary performance, but it takes a different tone and a different attitude than I would adopt in my academic writing. This post is a little different. It’s born out of a frustration that I have engaged with in conference papers and academic publications — in essays in Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Survey, and elsewhere — but that I’ve never quite expressed as fully in writing as I will here. It’s not that I haven’t tried: but more than once, I was asked to tone down my rhetoric by editors, and I’ve always complied. In retrospect, I don’t believe that was the intellectually honest choice. So, no more.

The history of early modern theatre is a field of research that has always been defined by a relative scarcity of data and a relatively rabid desire for knowledge: this was Shakespeare’s theatre, after all, and we want to know all about it. Generations of scholars have attempted to fill the many, many gaps with narratives of a more or less speculative nature, but in essence  those of us working in this field now confront the same problem Malone, Collier, Halliwell Phillipps, or John Quincy Adams had to contend with: it’s a very small and very fragmented archive. Despite the tireless efforts of researchers over the past century, the documents collected in the four volumes of E. K. Chambers’s Elizabethan Stage (1923), together with the early Malone Society Collections and Philip Henslowe’s Diary, first fully edited by W. W. Greg in 1904 and 1908, remain the ultimate basis for almost all arguments in early modern theatre history today. Sure, the information about provincial performances (and now, about theatrical activities in London) collected by the Records of Early English Drama project over the past three decades has enriched the archive; perhaps even more significantly, a series of archeological digs in London has revealed more about the first commercial playhouses than we ever knew before. But in essence, a theatre historian writing, say, about the 17th-century Blackfriars theatre in 2014 is drawing on more or less the same evidence Irwin Smith used in writing his monumental study Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse: Its History and Design in 1964.

It’s tempting, in this sort of situation, to let one’s desire — or penchant — for narrative run a little wild: an absence of evidence can, after all, be liberating, too. If the gaps can be filled with whatever story seems to fit, any number of stories might be worth telling. Embracing this kind of freedom is, undoubtedly, a better response to data deprivation than the alternative route Collier picked when he simply forged the documents that could not be discovered in the archive. But unfortunately it is all too easy to shift from self-aware hypothesizing to assertions of truth-claims that imply access to evidence that does not in fact exist. And this takes me to the frustration with which I began this post.

I’ve written at some length about my problems with Andrew Gurr’s use of evidence before, if mainly in politely worded footnotes (I’ve certainly not been alone in this — Roslyn Knutson has been at it far longer than me, as have others, including David Kathman and William Ingram. Shoulders of giants and all that). One of his most widely cited ideas — an idea that seems to have been almost universally accepted among Shakespeareans, especially those who aren’t theatre historians themselves — is the notion that two privy councillors created a “duopoly” of theatre companies in 1594, when the playhouses reopened after a prolonged and serious outbreak of the plague. It’s a story that fits very poorly with what we do in fact know about London’s theatre scene in the mid-1590s; it also suffers from a total absence of documentary evidence, as Gurr occasionally admits: “no papers about the 1594 deal survive,” he blithely wrote in a footnote in 2004. But it is a story that has the advantage of putting the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a troupe Gurr insistently calls “the Shakespeare Company,” at the heart of any narrative about Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. Theatre history thus becomes a story about Shakespeare — and we like those stories.

It also needs to be said that Gurr is a very talented storyteller (and I don’t mean that dismissively — most great historians are good storytellers). His narratives sound plausible, and they’re generally not boring (they’re rarely bogged down by skepticism or those pesky adverbs of doubt that might weaken a reader’s trust: there are few “maybe”s, “possibly”s, or “perhaps”s). Given the paucity of evidence, the subjunctive might be a more appropriate mood than Gurr’s preferred indicative in writing about the history of early modern theatre. And yet it seems that his very assertiveness is what makes his accounts so influential: reassured by the certainty he has projected for decades, more than one generation of early modernists has adopted his views largely uncritically and without questioning their reliability.  The kind of civility most of us observe in our responses to those views doesn’t help, since it makes serious problems sound like interpretative differences between hyper-specialized researchers.

Reading the introduction to a new collection of essays Gurr co-edited with Farah Karim-Cooper, Moving Shakespeare Indoors: Performance and Repertoire in the Jacobean Playhouse (Cambridge UP, 2014), however, has convinced me that the time for civility is past. Instead, let me take three or four paragraphs from that introduction to show just how much is wrong with his account and with his use of what little evidence we have. (The piece was co-authored with his co-editor, but the paragraphs in question are a condensed version of ideas and claims he has developed, at greater length but with not much more evidentiary support, in other books, from The Shakespearian Playing Companies [1996] to The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642 [2004] and elsewhere. I don’t know Farah Karim-Cooper’s perspective on the narrative Gurr offers here, nor if her co-authorship constitutes an implicit endorsement; but the ideas are so evidently Gurr’s that I am going to attribute them to him alone in what follows.)

I realize that all my quibbles and objections might seem like micro-criticisms — but that is in fact my point. A story is made up of and relies on many small elements; if those fall apart, so does the entire story.

In October 1594 the company that included Shakespeare as a player, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, asked their patron to get them the use of an inn with a roofed upper room to perform in through the winter months. He specified the Cross Keys Inn, located in Gracechurch Street in the centre of the city. It had been used in previous years as a winter playhouse, and several members of the new company had performed there. Clearly the company wanted to continue their tradition when the weather was bad of performing indoors inside the city. This traditional view seems to have been maintained in striking contrast to the company’s opposites, the Lord Admiral’s Men, who seem to have been content to continue through both summer and winter at their assigned venue, the Rose on Bankside. This contrast between the two leading companies’ policies had massive long-term effects. (3)

Much of this summary relies on theories Gurr has previously espoused. Are they well founded? Well, let’s see:

  • We don’t know that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men asked their patron to do anything. The impulse may well have been the Chamberlain’s own.
  • The Chamberlain’s letter of October 1594 does not say anything about a “roofed upper room.” Nor does it say anything about playing indoors. Instead, he simply asks the Lord Mayor to allow the company “to play this winter time within the City at the Cross Keys in Gracious Street.” The point of the request explicitly is performance within the city walls, not under a roof — there were no other venues for performance inside the city other than the four inns where we know theatre was staged.
  • We don’t know if the Cross Keys Inn had an indoor performance space, nor do we know if it was upstairs. The Bell, next door to the Cross Keys, had an upstairs hall which may have been used for theatrical shows; we have no information about such a room at the Cross Keys. We do, however, know that a performing horse called Marroccus appeared at the Cross Keys before 1588. It’s unlikely that a horse-show would have been put on in an upper-floor room. The Cross Keys, if the information from a 1676 (post-1666-fire) map is reliable, did have a fairly spacious yard — big enough for staging plays, but not as sheltered from foot traffic as the playing yards at the other two inns used for performances (the Bell Savage and the Bull).
  • One additional bit of evidence that the Cross Keys was used for outdoor playing: in his 1664 “A short Discourse of the English Stage,” written before the inns were destroyed in the Great Fire, Richard Flecknoe recounts that the first commercial playing spaces in London were set up “in the City (as in the inn-yards of the Cross Keys and Bull in Grace[church] and Bishopsgate Street[s] at this day is to be seen).” This was written decades after those venues had ceased to be used for plays. But it was written while they still existed, and while, apparently, there was still physical evidence that their yards were acting spaces — the remnants of stages, perhaps?
  • It is true that the Lord Chamberlain’s letter specifies that his company wants to use the inn during the winter months. But there is no inherent connection between the inns and winter performance. Evidence of shows staged at the four inns survives from all seasons. Elsewhere, Gurr used a 1583 licence that authorized the Queen’s Men to play at both the Bell and the Bull inns to argue that the Bell, with its putative indoor space, was intended as the winter quarters. But the license was issued in late November and was valid until Shrovetide 1584 — early March. In other words, the license only covered the winter months. Instead of specifying two inns with features appropriate for different seasons, the license specified two equivalent performance venues the Queen’s Men were to use during the winter months, both within the City (and it lists two, one presumes, in case one inn’s landlord wasn’t interested in hosting the same company every day for four months).
  • How many members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had previously acted at the Cross Keys? No-one knows. We do know that Lord Strange’s Men performed there in November 1589, and we know that all five members of the same patron’s company listed in a May 1593 travel licence would eventually join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But we have no idea if any of those five were part of the troupe that played at the Cross Keys four years earlier (four years were a long time in the life of an Elizabethan acting company!). And we do not in fact know how many of them had already joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by October 1594 (the date of the letter).
  • Gurr assumes that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men thought of themselves as a continuation of Strange’s Men (that’s why he can write of “their tradition”). We don’t know if that was in fact the case. Nor do we know if Strange’s Men had anything resembling a “tradition” of performing within the city walls in the winter. We certainly don’t know that they had a tradition of playing “indoors” — in fact, that is more improbable than it is likely. And even if one accepted the evidence-free theory that such a company tradition existed, there is no way of knowing if that tradition was specific to Strange’s Men or if it was simply what most companies did or tried to do.
  • There is no “striking contrast” between what the Chamberlain’s Men were trying to do in October 1594 and the Lord Admiral’s Men’s practice. From the same report that tells us that Strange’s Men were acting at the Cross Keys in 1589, we also know that the Lord Admiral’s Men were planning to perform somewhere “within the City” that same day in November — which means they must have been using one of the other three inns. It is entirely possible that just like the Chamberlain’s Men, the Admiral’s Men were hoping to continue with that practice in 1594, but were rebuffed by the city authorities (or their patron may have been less willing to intervene on their behalf). All we know is that they didn’t play in the City; we don’t know that they didn’t try to play there.
  • There is no evidence that the Rose was “assigned” to the Lord Admiral’s Men. It is clear that the Privy Council wanted to limit the number of companies to two by 1598; and by 1600, there is evidence of a government effort to house those two companies in specific theatres. No similar documentation exists for 1594, nor is there any evidence of efforts to place particular companies in assigned playhouses that year.
  • There is no evidence that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men wanted to perform indoors (or in the City) after 1594. The King’s Men, as the company was known after King James I became its patron, passed on the opportunity to move into an indoor theatre in 1604 — or more precisely, Richard Burbage passed on that opportunity. It was only with the signing of the lease to the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608, 14 years after the Cross Keys letter, that a move to an indoor theatre reappears as an element of this company’s practice. There may have been a financial reason for this: as we can see in Henslowe’s Diary, the Admiral’s Men regularly had some of their most profitable performances during Christmas and Shrovetide, both of which fell into the time of year when (says Gurr) “tradition” called for use of the inns. Given the much smaller capacity of those venues, though, the move into the City must have come at a significant price — and once the players saw how much money there was to be made during both of the winter holiday periods, they may have been reluctant to give up their large playhouses during the cold months. That said, overall Henslowe’s accounts suggest that incomes were somewhat lower in the autumn and winter than in midsummer. Whether takings at the smaller City inns would have been richer than at the Rose, though, remains an open question.

What, then, is left of that paragraph? That Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company in late 1594; and that the Cross Keys Inn was in the centre of the City of London (or near enough). Quite literally every other factual assertion is either fictitious, actually counter-factual, or silently hypothetical. And things get more problematic from there.

However we read the limited evidence for this difference of attitude between the two companies to the changing seasons, it had drastic effects on the finances of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Lord Admiral’s always sustained their use of their outdoor venues, first the Rose on Bankside, and then after the Globe was built barely forty yards away from the Rose, at the Fortune in Clerkenwell. They and their successors remained there until the total closure of all playing in 1642. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had a much more varied set of experiences. Whether they did get access to the Cross Keys or not that October we cannot tell, although in our view it was extremely unlikely, because the Lord Mayor who took office at the end of that month (at Michaelmas) was a notoriously severe enemy of all playing. What we do know is that in the following winter of 1595/6 the Chamberlain’s Men’s financier and playhouse owner James Burbage purchased the freehold of a property in the Blackfriars precinct, inside the city and close to St Paul’s Cathedral. […] There he built a new playhouse for his company. (3)

  • We don’t know if the difference in attitudes, if it even existed, had an effect on the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s finances: we know absolutely nothing of that company’s finances.
  • Gurr implies that the Admiral’s Men moved to the Fortune because the Globe was built. There is no evidence of such a causality. If anything, the way in which Henslowe and Alleyn went about getting the Fortune built suggests that the plan was already in progress when the Burbages and their fellows leased the land for the Globe.
  • It’s good to see the note of uncertainty about the result of the Lord Chamberlain’s letter. It does seem to be the case that the inns had become inaccessible for players by November 1596, and certainly by 1600. But Gurr is right: we cannot tell if the Chamberlain’s Men performed at the Cross Keys in the winter of 1594/5. Nor, in fact, do we know if they were there in the winter months of 1595/6 — though they may have been. By the summer of 1596, the inns are not named in a list of theatres in a German traveller’s account, although it seems that the Bell Savage was still running as a venue sometime in 1596 (when William Lambarde mentions it as a place where people go to “behold bear-baiting, interludes or fence play”).
  • It seems obvious to me that by dating James Burbage’s purchase of the Blackfriars property to “the following winter of 1595/6,” Gurr is trying to imply another causal connection: the attempt to get access to an inn failed in 1594, so in the winter immediately following, James Burbage went and bought an indoor City venue. But the purchase in fact took place in February 1596. It’s a minor point — but the rhetorical sleight-of-hand still rankles.
  • Worse: James Burbage was in no recognizable sense the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s “financier.” Or if he was, we have no way of knowing. There is no “Burbage’s Diary.” All we know is that the Chamberlain’s Men performed at a playhouse owned by James Burbage, the Theatre in Shoreditch, probably from late 1594 through sometime before September 1598. We also know, of course, that the playhouse owner’s son Richard was a sharer in the company — but that’s not evidence of any special connection. Philip Henslowe’s son Francis was a sharer in at least two prominent companies, but that didn’t lead to a close relationship between those companies and Henslowe’s playhouses. Of course the absence of such a relationship in Henslowe’s case says nothing about the Chamberlain’s Men and their relationship with James Burbage; but neither does the close collaboration between Henslowe and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn — and the latter’s company, the Admiral’s Men. We simply don’t know what role Burbage senior played vis-a-vis the company that occupied his playhouse for about four years.
  • Also problematic, if more conventional: the suggestion that James Burbage bought the Blackfriars property for the Chamberlain’s Men. Again, there is no evidence for such a view. Nor is there any indication that Burbage was trying to replace the Theatre — the lease for the land it stood on had nearly run out when he bought the space, but it was still current and its renewal was a matter of negotiation. Nor is there an indication that he was thinking of the hall as a winter venue. What is clear is that he was building a second theatre, and that he thought an indoor space inside the city walls was a profitable prospect. That’s all we know.
    Who that space was for (if it was for anyone in particular at all), whether it was supposed to shift the focus of Burbage’s theatrical enterprise or expand it — any of his plans for the venue, really — are utter conjecture. In the absence of  proof or documentation either way, it seems to me that the likeliest scenario is that Burbage found himself in the extremely unusual situation of being able to purchase a property large enough for a reasonably sized theatre in the City itself — an opportunity that no other playhouse entrepreneur had had up to that point (space was scarce within the city walls). The move indoors may have been as much a matter of chance as of design: the space happened to have a roof. What’s more, the Blackfriars gave Burbage an opportunity to own the theatre as well as the land it stood on, a marked improvement over his previous situation and the contentious relationships with landowners Burbage had had to live with since the 1570s. It seems to me that all of those factors on their own would have made the Blackfriars an attractive venture, without any need to take the Chamberlain’s Men’s interests into account at all. Why, I would ask, should Burbage have been driven in his strategic decisions for an enterprise in which he had been engaged for 20 years by the desires of a company with which he had had a relationship for barely more than a year and a half when he bought the Blackfriars?
  • Worst: “his company.” The Chamberlain’s Men in no sense ever were James Burbage’s company. The Lord Admiral’s Men weren’t Philip Henslowe’s company either, but at least in their case, we have documented evidence for a relationship involved enough that this kind of phrase, while still reductive, could be justified. In the Chamberlain’s Men’s case, no evidence whatsoever survives that would justify such a statement. Rhetorically, though, the move from positing that Burbage bought the Blackfriars because he was the Chamberlain’s Men’s “financier” to simply calling them “his company” neatly illustrates, if in extraordinarily compressed form, the kind of tacit shift from hypothesis to assertion of fact that Gurr performs with some frequency in his work.

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As the narrative unfolds from there, it becomes increasingly novelistic. The “first years” of the Blackfriars, we read, “were a disaster for the Burbages and their company. Their crisis may well have provoked the invention of Shylock as a well-disguised figure for London’s moneylenders. On 6 February 1596 Burbage bought the freehold of the hall … and spent in all over a thousand pounds building the new playhouse inside that great chamber” (4). But when the wealthy and influential residents of the Blackfriars precinct successfully petitioned the Privy Council to prevent the use of space as a theatre in November of the same year, before it opened, “old Burbage, less than three months from death, was immediately besieged by his creditors. They could see that he had lost any means to make money from it and repay their investment” (4). In response, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, with the role of Antonio “most likely” intended for Richard Burbage, “who in February 1597 inherited the Blackfriars property and its debts from his father. … The play was written and staged just at the time when young Burbage found his father’s creditors hammering on his own door. It is tempting to consider that the play may have been written and staged at least in part as a response to the financial position in which the company found themselves” (4).

This sounds like a great story. When I read it, my instant reaction was something along the lines of “Fascinating. I didn’t realize Burbage was in that much financial trouble. Where does that information come from?” Turns out, it comes from nowhere. We have no idea what James Burbage’s financial situation was in 1596; we have no idea how much money he borrowed to buy and refashion the Blackfriars; we have no idea what his creditors did when his plans collapsed; we have no idea how Richard Burbage felt about inheriting the building; we have no idea how the creditors dealt with him. We don’t even know, despite Gurr’s assertive tone, how much money James Burbage spent on building the theatre. All we know is that he paid £600 for the property; and we know that 40 years later, in the course of a lawsuit in which he was keen to portray his family as having carried a heavy financial burden, James’s son Cuthbert deposed that his father “purchased [the Blackfriars] at extreme rates, and made it into a playhouse with great charge and trouble.” That single line is quite literally the entire basis for Gurr’s narrative here.

But we do in fact know a little more than this about the Burbages’ finances and how they felt about the Blackfriars, although Gurr leaves this information out of his account — for good reason. It’s totally unclear what happened to the building between 1597 and 1600. It may well have stood empty. But if it was a massive burden on the family’s finances, the next thing the surviving records tell us about the Burbages’ actions in the Blackfriars precinct is confusing in the extreme: in June 1601, they spent an additional £95 to purchase further parts of the building, thus expanding both their foothold and their financial commitment. The former is just puzzling (why buy more space in a property that’s supposedly of no use?); the latter seems impossible, given how hard up the family allegedly were just four years earlier, given that they had lost the income from the Theatre in the intervening period, and given that in 1599, they purportedly didn’t have enough money to fund the building of the Globe by themselves. Something in the received account (let alone in Gurr’s narrative of near-destitution) doesn’t add up.

Still: although the story about creditors besieging the old and apparently ailing Burbage is simply made up (it may be true, it may not be — we just don’t know), it is at least not utterly implausible. But what follows is. In the previous paragraph Gurr invented a close financial relationship between the Chamberlain’s Men and James Burbage; here he goes one step further and portrays their economic fate as dependent on Burbage’s financial health. As soon as Burbage is in trouble, the “company,” too,”found themselves” in a precarious financial situation. That is utter fiction — but worse, it’s implausible even as fiction. The Chamberlain’s Men had no stake in Burbage’s theatrical enterprises either at the Theatre or at the Blackfriars; as we saw, it’s not even clear that the indoor playhouse had anything to do with them. Had Burbage gone bankrupt and lost all his properties, the company may have found itself in an awkward situation similar to the one they would confront in 1598, when they eventually lost the Theatre and had to move to the Curtain instead. But such a move was presumably as available in 1596 as two years later. And in any case, the challenge would have been primarily a logistical one. Burbage racking up huge debts — if he did in fact do that — was a problem for him and his family; it was irrelevant to the Chamberlain’s Men’s fortunes.

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Up to this point, the narrative Gurr offers has relied on a troubling mixture of hypotheses presented as fact, evidence bent to suit the story, and outright fiction. As he goes on, however, his account flatly contradicts the few facts we know with absolute certainty:

As with the Globe, almost all the sharers in the Second Blackfriars Playhouse were also sharers in the company. But unlike the £100 that each player contributed to buy their share in the Globe, none of the new Blackfriars sharers who were also players had to pay for their new property. It was Richard Burbage’s gift to them, as leaders of the company team. This was a tricky deal, and it is one that can be seen in various lights. It was distinctly old-fashioned, in that it relied on team spirit to run the operation. In practical and financial terms, to run the two playhouses as seasonal venues was potentially costly. To keep one playhouse closed while they played at the other deprived the sharers of any income from the one that was empty. That may explain Burbage’s generosity in not asking the players to pay for their new shares in the Blackfriars. If the new deal had been a plan for the two playhouses to work at the same time throughout the year, they might have been expected to pay a lot for the privilege of doubling their income. Nothing is on record to explain why they adopted their new policy of using their two playhouses seasonally. (4-5)

It’s simply untrue that Burbage made a gift of the Blackfriars to anyone. In 1600, he leased the building for 21 years to the manager of a company of boy players, Henry Evans, for an annual fee of £40. When the boys were banned from playing at the Blackfriars in 1608, Burbage agreed to take that lease back, and cancelled a bond for £400 that Evans had signed as security. But he then did emphatically not turn over the building to “the company team” for free. He reissued a twenty-one year lease, again for an annual £40, shared between seven people: himself, his brother Cuthbert, John Hemmings, William Shakespeare, William Sly, Henry Condell — and Henry Evans, who received his share as a “consideration” in return for ending his own lease early. Each of those leaseholders paid £5 14s 4d a year to Burbage; not a huge sum, to be sure, but the very same total that Evans had paid for the previous eight years. As a financial transaction, this was no “tricky deal” at all. It was simply the continuation of a “deal” that had been perfectly acceptable for almost a decade already. Whatever the new agreement was, it certainly was not a “gift” — and neither was it a “gift” to the company or its “team” (whatever that may be), given that the recipients of the “gift” included Cuthbert Burbage and Henry Evans, neither of whom was a member of the King’s Men.

How did the Blackfriars arrangement differ from the Globe consortium? For starters, the Burbages owned the Blackfriars outright (as Cuthbert explained in the same lawsuit on which Gurr bases his notion of a financially destitute James Burbage). When the Globe was built, land had to be leased and a new building had to be erected (if from materials supplied by Cuthbert Burbage). In other words, there was a significant initial need for resources — and the funds contributed by the sharers in the building covered that need. The situation in 1608 was very different. For one thing, the leaseholders never came to own the building, unlike in the case of the Globe: it remained the Burbages’ property. For another, there was no equivalent initial investment. The theatre was already built; there was no land that needed to be leased; there was no need to raise funds before the King’s Men could move in. Although superficially, the two agreements may look similar (a number of sharers in an acting company sign a document that gives them shared control of a performance venue), and although both agreements turned a group of actors into their own company’s landlords, in fact the two transactions were quite distinct, and created distinct legal relationships. Being a member of the Globe consortium was not the same as being a member of the Blackfriars consortium.

But perhaps the new arrangement still was an act of generosity, in the sense that Burbage did not replicate Henslowe’s model for renting a theatre he owned outright? He could, after all, have rented the Blackfriars to the King’s Men himself, retaining half the income from the galleries (as was also the arrangement between the Globe sharers and their company). Maybe. But he never seems to have been interested in functioning as sole landlord on those terms — otherwise, he would presumably not have leased the space to Evans for 21 years for an annual flat fee. It may have been generous of him to share the potential income from the theatre with six others; or it may have been a sign of his unwillingness to take risks; or it may have been a sign of his reluctance to be solely responsible for a building and its upkeep. In any case, he never handed over the venue for free: he retained a guaranteed annual income of just over £34 from it, plus his 14% share of half the gallery takings. If anything, the new lease may be seen as a canny financial manoeuvre: Burbage’s attempt to increase his annual income from the Blackfriars without raising the actual fee or significantly enhancing his commitment to running the theatre. This was no gift: the new agreement in fact put Burbage in a more favourable financial position than the old lease.

But what of the argument that the terms of the lease were meant to compensate the Globe sharers for the potential loss of income from a reduced Globe season? For one thing, we have no idea if closing the outdoor theatre down was part of the plan. It is entirely possible that the intention was to keep the Globe open for the entire year, renting it out to other companies whenever the King’s Men moved to the Blackfriars — as an initial strategy, that certainly seems more plausible than the alternative to me. What kind of landlord would contemplate needlessly shuttering a profitable venue for four or five months, especially in favour of opening a new venue smaller than the old one and with uncertain income prospects? In fact, we have no idea what happened to the Globe when the King’s Men were at the Blackfriars. I’m not aware of any references to the building standing dark and empty in the 1610s (although the Theatre attracted such comments when it stood empty for just a few months in 1598).

What’s more, though, if Gurr is right that the Blackfriars lease was intended as compensation, the make-up of its holders is a little peculiar. Who owned the Globe in 1608? The straightforward answer is that we don’t quite know. What’s certain is that the shares weren’t equally divided: when the original agreement was forged in 1599, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage owned 25% each, with the remaining shares initially split between five members of the Chamberlain’s Men (Hemmings, Kempe, Phillips, Thomas Pope, and Shakespeare). The Burbages’ share never changed. But the other half of the shares were almost immediately re-divided and dispersed in complicated ways. By 1608, it seems there were six rather than five pieces. Kempe was gone. Condell and Sly had joined. Phillips had died in 1605, and his share had gone to his wife; when she re-married, she lost that share and it went to Hemmings — or so he claimed in a lawsuit. The other party, Anne Phillips’s second husband John Witter, argued that he owned Phillips’s share and had received the income from it for years. Thomas Pope died sometime before February 1604, and his share went to two separate heirs (one of whom would go on to marry an actor in another company). And there’s one additional complication: five days after the Blackfriars lease was issued in 1608, Sly died. He left his share in the Globe to his son, but his widow simply returned his share in the Blackfriars to the other leaseholders, who divided it amongst themselves for three years.

So: if the Blackfriars lease was in some sense intended to compensate the Globe sharers for a loss of income, how was that loss of income justified to the various sharers in the Globe that weren’t included in the lease? What of Pope’s heirs? What of Phillips’s widow and her husband? And why, if the Blackfriars and the Globe were tied together financially in the way Gurr suggests, would Sly’s widow surrender her entitlement to Blackfriars income, thus lessening the value of her family’s share in the Globe? Moreover, if the lease was supposed to work as compensation, why would the Burbages sell themselves short quite so significantly? Given that they owned 50% of the Globe and its income, why only take 28% of the Blackfriars income? And given the number of law suits about those Globe shares, isn’t it odd that none of the litigants ever mentioned the loss of income they allegedly suffered when the King’s Men willfully decided to leave the Globe empty for months on end?

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Of course, this complicated, messy picture is far less easily digested than the simple, sort of moving, even compelling story Gurr tells. The problem is that the messy story is the one supported by the evidence, whereas the straightforward narrative runs counter to what the archive shows. To my mind, that is worse than making up an account without any documentary proof. It’s making up an account that directly contradicts the few pieces of evidence we do have. It ignores the evidence. And that makes it irresponsible scholarship.

So, no more polite footnoting. I find it dismaying that this kind of work gets published by a major press, in a volume likely to become a standard work of reference for any non-theatre-historian looking for information about indoor theatres (if only by virtue of the fact that there are very few other contemporary books on that subject). It’s not just a fanciful account. It’s a misleading narrative that ignores and contradicts documented facts. And I don’t think anyone benefits if those of us with a specialist interest in these subjects mince our words and politely avoid discrediting work such as this. The field as a whole is not served by such a response, and the shared endeavour of understanding more fully what happened in early modern London’s theatres is damaged by it.

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Two postscripts:

1) I hope this post doesn’t read as a reckless ad hominem attack. I have no reason to hold any kind of grudge against Andrew Gurr personally. He has achieved much in a very long scholarly career that is worthy of admiration, including his role as one of the driving forces behind the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe. I have long relied, and still do, on books such as Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. There is no question that he is one of the most important theatre historians since Chambers; he is certainly the most broadly influential one. It is precisely because of that influence, though, that I think it is important that his work receive the rigorous scrutiny and thorough critique that I’m trying to provide here.

2) Needless to say, if in my critique I, too, have blundered, or if I have been unjust in my responses to Gurr’s theories, I hope readers will take me to task as well, impolitely if necessary. My point here is not to claim that I’m right and Gurr is wrong. It’s to identify unfounded assumptions and move the discussion past unquestioned false certainties. But if I myself rely on other untested theories and mistaken beliefs in that effort, I’d really rather find out.

7 Responses to Fact and Factitiousness: Theatre History and Irresponsible Scholarship

  1. David Hunter says:

    It is indeed important to stick to both facts and a reasonable narrative. For those exact reasons I cannot agree wholeheartedly with your endorsement of Gurr’s “Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London.” Take Appendix I, “Playgoers 1567-1642,” for example. There are at least five problems: birth and death dates for the individuals are rarely offered, likewise dates of attendance; few sources are cited; no indication is given of how the list was compiled; there is no guarantee that the persons actually saw plays or even the inside of a theatre; and the list does not include Queen Elizabeth, though the Earl of Essex is mentioned. If we interpret the title literally, then Shakespeare’s London ended in c.1610, or 1616 at the latest, though the entries with attendance dates are often later.

    In terms of narrative, I wonder about the distinction between indoor and amphitheatre audiences, and whether the “class” level of audience is generally pitched too low. Without a clear analysis of the economic structure of the times it is impossible to understand who could afford to attend should they make the decision to do so. Ann Jennalie Cook provides a more clear-sighted analysis in this regard. It would seem that Gurr is desirous of making the theatre seem more “democratic” than it actually was, if only because that is what we would prefer!

    The decision whether or not to attend is crucial, and I cannot find any worthwhile consideration by Gurr of how people arrived at the choices they made, how frequently the attended, which theatres they went to, and so on. Surely it is not due to a lack of evidence. My own work on the audience for entertainment during Handel’s years in London (1710-59) has uncovered a couple of hundred account books and diaries (there’s correspondence as well) that provide evidence for the choices made. Personal account books may not be on the top of a theatre-researcher’s archival examination list but I highly recommend them.

  2. Thank you for this. I’m sure some will think it is an attack, but I read it as an honest problem well addressed. However, I don’t think it’s possible for the problem to ever go away. As much as I’ve worked with the biography of WS in the past decade, I know that if a biographer is going to address the life of Shakespeare one can’t just stick to what is known. People who read biography want the persons they read about to be presented as flesh and blood. Authors need ways to make their work distinct from other writers. So, inevitably, there will be a tug of war between the already well know and too few facts, and the speculative fiction that makes each new work unique.

    You think the work should just stop. I have to respectfully disagree. Those who are very interested in any life will always be on the lookout for new perspectives and approaches, and new generations will not want to go back and read the older works unless they are as obsessed with the subject – readers love the word “new.” I have chosen to present my own speculation and beliefs as complete fiction, as entertainment, so people might be inspired to go discover for themselves what is true, what might be possible, and what is fiction. I will always believe that historical writers should respect the difference, and make it clear that they believe such and such might be possible, instead of writing “this is the way things were.” Only the ones who have lived the lives can ever know exactly what and why things happened, and even those memories have their own built-in fictions. I believe in just doing one’s best to be reasonable, in whatever perspective one brings to the table, even if the perspective itself seems fantastical. That ability is increasingly becoming a rare thing.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Sandra: thank you for the comment. Just to clarify, though: I certainly don’t want the work to stop! I just would like it to proceed in a responsible way, using all the available evidence, and checking its own desires and hunches against what the surviving records suggest. And I’d like fiction to be labelled as fiction.

      Mostly, though, I wish there were more of a push for the “new perspectives and approaches” you mention. Right now, there’s still a tendency to use the many gaps in the records to keep reinforcing the same old story (a story in which Shakespeare, Burbage, and their company are utterly dominant). I don’t think that’s the best story we can tell, and I don’t think it’s the story that best matches the fragments of evidence we have.

      • Sorry, I may have misread one comment, Holger. I agree with the responsibility, though I am actually a heavy speculator, which is why I’ve turned to fiction. I would love at least something of my speculation to be proven one day, and want to, at least in one way, to get it recorded, but if it’s an argument between someone using known facts and my speculation, I already know the known facts win and should win. I also agree that researchers should stop studying the same things over and over again. I read about the people surrounding WS and the players rather than the core group. I have only managed to identify openings for connections I can’t yet prove, because I don’t have the ways and means to go digging where the evidence might be. But I prefer to keep the faith that someone will find the connections one day, without pressing my faith onto others as a certainty, or something that sounds like a certainty. A mystery should remain a mystery until enough pieces fall into place to remove reasonable doubt.

  3. Bill Lloyd says:

    Joseph Quincy Adams, not John.

  4. Tom Reedy says:

    “[U]nquestioned false certainties” are endemic in Shakespeare studies, and it’s long past time to weed them out and stop creating new ones. I don’t want to highjack your point (and if you think I am please delete my post), but one of the more egregious that I’ve been discussing lately is this one by the Aberystwyth University team that “discovered” that over a 15-year period Shakespeare stockpiled grain, malt, and barley to resell for inflated prices in time of food shortages, that he was threatened with prison for failure to pay his taxes, and the original Stratford monument showed him “clutching a sack of corn”. This paper won an award, was praised by Jonathan Bate, and made newspaper headlines.

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