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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 4. Royal patronage and its effect

In the conflict between the drama and the corporation, the weight of Elizabeth herself was thrown entirely on the side of the drama. The list of performances at court shows that, while masques were frequently performed by amateurs at the beginning of her reign, their place was almost entirely taken later by the performances of professional actors whom her patronage helped to bring to efficiency. The stock excuse offered by the privy council for contravention of the prohibitive regulations of the city authorities is that players must be allowed full opportunities of practising their art in order that they may exercise it fitly before the queen, during the Christmas holidays or at Shrovetide—the great seasons of performances at court. In 1583, the queen, at the suggestion of Walsingham, and probably as a countermove to a decision of the common council, had her own company selected from the best actors of the day; and every attempt was made to regard public performances as mere rehearsals for those at court. It is easily possible to make too much of the pretext, which, doubtless, was convenient at the time. The chance of a play being awarded a place among the few to be performed at court would scarcely have sufficed to encourage playwrights to produce work of the quantity or the character left by Elizabethan dramatists. Occasional state performances, rewarded with a small fee, could not be prize enough to keep large numbers of men working hard at acting, and at nothing else, all the year round; and players grew well-to-do and respectable, not because they played now and then at court, but because court favour enabled them to meet the ardent desire for theatrical performances which had been largely thwarted in previous troubled reigns, but which, when it could be indulged, to a great extent supplanted the love of athletic or acrobatic exhibitions that had had to suffice for earlier times. Such exhibitions still survived; but the drama either swept them into its own net, or tried to make their separate existence dependent on its pleasure as regards time and place of performance. The patronage of the queen and the eagerness of nobles to supply her with a favourite amusement provided the opportunity, rather than constituted the cause, of the people’s new interest in the play. It is true that the royal favour first enabled the stage to stand alone, both as an art and as a business; but, after 1591, the queen’s own company having by that time lost its prestige, royal patronage as an active force dwindled until the accession of James I; and, if the honour of playing at court was still eagerly sought, it was largely for the sake of the immunity from molestation by the city which the privy council usually extended to the companies selected. Nevertheless, the hope of playing before the queen seldom debarred a company from producing a satirical or seditious play which would attract the public.

The opposition between the city government and the privy council was, indirectly, a benefit to the art of the theatre, in that it led at once to control and to encouragement. The somewhat complicated history of the various moves on both sides shows the common council determined, with varying success, to keep players out of the city, the privy council determined to check sedition and, while fostering dramatic art, to limit the number of playhouses and companies, and each party inclined to oppose, or to neglect, the recommendations of the other. The position of players was uncertain and sometimes dangerous, as is proved by their petitions and remonstrances, and by the occasional imprisonment of offending companies. In such circumstances, only the strongest could survive with dignity or comfort. The tendency was always towards consolidation, though the experiment of the Queen’s company, formed in 1583, was not to prove successful for long. The path of the Chamberlain’s and the Admiral’s companies was smooth and profitable on the whole, and the steady influence of royal favour supported them.

That influence became all important on the accession of James I. The position of the favoured companies, thenceforth, was assured by the issue of licences which brought them directly under royal patronage and by the statute of March, 1604, which abolished private patronage by forbidding nobles to license men to go wandering abroad. All public theatricals remained directly under royal patronage during the reigns of James I and Charles I, until the ordinance of the lords and commons of September, 1642, brought them to an end.