Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 5. Increasing control of the production of Plays by the Master of the Revels

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

§ 5. Increasing control of the production of Plays by the Master of the Revels

Playwrights and players were further subject to the control of the master of the revels. Originally instituted, as it seems, by Henry VII, for the management of the finances and the material of performances at court, the office grew constantly in power. It became the duty of the master of the revels to summon the companies before him and, after seeing them perform, to select such actors and such plays as he approved and order such changes to be made in the plays as, in his opinion, should render them suitable for performance before the sovereign. At least so early as 1574, we find him empowered to examine every play that was to be played in any part of England. No play might be played or printed without his licence, and he had the power to a ter, to forbid and even (as the action of Sir Henry Herbert, master of the revels under Charles I, would seem to show) to destroy, any play he found objectionable. He was entitled to charge a fee for every play he examined, and for every play which he licensed for printing, besides a fee which rose from 5s. a week in 1592 to £3 a month in 1602, for licensing each playhouse; and, later in the period, we find the two leading companies paying him, first the results of two performances, and then a fixed sum in every year. Sedition, no doubt, was the offence he principally attempted to check; but profanity and immorality were also the objects of his attention.

Besides the companies of players under royal or noble patronage there were, on Elizabeth’s accession, two other classes of dramatic company, both composed of boys or youths. These were the “children” of St. Paul’s and of the chapel royal, and the boys of the public schools, Eton and Westminster and Merchant Taylors’.