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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.

XI. The Children of the Chapel Royal and their Masters

§ 5. The Children at the Blackfriars: profitable nature of the undertaking

The highest interest attaches to this professional company of boy actors, but it is at present impossible to determine exactly when their career began. The Blackfriars property was purchased from Sir William More on 4 February, 1596, by James Burbage, apparently because of its suitability for a playhouse. In November of the same year, the inhabitants of Blackfriars petitioned the privy council against Burbage, declaring that he “is now altering it and meaneth very shortly to convert and turne the same into a common playhouse.” How effective this petition was in hindering or delaying the projected playhouse we have no means of knowing. Burbage died early in the following year, and the next unmistakable evidence we have in regard to the Blackfriars playhouse is that, on 2 September, 1600, Richard Burbage, son of James, leased it for twenty-one years to one Henry Evans; but it is certain that, before this date, it had been used as a playhouse by the children of the chapel, and that Evans was already interested in the company. In testimony given in a lawsuit in 1612, Richard Burbage says:

  • true yt is that this defendant, consideringe with himselfe that, except the said Evans could erect and keepe a companye of Playinge boyes and others to playe playes and interludes in the said Playhouse in such sort as before tyme had bene there used, etc.;
  • and Evans speaks of the playhouse as “then or late in the tenure or occupacion of this defendant” (i.e. Evans himself). It is commonly held that the children of the chapel were playing there as early as the end of 1598, and this is probably true.

    The evidence we have seems to indicate that Giles was only passively interested in the project, and that someone else—perhaps Henry Evans—first saw the great possibilities which lay in procuring, under the liberal terms of Giles’s commission, a company of boy actors and exploiting them in the private playhouse of the Blackfriars. After about a year and a half of experience, we may suppose, Evans decided to take a long lease of the property, and this was effected on 2 September, 1600. It was not very long, however, before he got into trouble about taking up boys. On an ill-fated Saturday, 13 December, 1600, James Robinson, acting as deputy for Giles and as agent for Evans, seized Thomas Clifton, a thirteen-year-old boy, as he was on his way to school. Unfortunately, the boy’s father, Henry Clifton, esquire, of Toft Trees, Norfolk, not only secured the aid of Sir John Fortescue, one of the privy council, to have his son released, but, about a year later, brought the matter before the court of Star chamber. A decree was rendered censuring Evans for taking up gentlemen’s sons and ordering the severance of his connection with company playhouse. In anticipation, perhaps, of these proceedings, Evans, in October, 1601, transferred all his property to his son-in-law, Alexander Hawkins. After the decree was rendered, Evans, acting through Hawkins, further entered into an agreement with Edward Kirkham, William Rastall and Thomas Kendall, allowing them to share in the management and profits of the playhouse. This is not the place to recite the quarrels between these shareholders; it may suffice to record that the success of the children was very great, that the profits of the undertaking are said to have been very large and that the company continued, with some vicissitudes, to act as the children of the chapel until, at the accession of James, they were re-named the children of the queen’s revels, and, finally, were replaced by the company of men to which Shakespeare belonged.

    During these years, this professional troupe of boys was served by some of the foremost dramatists of their time. Among the earliest was, doubtless, Chapman, who, perhaps, joined them in 1598, when he left the employ of Henslowe. He appears to have written for them his May-Day, his Sir Gyles Goosecappe, his Gentleman Usher and the extant version of Al Fooles. Another even more notable writer for their stage was Ben Jonson, from whom they received not only The Case is Altered, but, also, Gynthia’s Revels, Poetaster and, perhaps, A Tale of a Tub. There is also some reason to believe that some of Marston’s plays were written for them. Unfortunately, much of the stage history of the time is purely conjectural, but it seems practically certain that their vogue had become so great by 1601–2 as to draw from Shakespeare the airily satirical lines in Hamlet concerning the “eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for it.”