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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

§ 6. The Chamberlain’s Company

The most important of the companies of men was that which was originally formed by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and which, in 1574, was the first to receive the royal licence. The numbers of the company mentioned in the document are five: James Burbage, John Perkyn, John Laneham, William Johnson and Robert Wilson; but two or more boys and some minor actors must, also, be supposed to have been attached to the company. When the first playhouse, the Theater, was built in 1576, it was occupied by Leicester’s company, who remained there, probably, until in 1583, its place was taken by the new Queen’s company, into which Burbage, Laneham and Wilson were drafted. In 1585, Leicester took his company abroad with him; in 1587, they were touring in England and acted at Stratford-on-Avon. Of those who believe that Shakespeare became a member of this company, some hold that he joined it during, or shortly after, this visit to his native town. In 1588, Leicester died, and, not long afterwards, the leading actors of the company that had gone abroad are found as members of the company of Ferdinando Stanley, lord Strange. The new company, which, through some kind of amalgamation with the remains of the Admiral’s men, during these years included Edward Alleyn himself, played first at the Cross Keys inn in Gracechurch street, and later, in February, 1592, at Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, the Rose in Southwark. On 3 March, 1592, they produced a new play entered by Henslowe in his diary as “harey the vj,” which is believed by many to have been Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part I. If so, the conditions of the time imply that Shakespeare, by that date, was a member of the company. In April, 1594, lord Strange, who had become earl of Derby in September, 1593, died, and the company passed under the protection of Henry Carey, lord Hunsdon, then lord chamberlain, to be thenceforth known as the Chamberlain’s servants. In the June of 1594, they played a short time with the Admiral’s men at the playhouse at Newington Butts; but, in the same month, the Admiral’s men, with Alleyn at their head, resumed an independent existence. In March, 1595, we have the first documentary evidence that Shakespeare was a member of the company: the treasurer’s accounts show that “Wil. Kempe,” “Wil. Shakespeare” and “Rich. Burbage” received payment for two comedies played at court on 26 and 28 December, 1594. In 1595 or 1596, the company was at the Theater. The first lord Hunsdon died in July, 1596, and the company descended to his son George Carey, second lord, who, in March, 1597, himself became lord chamberlain. In July, 1597, the Theater was shut up and the company possibly played at the Curtain, before moving, in 1599, into the most famous of all Elizabethan playhouses, the newly erected Globe on the Surrey bank. In this playhouse, Shakespeare was a shareholder, and at this playhouse and by this company all Shakespeare’s plays written after that date were produced. In May, 1603, the company received a patent, as the King’s men, a title which they retained till the suppression in 1642. Thenceforward, they were members of the royal household, holding the rank, as the Queen’s company had before them, of grooms of the chambers, and being entitled, every two years, to four yards of scarlet cloth for a cloak, and a quarter of a yard of crimson velvet for a cape. Their licence permitted them to play at their usual house, the Globe, and within the liberties and freedom of any other city, university, town or borough whatsoever. In 1608, the Blackfriars playhouse was occupied by this company, who, thenceforth, continued to use both houses till all the playhouses were closed by the ordinance of 1642. The company’s career was uneventful in the sense that it was seldom in trouble; though, in 1601, it was under suspicion of implication in the Essex conspiracy; in 1615, it was summoned before the privy council, in the persons of Burbage and Heminge, then its leaders, for playing in Lent; and, in 1624, Middleton’s Game at Chesse, which attacked the Spaniards, caused the players, at the instance of Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, to be inhibited for a fortnight. Many lists of actors are extant to show the composition of the company, and among its principal members at various times were Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillipps, John Heminge and Henry Condell (afterwards the editors of the first folio Shakespeare), Slye, Pope, William Kemp and John Lowin. Richard Burbage died in March, 1619; Shakespeare retired in 1610; Condell in 1619; Pope died in 1604, and Slye in 1608. Concerning the parts played by the principal actors, information is scanty. Shakespeare is known to have acted in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (tradition assigns him the part of old Nowell) and Sejanus; Rowe, making enquiries about his acting early in the eighteenth century, “could never meet with any further account of him this way than” (what he heard, possibly, from Betterton) “that the top of his performance was the ghost in his own Hamlet”; Oldys records that “one of Shakespeare’s younger brothers” had seen him play Adam in As You Like It; and, in 1610, John Davies of Hereford states that Shakespeare “plaid some kingly parts in sport,” which is open to the interpretation that he acted the parts of kings on the stage. Of Richard Burbage, as an actor, more is known. His name appears as early as 1592. There is good evidence that he was the original Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and Lear in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is probable that he also played Romeo. It is supposed, with reason, that he was the creator of all the leading parts in the plays which Shakespeare wrote for the company; and there is evidence that he played, also, the leading parts in all the most successful of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays produced in his lifetime, as well as in the plays of Ben Jonson produced by his company. In fact, he was the leading man, especially in tragedy, of the company—a position in which Taylor succeeded him. Malone had read in “some tract, of which I have forgot to preserve the title” that Heminge was the original Falstaff, a part which is soon found in the hands of Lowin; and Condell is supposed by Collier to have played Bobadill.