Shakespeare: A Boy Player Himself?

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From 'The Troublesome Reign of King John'I asked Ollie Jones how he’d benefitted from The Louis Marder Shakespeare Centre Scholarship…

‘My research starts with a rather innocuous record in the Minutes and Accounts of the Stratford Corporation, housed in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive. Here, in addition to the more expected entry recording a reward to the royal troupe of players, the Queen’s Men, a sum of 16 d. is noted for the ‘mendinge of a forme [bench] that was broken by the quenes players’.

This kind of entry is extremely rare – normally we have little evidence for provincial touring companies beyond lists of payments and rewards – and it got me thinking about what can be discovered about performances by visiting companies, not just when and where they occurred, but what were the common practices of these companies, what resources were made available to them, who they performed to and who did they perform with?

The Queen’s Men had a dozen professional actors at its creation, but quickly split into two groups, with each half taking a different route around the country. The surviving plays from their first decade of touring all require at least 14 actors, meaning that the company had to find suitable people to fill the extra roles. But who could have done so?

One popular explanation for the gap in William Shakespeare’s biography between his children’s baptisms in Stratford and his arrival in London as a promising playwright is that he joined one of the many travelling companies that visited Stratford and the neighbouring towns throughout the 16th century. Certainly, professional companies like the Queen’s Men must have sought jobbing actors to join for a season or more to help fill their numbers, and this would have been a formative experience for the nascent playwright. However, biographical details of temporary company members are notoriously few, and while scholars have spent many years searching for evidence of Shakespeare’s early career, little more can be added to the discussion.

But Shakespeare may not have been the only actor in early modern Stratford. Just across from New Place stands the complex of buildings that comprises medieval chapel, almshouses and Guildhall, the latter now occupied by King Edward’s Grammar School. Although the school can trace its origins back to the 13th century, like many grammar schools it was refounded as ‘the King’s new school’ at the same time as the defunct Guild of the Holy Cross was reborn as the Stratford Corporation in June 1553.

The overhaul of the early modern curricula offered Stratford grammar schoolboys the opportunity to study those things that had previously remained the domain of private tutors and the elite schools such as Winchester, Eton and St Pauls, with greater emphasis on ‘polite learning’ and the teachings of continental humanism. This included a much greater focus on the Classics, and the recitation and performance of Latin works by Ovid, Horace, Terence and Plautus became one of the mainstays of early modern pedagogy. This focus on performance, and on rote learning by ear, offers an intriguing proposition – could the Stratford schoolboys have performed with visiting companies?

In July I brought a company of undergraduate actors to Stratford to perform extracts of the Queen’s Men play The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England. My historical and archaeological research, along with that of Kate Giles, Jonathan Clark and Bob Bearman, helped us reinterpret the upper room of the Guildhall. Original partition walls were temporarily reinstated, and the company performed in front of an audience as might the original Queen’s Men performed for the High Bailiff and Aldermen in the 16th century. As well as the student actors, the company was joined by three pupils of King Edwards Grammar, and with the help of Perry Mills and the rest of the cast they were incorporated into the play, taking up a handful of messenger and attendant parts in the space of a few short hours rehearsal.

Though successful, this was no acid test, and more a speculation for further research. But by tracking the growth of the new grammar schools through the 16th century and comparing it with the development of the professional touring companies, there seems to be a correlation.

Thanks to the Louis Marder prize I am able to spend more time in the archives at Stratford and elsewhere to help pin this relationship down, and to show that as a schoolboy William Shakespeare may well have been himself a squeaking Cleopatra.’

Applications to The Louis Marder Shakespeare Centre Scholarship can be submitted up to and including Shakespeare’s Birthday. So, find out more by clicking here.

Ollie Jones is a Ph.D. student at the University of York and a Post Doctoral Research Associate at Shakespeare’s Globe.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Steinburg

    There is zero evidence of traveling players inviting locals,
    of any age, to participate in their performances. The proposition that Will
    Shaksper did so, as a boy, is fantasy, as is, by the way, the now widely held
    belief that there was a standardized curriculum (“The overhaul of the early
    modern curricula”) for Elizabethan grammar schools.

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