Shakespeare in Stratford and London: Ten Eyewitnesses Who Saw Nothing - Part 10
by Ramon L. Jiménez
Our ninth eyewitness was a London businessman who decided to build a playhouse, and then became a successful theatrical entrepreneur. Philip Henslowe and his partner had operated the Rose Theater for about four years before he began, in 1592, making entries in an old notebook about his theater and the companies that played in it, primarily the Admiral’s Men (Foakes xv). The surviving 242-page manuscript, now called Henslowe’s Diary, is a goldmine of references to plays, playhouses, and playing companies in London, and mentions the name of just about everybody who was anybody in the Elizabethan theater in the 1590s.
Although Henslowe kept his Diary on and off for less than ten years, we can find in it, or in other Henslowe manuscripts, the names of 280 different plays, about 240 of which have entirely disappeared. The names of fully 170 of these plays would be totally unknown today, except for their mention in Henslowe’s Diary (Bentley 15). The Diary contains reports of performances at the Rose Theater by all the major playing companies of the time. There are also dozens of actors named, and no less than twenty-seven playwrights.
In his Diary Philip Henslowe kept records of the loans he made to playwrights, and of the amounts he paid them for manuscripts. Among the playwrights mentioned are the familiar names of Chapman, Dekker, Drayton, Jonson, Marston, and Webster. There are also some unfamiliar names, such as William Bird, Robert Daborne, and Wentworth Smith, the other “W.S.” But there is one familiar name that is missing. Nowhere in the list of dozens of actors and twenty-eight playwrights in Henslowe’s Diary do we find the name of William Shakespeare.
It might be objected that Henslowe also failed to mention several other familiar playwrights, such as Beaumont, Fletcher, Ford, Lyly, Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, and Peele. But there are good reasons for these omissions. Beaumont, Fletcher, and Ford didn’t begin writing plays until after the period of Henslowe’s Diary. Marlowe and Greene died within a year of the first entry in the Diary; Kyd died a year later, and Lyly and Peele wrote their last plays in 1593 and 1594.
Admittedly, Shakespeare is supposed to have been an actor, playwright, and sharer in the Chamberlain’s Men company, which played in the Globe Theater, the principal competitor of Henslowe’s Rose Theater. But the Globe and the Rose theaters were situated very near each other, and Henslowe had to walk past the Globe every day on his way to work (C. Eccles 69). His Diary contains many transactions with actors and playwrights associated with the Chamberlain’s Men, and his entries for June 1594 record that the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men performed more than a dozen plays together at his Newington Butts theater about a mile away (Campbell 583). This is the period during which most scholars claim that William Shakespeare was acting with the Chamberlain’s Men.
If Shakespeare really were the busy actor and playwright we are told he was, then Henslowe would surely have known him, and mentioned him somewhere in his Diary. But although Henslowe mentioned several Shakespeare plays that were performed in his theater, he never mentioned the name of the man who wrote them, and had an attachment to a theater exactly one hundred yards away.
Foakes, R. A. ed. Henslowe's Diary. Cambridge: CUP, 2nd ed. 2002.
Bentley, Gerald E. The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642.
Princeton: PUP, 1986.
Eccles, Christine. The Rose Theatre. New York: Routledge/Theater Arts Books, 1990.
Campbell, Oscar and E. G. Quinn, eds. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. New
York: MJF Books, 1966.