Saturday, July 23, 2011

William Shakspere viewed only as a 'player'

William Shakspere seen by the relatives of his closest friends only as a ‘player’

In 1635 the players of the Globe and Blackfriars theatres were engaged in a dispute with the leaseholders over the division of the profits. (see E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, Vol. 2, pp. 65-6, and The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, pp. 57, 414 and 509). The players alleged that the leaseholders received too large a slice. The dispute was referred to the summary decision of the Earl of Pembroke as Lord Chamberlain.

An answer to the petition was filed by Cuthbert Burbage (brother of the late Richard Burbage who had been Shakspere’s fellow actor), Mrs. Winifred Robinson (widow of Richard, now remarried) and Richard Burbage (son of the late Richard). The gist of their answer was that their shares were fair by reason of all the late Richard had done for the theatres. They told how Cuthbert and his late brother had built the Globe with money borrowed at heavy interest, and added (as another point in their favour): “to ourselves we joined those deserving men Shakspere, Hemings, Condell, Phillips and others”. Speaking of the Blackfriars theatre Cuthbert said of himself and the late Richard: “We purchased the lease with our money and placed men players which were Hemings, Condell, Shakespeare etc”.

Having thus twice attempted to strengthen their case by invoking the good name of those players, one might have expected Cuthbert to remind Pembroke that both theatres had been helped to prosperity and prestige by staging the Shake-Speare plays, the First Folio of which had been dedicated to none other than Pembroke himself and his brother. To describe Shakspere only as a “deserving person” and a man player seems unduly belittling, if he was Shake-Speare. Though the Shake-Speare plays meant far less to his contemporaries than to us, some of them had been popular, not least with Queen Elizabeth and King James. Of course, if Shakspere was Shake-Speare, Pembroke already knew that or assumed it. But he also knew already that Shakspere, Hemings and Condell were deserving men. An advocate does not refrain from making a good point because it is already known to his audience. So it remains a little odd that it speaks only of Shakspere as a player; one would have expected him to be given a more imposing designation, if he was Shake-Speare.

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