The Mystery of ‘Titus & Vespacia’: The Secret of Henslowe’s Diary

Was Philip Henslowe really a dodgy theatrical entrepreneur as he has been depicted on screen?


The image that has come down to us of Philip Henslowe is of an enterprising theatre manager who took an active role in financing and staging plays, buying scripts, costumes and property, operating his playhouse and running the playing companies that occupied it. In recent films such as Shakespeare in Love (see Deciphering Shakespeare in Love) and Anonymous (see Anonymous: a fraud indeed ), he has been portrayed as commissioning scripts, recruiting actors, producing plays and managing playing companies.

Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe
Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe

Philip Henslowe built The Rose playhouse which was the home of Lord Strange’s Men from 1592 to 1593 and the Lord Admiral’s Men from 1594 (see Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe). However, his reputation as one of the most important theatrical entrepreneurs of his age derives in large part from Henslowe’s Diary, possibly one of the most important surviving original documents from the Elizabethan theatre. Its minutely detailed entries of income and expenditure, plays performed and their takings, of payments to playwrights as well as purchases and inventories of costumes and props, are an invaluable insight into the day-to-day operation of an Elizabethan playhouse.

Much of the evidence for the dating of some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays comes from the meticulous entries in Henslowe’s Diary, including that of The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, but it was in trying to determine this play’s exact date of composition and early history that I came across an intriguing mystery that would eventually throw some doubt on this characterisation of Philip Henslowe, and his real role in the Elizabethan theatre.

From an internal reading of Titus Andronicus, critics see it as an early work, an apprentice piece that shows promise of the master playwright to come, and estimate the date of composition as very early in Shakespeare’s career, around 1589/90.

Our primary source for the history of Titus Andronicus comes from the title pages of the quarto editions of the play. The first edition of 1594 declares that the play had been performed by The Earl of Derby’s Men (Lord Strange inherited this title in 1593), the Earl of Pembroke’s Men and the Earl of Sussex’s Men. The second quarto of 1600 adds the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to this list. Such listings are usually accepted as being a correct record of the play’s history. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies)

However, the first recognisable performance of the play is recorded in Henslowe’s Diary in January 1593 which argues for a date of composition closer to late 1592. Scholars who support the earlier dating, however, cite an earlier mention in Henslowe’s Diary, the title ‘Titus & Vespacia’ which first appears on April 11, 1592, and which they believe to be the same play.

An alternative theory is that ‘Titus & Vespacia’ is a lost play about the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasian and that there was no connection between the two titles. The title ‘Titus & Vespacia’ disappears from the records, it is argued, as the play was more commonly known under another title pertaining to Vespasian’s siege and destruction of Jerusalem. It is in fact the case that in Henslowe’s record of plays by Lord Strange’s Men there are two performances listed under the title of ‘Jerusalem’, however, this title has also been claimed for another play, The Four Prentices of London by Thomas Heywood, part of which is set in Jerusalem.

For my part, I found it hard to believe that these could be one and the same play. How could anyone who has seen the play mistake its title for ‘Titus & Vespacia’? To me this play sounded like it must be about Titus Vespasian and could have absolutely nothing to do with the clash between the Roman Empire and the Goths which occurred much later. Titus was a very common Roman name. Surely, I reasoned, this must be a completely different play, perhaps, I suspected, written to exploit the popularity of Shakespeare’s play.

Being of a stubborn and independent mind, I therefore decided to look into the matter myself. Fortunately, WW Greg’s 1904 transcription of Henslowe’s Diary is available in facsimile online, which has been most helpful.

On perusal of the diary, I found the following references to the two titles:

  • For Lord Strange’s Men, between February and June 1592, the title is written as Titus & Vespacia
  • For Lord Strange’s Men over the Christmas season of 1592/93 the title is written as Titus
  • For the Earl of Sussex’s Men for the Christmas season of 1593/94 it is written as Titus & Ondronicus
  • For the joint Lord Admiral’s and Chamberlain’s Men’s season of 3rd to 13th June 1594 it is written as Andronicus

We have three different companies and it seems at least two, if not three, different titles (if we accept ‘Titus’ as merely an abbreviation of ‘Titus & Vespacia’). Could they possibly be the same play as is generally accepted?

Yet Henslowe’s Diary records the whole of the repertoire of Lord Strange’s Men from February 1592 through to February 1593 after which the playhouses were again closed down and there is no other title that could be Titus Andronicus. For the title page of the First Quarto to be correct then we must accept that ‘Titus & Vespacia’ is in fact Titus Andronicus.

But how did this anomaly come about? How could Henslowe have got the play’s title so wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in the very nature of Henslowe’s Diary itself.

As a bookkeeper who dates back to the days of manual accounting, what struck me most strongly about Henslowe’s Diary was the neatness of its listings of daily transactions that cover months at a time. I can remember how difficult it was to keep a cash book tidy on a day-to-day basis yet Henslowe records, in neat lists without break or variation, expenditure on renovations that must have gone on for months and been paid for on a day-to-day basis. Daily performances are listed in straight columns over pages and pages with only an occasional break or change of style. (Admittedly I was reading a printed version of a transcript of the original document, but Greg states that he has been careful to create an accurate facsimile of the document, right down to noting the size of blank spaces between entries.)

A further clue to how and when the lists were made is that there are also numerous entries recording payments and loans to individuals, one-off purchases, miscellaneous expenses etc. However, unlike the neat lists, these entries are quite haphazard. In the first few pages alone we find entries dating from 1593, then 1592, 1593, 1595, 1593, 1594, then 1595, while a 12 page long list of performances beginning in 1592 is interrupted on May 18, 1595 by a full page dedicated to a contract for a loan to a John Grigg dated July 1592. The list is then neatly resumed on the following page on May 19.

As a bookkeeper I could only come to one conclusion: the common title of this document is a misnomer. It is not what we might recognise as a diary, a book in which entries are made every day, or even what a bookkeeper might call a daybook, an account book in which each day’s income and expenses are recorded on a daily basis. This was much more likely a rough notebook that Henslowe carried about with him to record occasional transaction that arose while he was away from home, on whatever page opened to his hand. These transactions might well have been copied or summarised in his actual account books when he got home.

Another telling point is that the book did not always belong to Philip Henslowe, but was originally used by his elder brother John to record transactions in his forestry business. Philip inherited it after his brother’s death, turned it upside down and began using it from the back. Although these transactions have not been published, from the account of them given by W.W. Greg, it seems likely they were written on the spot in the forest, suggesting that John used the notebook in the same way his brother would, to record transactions when he was away from home.

Drawing of an early performance of Titus Andronicus
An early performance of Titus Andronicus

The neat lists of The Rose’s activities could not have been built up from entries made once a day or even once a week. Those lists that cover months at a time could only have been written in one sitting. Rather than these lists being his own day to day records of The Rose’s income and expenditure, it is evident that every few months or so Henslowe perused the daily records of The Rose and listed expenditure and income from performances for the previous several months. Meanwhile the additional haphazard entries also indicate that The Rose was not Henslowe’s only business interest, but just one of several he had a hand in.

Henslowe’s Diary therefore implies that Henslowe was not in fact a theatrical entrepreneur involved in the day to day running of the playhouse, but rather a silent partner who only occasionally came in to look through the books. A clue to who actually did do the day-to-day running is a short list of sundry payments made to John Alleyn, Edward’s brother, for ‘adminestracyon’ possibly in 1595.

Therefore, the detailed recordings Henslowe made of The Rose’s activities do not prove his involvement in them, but in fact the very contrary. Philip Henslowe played no part in running the playhouse. For him it was just one of several businesses he had invested in. He was acting solely as a silent partner and only occasionally perused the playhouse’s books to record his share of the income and expenditure.

A close study of the title of Titus Andronicus can also take us a step further still.

If Henslowe was transcribing into his notebook from handwritten accounts, we can conclude that the variations in the titles could only have come from the fact that he was transcribing different original hands, some easier to read than others. Perhaps unable to read the writing of the clerk who kept the accounts during the residency of Lord Strange’s Men, he fell back on his own knowledge of Roman history and interpreted what he saw as ‘Titus & Vespacia.’ (a conclusion which might exonerate him from the charge of being semi-literate.) Later, he must have been transcribing from another, clearer, hand.

As the protagonist’s name is often repeated during the play, in order to account for this mistake, we must also conclude that Henslowe had never seen the play or heard it talked of. This brings us to a further discovery, that not only did Henslowe not play any part in the running of The Rose, neither did he take any interest in its activities, never seeing any of the plays or mixing with the playing companies. If he visited the playhouse at all it was only to peruse its books.

I would conclude, therefore, that far from being a theatrical entrepreneur as he is usually portrayed, Philip Henslowe had no personal interest in the theatre. In fact, one might go as far as saying that he did not even like or approve of the theatre. As far as he was concerned it was just another business investment. His involvement was purely financial and at arm’s length. The playhouse was run on a day-to-day basis by Edward Alleyn himself, with administrative assistance from his brother John, a former innkeeper.


© Pauline Montagna 2021



Titus Andronicus edited by J.C. Maxwell. Arden Shakespeare, Methuen (1953)

Henslowe’s Diary edited by Walter W. Greg, A.H. Bullen, London (1904)

Henslowe’s Diary edited by R.A. Foakes and R.T. Tickert, Cambridge University Press (1961)







Back to Top