Did Shakespeare’s apprenticeship include a stint in Queen Elizabeth’s own playing company?
In the 1590s four anonymous plays were published on the fledgling market for play scripts:
- The Troublesome Reign of King John (first published in 1591)
- The True Tragedy of Richard III (first published in 1594)
- The Famous Victories of Henry V (first published in 1598)
- The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella (first entered in the stationers’ register in 1594).
Although these plays might have been originally considered ‘Bad Quartos’ of the similarly titled plays by Shakespeare, (see Bad Quartos and the Myth of the Memorial Reconstruction) they are actually among the repertoire of the Queen’s Men and Shakespeare’s own plays show such an intimate knowledge of these and others of their repertoire, in some cases even before they were published, that several biographers believe that Shakespeare may have been a member of the Queen’s Men early in his career.
The Queen’s Men were formed in 1583 under the authority of the Privy Council. (See The Elizabethan Playing Companies) While available to appear at court before the Queen, the company’s main role was to tour the provinces, representing Elizabeth in the far-flung corners of her kingdom that she might never be able to visit herself.
As the authorisation to form the company was signed by Privy Council member Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, it is often speculated that the company had a role in spying on the Queen’s internal enemies. Though this is doubtful, there is evidence that the players, who were among the few people licensed to travel freely, were at times used to carry correspondence. They were certainly used to spread government and protestant propaganda not only against Catholicism but also against extreme Puritanism.
The company was made up of England’s best players from its most prestigious companies, including William Johnson, John Laneham and Robert Wilson from Lord Leicester’s Men, John Dutton from Oxford’s and Richard Tarleton and John Adams from Sussex’s. Later recruits included William Knell and Lawrence Dutton. With such a large and talented company, the Queen’s Men were able to produce innovative plays with large casts and generally raise standards of acting and production.
The Queen’s Men’s plays needed to appeal to the company’s wide audience, not only to the court where they could usually be found in the Christmas season, but also to the aristocracy in their country houses, provincial dignitaries, rural townspeople and farmers. Accordingly, their repertoire included a wide range of plays from ‘true’ histories to historical romances, to love stories, to rustic comedies. The plays’ texts were comprised of a medley of writing styles including prose, rhyming poetry and blank verse. The plays’ contents were also a medley of pageantry, drama, action and knockabout, improvised comedy.
Many of the Queen’s Men’s plays were published anonymously, so these may have been written in collaboration by members of the company: Robert Wilson, a well-educated writer known also for his extempore wit, John Laneham and Richard Tarleton, the company’s famous clown. Several of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights, such as George Peele, Robert Greene (See Shakespeare’s Contemporaries: the University Wits) and possibly Thomas Kyd (See Thomas Kyd and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’) also wrote for the Queen’s Men.
While the company’s main role was to tour the country in the Queen’s name, they were the only company licensed to play within London’s city walls at the Sign of the Bull in Bishopsgate Street and the Sign of the Bell in Gracechurch Street, yet even they were only allowed to play three times a week. While the royal patent given to the company specified that they were not allowed to split into more than one company, records suggest that there was more than one company called the Queen’s Men on the road. This second Queen’s Men may have been a company of tumblers and acrobats. However, there is also evidence that the company split into two after the death of Richard Tarleton and the departure of Robert Wilson in 1588, one company under the leadership of John Laneham and the other under the leadership of John and Lawrence Dutton which included the tumblers.
So how did William Shakespeare come to be a member of the Queen’s Men? One very romantic notion is that he was recruited after two of their number were involved in a fight in which their up-and-coming young star, William Knell, was killed.
According to the report by the coroner of Thame in Oxfordshire, on June 13, 1587:
John Towne late of Shoreditch, yeoman, was in a close called White Hound in Thame when William Knell came and had in his right hand a sword and jumped upon John Towne intending to kill him. Towne in fear… to save his life drew his sword of iron (price five shillings) and held it in his right hand and thrust it into the neck of William Knell and made a mortal wound three inches deep and one inch wide.
Although John Towne had been brought before the coroner once before after a fight between the company and patrons in Norwich in 1583, it was deemed he had acted in self-defence, and he was imprisoned in Thame to await a pardon from the Queen.
A few days later the company played in Stratford-upon-Avon and this is the day some believe Shakespeare may have joined the Queen’s Men.
But would the country’s premier playing company have recruited a wide-eyed country boy to fill the gap left by these two seasoned, professional players? Would this young man with a wife and three small children have run off to join a playing company on a romantic whim?
This would not be the first time the company found itself short-staffed through the death of its members. When the company arrived in London for the Christmas season of 1585/86, they had lost two members to illness that year, John Bentley and Tobias Mills. It is hardly likely they made a habit of recruiting the nearest stage-struck youngster to fill the gap. It is much more likely they recruited new members when they returned to London and were able to find experienced professionals or well-connected young apprentices.
If, as I suggest elsewhere (See Shakespeare Goes to London), Shakespeare was working at The Theatre in London at the time, it is much more likely he was recruited from there and may well have already been a member of the company when Knell was killed.
When the company played Stratford-upon-Avon a few days later the town council paid them 20 shillings, the highest fee the town council ever paid to a playing company, as well as forking out 16 pence to pay for broken benches. The Queen’s Men were usually paid higher fees than other companies, but is this evidence, as some believe, of the townspeople turning out in force to see their native son’s return? Or are the broken benches rather evidence of a violent reaction to Knell’s death?
But whatever the time and circumstances of his joining them, it is still quite possible that William Shakespeare had a stint with The Queen’s Men and with them took another step on his journey from country boy to professional playwright.
© Pauline Montagna 2022
The Queen’s Men and Their Plays by Scott McMillan and Sally-Beth McLean, Cambridge University Press (1998)
In Search of Shakespeare by Michael Wood, BBC Worldwide (2003)
The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 by Eric Sams, Yale University Press (1995)