Celebrating 400 years of William Shakespeare and Philip Henslowe (who’s he?)

Professor Grace Ioppolo writes:

Those of you who were in one of my Shakespeare modules this year or follow me on Twitter @ProfShakespeare know that I never stopped talking about the amazing celebrations in 2016 that mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. With his usual theatrical flair, Shakespeare managed to be born and to die on the same day in April in Stratford-upon-Avon: he was probably born on April 23rd, 1564, and died on April 23rd, 1616. One legend is that after Shakespeare went out drinking with his former colleagues Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton on April 22nd, 1616, he became ill of a fever and died the next day. I don’t think that this was a sudden death (or that Jonson poisoned him out of jealousy!). Instead I suspect that his old pals knew that Shakespeare was seriously ill and travelled especially from London to Stratford to say goodbye to him.

I like to think that Shakespeare died laughing at Ben Jonson’s very witty jokes. In addition to working on Shakespeare’s plays in composition and performance, I work on those of Jonson, and I had great fun recently researching and writing a forthcoming book chapter on all the extant manuscripts of Jonson, so I know what a very, very particular writer he was. If only we had as many manuscripts of Shakespeare’s as we do of Jonson’s in his very neat handwriting, but that’s material for another blog.

I did enjoy doing the Globe’s Complete Walk on the Thames on April 23 with 37 screens showing short films of each of Shakespeare’s plays (there are actually 38 plays in his canon, but who’s counting?). I’ve also attended a lot of receptions and launches of Shakespeare exhibits, with more lectures, conferences and symposia to come (yes, bring on the prosecco so that we can keep toasting Shakespeare). Special Shakespeare emojis were created for Twitter (go ahead and tweet #Shakespeare400 or #ShakespeareLives and watch what happens to your hashtag) and everyone, from David Tennant to Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and even Prince Charles, has joined in the television, radio and stage celebrations of our greatest-ever writer. I have to say that I was happy to do my part not just on Twitter and at swanky receptions but by spending three weeks advising the staff of BBC’s Countryfile on provincial actors and being interviewed about 16th and 17th century performances in Reading’s Abbey for the BBC’s Shakespeare on Tour series: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03fcz11

But what has gotten much less attention in this 400th celebratory year is the death of Philip Henslowe on January 6th, 1616. You may never have heard of him but the survival of his massive archive of personal and professional papers (preserved at Dulwich College, London, through the dogged determination of his son-in-law, the great actor Edward Alleyn) is essential to our understanding of drama and performance in the age of Shakespeare. Luckily for historians of London drama, theatre, geography, economics, archaeology and other fields, Henslowe and Alleyn recorded all their expenditures, loans, debts and revenue while building and running two major playhouses, the Rose and the Fortune, two major acting companies, the Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men, and developing property in Southwark, Dulwich and throughout London and southern England, not to mention running the king’s concession on sports—that is, animal-baiting. All of this means that their records tell us who was working where and when as actors, playwrights, playhouse builders, costumers, property-makers, and the like, especially as theatre personnel moved among playhouses and acting companies. Their records even tell us how much ordinary items such as timber, nails, whalebone corsets, stockings, sugar and that newly imported fruit—pineapples–cost. Henslowe and Alleyn also record their interactions with all of the most important figures of the day, including Queen Elizabeth I (who had a special fondness for Alleyn’s acting), King James I, John Donne (Alleyn’s second father-in-law), Sir Francis Bacon, and numerous other political and religious officials. If you want to look at these records, I digitised them in this electronic archive and website (www.henslowe-alleyn.org.uk). If you start with the short essays on the most important documents (http://www.henslowe-alleyn.org.uk/essays/digitalessays.html), you’ll see why this collection of records can rightly be called the world’s most important single archive on theatre history in Shakespeare’s time. What these records tell us above all was how amateur performances in English town halls before 1572 developed into professional theatre, with the first purpose-built playhouses in London, and became a major, and lucrative, industry by 1616, which explains why Shakespeare, who invested in his own acting company and playhouses, the Globe and Blackfriars, and Henslowe and Alleyn all died quite wealthy for their time.

I love being a Shakespearean and having the title of Professor of Shakespearean and Early Modern Drama at Reading, but I’ve never regretted branching out of the Shakespeare maelstrom into wider theatre history by studying hundreds of pages of Henslowe’s and Alleyn’s records and thereby following in the footsteps of the great theatre historian Reg Foakes, who was my PhD supervisor at UCLA. As Reg used to say to me, ‘If you don’t understand theatre history, you won’t understand Shakespeare’. He was so right.

So I’m going into overdrive this month with four public lectures on Henslowe’s and Alleyn’s legacy: the first on May 6th at the Dulwich Arts Festival; the second on May 19th at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/education/events/lectures-talks/sam-talks,

(and yes, I’m thrilled to be able to stand on that stage because I still cherish the long conversation I had with Sam Wanamaker 26 years ago at a Shakespeare conference); the third at the ‘Henslowe’s Rose’ Symposium that I organised at the Globe: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/education/events/symposia-conferences/henslowes-rose, with Reading’s own Mark Hutchings and Andy Gurr also speaking; and the fourth in late May at the 400th anniversary bash at Dulwich College, founded by Edward Alleyn. The second and third events are open to the public, if you’re interested. I’m also the 2017 Sam Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe, and what an honour that is, and I’ve organised a Shakespeare Study Day at the National Archives, Kew on August 16 (with details to follow soon).

So as you go through your daily life in 2016, just remember that 400 years ago the very foundations of drama, theatre and performance, including even the modern plays that you so eagerly see in London’s West End or Southbank or Stratford-upon-Avon would probably not exist without the ingenuity and exceptional talent not just of Shakespeare but of those money men and incredibly visionary entrepreneurs Henslowe and Alleyn. There wouldn’t be a Pinter, a Beckett (and don’t listen to Mark Nixon if he disagrees with me!), a Stoppard or probably even an Ibsen or Chekhov without these early modern geniuses (and if you think that Wicked or even Game of Thrones owes nothing to Shakespeare, think again). So celebrate while you can!


About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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