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Reference group
Lord Chamberlain's Men [King's Men, Shakespeare Company] (act. 1594–1642) were the patrons, players, and associated writers who for forty-eight years constituted the best theatre company, with the best repertory, in England. Made up of experienced professional players, the Lord Chamberlain's Men formed one of a pair of new companies—the other being the Lord Admiral's Men—created in May 1594. The two companies were established by Henry Carey, first Baron Hunsdon and lord chamberlain of the queen's household—responsible for the Chamberlain's Men—and his son-in-law Charles Howard, first Baron Howard of Effingham and lord admiral of England, who established the Admiral's Men. Hunsdon and Howard were the privy councillors who took most concern for professional play-acting in London. The lord chamberlain's chief duty, as the two councillors explicitly stated, was to provide the queen, Elizabeth I, with the best entertainment that the country could provide during the Christmas season. To this end a special company, known as the Queen's Men, had been set up in 1583, drawn from the leading travelling companies of the time, with exclusive access to places to play in London. However, by 1590 the Queen's Men had declined in quality; although performances at court were given by other companies in the early 1590s, the deaths of several of their aristocratic patrons caused these fellowships to disintegrate. It was from among their members that Hunsdon and Howard drew most of the players for the two new companies that were now intended to replace the Queen's Men.

Henry Carey was responsible for the creation of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the players wore his livery. Following Carey's death on 23 July 1596 his son George Carey, second Baron Hunsdon [see under Carey, Henry, first Baron Hunsdon], became the company's patron, making them for a while Lord Hunsdon's Men. When he succeeded his father as lord chamberlain on 14 April 1597 the company resumed its original name. Then on 19 May 1603, within a month of his arrival in London, James I made himself the company's patron. From then on the company ran unaltered until the involuntary departure from London of James's successor, Charles I—still the company's patron—led parliament to close all playhouses and end playing in September 1642.

To protect the two new companies against the hostility usually shown towards theatrical performances by the city authorities, they were licensed to perform exclusively at two existing playhouses in the suburbs, one to the north and the other to the south of the city. The former, The Theatre in Shoreditch, was allocated to the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The two companies gained their initial distinction chiefly from the plays allocated to each of them. William Shakespeare was from the outset a member of the company at The Theatre. Under the new arrangement seven of his existing plays accompanied him, while his position as a sharer in the company meant that his new plays were staged at The Theatre. (The Lord Admiral's Men meanwhile received at least five of the six plays of the late Christopher Marlowe, along with Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.) The actors themselves came from a mix of former groups. The Theatre's owner was a retired player, James Burbage, who had been a servant to Henry Carey for the past ten years, and whose younger son was a promising player. Until 1592 Richard Burbage had worked with Lord Strange's Men, and a number of them joined him at The Theatre, including Augustine Phillips, John Heminges, Richard Cowley, and the clown William Kemp, as well as Shakespeare.

The new acting companies of the 1590s at first provided a notable exception to the prevailing rule among Elizabethan organizations, which were normally decidedly autocratic in character, being ruled either by a citizen paterfamilias or by a lord with inherited authority. By contrast, each company worked as a team, sharing the members' assets, income, and costs. As playing in London became a familiar form of entertainment, especially when under James I the leading companies took the names of royal patrons, financiers began to take control of the companies. But the Lord Chamberlain's Men remained a co-operative enterprise—even after they had become the King's Men—throughout their forty-eight-year existence.

The company usually comprised a dozen or more men and boys, under the leadership of the so-called ‘sharers’, the experienced players who held shares in the company's assets and costs (for a full list of playing sharers and part sharers see Gurr, Shakespearian Playing Companies, 303–4, 387–8). Touring groups had up to eight shares, a full share thus amounting to one-eighth of the company's resources, mainly its playbooks, properties, and costumes. Later, as its fixed London base became secure, the number of sharers in the chamberlain's company rose to ten. A commentator in 1615 called them a ‘brotherhood’. They bought, rehearsed, and staged their plays, always working together, to the extent that a single sick absentee would upset the teamwork. The eight or ten sharers took the speaking parts. The boys played women and pages, and were taught, housed, and fed by individual players. Thus Richard Robinson, who began his theatrical career playing women's parts, may have been apprenticed to Richard Burbage, whose will he witnessed and whose widow he subsequently married, while Robert Gough seems to have been apprenticed to Burbage's colleague Thomas Pope, who bequeathed him a share of his clothes and weapons. In the company's later years the actor John Shank was probably responsible for recruiting such youngsters; he also provided costumes and acted as financial agent. A few hired men, who unlike the others received wages, did the work of messengers or mutes on stage, while off it they looked after the playbooks, costumes, and properties, and as ‘gatherers’ collected money from the playgoers.

Most players learned their jobs when touring, a practice that continued after the formation of the chamberlain's company in 1594. Coastal shipping took the company from London to ports around the country, and to towns like York, Bristol, and Bath with river access. On land the richer sharers rode horses while the rest travelled in a large wagon with the costumes and properties, staying at inns or when possible at country houses where they entertained the entire household. It may well have been the Lord Chamberlain's Men who on new year's day 1596 staged Titus Andronicus at Sir John Harington's house at Burley on the Hill, Rutland. On tour the company needed to carry the gear and licensed playbooks for only three or four plays. In London the repertory was far more demanding, a different play having to be ready every day. Consequently the journey to work could never be lengthy. The players all lived close to The Theatre in Shoreditch (Shakespeare lodged in nearby Bishopsgate just inside the city walls), and then in Southwark near the Globe Theatre. In 1613 three of the leading sharers, Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Shakespeare, all bought properties in the Blackfriars Gatehouse, near their indoor wintertime theatre.

The company had its troubles, especially in the earlier years. It lost its licensed playhouse, The Theatre, in 1597 when the ground lease expired, and had to call on five of the sharers to pay for the cost of its replacement, which became the Globe. In this fraught business, which involved the demolition of The Theatre and the carriage of its materials over the Thames, the company had the support of Richard Burbage's brother Cuthbert Burbage, who on other occasions gave financial assistance and help with management. The system of sharing company costs was then extended to that of building the new playhouse (a task entrusted to the carpenter Peter Street), with Richard Burbage and five of the other seven sharers, including Shakespeare, paying substantial sums to take shares in the Globe as well as in the company using it. An indoor playhouse in the Blackfriars precinct had been built for the company as early as 1596, but complaints by nearby residents prevented its use, and it did not become available for winter playing until 1608. At that time the Burbages further extended the sharing system of playhouse ownership, so that those who owned parts of the Globe also took shares in the Blackfriars.

Although the company seems never to have allowed any one player to dominate, there can be no doubt that Richard Burbage stood out among the actors, taking hero's parts which included Hamlet, Othello, Brutus, and Shakespeare's other leading roles. The first company clown was William Kemp who danced the concluding jigs and played Dogberry and other comic roles, possibly including Falstaff. His successor from 1599 was Robert Armin, a different kind of clown who played the first Touchstone, Feste, and Lear's Fool. When Burbage died in 1619 his parts were taken over by a new player, Joseph Taylor, who took such roles as Hamlet, Iago, and Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, and who also led the company for its last twenty-three years. In this he sometimes co-operated with Eyllaerdt Swanston, another leading actor in the generation after Burbage (his parts included Othello), but more often with John Lowin. A substantial figure in every respect, Lowin played Falstaff, Volpone, and Sir Epicure Mammon, and was reported to have created the role of Henry VIII in the play by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

Lowin was already an experienced player when he joined the King's Men as a shareholder and actor in 1603, and he stayed with them until the closure in 1642. His staying with the company for thirty-nine years of service was unmatched, though others were not far behind—Heminges (who had become the chief financial manager by 1600) served for thirty-six years, and Henry Condell, his fellow editor of the Shakespeare first folio, did so for thirty. Not all their colleagues were committed members of the company. Christopher Beeston, who seems to have been Augustine Phillips's apprentice, left to join other companies, eventually becoming a considerable theatrical impresario. William Ecclestone moved to the Lady Elizabeth's company in 1611, though two years later he returned to the King's Men, who seem to have enjoyed considerable esprit de corps, which probably helps to explain why players from other fellowships wanted to join them. Nathan Field, an outstanding actor who also wrote plays, performed with the children of the Chapel Royal (also known as the Blackfriars Boys) and then the Lady Elizabeth's Men before joining the King's Men in 1616, while William Ostler, who also acted with the Chapel Royal before becoming a principal player with the King's Men, showed his commitment by purchasing a share in each of the latter's theatres. Relationships within the company could be close, and members often remembered one another in their wills. Nicholas Tooley, a member of a Warwickshire family, may well have been brought into the King's Men by Shakespeare. Apprenticed to Richard Burbage, he lodged with the latter's brother Cuthbert, received a bequest from Augustine Phillips in 1605, and before his death in 1623 named Cuthbert Burbage and Henry Condell as his executors.

Among the dramatists who worked for the King's Men Shakespeare inevitably takes pride of place. In his later years he sometimes collaborated, once with George Wilkins, and three times with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the company's leading playwright. The quality of the other plays staged at the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre was manifestly high. The King's Men were the first to stage John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton, who was also employed to revise some of the plays of Shakespeare after the latter's death. Fletcher was succeeded as company playwright by Philip Massinger, who held that position for fifteen years, in length of service rivalling some of the actors. Other leading dramatists who wrote for the King's Men in the 1620s and 1630s included John Ford and Richard Brome.

By this time the conditions in which the King's Men performed differed considerably from those in which they had first presented plays in 1594. In 1608 the company acquired the Blackfriars indoor playhouse, and could at last do as it had planned from the outset, namely use an outdoor playing space in the summer and an indoor one through the winter. This development necessitated several changes to the playbooks. One was the use of act-breaks—a short pause needed to allow the candles to be trimmed or replaced—another, and much more potent, was the use of off-stage music.

The King's Men had always needed musicians for songs and dances. Samuel Gilburne, another apprentice of Augustine Phillips, seems more likely to have been trained as a musician than as an actor—in his will Phillips left Gilburne a bass viol. But now along with the playhouse the company took on the existing Blackfriars consort of musicians, a small orchestra whose music provided accompaniments to the players and plays, both at the Blackfriars and the Globe. The central section of the stage balcony was used by this curtained-off consort; if it was also needed by Juliet or other players, the musicians simply needed to move back a little. From now on plays like The Tempest, with its off-stage mood music and orchestral accompaniments to Ariel's songs, were written to exploit the consort's highly rated abilities. The composer Robert Johnson wrote music for some of Ariel's songs and for other plays performed by the company. The song the boy sings to Mariana in Measure for Measure and the witches' songs in Macbeth were most likely added for revivals some time after the company acquired the Blackfriars consort. John Wilson also wrote songs for the plays from 1614 onwards, and is identified in the first folio text of Much Ado About Nothing as taking the part of the singer Balthasar. It comes as no surprise that he should have been the King's Men's principal songwriter for the best part of fifteen years.

Andrew Gurr

Sources  

A. Gurr, The Shakespeare Company, 1594–1642 (2004) · A. Gurr, Shakespeare's opposites: the Admiral's Company (2009) · A. Gurr, The Shakespearian playing companies (1996) · E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan stage, 4 vols. (1923) · G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline stage, 7 vols. (1941–68) · A. Gurr, ‘Henry Carey's peculiar letter’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 56 (2005), 51–75 · Satyrical essayes, characters and others (1615)