Category Archives: Research

Diverse Shakespeare at the Globe: Part 2

Before Charlie Josephine’s I, Joan even opened at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer, it provoked reactions from critics and commentators for its presentation of Joan of Arc as non-binary. Despite the historical record of Joan’s gender identity being inconclusive at best, many were surprised and challenged by the invitation to consider Joan as ‘they’ – as someone whose identity corresponded to neither male nor female, and whose dress and appearance shifted across the gender spectrum in response to their developing self-knowledge. Those who rejected this invitation, who sought to impose a particular label on Joan in the name of ‘historical accuracy’, queried how ‘modern’ ideas of non-binary identity could be used in a play set in fifteenth-century France.

It was precisely this kind of question that the Diverse Shakespeare training sessions discussed with the brilliant volunteers and education practitioners of Shakespeare’s Globe. We spent some time learning more about the diverse and varied performers and performances of the early modern era, ranging from the well-known Moll Cutpurse to unnamed ‘Mayd’ and ‘Girl’ rope-dancers, before talking about how we might incorporate this into our public-facing work. We hoped that this knowledge would help the Globe in their ongoing anti-racist work to challenge white, Euro-centric, cis, and able-bodied views about the diversity of the period in which Shakespeare lived and worked.

As I planned this session, I found much of my own preconceptions and understandings of the period being challenged. I knew there were people of colour living and working in early modern London; I didn’t know that some families were engaged in the silk trade, or that others were baptised in their parish churches as babies. I knew that women performed in a variety of spaces; I didn’t know that women danced on ropes at the same playhouses that staged Shakespeare and other canonical playwrights’ written drama. I knew there were disabled people living and working in early modern England; I didn’t know that a blind musician performed in Carlisle or that a female acrobat with a limb difference performed in Norwich.


The first challenge I faced was to decide which examples of performers to include: we only had ninety minutes to discuss the exciting diversity of early modern England and its performance industry and, as you will discover, so much to talk about. Most of these examples have been drawn from the Records of Early English Drama project (https://ereed.library.utoronto.ca/), and therefore are already catalogued, digitized, or otherwise organized by archivists and historians.

We began with the cross-dressing thief and performer Moll Cutpurse, who sums up early modern England’s contradictory approach to gender and its performance. Both celebrated and censured, Moll is most famous for playing their lute and singing at the Fortune Theatre in 1611. While the epitaph on Moll’s grave genders them female, the poem also speculates that the ashes and dust inside would ‘perplex a Sadducee / Whether it rise a He or She / Or two in one, a single pair’. Much like Joan of Arc, Moll’s identity remains mutable even after their death, offering us space to consider early modern experiences of the non-binary.

A black and white drawing of an androgynous figure wearing a large hat, a jerkin, and a dagger at their hip.
Moll Cutpurse, or Mary Frith. Line engraving, printed after 1662. National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons License 4.0.

Rope-dancers often performed in the playhouses owned by the shareholders of the acting companies, including the Swan, the Hope, and the Red Bull. A surviving handbill from Bristol in the 1630s describes how ‘one Mayd of fifteene years of age, and another Girl of foure years of age doe dance on the lowe Rope’ and ‘turne on the Stage’. (Our thanks to Clare McManus for her brilliant work on this exciting area of early modern performance, which you can read more about in some of the suggested further reading below!) The youth and gender of these performers is important: just as young boys were recruited and apprenticed to the playing companies, children of all genders worked and performed across the country.

A Scottish “gentlewoman minstrel” was paid 2s in 1603 for performing in Carlisle. Both her gender and nationality distinguish her from the payments made to other musicians, but in every other respect, it seems they were paid the same. The description of “gentlewoman” is interesting: women who performed in public were often conflated with sex workers or deemed sexually available, so perhaps this label attempted to safeguard the reputations of both her and the event at which she performed. A blind harper was paid 12d in 1602 for a civic performance, also in Carlisle. While his disability is noted in the record of payments, his wages seem on a par with sighted musicians. This suggests that while he was not discriminated against with low pay for his disability, his skill was not considered worth extra renumeration despite his lack of sight.

Sometimes disability itself was the attraction: Adrian Provoe and his wife were granted a four day licence in Norwich in 1632 for her to ‘show diverse works &c done with her feet’. Provoe’s wife is not named, and is only mentioned in connection to her husband. Their relationship may have been a true and supportive partnership, or an exploitative and abusive one, or anywhere in between. The power differences between husbands and wives, the able-bodied and the disabled, are not preserved in the record.


Our discussion then moved on to how we might include evidence such as this, and the questions they raise, in the work the Globe does with schools and the public. This was a brave and honest discussion as we moved away from the historical detail to more challenging subjects such as how to broach the racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia of the period, while acknowledging these issues are still very present in our society.

Everyone participating in these sessions was asked to complete a very short survey at the beginning and end, consisting of just two questions. We were keen to learn how much knowledge and confidence participants had in discussing these issues before we ran the sessions, and if this changed because of the training. The responses were overwhelmingly positive – everyone’s knowledge about these issues, and their confidence in broaching them with the public and education groups they worked with had risen.  Some participants commented they appreciated the range of inclusive language that had been offered during the session, giving them new tools and strategies to discuss these important historical moments with their students or tour groups.

The evidence of diverse performers and performance across early modern England is already before us: we just need to look for it.


Further reading

Printed resources

Astington, John, ‘Trade, Taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook, 71.3 (2017), 161–68

Brown, Pamela Allen, ‘Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Actresses?’, Shakespeare Survey, 70 (2017), 182–87

Brown, Pamela Allen, and Peter Parolin, eds., Women Players in England 1500 – 1660 (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2005)

Clare, Eli, Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, & Liberation 2nd edn (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2009)

Faye, Shon, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice (London: Penguin, 2021)

Halberstam, Jack, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018)

Heyam, Kit, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (London: Hachette, 2022)

Korda, Natasha, Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

Loftis, Sonya Freeman, Shakespeare and Disability Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

Love, Genevieve, Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability (London: Arden Bloomsbury, 2018)

McManus, Clare, “Sing it Like Poor Barbary’: Othello and Early Modern Women’s Performance’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 33.1 (2015), 99 – 120

McManus, Clare, ‘The Vere Street Desdemona: Othello and the Theatrical Englishwoman, 1602 – 1660’ in Women Making Shakespeare: Text, Reception and Performance eds. Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, & Virginia Mason Vaughan (London: Arden Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 221 – 232 

Nardizzi, Vin, ‘Disability Figures in Shakespeare’ in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality and Race ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 454–467

Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities eds. Jos Twist, Meg-John Barker, Ben Vincent, & Kat Gupta (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2020)

Page, Nick, Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Smallest Man (London: HarperCollins, 2001)

Schaap Williams, Katherine, Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021)

Siebers, Tobin, ‘Shakespeare Differently Disabled’, in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 434–454

Shakespeare, Tom, ‘The Social Model of Disability’ in ed. Lennard J. Davis, The Disability Studies Reader 5th edn (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 195 – 203

Whittlesey, Christy, The Beginners’ Guide to Being a Trans Ally (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2021)

Online resources:

Anderson, Susan, ‘Disability in Shakespeare’s England’, That Shakespeare Life, 2019

cassidycash.com/ep-76-susan-anderson-on-disability-in-shakespeares-england/

Bibby, Mariam, ‘Moll Cutpurse,’ Historic UK, 2019

historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Moll-Frith/

‘Disabled Shakespeares’, Disability Studies Quarterly, 2009

dsq-sds.org/issue/view/42

Davies, Callan, ‘Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership’, Engendering the Stage, 2018

engenderingthestage.humanities.mcmaster.ca/2018/12/10/engendering-before-shakespeare-women-and-early-english-playhouse-ownership/

Grange, S., ‘History, Queer Lives, and Performance’, A Bit Lit, 2020

youtube.com/watch?v=TrLFz5KzFJs

James, Susan, ‘Jane the Foole’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2019 oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-112276?rskey=sxtbPQ&result=2

Keywords for Disability Studies, NYU Press, 2021

keywords.nyupress.org/disability-studies/

Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies, NYU Press, 2021

keywords.nyupress.org/gender-and-sexuality-studies/

Lipscomb, Suzannah, ‘Disability in the Tudor Court’, Historic England  

historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1485-1660/disability-in-the-tudor-court/

Marsden, Holly ‘Dangerous Women: Cross-dressing Cavalier Mary Frith’, Historic Royal Palaces, 2021 blog.hrp.org.uk/curators/dangerous-women-the-cross-dressing-cavalier-mary-frith/

McManus, Clare, ‘Feats of Activity and the Tragic Stage’, Engendering the Stage, 2019

engenderingthestage.humanities.mcmaster.ca/2019/04/30/feats-of-activity-and-the-tragic-stage/

McManus, Clare, ‘Shakespeare and Gender: The Woman’s Part’, British Library, 2016

bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeare-and-gender-the-womans-part

McManus, Clare, ‘Women Performers in Shakespeare’s Time’, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2019

folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/women-performers

Rackin, Phyllis, ‘The Hidden Women Writers of the Elizabethan Theatre’, The Atlantic, 2019

theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/06/shakespeares-female-contemporaries/590392/

Schaap-Williams, Katherine, ‘Richard III and the Staging of Disability’, British Library, 2016

bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/richard-iii-and-the-staging-of-disability

Shakespeare, Tom, ‘We need to talk about Charles I’s ‘pet dwarf”, Royal Academy, 2018

royalacademy.org.uk/article/charles-i-jeffrey-hudson-van-dyck-dwarf-tom-shakespeare

Thomas, Miranda Fay, ‘A Queer Reading of Twelfth Night’, British Library, 2016

bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/a-queer-reading-of-twelfth-night

Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe: Part 1

This is the first of a mini-series of blogs reflecting on the Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe programme led by myself and Mel in November 2021, which offered training sessions on the diversity of the early modern period to Globe Education Practitioners and volunteer tour guides at Shakespeare’s Globe. With the guidance of our external consultant Dr Onyeka Nubia (University of Nottingham) and Dr Will Tosh (Head of Research at Shakespeare’s Globe) we devised and ran four sessions over two weeks. The sessions aimed to equip staff with the information and skills to educate the public and educational groups that visit the Globe about the diversity of early English modern society. By working with the Globe’s guides and education practitioners, we aim to disseminate our materials with a large audience over a long period of time.

We divided the training workshops into two specific sessions. One session considered the diverse gendered and disabled bodies of early modern performers in the period, while the other session focused on early modern ideas of racemaking (i.e. the creation of ideas of race, ethnicity, and identity), evidence of performers of colour in the period, and how these tropes are embedded in or resisted by popular culture today. Each session was designed to support the organisation’s ‘one Globe’ approach to their anti-racist commitments, which seeks to empower all colleagues to inform the communities visiting the Globe, to counter any misinformation about the period and so to disseminate an inclusive understanding of the diversity present within the Shakespearean period.

In addition to equipping participants with the intersectional knowledge to contextualise early modern performance cultures, the sessions also provided a ‘toolbox’ to support attendees to reappraise the Shakespearean texts that we think we know inside out. We asked participants to rethink how markers of difference were achieved in early modern performance – such as how Black or disabled characters were depicted on the Shakespearean stage – while exploring the pervasive ways in which systems of oppression are so deeply embedded in material from the period that they might be rendered invisible. Drawing on rich fields of scholarship, the sessions dedicated time to identify specific terminology that signposts misogynistic, ableist, and racist attitudes, exploring how these references might be connected to wider networks of early modern culture. There’s nothing harder for an academic than answering a seemingly simple question from a member of the public: these questions send us back to first principles and push us to think and communicate more clearly than any other. Because of this, the training sessions aimed to support Globe staff answer these kinds of open, general questions from the enthusiastic publics who visit their building or take their classes and who are seeking to understand the Shakespearean period more deeply. Some of these overarching questions included:

• Did women perform in early modern England?
• Were there performers of colour on the early modern stage?
• What value is there in producing/performing/studying texts that include problematic content?
• What methods best allow us to negotiate this content in a meaningful way without repeating the violence of the past?
• Was Shakespeare racist?

We found these questions, some intentionally provocative, very useful to draw out conversation, find nuance and demonstrate how complex lived experiences can be rendered (in)visible on both page and stage. While these conversations might be difficult or uncomfortable, they encourage people to reflect not only on their own relationship with these well-known plays but also their position in the present world. We intended to create a safe space for volunteers and education practitioners to build the confidence to contribute and lead these discussions at the Globe. However, in building and running the sessions, we encountered a similar sense of self-reflection. While preparing the sessions, we found questions arising about curation. Providing an overview of any marginalised community in history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time to discuss extant archival records, textual clues, and visual material such as artwork or emblems. While these sources contribute to a rich tapestry of lived experiences and communities, almost inevitably, we would never be able to talk about every account or voice. Building the sessions, we spent time thinking about what materials we include and exclude, as well as how these curatorial decisions might impact the shape of the sessions and thus, the breadth of diversity presented to attendees. How do we ensure we do justice to the lives often rendered invisible through hostile archival practises? How do we recover the humanity that historically has been diminished or queried?

This three-part series will respond to these questions, as we rethink diversity in Shakespeare and beyond. In the following two entries, Mel and I will each detail the content of our respective sessions. This includes the archival evidence demonstrating female, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming performers across a range of cultures of performance in England; how the popular early modern maxim ‘to wash an Ethiop’ has permeated and resurfaced in present-day popular culture; critically appraising a taxonomy of terms that might refer to diverse, and often marginalised identities in the early modern period. In doing so, the series will act as an experiential reflection to consider how notions of diversity operate in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and how we receive or respond to these representations today.

The Diverse Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe project was made possible by funding from the Southlands Methodist Trust (SMT). This public engagement project called on the research findings of Engendering the Stage, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Special thanks must go to Dr Onyeka Nubia at the University of Nottingham and Dr Will Tosh at Shakespeare’s Globe for supporting this project and so generously sharing their time and expertise. Thank you to Shakespeare’s Globe staff and volunteers, whose kind welcome and thoughtful participation made for excellent discussions. We look forward to sharing more about the work from this project on this blog in the coming weeks!

Frances and Judith: Parallel Lives

This is the first in a series of blog-posts that will draw attention to the roles of women in the economic structures that surrounded the early modern stage. These posts derive from our documentary research project, ‘Engendering the Stage: The Records of Early Modern Performance’, funded by a Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust, and they are based on our work in the National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives and other collections.

Future posts will focus on women’s involvement in the ownership and leases of playhouses, but I want to start by looking at the broader network of financial interactions that supported the playhouses, a network that extended far beyond Britain’s shores. This material was first presented at the ‘Theatre Without Borders’ conference in June 2021 as part of a panel on ‘Staging Bodily Technologies’.

In this post I take a close look at the activities of two entrepreneurial women with connections to the seventeenth-century stage: Frances Worth and Judith Merefield. Both were related to actors and both operated within family networks that link theatre finance with colonial exploitation, in particular the colonization of the West Indies between the 1620s and 1650s.

Frances was born in 1602. The daughter of a painter-stainer, Thomas Bartlett, she was married successively to two actors. In 1620, when she was only 18 years old, she married the 19-year-old Thomas Holcombe. Holcombe was probably still an apprentice at the time, playing female and juvenile roles on the stages of the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses. He died only a few years later, in late August or early September 1625, during a virulent outbreak of plague in London. In January 1626 Frances married for a second time. Her new husband was Ellis Worth, whose long career centred on the Red Bull and Fortune playhouses, where he was successively a member of Queen Anna’s Men, the Revels Company and Prince Charles’s Men. 

Ten years older than Frances, Judith was the daughter of John Heminges, a long-time actor with the King’s Men – the company of which Shakespeare was also a member – and the master to whom  Thomas Holcombe was apprenticed in 1618. Judith was one of fourteen children born to John and his wife Rebecca, of whom six daughters and two sons survived to adulthood. In 1613, at the age of 19, Judith married the 21-year-old Ralph Merefield, a member of London’s Weavers’ Company who also appears to have worked as a scrivener. Heminges appears to have had his daughters as well as his sons educated: when Judith made her will in 1645 she signed it in her own hand, and the will also bears the signature of her sister Margaret Sheppard, who was one of the witnesses.

Figure 1: Judith Merefield’s signature and seal, and the signature of her sister, Margaret Sheppard, on the original copy of Judith’s will, dated 7 June 1645. The National Archives (TNA), PROB 10/650. Open in a new tab or window by right-clicking to see larger versions of any of these images.

Frances and Judith must have encountered each other many times in the close-knit communities that surrounded and sustained the seventeenth-century stage, and both of their histories reveal women with an entrepreneurial streak. Frances was unusual by seventeenth-century standards in that she exercised her own profession, independent from that of her husbands. On 26 January 1622, during the life-time of her first husband, she was appointed by St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, London, as a ‘surgeon’ specialising in curing skin disorders such as ‘scald heads’ and, perhaps, venereal disease.[1] The records of the hospital show that this trade provided her with a lucrative income for many years. By the early 1630s her earnings were regularly topping £100 per annum and she was still being paid for her work by the hospital in the mid 1660s. These wages would have meant that she was earning substantially more than a skilled tradesman, and she also appears to have out-earned her male colleagues at the hospital. In 1629, for example, she earned £58, while the physician William Harvey was paid £33 and the apothecary, Richard Glover, was awarded £40.[2]

Figure 2: Cures for scald heads in John Hester’s The Pearl of Practice, or Practicer’s Pearl, for Physic and Chirurgery (London, 1594).

In a lawsuit of the mid 1650s, Ellis Worth refers to the income that his family makes through Frances’s ‘great pains and industry in a way of surgery as relating to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield, London, and otherwise’, describing himself as ‘having no trade’.[3] His testimony and that of a series of witnesses make clear both Frances’s status as a surgeon and the importance of her work to the family. Charity Earles, for example, declares that there is ‘none in London or elsewhere that can do the like cure besides the defendant Frances’.[4] The witnesses also offer an account of the way in which Frances has trained her 26-year-old son, Ellis Worth junior, in ‘the art of chirurgery as to the curing of scald heads and leprosies’. [5]  Somewhat ungraciously, Ellis junior acknowledges the esteem in which his mother is held but only in the course of complaining that he is ‘hindered and obstructed’ in exercising that ‘art’ for himself because his mother ‘so long as she lives gets that practice which otherwise this deponent might (as he believes) have had’.

Figure 3: Deposition of Ellis Worth junior, 25 August 1654, TNA, C 24/780. In the description of his occupation the word ‘chirurgeon’ (that is, surgeon) is crossed out and ‘gent.’ (for ‘gentleman’) written in above it.

Frances’s earnings as a surgeon probably helped to sustain her family’s other activities, which encompassed not only theatrical investment but also investment in England’s colonization of the West Indies. Her stepdaughter, Jane Worth, married as her first husband Henry Ricroft, who invested in the Fortune playhouse alongside Ellis Worth in the early 1630s. Alongside the Fortune, the Ricrofts also invested in a plantation in Barbados, and after Henry Ricroft’s death Jane married another colonizer, Peter Alsop. In his 1659 will, Ellis Worth mentions ‘my daughter Jane Alsop wife of Peter Alsop in Barbados’ and ‘her eldest son Ellis Ricroft which she had by her former husband Henry Ricroft deceased’; as Jennifer L. Morgan points out, Ellis was to make bequests of enslaved people to his own children two decades later. [6] 

It is likely that Frances’s substantial earnings financed Ellis Worth’s investment in the Fortune in the 1620s and early 1630s, and they may also have supported the theatrical and colonial activities of the Ricrofts and Alsops. In the 1640s and 50s, when the commercial presentation of plays in London was prohibited and the livelihoods of actors were rendered precarious and at times non-existent, Frances’s trade appears to have been the family’s main source of income and prestige.

Judith Merefield’s career connects the theatre with colonial projects even more strongly. Her husband, Ralph Merefield, financed the ships that arrived in early 1624 at the island then known as St Christopher, now better known as St Kitts, and called ‘Liamuiga’ or ‘fertile island’ by the indigenous population that was later massacred by the colonizers. On 13 September 1625, Ralph and his partner, Thomas Warner, were issued with a grant that appointed Warner as the colonial governor of ‘Saint Christopher’s alias Merwarshope’, Nevis, Barbados and Monserrat, which were described as ‘inhabited by savage people and not in the possession or government of any Christian prince or state’. The grant also gave Ralph the authority ‘to traffic to and from the said island … and to transport men and do all such things as tend to settle a colony and advance trade there[in]’.[7]

Figure 4: Grant to Thomas Warner and Ralph Merefield, 13 September 1625. Privy Council Register, 27 March 1625-17 July 1626, TNA, PC 2/33, f. 103r. The name ‘Merwarshope’ combined parts of the names of Merefield and Warner. It did not endure.

Other members of Judith’s family were also involved in colonial schemes. Her father, John Heminges, was not only a major shareholder in the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses, and one of the men who helped to prepare the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but also an investor in at least two colonial projects. One investment involved his eldest surviving son, also called John; the other was a project that was referred to in a lawsuit after his death in 1630 as ‘a desperate adventure unto the West Indies’.[8] It is highly likely that Heminges invested in Merefield’s expedition, which was being planned and executed at the same time as he was at work on the First Folio, a volume that opens with Shakespeare’s colonial play, The Tempest.[9]

The family’s colonial connections were not limited to Ralph Merefield. The husband of Judith’s sister Rebecca, named as ‘Captain William Smith’ in Heminges’s will, is probably the man of that name who appears to have captained the second ship to St Christopher in 1624 and later travelled there as the captain of another ship, the Hopewell, in October 1627. Two of Judith’s own daughters, Judith and Mary, would go on to marry men involved in colonial trade and exploitation: the privateer and slave-trader William Jackson and Thomas Sparrow, who was governor of Nevis around 1636-7.

Ralph Merefield quickly exercised the authority granted to him by setting up tobacco plantations on St Christopher.[10] The Cambridge playwright Peter Hausted refers to the pleasures of ‘a thatch alehouse, and St Kitts Tobacco’ in his 1632 play The Rival Friends, suggesting something of the commercial reach of this project.[11] However, Ralph spent well beyond his means in financing the colonization of St Christopher and soon faced financial disaster. He is described in one of the lawsuits connected with John Heminges’s estate as dying ‘a prisoner in the Fleet of little or no estate at all and many hundred pounds in debt’, and his burial is recorded in the register of St Bride, Fleet Street, on 26 December 1631, as that of ‘a prisoner in the Fleet’.[12]

Figure 5: Record of the burial of ‘Ralphe Meryfielde a prisoner in the ffleete’, 26 December 1631. Parish Register, St Bride, Fleet Street, London Metropolitan Archives, P69/BRI/A/004/MS06538.

Judith did not simply have a family connection with these activities. After Ralph’s death she appears to have both defended his right to property in the West Indies and to have profited from the trade in tobacco that he established. In 1636, Nicholas Burgh, who accompanied Warner and Merefield to St Christopher and was a co-author of the earliest account of the colonization of the island, claimed that 

[Judith] hath received for several parcels of tobacco sent unto her from the Island of Saint Christopher’s by Sir Thomas Warner, governor thereof, as belonging to the estate of the said Ralph Merryfield, several sums of money (that is to say) for tobacco sold to Master Armstrong £9 8s. 6d., for tobacco sent home to her by Captain Paul Thompson £37 15s., for tobacco sent her home in the Adventure £22 10s., for tobacco sent her home by Captain Cork £15 10s., for tobacco brought her home by Sir Thomas Warner £78, amounting in all to the sum of one hundred [and] sixty three pounds or thereabouts[.] [13]

These are substantial sums. According to the National Archives’ historical currency converter, it would have taken a skilled tradesman in the 1630s over six years to earn £163.

The Merefields’ trade in tobacco was indelibly linked to playhouses, where it was sold and consumed. In the early 1630s, the anti-theatrical writer William Prynne decries both actors and playgoers as ‘tavern, alehouse, tobacco-shop, [and] hot-water-house haunters’ (that is, drinkers of strong, distilled spirits), describing a ‘walk’ from ‘a playhouse to a tavern, to an alehouse, a tobacco-shop, or hot-water brothel-house; or from these unto a playhouse’, ‘where the pot, the can, the tobacco-pipe are always walking till the play be ended’. [14] It is not unlikely that some of the tobacco imported by and on behalf of Ralph and Judith Merefield found its way into the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses used by the King’s Men, creating a circuit in which the playhouse investments of men like Heminges fuelled colonial expansion and trade, the products of which were then sold in the playhouse.

Figure 6: Woodcut of a tobacco smoker from the title-page of The Downfall of Temporizing Poets (1641).

The activities of Frances Worth and Judith Merefield bring to the fore a set of transnational networks to which the early modern theatre was connected, pointing not only to London’s developing status as a colonial city but also to the place of its cultural institutions within circuits of colonial trade. Frances’s trade in scald heads would have facilitated her family’s investments in theatre and colonization, while the trade in tobacco from which Judith profited was one of the most tangible signs of theatre’s implication in colonial enterprise and exploitation. Theatre history was shaped not only by generations of assertive and entrepreneurial women but also by the imperialist project of early modern Britain. 

By tracing stories like those of Frances and Judith, Engendering the Stage seeks to expand our understanding of the roles that women have played in the history of the stage and also to acknowledge the sometimes troubling aspects of that history. 

***

If you are interested in knowing more about early modern women’s involvement in theatre finance, we recommend the following:

S.P. Cerasano, ‘Women as Theatrical Investors: Three Shareholders and the Second Fortune Playhouse’, in Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance, 1594-1998, ed. S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (London: Routledge, 1998), 87-94 [This essay examines the investments of Frances Juby, Margaret Gray and Mary Bryan in the second Fortune playhouse.]

Natasha Korda, Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) {This book discusses the activities of women as investors in theatrical enterprisers, lenders of money within theatrical circles and ‘gatherers’, that is, collectors of money in playhouses.]

The King’s Women 1594-1642 [This new blog by Meryl Faiers, Lucy Holehouse, Héloïse Sénéchal, Jodie Smith and Jennifer Moss Waghorn presents fresh research on the women connected with the King’s Men.]

For further reading on the early modern Caribbean and broader histories of colonization and enslavement, see Vanessa M. Holden and Jessica Parr, ‘Readings on the History of the Atlantic World’, in Black Perspectives.


***

Notes

[1] James Paget, Records of Harvey: in Extracts from the Journals of the Royal Hospital of St. Bartholomew (London: John Churchill, 1846), 36. I have put all quotations from early modern documents into modern spelling.

[2] Norman Moore, The History of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (London: Pearson, 1918), 230.

[3] Zachary Baggs v. Ellis and Frances Worth, Court of Chancery, 1653-4, The National Archives (TNA), C 7/402/32.

[4] Deposition of Charity Earles in Baggs v. Ellis and Worth, 30 July 1654, TNA, C 24/780/110. This document was first drawn to scholars’ attention by C.J. Sisson in ‘Shakespeare’s Helena and Dr William Harvey’, Essays and Studies 13 (1960), 1-20.

[5] Deposition of Ellis Worth, junior, 25 August 1654, TNA, C 24/780/110.

[6] E.A.J. Honigmann and Susan Brock, Playhouse Wills, 1558-1642 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 209; Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 98.

[7] Grant to Thomas Warner and Ralph Merefield, 13 September 1625, Privy Council Register, 27 March 1625-17 July 1626, TNA, PC 2/33, f. 103r.

[8] Joint and Several Answers in Thomas Kirle v. William Heminges, John Atkins and Judith Merefield, Court of Chancery, 1632, TNA, C 2/ChasI/K5/42. I first encountered this document in 2016 in a transcription among the papers of the early twentieth-century theatre historians Charles William Wallace and Hulda Berggren Wallace at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. I would like to thank the Huntington Library for awarding me a Francis Bacon Fellowship to look at these materials.

[9] I will write about this connection at greater length in forthcoming work on John Heminges and Henry Condell, and their role in shaping Shakespeare’s plays on page and stage.

[10] Signet and Other Warrants for the Privy Seal, August-November 1626, TNA, PSO 2/67; Privy Council Registers, 1 June 1627-28 February 1628, TNA, PC 2/36, f. 269.

[11] Peter Hausted, The Rival Friends (London, 1632), sig. C2r.

[12] Bill of complaint in Kirle v. Heminges, Atkins and Merefield; Parish Register, St Bride, Fleet Street, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), P69/BRI/A/004/MS06538.

[13] Answer of Nicholas Burgh in Arthur Knight v. Nicholas Burgh, John Atkins, Judith Merefield, et al., Court of Chancery, 1636-9, TNA, C 2/ChasI/K18/50.

[14] Histrio-Mastix (London, 1633), sig. 2T1v.

Engendering the stage on tour: Hocktide

This is the first of a series of blogs that will spotlight various forms of early modern performance by a range of gendered, classed bodies. Using examples drawn from archival sources such as the Records of Early English Drama project, we hope this is a space that allows (re)discovery of the many energetic and challenging performances and skills exhibited across England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These snapshots of performances and performers, from those on street corners to those who played in noble households, might challenge some of our ideas about early modern music, dance, and drama, and the hierarchies we have constructed around them.

This series will attempt to follow some of the touring routes of the early modern professional playing companies, most of whom originated in London. They toured frequently, not just when the London theatres were closed because of the plague, along routes that were well planned and well-travelled. Their own performances were part of a much wider culture of performance in both rural and urban areas; they were in competition and conversation with dancers, musicians, tumblers, animal trainers, acrobats, fencers, and many others, as well as civic parades, pageantry, and community drama such as the mystery play cycles.

Our first stop is on the road to Oxford: the Berkshire towns of Reading and Windsor for the Hocktide celebrations. 

HOCKTIDE

Hocktide was a raucous and physically robust festival spread over the Monday and Tuesday two weeks after Easter that marked the transition from spring to summer and raised money for the parish. It began as a day for collecting the termly rents, before developing into a larger celebration. The first day, women of the town roamed the streets, playfully tying up unwary men and demanding money for their release. The second day, the gender roles were reversed, with the men ‘hocking’ money from the women. The money collected went to support the parish. Records from Berkshire indicate the women were much more successful than the men in raising money: their total sums were usually double that of the men. The women of St. Laurence parish, Reading, won 10 shillings from the men they bound on 22nd April 1555, while the men only gathered 4 shillings 8 pence from the women the following day. (All figures taken from the Records of Early English Drama Berkshire, ed. Alexandra F. Johnston, 2018.) The women of St Mary’s, Reading, were even more successful that year, collecting a whopping 22 shillings 8 pence. Perhaps this can be attributed to men being more likely to have spare cash they were able to donate to the parish.

Hocktide does seem to have been a more female-focused event, as with many of the pre-Reformation and medieval civic performance traditions; the triumphant women of St Mary’s were treated to a supper paid for by the parish at a cost of 3 shillings 4 pence in 1555, with no comparable record for the men. This communal meal must have had a victory celebration feel to it, as women celebrated their organisation skills, financial savvy, and physical prowess. By banding together and roaming the public spaces of the town, they took up space in the streets and public buildings, exerting dominion over the men of the town. By physically restraining the menfolk and taking control of their bodies and their purses, they performed a reversal of what happened to a woman’s autonomy, body, and possessions upon getting married. Of course, all was righted the following day, as the men playfully revenged themselves upon the townswomen. Hocktide began to fade away across most of England by the end of the sixteenth century, helped along by religious disapproval of the topsy-turvy sexual dynamics and carnivalesque frivolity the games invoked.

It was not just Protestants who disapproved of Hocktide: in a 1450 letter sent by John Lawern, the Bishop of Worcester to the clergy and cathedral almoner, he complains of a ‘noxious corruption tending to reduce persons of either sex to a state of (spiritual) illness’. The symptoms of this ‘illness’ included:

‘women feign[ing] to bind men, and on another (or the next) day men feign to bind women, and to do other things – would that they were not dishonourable or worse! – in full view of passers-by, even pretending to increase church profit but earning a loss (literally, damnation) for the soul under false pretences. Many scandals arise from the occasion of these activities, and adulteries and other outrageous crimes are committed as a clear offence to God, a very serious danger to the souls of those committing them, and a pernicious example to others.’

Notebook of John Lawern
Bodleian Library: MS Bodley 692 f 163v 6 April 1450

Even accounting for hyperbole, it seems a range of illicit sexual behaviours were conducted under the auspices of Hocktide. We can see traces of this behaviour in the last remaining place to celebrate Hocktide today: Hungerford in Berkshire, a little to the west of Reading. There, the ‘Tutti-men’ visit each household to collect a penny and solicit a kiss from the women of the house, sometimes even going to extreme lengths:

A black and white photo from the 1930s of two women at the first floor window of a brick house with vines. A man is standing on a ladder and kissing one of the women, while the ladder is held by two other men.
Hocktide celebrations, 1930. Photo: Hungerford Virtual Museum

Hungerford continues to celebrate Hocktide today, as this BBC News report shows:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-27214352

The Hocktide of today continues the playful inversion of gender roles that the medieval festival initiated. Hocktide was a space for men and women to lapse from strictly regimented expectations of class and gender and behave in potentially promiscuous ways with members of the opposite sex to whom they were not married. There were plenty of opportunities to speak, flirt, and dance with others, who were able to performatively protest, pointing to the ropes ‘tying’ them up to safeguard reputations. Those who raged against the practice, such as Lawern, may have been reassured by the order in which the events occurred: much like the winter Lord of Misrule games, events began with an upturning of social norms, before the second day which saw the men of the town assert their authority over their wives, sisters, and daughters, reclaiming the public space and their power.

Engendering the Stage in London, May 2019

This post was originally published on King’s English blog, Department of English, King’s College London.

by Hailey Bachrach and Dr Romola Nuttall, King’s College London

An Apology for Actors: Early Modern Playing Then and Now, King’s College London, Friday 10 May 2019

Research in Action: Engendering the Stage, Shakespeare’s Globe, Monday 13 May 2019.

“Engendering the Stage in the Age of Shakespeare and Beyond” brings together scholars, actors and theatre practitioners to analyse the performance of gender in early modern drama and investigate the effects of women’s performance on the skills, techniques and technologies of the performance of femininity in the drama of Shakespeare and his English and European contemporaries. In May, the project held two events in London at King’s and Shakespeare’s Globe.

The workshop at King’s considered children’s companies and female performers at court as well as professional, more typical, “actors”. The Research in Action event at Shakespeare’s Globe used scenes which include gendered expressions of rage for public performance and audience discussion.

The morning of ‘Apology for Actors’ focused on two male, professional actors, Richard Burbage and Nathan Field. Burbage is one of the most famous actors of the early modern period and was a celebrity during his lifetime, as the elegies written at his death demonstrate. He was a member of the King’s Men and brought many of Shakespeare’s leading roles, from Hamlet to King Lear, to life. Field was a pupil at St. Paul’s School and became one of the Children of the Queen’s Revels. He joined the King’s Men around 1615-16 and may have been known for his physical dexterity and charisma. Lucy Munro (King’s College London) and Harry McCarthy (Exeter) called on present-day actors, James Wallace and Mark Hammersely, to read extracts of parts Field and Burbage would have played, allowing the workshop’s audience to see how heavily the actor’s person and specific skill-set would have informed the composition, performance, interpretation of early modern drama.

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]
Wallace and Hammersely performed a scene from The Knight of Malta– written by Field himself with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger –in which the older, wiser, wily Montferrat, played by Burbage in 1618 and Wallace in this workshop) persuades the younger Miranda (played by Field in 1618 and Ammersely for us) to take his place in a duel. Similar focus on how company dynamics informed performance were foregrounded when our actors were joined by Suzanne Ahmet to perform the first scene of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist which would have been in the King’s Men’s repertoire at the same time as The Knight of Malta. Burbage, who played Subtle, and Field, who played Face, would have performed alongside the much younger George Birch, as Doll Common, who ends the scene by subduing and dominating the two senior players. This workshop was not trying to recover or recreate the experience of early modern playgoing but participants commented on how our actors had done this for us by effectively playing two parts at once, adopting personas of known actors as well as the parts in the plays.
Actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance

Having established that actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance, Clare McManus (Roehampton) pulled the rug out from under our feet in the afternoon, challenging what an early modern actor actually is/was. Yes, there were famous stage-clowns of the commercial stage, like Timothy Reade who was praised for just peeping out behind a curtain, but also, court musicians, actors who were also guildsmen and female performers. It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances. This idea was brought to life when participants read two extracts from the marathon eight-hour long court masque, The Shepherds Paradise. The masque was written for a commemorative performance on Charles I’s birthday in 1633 and was performed by an all-female cast lead by Queen Henrietta Maria.

Discussion was led by stage-designer Mallin Parry (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Sarah Grange (Brighton) who reflected on this performance and its resonances with contemporary performance contexts, particularly the drag king scene. They raised compelling parallels between costumes used in both contexts, highlighting their extravagance, their explicit construction of gender, their level of attention to detail and topicality. They encouraged the suggestion that these more radical performance contexts are enabled by their “amateur” nature.

The last session of the day continued to challenge both past and present performance of gender. Melinda Gough (McMaster) and Peter Cockett (McMaster) shared their experiences of the Engendering the Stage workshop at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in November 2018, which investigated scenes in which female characters wielded swords on the early modern stage. Just as the previous discussion had found an instability in the term “actor”, this discussion highlighted similarly problematic tensions between scholar and practitioner – who is the expert when the aim is research through practice? These are provocative and productive questions to which the project is highly sensitive and which continued to be explored at the Globe’s Research in Action workshop.

It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances.

Though only the evening portion of the event was livetweeted and open to the public, Research in Action at the Globe is a full day event for the scholars and artists. In the evening, participants present a series of scenes that illustrate different research questions and dilemmas, which we turn over to the audience for discussion and questions. Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways. As with any practice as research event, the aim is to raise questions rather than to answer them.

But before all this, we gathered in the early afternoon to meet the actors and run through the scenes that we’d be presenting in the evening, establishing some basic staging and highlighting some of the questions about gendered embodiments of onstage rage that we’d probe more deeply during the public workshop.

The first scene, from The Noble Spanish Soldier, raised a variety of practical staging questions. In our most populous scene (cut down from its original cast size!), we had to take our time to break down who went where and when. A sequence involving the passing of a cup for a series of toasts proved particularly complicated, because the extant stage directions were very vague about the nature of toast and the order in which it was taken, plus a lot of business about cup swapping—particularly important because the swap results in the wrong character being poisoned. The mechanics of these prop movements contrasted with the relative simplicity of the emotional cues in the scene: the workshop’s aim was to explore moments of rage, and embedded stage directions and descriptions and reactions by other characters always made it very clear when a character was in a rage, even if we had no indication of what that rage might look like.

Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways.

Both this and our second scene, from Wit Without Money, raised interesting questions about when rage is unseen or private, performed only for the audience, and when it is a public display that the other characters also see. In The Noble Spanish Soldier, if the other characters noticed the early moments of rage, it would give away the poisoning game before it made sense for them to know it. In Wit Without Money, the visibility of the widow’s rage in the face of a set of persistent, annoying suitors seemed more open for interpretation: playing it as asides to the audience created a comic contrast, but playing it openly to the suitors was also amusing, and emphasized the plot framework of the scene, in which the widow’s sister has set the suitors on her as a joke, and has told the suitors to ignore her sister’s raging and keep pursuing her anyway.

In both of these scenes, other characters’ responses provide a key to understanding the rage, whether they are describing the rage, or seeming to fail to see it. In our third scene, from The Renegado, external responses only further complicated a difficult-to-interpret moment. In this scene, an aristocratic young woman smashes up a merchant’s market stall in an apparent fit of rage… but is it a real loss of control, or a deliberate act to draw attention? The text makes it unclear, and the varied responses of the other characters—ranging from genuine shock to bemused understatement—don’t help clarify the matter. This was a scene particularly enlivened by public performance and discussion, as the audience proffered a variety of interpretations of both versions of the scene, bringing their own personal and artistic experiences to bear on their efforts to explain the character’s thinking.

Unfortunately, we only had a very short time to spend on our final scene, also from The Renegado. But the curtailed discussion served as a good reminder that such events are, unlike a traditional performance, the beginning of a conversation, not the finished product.

Engendering the Stage would like to thank London Shakespeare Centre and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, Roehampton University and the Social Sciences and Research Council, Canada, whose support made these events possible.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

Feats of Activity and the Tragic Stage

by Clare McManus

The skilled boy-actresses of Jacobean England were central to theatrical representation in an era when commercial theatre is often said to be dominated by male performers. But this blog offers new contexts for understanding the boy-actress of Shakespeare, Webster, Jonson and others by contrasting what we can glean about their practice in a specific genre, namely tragedy, against the dynamic, agile, muscular enactment of femininity by women performing ‘feats of activity’, the display of the extraordinarily skilled body. In particular, it deals with the women who danced on the ropes in inn-yards, at court and perhaps also in playhouses.

The King’s Men were chief among the London playing companies of the early seventeenth century, performing at the Globe, court and the Blackfriars, and they are strongly associated with two particular playwrights, Shakespeare and Fletcher. In their first decade, their tragic repertory – from Othello (1602-4) to The Duchess of Malfi (1613) – is packed with feminine corpses, skulls, statues and monuments. Such tropes have long been said to emphasise stasis and present an extreme monumentalisation and spectacular display of the body of the boy-actress who played leading female roles.  This observation may be a commonplace in scholarship, but what if these tropes are not simply a default response to patriarchy – not merely what happens to ideas of femininity and the feminine body under patriarchy – but are in fact reactions to other kinds of femininity enacted by other kinds of players, both elsewhere and inside the playhouses? 

This blog examines very different ‘feats of activity’, exploring female rope dancers across England and Europe. Though these depictions of femininity by different kinds of player exist on a spectrum of skilled physical labour, the insistent monumentalisation of the King’s Men’s tragic boy-actress suggests that, for this company at least, such an emphasis may in part be an act of emulation and opposition, a shaping of what happens on the commercial stages of the playing companies against other kinds of players. 

*          *          *

For early moderns, rope is a cheap, readily available material from which to create a playing space. Dancing on the rope, women enact a vertiginous femininity, occupying the vertical in a way usually reserved for deities in court masques or indoor playhouse performance. For rope-dancers, the slack rope around which they spin, the tight rope on which they jump and walk, the rope on which they screech down from the tops of towers, with fireworks strapped to their bodies is a productively simple kit that can be speedily set up and broken down.

‘A Turkish man walking a tightrope that is stretched between the campanile of St Marks in Venice and a mooring pad with winch’; c.1520-1600 (British Museum 1878,0713.4161) © Trustees of the British Museum.

Like the simple trestle stage with which Italian commedia troupe toured Europe, setting it up and breaking it down when needed, rope offers touring performers a flexible, mobile playing space in partial contrast to the institutionalised, architectural solidity and groundedness of the built or adapted playhouse – though, as Before Shakespeare has shown us, that playhouse is itself contested, often genuinely wobbly and it relied on rope for its construction and workings. Rope is a place of physical spectacle, akin to a ship’s rigging:

Palestra Noribergensis, by Peter Troschel after Johan Andreas Graff (1651): British Museum 1880,0710.512. © Trustees of the British Museum.

This image of feats of activity and rope-dancing in the fechthaus in Nuremburg from the 1650s makes sense to me of Shakespeare’s Ariel as an aerialist who ‘flamed amazement’ around the wrecked ship. Unlike the trestle stage, however, the rope is attenuated, linear and it has a distinct, crucial trajectory. 

The rope fully comes into being as a playing space with the performer’s first step out onto it. This requires not only a crossing, but also – appallingly for those of us with vertigo – a return and a dallying. Stephen Connor writes that

the most characteristic gesture of the wire-walker is, once they have apparently completed their walk, to go back out on the wire  . . .  the wire-walker aims to occupy rather than merely to penetrate space,  . . .  to thicken the infinitesimally thin itinerary of the wire into a habitat.  . . . .  . . . The dallying business of the wire-walker is to insinuate a discourse – from dis-currere, to run back and forth – with the wire.[1]  

The dancer’s return transforms the rope from a site of risk alone into a site of play and a suspension of both time and jeopardy. The rope is a stripped down, attenuated performance space activated by what Evelyn Tribble, via Tim Ingold, calls the ‘animacy’ of the gendered rope-dancing body.[2]

Rope-dancing came in several forms. If the rope was slack, cross-dressed women spun and swung around it: a black female fair booth performer from the very early eighteenth century is described as playing 

at swing-swang with a rope . . . hanging sometimes by a hand, sometimes by a leg, and sometimes by her toes.[3]

If the rope was tight, women walked, danced and leapt across it, either cross-dressed

Marcellus Laroon, The Cryes of the Citie of London (1711) © Trustees of the British Museum.

or

Adriaenvan de Venne, Tafereelvan de Belacchende Werelt(Hague, 1635) © Trustees of the British Museum.

wearing dresses supported in the vertical axis by corsets, sometimes with brays or breeches beneath. The trope of the leering Jack Pudding or simian pointing grossly up at the woman’s body becomes deeply associated with women’s enactment of this agile, flexible, risky and explosively powerful femininity which is always also an erotic exposure. 

Rope-dancing also seemed to be almost everywhere. A Bristol playbill from the early 1630s advertises, alongside a vaulting Irish boy of eight, ‘raredancing on the / Ropes, Acted by his Majesties / servants’ and includes ‘one Mayd / of fifteene years of age, and another / Girl of foure years of age [who] doe dance on / the lowe Rope’ and the younger of the two will go on to ‘turne on the Stage’. John Astington has connected the bill to the troupe led by William Vincent (aka the original Hocus Pocus) and it confidently advertises the presence of these girls – King’s Servants nonetheless and on a ‘stage’.[4]This fits the evidence for the widespread playing of feats of activity inside playhouses, as attested to by R.A. Foakes’ work on the Swan, the Hope contract of 1613 and onwards into the Red Bull during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. So, much as rope-dancing offered cover for stage-plays during the mid-seventeenth century, when plays were effectively outlawed, it could do so not because it came into the playhouses from the cold but precisely because it was already there. Richard Preiss has pointed out that plays were framed and cut across by clowning improvisation, entre-act music or interludes, epilogues and jigs, and he argues that ‘the theatrical program consisted of a medley of interstitial, interactive entertainments’ (9) – this is the play as polyvocal event.[5]In 1636, five years or so after their Bristol performance, Vincent’s troupe is recorded as paying Herbert for a license to perform in the Fortune, so we cannot easily exclude the playhouses from the list of places where the girls of this troupe might have performed. 

Another famous troupe of tumblers and rope-dancers, the Peadles, operated for about forty years from the turn of the seventeenth century and was led during the 1630s by Sisley Peadle. Tumbling troupes were organised around familial structures, and tumblers were also recorded as members of playing companies, from the Elizabethan rope-dancers of the ‘Queenes players’ in Bridgnorth in the 1590s to Abraham Peadle at the Fortune in the 1620s as a member of the Palsgrave’s Men. And, as Abraham’s name, the Irish boy in Bristol and the black rope-dancer in Southwark Fair suggest, this performance mode is deeply intertwined with racialised, othered identities, like the 16th-century Turkish rope-walkers in Venice. Marketable personas are also adopted: there are so-called Turkish rope-dancers who adopt the name but no visual signifiers of ‘Turkishness’ and a Turk –called ‘the Albion Blackamoor’ – dancing on the ropes in the Red Bull in the 1650s turns out not to be a Turk at all but a black Londoner. It’s a moment that reads like The Life of Brianand which undermines an early modern racist commonplace by setting it next to neighbourliness, community and familiarity. An ‘old Matron’ watching the Turk dance on the rope declares, ‘Sure, if he be not the Devil, the Devil begot him’; but she elicits this response: 

no truly Neighbor, quoth another Woman, I knowhim, as well as a Beggar knows his dish; hee is a Black-fryers Water-man, and his Mother is living on the Bank-side, and as I have often heard her say, Her son learnt this Art, when he was a Sea-boy, only was a little since taught some Pretty Tricks by a Jack-pudding neer Long-Lane.[6]

This account may well simply be part of the mid-century discourse of satire and newsprint and may well not be trustworthy. That said, however, the decision to reframe a seemingly exotic performer by claiming his status as a black Londoner as quotidian and unexceptional is a revealing rhetorical move. 

*          *          *

At this point, it’s probably important to acknowledge that there don’t seem to be any examples of rope-dancing in any pre-Protectorate plays. But if we have to wait for Davenant’s The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru(1658) for the first example of rope-dancing in a scripted performance, then rather than seeking the activity in the playtext, its absence instead pushes us to consider how the activity informs playing itself and the practice of the boy-actress in particular. This, like the fragmentation of the performance event inside the playhouse also breaks down the hierarchy of tragic heroine and rope-dancer. It suggests that the latter is not superfluous to or lower than the other; that she is not straining to become the other but may, in fact, be a condition for the other. 

How are we to make the move from rope-dancing into canonical drama? One way is to take seriously the performance of bodily skill and the risks that it posed to safety and bodily integrity. The text-free performance of the rope-dancer and the histrionics of the early modern player are connected by the skilful overcoming of risk. The jeopardy of the rope-dancer as she walks, leaps or swings from the tight- or slack-rope italicises the jeopardy involved in every display of acting skill, from Emilia labouring to unpin Desdemona within the duration of the Willow song, to Hermione’s virtuoso control of breath and muscle before her coup de thêatrein The Winter’s Tale(5.3). What’s more, the girl of four who ‘doth turn on the Stage’ in Bristol is a tumbler, a child of bodily turning, whose profession retains its association with other feminine turners. Both Shakespeare’s ‘Triple-turned whore’ Cleopatra (4.12.13) and Fletcher’s Quisara who ‘turns, for millions!’ (3.1.239), are protean but, in defining their hypertheatricality, we might also consider the other side of this performative metaphor, the corporeal act of turning.

*          *          *

One of the ideological successes of the first decade or so of Jacobean tragedies is the elision of the enskilled, labouring body required for the representation of femininity – crucially, those bodies are those of both the boy-actress andthe female rope-dancer and player. By looking across early modern performance culture, by considering its intersections and its distribution of skills across gender boundaries, we can begin to rethink this. The tragic boy-actress is one representative of early modern femininity, one who over-goes and resists the enactment of femininity as it was done otherwise and elsewhere.


[1]Steven Connor, ‘Man is a Rope’, in Catherine Yass Highwire, writings by Francis McKee, Steven Connor (ArtAngel: Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, 2008), no pagination. 

[2]Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Bloomsbury, Arden Shakespeare, 2017), p. 24. 

[3]Edward Ward, The London Spy (4thedition, 1709), p. 185. 

[4]John Astington, ‘Trade, taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook 71:3 (2017), 161-168. 

[5]Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 9. 

[6]Mercurius Fumigosus (30 August-6 September, 1654), p. 126. 

Engendering Before Shakespeare: Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership

This post explores the role of women in early English playhouses, drawing on Before Shakespeare research (and it also appears on the Before Shakespeare blog). Stay tuned for research posts from Engendering the Stage in the coming weeks. 

The crossovers between the research projects Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage were raised several times across the latter’s workshop residency at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in September 2018.  This “mash-up” blog brings the projects directly together.  Indeed, Engendering the Stage is planning a series of blog posts expanding on the broader research topics under its remit—and would also welcome proposals for such posts.  This particular piece gestures, briefly, to some of the cross-pollination between theatre history, performance, and the playing industry by considering just one of the points of overlap between Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage—in this case, land and property ownership related to commercial playhouses.

There are many forms of labour involved in the early modern playing industry in England: some on-stage; some immediately off- and around-stage; and some concerning the land on which stages are situated.  On the latter, much ink has been spent exploring some of the major (male) figures involved with buying land or renting property, building and converting tenements, and pulling together—through a variety of approaches—a playhouse.  

There are reasons why apparent big-hitters in the industry like James Burbage, John Brayne, and Philip Henslowe take centre stage: partly because many are chief movers behind these ambitious and unusual ventures, but also because the above narrative is based on a narrow sense of what a “playhouse” is and on who might be instrumental to its wider development and existence.  Women’s involvement in the transactions and legal exchanges that underpin playhouse ownership has been less discussed, though we are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of a host of figures central to this history. A quick survey of the evidence related to London’s diverse early commercial playing spaces suggests that women occupied a serious and significant presence in early modern playhouses.

***

Both before and after The Theatre—the amphitheatrical structure in Shoreditch—was built, plays took place in inns across London.  Andy Kesson has written on the Before Shakespeare website about these spaces and their relative neglect in theatre history narratives.  Recently, David Kathman’s expansive work on the subject has uncovered new leads, figures, and details that help us understand playhouse inns more clearly.

Map of Early Modern London showing rough locations of the inns (visit https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm for an interactive map)

Spaces such as the Bel Savage (Ludgate Hill), the Bull (Bishopsgate), the Bell (Gracechurch St.), and the Cross Keys (Gracechurch St.) were regular venues for playhouse activity—that is, for plays, for fencing prizes, and for extemporal feats and shows. A forthcoming blog on Engendering the Stage from Clare McManus will explore women’s skilled performance in such feats.   Stephen Gosson explains how he enjoyed “two prose books played at the Bel Savage” in the late 1570s (School of Abuse, 1579); in 1577, the Office of the Revels transported a presumably elaborate prop (a “counterfeit well”) from the Bell to St John’s in Clerkenwell for “the play of Cutwell” (TNA AO3/907/5); John Florio’s advice to Italian language learners answers the question, “Where shall we go?” with the appealing answer “To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place” (First Fruits,A1r [1578]); and James Burbage himself is arrested wandering (perhaps from his own playhouse) to see a play at the Cross Keys in the 1590s.

Two entries in the Society of the Masters of Defence book (British Library, Sloane MS 2530): Izake Kennard playing at the Bull (1575) and Willyam Wilkes at the Bell Savage

These were playing spaces owned and/or run by women.  Kathman explains that “three of these four inns were owned or leased by women during their time as playhouses. Margaret Craythorne owned* the Bell Savage from 1568 until her death in 1591 [*or rather likely leased it from the Cutlers’ Company, as Tracey Hill informs us], Alice Layston owned the Cross Keys from 1571 until her death in 1590, and Joan Harrison was the proprietor of the Bull from the death of her husband Matthew in 1584 to her own death in 1589” (“Alice Layston at the Cross Keys,” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 22 (2009): 144; see also Kathman’s other invaluable publications on these subjects).

Female ownership of such spaces is by no means untypical across the capital in this period, partly because widows inherited property from their husbands and thereby gained a degree of independence and business freedom they may not easily come by earlier in life.  There are numerous examples of landladies across the capital, for instance, adapting spaces and converting “alleys” into packed residential quarters.  Margaret Hawkins is repeatedly cited by the Court of Aldermen in the 1570s for having “diverse times tenants dwelling in Alleys & other places…” (REPS 17, 427v; 20 Jan. 1573).  In his misogynsitic sketch of alley owners—who monopolise food and drink sales for their alley-dwellers to create an in-house market—Henry Chettle chooses the landlady rather than the landlord to exemplify these nefarious practices (Kind-Harts Dream, 1593). 

There is a close relationship between domestic alleys and alleys adapted for recreational use—in particular bowling alleys.  Such alleys are themselves influences on the converted buildings that make up the majority of sixteenth-century playhouses. In this regard, landladies like Margaret Hawkins contribute to the development of domestic and recreational space that has significant bearing on the theatre industry.  It is perhaps no surprise, then, that three women operated the highly successful playhouse inns at the Cross Keys, the Bel Savage, and the Bull—spaces that preceded The Theatre and the Blackfriars as playing venues and continued for decades to attract paying audiences as well as diners, tipplers, and guests.  Eliding “inns” from the traditional playhouse narrative not only generates misleading notions about the antitheatrical zealousness of the “City” and limits our understanding of the contexts, architecture, and experience of playhouses, it also eclipses the role played by landladies in London’s leisure ecology.

Women also lay claim to amphitheatrical spaces.  John Brayne, co-founder of the Theatre with James Burbage, died in 1586, from which time his widow Margaret sought to exercise her rights to the building and its profits.  As well as conducting a protracted legal battle that raged on even after her death, Margaret Brayne placed herself at the doors of the Theatre in an attempt to collect playhouse entry prices directly.  A young deponent in one of the law cases, Ralph Miles, explained how he was

requested by Margaret Brayne and [his father] Robert Miles . . . to go with them to the Theater upon a play day to stand at the door that goeth up to the galleries of the said Theater to take and receive for the use of the said Margaret half the money that should be given to come up unto the said Galleries at that door.

(The National Archives, C24/228/10)

In a heated altercation, “Richard Burbage and his mother [Ellen] set upon” Miles, “with a broomstaff calling him murdering knave with other vile and unhonest words” (C24/228/10). The incident shows two women—Margaret Brayne and Ellen Burbage—laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their own agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry. 

Moreover, The Theatre was in a (somewhat enigmatic) commercial relationship with its neighbouring playhouse, The Curtain, during these years, and Margaret Brayne also laid claim in her lawsuit to half the profits of that space. The extensive documentation arising from these various Theatre-related suits shows Brayne asking the courts to take her seriously as a playhouse proprietor—and a major figure of theatrical Shoreditch; now, these records ask us to do the same.

Leases pertaining to the Curtain in the years before Margaret Brayne’s activity show that Alice German was central to the ownership of the Curtain land, which she secured for her son Mawrice Long in the late 1560s and 1570s—and there is doubtless much more to discover about these figures and their relationship, or otherwise, to the playhouse that appeared there shortly after their occupation.  

In the early 1580s, a little south of Shoreditch in London’s Blackfriars, playhouse proprietor Richard Farrant’s death bequeathed to his widow Anne “the Leaze of my howse in the blacke ffriers in London”—the site of the First Blackfriars Playhouse (1581-2). Anne proceeded to sublet this property and is herself at the centre of a series of correspondence and legal requests pertaining to the property’s use as a playhouse, which Engendering the Stage and Before Shakespeare’s Lucy Munro has been exploring.

These are just a few examples of the evidence related to women’s involvement in the theatre business in sixteenth-century London.  Their influence on the stage itself is notable—and it is noted.  Margaret Brayne theatrically performing her business claims to the Theatre gives us just one clear example of women “acting” in a playhouse.  Similarly, the inn owners who develop models for commercial playhouses in the years before Burbage and Brayne set up The Theatre leave archival traces that help provide some small detail to playhouse ownership. Doubtless, female inn owners were among those targeted by City precepts from as early as the 1540s that sought to regulate “all those in whose houses or other rowmes eny such playes or interludesshalbe made or kepte” (London Metropolitan Archives, REPS 16, Feb. 1569). 

Given the involvement of women in the commercial development and managing of playhouses, it is perhaps no surprise that the earliest surviving plays from these spaces focus on female characters and their agency and experiences.  The earliest such surviving play, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1581), is framed from the outset as an unashamedly commercial product: “Then young and old, come and behold our wares, and buy them all” (Prologue).  It explores the power, sexual and social desires, and struggles of its three title characters—Love, Conscience, and Lucre—and conjures an image in which commercial savvy and success (and greed) are embodied by a woman (and in keeping with the Burbages’ favourite theatre item, it also features broomsticks, which Lady Conscience begins to sell for a living: “New broomes, greene broomes, will you buy any…”; she reassures anybody interested in using them as weaponry: “My broomes are not steeped; but very well bound!”):  

LOVE. Tis Lucar now that rules the rout, tis she is all in all: 
Tis she that holds her head so stout, in fine tis she that works our fall [. . .]
For Lucar men come from Italy, Barbary Turky,
From Jewry: nay the Pagan himself,
Indangers his body to gape for her pelf.
They forsake mother, Prince, Country, Religion, kiffe and kin,
Nay men care not what they forsake, so Lady Lucar they win. 

(1.1.3-17)

In light of Margaret Brayne and Ellen and Richard Burbage’s episode at The Theatre, The Three Ladies of London—in which Lucre features as (among other things) a canny and well-connected businesswoman—is not wholly theatrical fantasy or allegory.  Why should it be in a play so heavily textured by realism and the workaday details of the urban world?  It was probably played in The Theatre itself and was revived in 1588 and supplied with a sequel in the years when Margaret Brayne was suing for dividends of the playhouse’s profits.  Wilson’s play should point us both to the diverse representation of female agency and desire in plays from the overlooked period of the 1580s and to the real women who owned, leased, laid claim to, and ran the very spaces in which those plays were performed.

Callan Davies