“ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE” – are the plaques the actors?
Attached to the side of the former “Tudor Tea Rooms” at the entrance to Russell Square, in the High Street, is adorned the plaque to William Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men. It reads,
THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN’S MEN
PERFORMED IN THE COURTYARD
OF THE WHITE HART
THROUGH THIS ARCHWAY
IN THE 1590’S
“ALL THE WORLD’S
The impression is given that if Shakespeare had come to Marlborough he would have taken tea in the “Tudor Tea Rooms”. The image implies that the Marlborough of Shakespeare’s time was not very different from the Marlborough of today at least as far as the picturesque is concerned. Marlborough must have been middle class and full of literary connections for Shakespeare to come here. That is the hidden message on the plaque. The past is seen here as a kind of inverted continuation of the present. It flows backwards and, through doing so, visualises a past Marlborough with the same presented images of gentility and cultured sensitivity as is currently being seen to be presented in the town. Retrospective projection of the ethos of the blue plaque and the “Tudor Tea Rooms” serves to illustrate the sameness of the present with the past so that the images, engendered by the plaques, appear to be a natural and authentic representation of Marlborough’s character.
The facts, however, are very different. It is known that the Chamberlain’s Men toured in 1596 and 1597. It is also known that the company toured in August and September 1597 in Faversham, Rye, Dover, Bristol, Bath, and Marlborough; probably in that order. Payment of 6s 8d was given to the company by Marlborough Corporation. The reason for this tour is clear. On 28th July 1597 all London theatres were closed because of a scandal brought about by a play called “The Isle of Dogs” that had been performed at the Rose theatre. There was an intention by the Privy Council to raze the London theatres to the ground but, in fact, this did not happen and the theatres were reopened on 11th October. The trouble meant that stage players had to travel in order to reach audiences that could keep their companies going. These strollers, as they were known, took to touring when there were bad outbreaks of the plague in London but touring did not happen very often because of the practical transport problems and associated costs. The players had to attract large audiences to make money. Their visits to Bristol with an estimated population of 12,000 (London, 200,000) would have made some sense, but visits to Marlborough with an estimated population of 2 to 3,000 would have been economically nonsensical. The obvious reason why they came here was, like Pepys, as a stop en route from Bristol and Bath to London and vice versa. Certainly the Chamberlain’s Men did not come to Marlborough for any literary reasons or for an appreciative and cultured audience. There is evidence that Marlborough audiences were hard work. Stage plays were actually banned by the Town Corporation in 1602 because of violence and damage done both by the players and their audience. An item in the Chamberlain’s Accounts for March 28th 1601 reads,
Received of the stage players, March 28th, towards mending of the table board and glass windows of the Guildhall, 3s.
Comparisons can be made with football hooliganism today. The occasion of a visiting stage playing company was one of potential trouble. Yet, according to Peter Davison, more companies visited Marlborough than Bristol or Bath. He argues that the performing en route argument is an inadequate explanation and that the real reason why Marlborough was so frequently visited, even after the trouble at the Guildhall, was through the patronage of the Earl of Hertford and the Countess of Pembroke. He writes,
It might be argued – it has been – that small places such as Marlborough would be simply visited en route. We don’t have records for all those towns in 1597, but we do for many: Maidstone, Canterbury, Folkestone (a very popular venue), Lydd, and New Romney. Not one mentions a visit by the Shakespeare and his colleagues. Then, concentrating on Marlborough, Bath, and Bristol, I discovered a curious fact. More companies visited Marlborough (37) than either Bristol (31) or Bath (29) in a period of fifty years up to the closure of the theatres in 1642. Even more curious, even though Marlborough could afford to give so much less to visiting companies than Bath or Bristol, only two companies in fifty years visited all three towns, one being Shakespeare’s company in 1597, and only seven companies visited both Bath and Bristol, although they are only thirteen miles apart and the journey could be made by river. There clearly had to be a special reason for so many companies visiting such a small town as Marlborough. So, another question – why? It is impossible to be sure, but the answer may be hinted at from the year companies stopped coming to Marlborough: 1622. The Earl of Hertford then had a castle at Marlborough, its site now occupied by Marlborough College. Hertford had his own company of players and thirty miles away lived that great patroness of the arts in Elizabethan times, the Countess of Pembroke; the Pembrokes also had an acting company. Both Hertford and the Countess died in 1621, and Marlborough town fought for the Commonwealth in the Civil War and so, temperamentally, may have been opposed to drama. That combination could have been enough to ensure a chilly reception for travelling players after 1621.
It would seem, then, that the townspeople were not too keen on these strollers. The 6s 8d, recorded as being given to the Chamberlain’s company, was a pitiable sum out of the total amount of payments of £59 3s 11d for that year. Without substantial patronage, Marlborough could not economically have been visited, even en route.
Marlborough’s presented connection with Shakespeare’s company is false and spurious. The company came to Hertford’s house rather than the “Hart”. The company’s performance in the inn-yard was a sop to the people of the town. The town corporation spent £2 12s 5d on sugar loaves for the Earl of Hertford in 1597, eight times more than on the stage players. That the stage players performed at all in the town itself, rather than the Earl’s house, could be seen as a public- spirited act of benevolence on the part of the Earl. The violent behaviour exhibited at stage plays in the town could readily be seen as signs of the Earl’s unpopularity; discontent being expressed through his hirelings.