There were innumerable inns where he could have lodged, on his first arrival in London. The Bell Inn, in Carter Lane by St. Paul’s Cathedral, was the inn used by such Stratfordians as William Greenaway, but it is just as likely that he stayed with a fellow countryman who had been approached in advance. The Quineys or the Sadlers may even have written for him letters of introduction to friends or relatives in the city; Bartholomew Quiney, for example, was a rich cloth-maker who had settled in the capital. It is even possible that he stayed with his friend Richard Field; but Field was still an apprentice, and may not have been able to offer suitable accommodation.
His first employment was in the theatre, but it is not clear in what capacity. His earliest biographer states that “he made his first Acquaintance in the Play-house … in a very mean Rank.”1 This has been variously construed as meaning that he became a prompter, a call-boy, a porter or a patcher-up of other men’s plays. It could also imply that he began as a young actor or “hired man.” The tradition in Stratford itself was of the same import. A visitor to the town in 1693 records that “the clerke who shew’d me this church is above eighty years old” and that this old man recalled how the young Shakespeare had gone to London “and there was received into the play-house as a serviture.”2
A lineal descendant of Joan Shakespeare, the poet’s sister, stated “that Shakespeare owed his rise in life, and his introduction to the theatre, to his accidentally holding the horse of a gentleman at the door of the theatre on his first arriving in London; his appearance led to enquiry and subsequent patronage.”3 This sounds too good to be true. But flesh was added to these bones in the eighteenth century by Samuel Johnson, who repeated the story that the young Shakespeare earned his living by holding the horses of theatrical patrons. In The Plays of William Shakespeare, published in 1765, he added the information that many such patrons “came on horseback to the play” and when Shakespeare arrived in London “his first expedient was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those who had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance. In this office he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will Shakespear.”4 It is true that two of the earliest theatres, the Theatre and the Curtain, were best reached on horseback. But the only real evidence for this claim lies in the fact that Shakespeare did indeed know a great deal about horses and could distinguish a Neapolitan from a Spaniard; he even knew the slang of the horse-yard. Since horses were the primary means of transport, however, that knowledge was widely shared. There are other reasons for Shakespeare’s interest in horsemanship; it was considered to be an intrinsic part of gentlemanly and especially noble conduct.
The authority of Samuel Johnson was not, in any event, sufficient to sway other commentators. The Shakespearian scholar and editor Edmond Malone stated that “there is a stage tradition that his first office in the theatre was that of Call-boy or prompter’s attendant; whose employment it is to give the performers notice to be ready to enter.”5
There is no reason to suppose that a “call-boy,” if such a post existed, or a horse-minder would automatically rise very high in the theatrical profession. Common sense suggests that he was hired as an actor, in which capacity he later emerges in the public record. By this time acting was a profession to which it was customary to become informally “apprenticed.” Certainly it required an intense and specific training, in the arts of deportment and vocal technique as well as swordsmanship, memory and dancing. There are two principal candidates for the honour of first employing him, the Queen’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men. Some of the earliest versions of his plays were the property of the Queen’s Men, as we have observed, and it is likely that he joined them for a limited period. He may well have been looking around for the best possible opportunities, in any case, and moved from company to company. There is evidence that he joined Lord Strange’s Men, perhaps as early as 1588. Certain juvenile plays of his were also performed by that company. They were established in Lancashire, and we may conjecture that he was taken on by players who already knew or recognised his abilities.
Lord Strange—Ferdinando Stanley, later the fifth Earl of Derby—was one of the wealthiest and most influential of the English nobility. The earls of Derby, whose family name was Stanley, based their power in Lancashire. Henry VII, to whom Lord Strange was related, had modelled his palace at Richmond upon the Stanley castle at Lathom. Strange had his own court, retinue and, of course, players. It is known that he delighted in drama, and that he witnessed the last performance of the Chester mystery cycle. Even though the presentation of these religious plays had been banned by official interdict, since they were considered too close to the dramatic rituals of the old faith, the mayor of Chester ordained in 1577 a special production for the grandees “at the hie Crosse.”6 It is an indication of Lord Strange’s affinity with the old faith and suggests, too, that for him drama was more than mere tumbling. His own players were no doubt largely occupied in performing at one or another of the various great houses of the Stanleys in Lancashire, which is where the young Shakespeare, in service with the Hoghtons or the Heskeths, is likely to have encountered them.
Lord Strange was only five years older than Shakespeare, and from a relatively early age gained a reputation for learning and for artistry. In Colin-Clout’s Come Home Again (442-3), a poem in which Shakespeare himself is mentioned, Edmund Spenser refers both to Lord Strange’s munificent patronage and to his native abilities:
Both did he other, which could pipe, maintaine,
And eke could pipe himself with passing skill.
It is not at all unlikely that he might have spotted the superlative talents of young Shakespeare.
Lord Strange has also been associated with a group of noblemen and scholars who have become known as “the school of night.” It met at Sir Walter Raleigh’s London dwelling, Durham House, and included among its members Raleigh himself, the Earl of Northumberland, George Chapman, George Peele, Thomas Heriot, John Dee and perhaps even Christopher Marlowe. This esoteric group of projectors and speculators engaged in discussion of sceptical philosophy, mathematics, chemistry and navigation. They were taunted with atheism and blasphemy, but they were in effect part of the speculative and adventurous spirit of the period in which mathematics and occultism were seen as aspects of the same great design. Shakespeare possibly alludes to them in Love’s Labour’s Lost, a play that was written as a kind of “in-house” entertainment. Although he was not a member of the “school of night,” he knew its purposes.
Lord Strange had been a contemporary of the precocious and witty playwright John Lyly, at Oxford, and numbered among his acquaintance what might be called a theatrical “set.” Christopher Marlowe claimed to be “very well known” to him.7 This is not hard to believe, since Lord Strange’s Men performed Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris. Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless praised Strange as “this renowned Lord, to whom I owe the utmost powers of my love and duty.” Strange was also well acquainted with Thomas Kyd, whose The Spanish Tragedy was part of his players’ repertoire. Since versions of Shakespeare’s plays also became part of that repertoire, we may safely conclude that there is some connection between these playwrights. It seems likely that Shakespeare acted in The Jew of Malta and The Spanish Tragedy. He was part of the same group.
It was perhaps a chance of cultural history that this particular collection of young men arose in the same period, and became dedicated to the same new profession. There are other parallels to this sudden burst of efflorescence and magnificent achievement—among English poets, for example, in the late fourteenth century and in the late eighteenth century. In the popular imagination Shakespeare stands alone and inviolable among his contemporaries—quiet, gentle, modest, perhaps rather retiring. But is the popular imagination altogether correct? Instead we will begin to see him as part of a competitive and restless world, where the palm was awarded to the shrewdest, the most energetic and the most persevering.
Strange was also considered to be Catholic or crypto-Catholic, and around him grew a network of suspicion, espionage and intrigue. In 1593 Richard Hesketh delivered a letter to Strange, by then Earl of Derby, asking him to stand as leader of a plot against the queen; Strange surrendered Hesketh to the authorities, but died suddenly in the following year. His unexpected death was popularly ascribed to witchcraft or to poisoning. Is it any wonder that Shakespeare steered clear of contemporary factions and quarrels?