My Sallad Dayes

Within a few years Lord Strange’s Men had acquired an enviable reputation. This can be measured by the fact that when Leicester’s Men were disbanded, on that nobleman’s death in 1588, many of the players chose to join Strange’s Men. They had good material with which to work. Two of Shakespeare’s earliest plays were already part of the repertoire. We can trace some of their tours in this early period—Coventry in 1584, Beverley in 1585, and Coventry again in 1588—and their likely London venues are well known. In the 1580s, with Shakespeare as one of their number, they played at the Cross Keys Inn, the Theatre and the Curtain. The eclipse of the Queen’s Men after 1588 helped Lord Strange’s Men rise to eminence, and by 1590 they were sometimes acting jointly with the Admiral’s Men as the paramount companies of the period. This meant that they had also acquired the services of Edward Alleyn, the prime actor of the Admiral’s Men and already regarded as the great tragedian of the period. It was he who made such a success of Marlowe’s plays, having taken the leading parts in Tamburlaine, the Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus. Since he acted with Shakespeare, and may have played Talbot in King Henry VI as well as the title role in Titus Andronicus, his acting style is of some interest.

He was very tall, and at a height of over 6 feet towered over contemporaries who were on average 6 inches shorter than their counterparts in the twenty-first century. As a result he was very striking, and excelled in what were known as “majesticall” parts; Ben Jonson alluded to him at a later date in Discoveries with references to “scenicall strutting and furious vociferation.” His role in Tamburlaine, for example, became a byword for “passionate” or “stalking” action—a success all the more remarkable because he was only twenty-one at the time. Nashe said of him that “not Roscius and Aesop, those tragedians admired before Christ was born, could ever perform more in action than famous Ned Allen.”1 He was in the tradition of non-naturalistic acting, grand and exaggerated. He could, in the phrase of the time, tear a cat upon the stage. It is likely that Shakespeare condemned his style in the words of Hamlet, where “it offends mee to the soule, to heare a robustious perwigpated fellowe tere a passion to totters, to very rags … it out Herods Herod” (1736-7); and indeed Alleyn was better suited to Kyd or to Marlowe. Shakespeare worked much more successfully with Richard Burbage; Burbage was a tragic actor who may have rendered character and feeling with less circumstance and, as it were, subdued himself to his parts. But it would be unwise and unhistorical to draw too broad a distinction between the two actors. Both were conventionally compared to Proteus for their ability to assume a part, and Elizabethan acting was never—and never could have been—“naturalistic” in the contemporary sense. It was always in part a rhetorical performance. The playhouses exhibited the art of speech. The twin reputations of Burbage and Alleyn also throw an interesting light on the larger conditions of the theatre. The 1570s and the 1580s had been the decades of the comic actors, Tarlton and Kempe principal among them, while the 1590s and early 1600s witnessed the rise of the tragic actor as a symbol of Elizabethan drama itself.

In 1590 the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men had come to some reciprocal arrangement whereby the Admiral’s performed at the Theatre and Strange’s at the adjacent Curtain. In plays that required a large number of performers, they acted together in one or the other of the playhouses which were both now owned by James Burbage. In the following season of 1591-2 the joint company was commanded to perform six times at court. Since Lord Strange was related to the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, there may have been some prejudice in their favour. But they could not have been a disappointment; they returned to court in the following Christmas season, with three separate performances. We have a picture, then, of the young Shakespeare acting before the queen. Among the other twenty-seven actors in Lord Strange’s company, and thus Shakespeare’s colleagues, were Augustine Phillips, Will Sly, Thomas Pope, George Bryan, Richard Cowley and of course Burbage himself. The remarkable fact is that all of these actors worked with Shakespeare for the rest of his life, and that their names are appended to the First Folio of his work published in 1623. They eventually joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Company with him, and stayed within it. It is a plausible supposition that they formed a small body of talent that remained relatively stable in very difficult circumstances. Shakespeare was loyal to them, remembering some of them in his will, and they remained loyal to him.

The titles of some of their early plays have survived, and we can assume that the young Shakespeare at some point acted in such popular dramas as The Seven Deadly Sins, A Knack to Know a Knave, Friar Bacon, Orlando Furioso and Muly Molloco. There is a “plot” or stage précis of one of these plays, The Seven Deadly Sins, in which many of the actors are named—among them Pope, Phillips, Sly and Burbage. There is also a stray reference to the actors who played female parts—among them Nick, Robert, Ned and Will. “Will” is interesting. It may seem implausible that an actor, now in his mid-twenties, would play a female role; but it is not inconceivable. It is, in any case, intriguing.

In these early years Shakespeare’s relationship with Lord Strange himself may have been amplified by a poem. “The Phoenix and Turtle” has puzzled many critics and scholars with its recondite meaning and esoteric vocabulary; but its purpose has also proved perplexing. It is not known to whom it is addressed or upon what occasion. It might have been written for Lord Strange’s sister upon her marriage in 1586.2 If that is indeed the case, then the young dramatist’s relationship with this noble family was equivalent to that of a household poet. It has sometimes been suggested that Lord Strange himself directly commissioned Shakespeare to compose the cycle of history plays, as a tribute to Elizabeth and the nation equally. Shakespeare, in his historical narratives, awarded Lord Stanley’s ancestors with notably patriotic and benevolent roles. Lord Strange’s relatives, the Stanleys and the Derbys, are prominent in all three parts of Henry VI; in Richard III the victorious Henry Bolingbroke is crowned by the Earl of Derby. The praise of Clifford in Henry VI, for example, may well be a reflection of the fact that Lord Strange was the son of Margaret Clifford. What better way of acknowledging a patron?

It is not at all clear, however, when Shakespeare began writing these histories, or when he embarked upon comedies such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and melodramas such as Titus Andronicus. Biographers and scholars have argued over these dates for years, if not for centuries, and there is still no agreement. The theatrical records of this period are notoriously imprecise and muddled. The provenance and ownership of early plays are notoriously difficult to prove. Companies of players owned certain plays, as did the managers of the London theatres. There was a great deal of movement between companies, and actors sometimes brought plays with them. Companies also sold plays to one another.

Various inferior plays have been ascribed to Shakespeare as juvenile work, written when he first became acquainted with the stage. Other, more mature, plays have been described as later versions of his apprentice work. Perhaps his first plays have simply disappeared, lost in the voracious maw of time and forgetfulness. Certain surviving plays bear traces of the young Shakespeare’s additions and interpolations. In his first years he may have worked as a reviser of botched or incomplete plays. He may simply have revived old plays by adding new colour. There may, in other words, be a great deal more Shakespeare than is currently included in scholarly editions. Did he collaborate with other dramatists? It is impossible to tell. In his early years he may not even have been particularly “Shakespearian.”

The supposition must be that he began to write long before he came to London—poetry, if not drama, came instinctively and easily to him. Given the large number of plays that have been ascribed to him, it is also fair to assume that he began writing drama soon after first joining the theatre as an actor. His earliest known plays are so expert in construction and so plausible in speech that it is hard to believe that they represent the first exercise of his pen, adept though that pen was. There are certain early plays that may be in part or in whole his work. There was an early version of Hamlet, and perhaps of Pericles. There are other plays which bear the unmistakable impress of Shakespeare’s imagination, Edmund Ironside and Edward the Third. They are well shaped and confident, with a steady mastery of the verse line and a fine ear for invective and declamation. They lack the Shakespearian timbre or tone, but even Shakespeare had to begin somewhere. And there are the strangest moments of recognition—of half-familiar cadences and half-shaped images—as if the shadow of Shakespeare had passed over the page. Textual analysis also suggests that The Troublesome Raigne of King John and Edmund Ironside were both written by the same person, a “young writer, glowing but dimly in the predawn darkness of Elizabethan drama, just before the morning stars sung together.”3 There is one other question that has never satisfactorily been laid to rest. Who else could have written them?

Their inclusion in any list of tentative Shakespearian titles is not surprising, since in many instances they represent the germ or seed from which his more recognisable plays emerge. Nor is it inconceivable that he revised his apprentice work at a later date. It is generally accepted that he continued to revise his plays all his life, keeping in mind the demands of performance and contemporaneity. The suggestion has been rejected by some editors and textual scholars, on the very good grounds that it would make their task of publishing a “definitive” edition of any play quite impossible. But there is every reason to believe that the plays currently available in print offer only a provisional version of the plays actually performed.

So we see Shakespeare attending the plays of John Lyly and George Peek as well as watching the first performances of Tamburlaine. He knew The Spanish Tragedy very well. He was all too aware of Marlowe’s brilliant success. Contemporary literature was also around him. The manuscript of the first three books of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was in London, and the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles had just been published. If he now felt impelled to write for the stage, all these sources and influences were at hand. We also have the alleged “early” plays by Shakespeare that, at a conservative estimate, account for three years of his writing. Indeed they all fall within the period 1587 to 1590. During this period, too, the pamphleteer Robert Greene mounted a number of attacks upon an unnamed dramatist, whom he considered to be both unlearned and a plagiarist of other men’s styles. Who was that particular dramatist?

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