Ben Jonson’s Oberon, the Fairy Prince (1611): designs by Inigo Jones. The style and staging of plays changed with the move to “indoors” theatres such as Blackfriars.


As in a Theatre the Eies of Men

Since the doors of the playhouses were shut for eighteen months, from the summer of 1608, it may seem a strange time for the King’s Men to be engaged in a very expensive theatrical speculation. Nevertheless at the beginning of August 1608, just when the theatres had closed down, Shakespeare and six of his colleagues leased the Blackfriars Theatre for a period of twenty-one years. The Children of the Chapel Royal had been disbanded, after a particularly contentious production that had scandalised the French Ambassador, and so their venue was available for hire.

Each “sharer” among the King’s Men paid a seventh part of the annual rent of £40 to Cuthbert Burbage. There was also the cost of necessary repairs. Very little had been done during the last years of the childrens’ occupancy, and the playhouse “ran far into decay for want of reparations.”1 It may have seemed a tempting prospect, but the King’s Men must also have had great faith in the long-term financial health of the London drama. It may be that they were also trying to circumvent the ban on public playing at a time of plague by using a “private” playhouse; there is a note of a reward from the king in January 1609 “for their private practise in the time of infeccon.”2 This suggests that they did perform plays, under the cover that they were rehearsing for the court dramas of the Christmas season.

Their purchase is in any case a measure of the supremacy of the King’s Men in the London theatre. No adult company had ever leased an indoors theatre, and no adult company had ever before played within the walls of the city. The playhouse was in a wealthy and respectable neighbourhood, too, close to the playgoing members of the Inns of Court. Ben Jonson lived here as did Shakespeare’s friend, Richard Field; it was also a haven of painters’ studios and the workshops of feather-makers. It is also worth observing that no other company had ever boasted the proprietorship of two theatres, or extended itself to the purchase of an indoors “winter” theatre and an outdoors “summer” theatre. As it turned out, the financial gamble of the new “sharers” paid off, and their profit at the Blackfriars playhouse was almost twice that of their profit from the Globe.

The cost of a token at the Blackfriars playhouse was 6 pence for the gallery, contrasted with a penny or 2 pence for the Globe. A shilling purchased a bench in the pit, closer to the level of the stage, and a half-crown bought a box. Gallants and devotees could hire a stool and sit upon the stage for 2 shillings; this was a habit apparently detested by the actors themselves, for obvious reasons, but it seems to have made economic sense. There was no standing room. Yet the Blackfriars Theatre had attractions of its own. Its use of music, in a closed space, was more elaborate. It had indoor illumination, with candles or torches, and was much more appropriate for formal and masque-like effects. The candles were hung from candelabra which could be lowered for “mending” or trimming, but for afternoon performances the windows allowed natural light to enter the proceedings. There was no curtain and there were no “footlights”; the auditorium was as brightly illuminated as the stage.

It has often been suggested that Shakespeare’s dramaturgy changed after the removal to the Blackfriars Theatre, and that he increased the spectacular and the ritual elements of his drama. It is an interesting supposition but of course his use of Blackfriars postdates the highly ritualistic Pericles, which was performed at the Globe; it should also be remembered that in subsequent years his drama was to be seen at the Globe as well as at Blackfriars. There was no sudden or wholesale change in his art. Yet he was a skilful and professional man of the stage, and he made some alterations for the production of his plays in the private theatre. It is even possible that he added songs and music to old “favourites” such as Macbeth. The intimacy of the new theatre, which held some seven hundred spectators instead of the thousands at the Globe, may also have prompted him to make some changes in action and in dialogue. Many of these changes were not noted in the published versions of the plays, and are thus irrecoverable.

The King’s Men also now commissioned from other dramatists plays that were more suitable for the smaller space of Blackfriars. From this time forward, for example, most of Ben Jonson’s dramas were written for the company. Jonson’s success as a writer of court masques, and his previous career as the writer of plays for the children’s company, made him eminently suitable for the more refined audiences of the indoor playhouse. He wrote The Alchemist for this audience, succeeded by plays such as Catiline and The Magnetic Lady. At this juncture, also, the King’s Men employed the play-writing skills of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher; they had written all their plays for the private theatres, and were obvious candidates for the Blackfriars stage. Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare in the older dramatist’s final works. It may in fact have been Shakespeare who discerned his talent and urged his colleagues to hire him. Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster bears a striking resemblance to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, but it is not clear which came first. The important point, however, is that they were both written for the conditions of the new theatre. Indeed in later years the King’s Men would become associated with, and identified by, the Blackfriars playhouse as their principal centre of operations.

There is one other change that is associated with the use of indoor playhouses. From 1609 onwards the plays of the King’s Men were divided into acts and intervals. Earlier dramas, when published after this date, have also been artificially divided into acts. It had become the new convention, dependent entirely upon the new conditions of the indoors playhouse where musical interludes became more significant; there was also the necessity of trimming the candles, for which the interval gave a convenient opportunity. Intervals had in any case already been introduced into the performances at court and at the Inns. They had become the token of a more “polite” attitude towards the experience of play-going. They were the fashion.

It is only to be expected that Shakespeare himself accepted the theatrical innovation in his last plays, and that he handled it expertly. He even revised the structure of some of his earlier plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear, in order to accommodate the use of acts; in the latter case, particularly, he used the opportunity of restaging to make large revisions to the play itself. But there is no clear or general transformation. All of his subsequent plays could have been performed either at the Globe or at Blackfriars.

Coriolanus may be a case in point. It is a play that seems naturally to form itself into acts, and the sound of cornets is demanded on two occasions. Cornets were generally supplied in private playhouses. But Coriolanus also calls for trumpets, a Globe speciality, and some of the play’s staging would suggest the larger arena of the public playhouse. So he composed it with both stages in mind. There were other Roman plays in the period, Sejanus and Catiline among them, but no one had previously treated the theme of Coriolanus, the Roman nobleman who refused to co-operate with the plebeians, and was exiled from the city only to return with an enemy army. Shakespeare had known the story from his schoolboy reading, and invoked the name of Coriolanus in the very early play of Titus Andronicus. He was one of the figures of Shakespeare’s imagination. Shakespeare found the general story in North’s translation of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, one of his most constantly used and prolific source-books. By curious chance a paper survives, noting that a copy of North’s translation was borrowed from the library of Ferdinando Stanley; it was loaned to one “Wilhelmi” by Ferdinando’s wife, Alice, and returned in 1611.

Shakespeare proceeded to intensify the drama of Plutarch’s central characters. There is a spareness in the language that is reminiscent of Julius Caesar, another Roman play in which a mighty figure is raised and pulled down. There are passages, however, where he seems undecided between verse and prose; in the cauldron of creation, they were indistinguishable. He had also become more interested in the theatrical possibilities of a particular flaw or weakness in character, whether amorousness in Antony or pride in Coriolanus. Yet as with all of Shakespeare’s most important figures, Coriolanus is conceived in ambiguity. The rules or standards of interpretation are never clear, and there is no possibility of any final judgement. Like his maker, he remains opaque. He exists; he sings his high chant; and then he is ended.

Yet the play is affected by all the pressures of the time. The great insurrection in the Midlands of the previous year had been bloodily suppressed, but the summer of 1608 was marked by dearth and famine. On 2 June the king issued “A Proclamation for the preuenting and remedying of the dearth of Graine, and other Victuals” but it had only limited effectiveness. The people were starving from want of bread, and it is not at all surprising that the first scene of Coriolanus concerns the plight of the Roman citizens who are “all resolu’d rather to dy then to famish.” The first citizen declares that they must “revenge this with our Pikes, ere we become Rakes. For the Gods know, I speake this in hunger for Bread, not in thirst for Reuenge”(19-22). Yet it would be wrong to consider Shakespeare as fundamentally sympathetic to their cause. In Coriolanus the crowd is portrayed as fickle and ever changeable, as light and as variable as the wind. In what seems to be an unconscious token of his attitude Shakespeare writes the stage-direction, “Enter a rabble of Plebeians.” They are contrasted with the Roman nobles who in a fit of anachronism he calls “all the Gentry.” The tribunes of the people are not treated by Shakespeare with any great respect, either. His opinion was shared by King James, who castigated the parliamentarians who failed to pass his expenses as “Tribunes of the people, whose mouths could not be stopped.”3 As a servant of the king, too, Shakespeare could not be seen to condone insurrection or rebellion. All of his instincts would in any case have been against it. He could draw attention to the plight of the poorer people without bread, while at the same time firmly withholding assent from their campaign of violence. That is what happens in Coriolanus.

There are other significant aspects to the play’s topicality. The first citizen launches a direct assault upon hoarding, and upon those who “Suffer vs to famish, and their Store-houses cramm’d with Graine”(76–77). It so happens that Shakespeare himself had already been noted for the storage of 80 bushels of malt at New Place, as we have seen, and there is no reason to doubt that he continued to store or hoard quantities of corn or malt. So through the irate voice of the first citizen he adverts to himself. It is a most extraordinary act of theatrical impersonality, suggesting very forcefully that his imagination was not violated by sentiment of any kind. He could even see himself without fellow feeling. When it is also noticed that some of the charges against the Midlands rioters are here replicated as charges against the nobleman, Coriolanus, then we realise that the events of the day have been displaced and reordered in an immense act of creative endeavour. Everything is changed. It is not a question of impartiality, or of refusing to take sides. It is a natural and instinctive process of the imagination. It is not a matter of determining where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie, weighing up the relative merits of the people and the senatorial aristocracy. It is a question of recognising that Shakespeare had no sympathies at all. There is no need to “take sides” when the characters are doing it for you.

Which is as much as to say that his sympathies, such as they were, lay entirely with the unfolding of the drama. It might even be suggested that the food riots at the beginning of the play (not present in the source, which merely describes the popular clamour of the Romans against usury) may simply have been Shakespeare’s way of arresting the attention of his audience. It was a way of allowing them access to the world of ancient Rome. It was a way of gaining their imaginative assent by presenting something topical and familiar. Certainly the theme of dearth disappears from the gathering drama. Once it had achieved its purpose, it was forgotten. It is an important token of Shakespeare’s true response to the world, which may well have been one of utter calmness and even of disinterest.

It has sometimes been surmised that he treats Coriolanus himself with a respect not untinged with admiration. He seems to be aware of his follies but forgives them for the sake of the character he presents to the audience. And that is the important point. The dramatist is intent upon presenting a character of power. Individual power is theatrical. Power misused and abused is also dramatic. Coriolanus is a thing of power; when he ceases to be that, he ceases to exist. That is the only reason Shakespeare chose him out of Plutarch. In a very interesting essay on Coriolanus William Hazlitt asserts that “the imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty … which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion.” Thus poetry puts “the one above the infinite many, might before right.”4 So the position of Coriolanus, reviled by the mass and exiled from Rome only to vow a terrible vengeance, is infinitely dramatic and elicits from Shakespeare some of his finest poetry.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!