It had been a lousy couple of years for William Shakespeare. In 1593, a plague forced the closure of theatres in London. It wasn’t until October of the following year that he could get back to work—but the theatre where he held a lease was open-air, and the winter made it too cold to host any performances. The Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's theatrical company, petitioned to stage productions at an inn within the city walls of London, but the request was denied.

Then Shakespeare found out that his present theatre's landlord didn't want to extend his lease, which was set to expire in two years' time. Shakespeare was already cash-strapped; now he was facing unemployment. Things only got worse from there, as recounted in Shakespeare and the Countess by Chris Laoutaris. The book is a meticulous exploration of events that led to the construction of history's most famous theatre, the Globe.

LONDON IN TURMOIL

England in the late sixteenth century was beset with every bit of the tumult and passion found in Shakespeare's plays. The whole of Europe faced recurrences of the Black Death, which claimed thousands of lives. At home, economic doldrums, inflation, and poor harvests left tradesmen apprehensive and indignant. They eventually rioted with stunning force. Other riots would also spread across London, spawned by anti-immigration fervor. Puritanism flourished, with reformists eager to purge the relatively young Church of England of Catholic practices and influence.

None of this boded well for the theatre. The plague made large gatherings of people a deadly proposition, and the general air of social unrest meant large assemblies of commoners might quickly devolve into rebellious mobs. Plays were thus forbidden by the Lord-Mayor of London, as were "unlawful or forbidden pastimes that draw together the baser sort of people." (The Puritans hated the theatre, anyway, and would just as soon see it ended as a form of entertainment. It was a Puritan landlord, in fact, who refused to extend the lease on Shakespeare's first theatre.)

A NEW THEATRE FOR SHAKESPEARE

In 1595, James Burbage, Shakespeare's business partner, found a solution to the problems besetting the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Blackfriars district of London was established centuries earlier as a monastery for Dominican monks. After the dissolution of the monastery, the land was placed in private hands, and governed itself free of the control of the Lord-Mayor. It became a thriving area for craftsmen to ply their trade and peddle their wares, and was subsequently considered to be a very fashionable part of town.

It was perfect, in other words, for a new theatre. It was in town and exempt from the prohibitions of performances and meddling by local officials. Burbage purchased a massive, elegant theatre space. As Shakespeare and the Countess explains, it was a more genteel structure than Shakespeare's previous theatre, and

a sense of exclusivity and intimacy predominated. A row of chandeliers set with blazing candles would bathe the galleries and stage in a mysterious glow, an awe-inspiring effect amplified by the high windows, which were, as another source tells us, "wrought as [in] a church." The artificial lighting also meant that the atmosphere in each production could be more precisely controlled, lending a further dimension to the play-going experience.

The stage was equipped for cutting edge special-effects. Trap doors allowed "actors and props to make sudden dramatic entrances" and winches and hidden chambers above allowed "gods and spirits to descend from the celestial regions." 

The renovations cost nearly as much as the land, but it was a surefire investment, promising a well-heeled audience willing to pay a small fortune for tickets. Nobody, however, counted on an intervention by Dowager Countess Elizabeth Russell.

THE COUNTESS

Elizabeth was one of the most educated women in the country. She was a poet, a spy, a renowned designer of funerary monuments, and a first rate translator. She was a cunning investor and businesswoman and a shrewd political operator. She suffered terrible tragedies—the sudden deaths of husbands and young children—and held her life together almost as if by sheer determination. She was one of the most well-connected women in England.

She was also a strident Puritan. Contrary to the dour, cartoonish portrait that survives today, in their heyday, young Puritans were “confident, and brash ... too nonchalant to remove their hats respectfully in the company of their superiors.” They dressed the part, with “unseemly ruffs at their hands,” ostentatious breeches, and knit stockings “too fine for scholars.” They were malcontents, and ever eager to stir their fellow radicals into a frenzy. Their goal was to purify the church, and they wrote and translated books and gave fiery public sermons to bring people to their cause.

Elizabeth was as radical as the best of them. Her objections to the looming opening of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theatre was not rooted in religion, however. It was more a matter of geography. The buildings of Blackfriars were densely clustered, and Elizabeth’s home was two minutes from the theatre. Already she had endured months of construction. Once the theatre opened, its crowds would be her crowds. Its noise would be her noise. Quarrels among theatregoers would be quarrels at her front door. A requirement for the district to remain free of governance by the city of London was that landowners maintained all properties themselves. Elizabeth, who knew how to incite agitation (whether through rhetoric or coercion) wouldn’t have much trouble explaining to her neighbors why a popular theatre would be ruinous to the Blackfriars community. The wear and tear on buildings caused by increased traffic would come out of their pockets. Outbreaks of the plague would be at their doorsteps. The theatre had to be stopped.

The centerpiece of her campaign against Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theatre was a petition eventually sent to the Queen’s advisors. Thirty residents signed it, including Richard Field, Shakespeare’s publisher and neighbor from boyhood. It was “one of the most astounding acts of betrayal in theatrical history.” Field’s motives were many: His landlord opposed the theatre; he was a political aide to an ally of Elizabeth; and he held a post at a church funded by Elizabeth’s daughters. Taken together, betraying Shakespeare was a lot easier than standing by the side of an old friend.

Shakespeare and his theatrical company were thus expelled from their new Blackfriars theatre before opening night, and were facing financial doom.

WITHIN THIS WOODEN O

In 1598, the Chamberlain’s Men armed themselves with swords and axes and stormed their original open-air theatre. Though the lease for the land had not been extended, they believed that the materials they used to build the theatre were theirs. They tore the place down, inflicting on those who would stop them “great violence.” The wooden beams and material recovered would be used for the construction of a new theatre: The Globe. Rather than build in a wealthy area well-stocked with Puritans, this time they’d try the other direction. The Bankside was outside of the city of London, in “an area of bear-baitings, brothels, and bawdy entertainments.”

The Globe would quickly become a great success.

As for the sorry state of theatre in the London proper, Laoutaris points to this exchange in Hamlet, in which Shakespeare, professionally exiled from the city, offers his appraisal:

HAMLET:
How chances it they [theatrical players] travel? Their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways. 

ROSENCRANTZ:
I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation. 

HAMLET:
Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? Are they so followed? 

ROSENCRANTZ:
No, indeed are they not. 

HAMLET:
How comes it? Do they grow rusty?

ROSENCRANTZ:
Nay, their endeavor keeps in the wonted pace. But there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases [young hawks], that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for’t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages—so they call them—that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.