Shakespeare and Traveling Players



Like every other Shakespeare scholar, I have dreamed of finding a new piece of evidence to add to our frustratingly sketchy portrait of the Bard. Late on a summer afternoon of fruitless searching in formulaic and repetitive documents at the Hampshire Record Office, after a pleasant but too large lunch at the Wykeham Arms, my thoughts have drifted to discovering, let’s say, a misplaced page from the 1610 diary of Sir Richard Paulet of Herriard and Freefolk, Hampshire. In that diary, Paulet recounts the debates in the Parliament of that year, the sermons he attended at Paul’s Cross, and even the details of the costumes worn by the participants in a tilt at Whitehall (HRO: 44M69/F2/15/1). What if Shakespeare’s patron, the earl of Southampton, had invited Paulet down to the earl’s house at Titchfield to see a performance of Shakespeare’s latest play, The Tempest? Paulet would surely have described the costumes, telling us something about how Shakespeare saw Ariel and Caliban. And perhaps Paulet would have commented on Shakespeare’s mention of a shipwreck near Bermuda, thinking it a subtle reference to the earl’s interest in the New World as a member of the Virginia Company. But of course these thoughts are the product of an over-active scholarly imagination. What the Hampshire archives do in fact contain may be less colorful than my daydream, but they still have much to tell us about drama in Shakespeare’s time and its place in the history of Hampshire.


Finding, editing and publishing the surviving evidence of Shakespeare’s work and indeed of all forms of dramatic and musical activity in the British Isles before 1642 is the goal of the Records of Early English Drama project. The project was launched in 1976 to coordinate the work of scholars from the UK, the USA, and Canada, and is headquartered at the University of Toronto. REED has so far published the records of nine cities and twenty counties. In 2017 an online database, REED Online, was created to provide extensive search capabilities, including interactive maps, as well as linked explanatory materials. The texts of the Hampshire records discussed below and many more can be examined at


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Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre. The two are linked in our minds, yet Shakespeare and his fellow actors also performed in many other venues. They often gave private performances for the monarch and courtiers during the Christmas season. And even at the height of their London success, they spent a part of each year touring the provinces, playing in town halls and great houses, like the players who visit Hamlet at Elsinore. Other acting troupes did the same, whether they had a London base like the Globe or had to make their livings permanently on the road.


Hampshire archives have proved a rich source of evidence on the activities of such touring players. Southampton, Winchester and Winchester College all have detailed accounting records dating back to the later fourteenth century. The Hampshire Record Office holds the city of Winchester’s chamberlains’ accounts. Southampton’s stewards’ accounts and mayor’s accounts (including the ‘Book of Fines’) can be consulted at the Southampton City Archives. And the Winchester College Archives include the college bursars’ accounts. Those records reveal the many different troupes that visited and performed in Hampshire on provincial tours between about 1500 and 1642, when Parliament ordered the theatres closed. The most frequent visitors were those carrying the name of the monarch—every king and queen from Henry VIII to Charles I. The players of other members of the royal family were often seen, as were those of nobles of national importance like Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, or more local influence, like the earls of Arundel. Other entertainers that came during this period included musicians, jesters, jugglers, bearwards and even puppeteers.


The players followed itineraries originally mapped out by medieval minstrels, whose visits can be found in the earliest surviving accounts. Winchester city and Winchester College typically welcomed one or two acting troupes a year, usually those traveling under the monarch’s name. Southampton was a more popular tour stop, with eight troupes appearing in the year between October 1593 and September 1594 (the town’s accounting year).  The mayor rewarded the Earl of Worcester’s players in October and those of the Queen and Lord Chandos in November. Lord Montegle’s troupe visited in March of 1594, Lord Morley’s and the Earl of Derby’s players in May. The Queen’s Men returned in August and Worcester’s in September (Book of Fines, SCA: SC5/3/1, ff 247v – 250v). Comparing these dates with those from other towns allows us to discern the routes the players took, often striking southwest from London through Winchester to Southampton, and then west to Exeter, Plymouth and Barnstaple, before bending north to Bristol and beyond. At other times they followed the south coast, possibly by boat, performing at the Kent and Sussex ports and even on the Isle of Wight on their way to Southampton.


As useful as the accounting records are, they do not tell us much more than who the players’ patron was, when they performed, and how much they got paid. Other kinds of records can tell us more about who the players were and the conditions in which they performed. Among the documents copied into Southampton’s books of instruments are several warrants or licenses of traveling players. The most interesting of these is a 1593 warrant from the Privy Council on behalf of the players of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange.  The warrant explains that the players were forced to leave their London theatres because of plague and asks that the players be allowed to perform their comedies and tragedies in towns throughout the country (SCA: SC2/6/5, f 28v). The warrant names the troupe’s principal players, most of whom would form the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s players a year later. Shakespeare, who might have been a junior member of the troupe by then, is not mentioned, but several prominent actors do appear: Edward Alleyn, famous for performing Marlowe’s greatest characters; the clown Will Kempe, who first played some of Shakespeare’s fools; and John Heminges, who some three decades later would help to publish the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.


Legal records often reveal details about performances that are taken for granted unless something goes wrong. We know about a performance in Winchester in 1617 because a Puritan-leaning official took offense and had the ten players arrested for playing in a church on a Sunday afternoon. That incident touched off a dispute within the civic leadership that had to be resolved by the Star Chamber (TNA: STAC 8/94/7, mb 2). In 1620 justices of a Southampton court blamed the players when furniture used by the justices and the town council was getting broken during performances in the town hall on the upper floor of the Bargate. The court issued a prohibition against ‘any Stage players or Interlude players or any other person or persons resortinge to this Towne to Act shewe or represent any manner of Interludes or playes or any other sportes or pastymes whatsoever in the said hall’ (SCA: SC6/1/37, f 16v). But the plays—and perhaps the damage—evidently continued, as the civic assembly had to reiterate the prohibition three years later (SC2/1/6, f 212).


With so much evidence about players in Shakespeare’s time to be found in the Hampshire archives, we might naturally expect to come across something about Shakespeare and his relationship with his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, whose country residence was the former Titchfield Abbey. Unfortunately, none of the earl’s household accounts have survived, accounts that might have included a monetary gift to Shakespeare himself or a reward to his troupe for performing at Titchfield. Nor do the archives contain correspondence in which Southampton might have mentioned his pleasure at seeing, say, Twelfth Night performed in his own hall at Christmas time. We do know that the earl hosted Shakespeare’s company at his London house in 1604 or 1605 for a performance of Love’s Labors Lost with Queen Anne in attendance (Hatfield House Archives: Cecil Papers 189/95). And the Wriothesley family did enjoy dramatic entertainment at Titchfield. A letter to Henry Wriothesley’s grandfather Thomas describes how the holiday season at Titchfield in 1537-38 will be ‘as mery as can be with Christmas pleys and maskes’ (TNA: SP 7/1. No. 31). So we can be forgiven for dreaming that a record of similar Christmas plays—this time, Shakespeare’s—may yet turn up in the Hampshire archives.


Author: Professor Peter Greenfield

Bio: Peter Greenfield is emeritus professor of English of the University of Puget Sound and a former editor of Resarch Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama. For Records of Early English Drama he has edited Gloucestershire (1986) and Hampshire (2020, with Jane Cowling). He is currently part of the team preparing an edition of the records of the city of Norwich.

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