Christmas 1598 found the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s theater company, in desperate straits. For two years, they had been unable to perform in their usual venue due to a dispute with their “prickly” landlord, Giles Allen, from whom they had leased the land upon which they built The Theatre. Their lease there had run out, with no hope of renewal. They had been performing in another theater, the Curtain, but because they were renters and did not own the performance space, a large portion of ticket receipts went to the landlord, severely cutting into their income.
To make matters worse, James Burbage, the patriarch of the Burbage family who formed the company and built the Theatre, had invested a considerable sum in building an indoor stage in the wealthy neighborhood of Blackfriars. His idea was to provide a second space where the company could perform during the inclement months for a more upscale audience. But, as James Shapiro vividly describes in his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, “influential neighbors who were worried about the noise and riffraff the theatre might attract, succeeded in having playing banned there.” To top it all off, James died shortly thereafter, dividing his estate between his two sons, Richard and Cuthbert, who were also central members of the Chamberlain’s Men: one received the Theatre, the other Blackfriars. Both were virtually worthless.
Shakespeare was a Shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. A Shareholder was part owner in the theater company and was involved in all artistic decisions, and responsible for all expenses associated with the production of plays (e.g., buying plays and having copies made for the actors, buying costumes and props, and so forth). In exchange, the shareholders divided the net revenue according to their shares.
The other category of ownership was Householder. These were the men who owned the building itself, and they received 50% of the ticket income minus the amount paid by the groundlings. (My understanding is that this continues to be the case on Broadway, for instance: the theater owners take 50% of ticket income off the top.) In the case of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Burbage family were the Householders. With the death of James Burbage, however, the remaining sons were badly strapped for cash, and had no permanent place to perform.
They got lucky: they found someone who was interested in renting some land that was very near another theater, the Rose, which was owned by their primary rivals, the Admiral’s Men. The Chamberlain’s Men quickly negotiated a 31-year lease at a reasonable price. They now had land, but no theater to put on it, and no money to build a new one.
In early December 1598, Richard Burbage approached five of his fellow actors, including Shakespeare, with a plan. Richard said,
“they would secure the building materials for a new playhouse, worth roughly seven hundred pounds, if the five actor-shareholders would each cover ten percent of the remaining construction costs as well as the expenses of running the theater….In exchange, and for the first time in the history of the professional theater in London, actor-sharers would be part owners of the playhouse as well as partners in the company, the five men each receiving ten percent of the total profits. The potential yield on their investment would be great, over a hundred pounds a year. Still, that initial investment—roughly seventy pounds each—was considerable at a time when a freelance dramatist earned just six pounds a play and a day laborer ten pounds a year. The risks were also great. Few had that kind of cash on hand, which meant taking out loans at steep interest rates (the Burbages later complained that it took them years to pay off what they borrowed to cover their share).”James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
Nevertheless, Shakespeare and the other Shareholders, recognizing an opportunity, did whatever was necessary to buy into the plan. What happened next is irrelevant to the point I want to make, but is funny enough to be recounted here. Basically, a few days after Christmas, when they knew that Giles Allen had gone to Essex for the holidays, the Chamberlain’s Men borrowed stage weapons from the props warehouse (in case any of Allen’s friends tried to stop them) and descended on the Theatre to, well, steal it. James Burbage had savvily built into their lease that, while Allen owned the land, the Burbages owned the building. So aided by carpenters supervised by a master builder, the group dismantled the building and transported it to a neutral site, to be rebuilt later renamed The Globe on their new site on the Thames. Allen returned after the holidays to find an empty lot and was furious. He took the Burbages to court, but lost. The Chamberlain’s Men had pulled it off. They were back in business!
But they were back in business with a brand new business arrangement: the actors owned the means of production. They owned the place (now called the Globe), they owned the technology (the costumes and props), and they owned the materials (the plays). For Shakespeare, his financial future was tied to the success of the company. If it failed, he could continue to write as a freelancer, but as noted above, plays paid their authors comparatively little, which is why most freelance playwrights collaborated together to generate as many plays as they could manage, splitting the proceeds accordingly. It was not a way to get wealthy, or even to support a family such as Shakespeare did.
Compared to other companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was very stable—they had been together for five years. According to James Shapiro,
There were considerable advantages to a company’s longevity. Since its formation in 1594 it’s likely that the Chamberlain’s Men had collaborated on close to a hundred plays, almost a fifth of them Shakespeare’s. When Shakespeare sat down to write a play, it was with the capabilities of the accomplished group in mind. Hamlet would not have been the same if Shakespeare had not written the title role for Richard Burbage….The degree of trust and of mutual understanding (all the more important in a company that dispensed with a director) was extraordinary. For a dramatist—let alone a fellow player, as Shakespeare was—the breakup of such a group would have been an incalculable loss.James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
So how did the Householder/Shareholder Shakespeare respond? He wrote plays for them, great plays, popular plays, and lots of them. He had to—as a playwright, he was their biggest draw, and he needed to keep them coming as quickly as possible. In 1598-99, he wrote Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing; he followed these the next year with Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night; and then Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Successes all.
But he couldn’t just lock himself in his spartan room and write plays. No, he also acted in many of the productions, which required rehearsal and memorization, and he participated in the daily tasks associated with the running of the business. In other words, they could not afford for him to specialize—he had to contribute in any way he could. Everybody did multiple things in order to cut costs.
That is how an owner responds.
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