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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shakespeare and Philip Henslowe

Philip Henslowe died on 6 January 1616, only weeks before Shakespeare passed away.

For those people who knew both of them during their lives, like Edward Alleyn, John Heminges, Henry Condell, Richard Burbage -- they would have considered 1616 truly an end of an era.

Henslowe was born in 1550, 14 years before Shakespeare. By the 1570's he was in London and living in Southwark, opposite Clink prison.

In 1584 he bought a property called The Little Rose, which did contain a rose garden, but also a brothel.

The play howse (The Rose) below The Beare howse (a bear-baiting ring), ca 1593

In 1587 he built The Rose theatre, the third real theatre in London, and the very first on that side of the Thames. I have written about the first real theatre before, The Theatre in Shoreditch, built in 1576 by James Burbage.

The Rose (with circular roof, lower right area), ca 1600

1587 is around the time that Shakespeare first arrived in London, trying to make a name for himself.

At this time, Christopher Marlowe had just written Tamburlaine, and it was being performed by Edward Alleyn, with the Lord Admiral's Men. It is believed to have been performed at Henslowe's Rose theatre.

Edward Alleyn as Tamburlaine

So, Henslowe's new theatre is off and running, with the hottest playwright, the hot new play and the very best actor of the age.

By 1591, Alleyn is thought to have performed Henry VI written by an up and coming playwright named William Shakespeare.

It is around the same time that Alleyn and the Lord Admiral's Men no longer perform at The Theatre for James Burbage over a dispute in the division of profits, and they relocate to The Rose as their home.

The curious thing is that by 1592 Philip Henslowe starts keeping a diary, which has become one of the most important records of the period and an indispensable look into the world of the theatre of the Elizabethan era. In the diary, Henslowe keeps record of costumes purchased, and monies paid to the various people with whom he did business, etc.

But in the diary there is no mention of Shakespeare.

Henslowe records all of the loans and payments made to Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and almost every other playwright of the period. But not to Shakespeare.

It may just be that by this point Shakespeare had moved on from The Rose and found a permanent home at the The Theatre, run by Henslowe's rival James Burbage.

Shakespeare probably had no need for any involvement, loans or otherwise, with Henslowe -- and vice versa.

I think it is likely by this point in 1592 that Shakespeare had found his own lead actor. Christopher Marlowe had Edward Alleyn. Shakespeare by this point had Richard Burbage, who would go on to create the roles of Hamlet, Shylock, Richard III, Macbeth and so many more.

Christopher Marlowe

Sadly for Edward Alleyn, Christopher Marlowe died (under very suspicious circumstances) in 1593. Alleyn still acted, but by 1598 he retired from the stage, only to have Queen Elizabeth herself request (I'm sure it was more of a command) that he return to acting.

He finally retired from acting altogether in 1604. He was very busy it would seem, as he had been in partnership with Henslowe since 1592, when he also had married Henslowe's step-daughter. They had many interests, not the least of which were brothels.

Henslowe, with Alleyn, built The Fortune and The Swan theatres. By 1600, the government ordered that only two theatres could remain open, The Globe in Southwark (built from what was left of the closed Theatre in 1599) and The Fortune, near Finsbury Fields.

Henslowe's first theatre, The Rose eventually was torn down by 1606.

The Rose Theatre

Times were hard, competition for audiences was fierce, and Henslowe and Alleyn looked for other opportunities. They became involved with bear and bull baiting.

When James became king in 1603, Henslowe and Alleyn purchased the office of the Keeper of the Royal Game, to provide the king with this form of entertainment. In fact, they conducted a lion baiting for James, who had a fascination with lions.

In Henslowe's last years he seems to have become involved with church activities. I am sure that this didn't interfere with his animal baiting and brothels.

By the time he died in 1616, theatre was changing so much. Ben Jonson was the greatest playwright of the age, and Shakespeare had been in some decline in the last few years.

Shakespeare was in Stratford in January 1616, and from what we know, he was ill.

How did he receive the news of Henslowe's death?

I would imagine that by this time Shakespeare had been so removed from the London theatre scene, that he had given up caring what happened there. He would have emotionally distanced himself.

But to hear that Henslowe, whom Shakespeare had known his whole career, even from his earliest days, had passed away -- that must have caused Shakespeare some heartbreak.

I would imagine also that Henslowe and Shakespeare were, more often than not, competitors and rivals. They were probably not on friendly terms.

But I am sure that Shakespeare had a certain respect and appreciation for this man, who had helped usher in this new age of theatre, the likes of which were unprecedented.

I hope you join me in celebrating the memory of Philip Henslowe.


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and the Great Theatre Heist

Bear Baiting and Shakespeare

Wikipedia entry on Philip Henslowe

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