Shakespeare in Love as Coriolanus

Shakespeare was an actor, period. It's not a matter of dispute.

David Kathman

Week 3 · 9 days ago · Edited

Part 1

William Shakespeare of Stratford was an actor on the London stage with the Lord Chamberlain's / King's Men. That statement of fact is accepted as true by all Shakespeare scholars, and even by many people who believe that Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays published under his name. Yet students taking this MOOC have been led to believe that this statement is doubtful, and that there are serious questions over whether the Stratford man actually had an acting career. I'm here to explain why there are not, in fact, any serious questions about this, and why it's only possible to deny it if you deny the significance of all documentary evidence.

Anti-Stratfordians (sorry, "non-Stratfordians") have taken a variety of approaches to explaining William Shakespeare of Stratford's acting career. Some have denied that he was an actor at all. These are often the harshest, most hard-core anti-Stratfordians, such as Charlton Ogburn Jr. and some early Baconians, who insist that Shakespeare of Stratford was an illiterate lout with no redeeming qualities. If he was illiterate, he can't very well have been a professional actor, though these people generally gloss over the question of who they believe the "William Shakespeare" in the King's Men records actually was.

Another type of anti-Stratfordian has taken a somewhat less hostile approach, acknowledging that Shakespeare of Stratford was an actor and a member of the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men, but denying that he was the playwright and poet William Shakespeare. These people typically depict William Shakespeare the actor as a front man for the "real author", either as a helpless pawn of conspiratorial forces, or as a money-hungry trickster taking advantage of the situation. The latter is the case in the movie "Anonymous", where Shakespeare of Stratford is depicted as an actor in the Chamberlain's Men who is also an illiterate drunk, and who accidentally takes credit for the Earl of Oxford's first play before blackmailing Oxford into letting him take credit for the rest. (How an illiterate man became an actor in England's leading troupe is not explained, but fantasies don't require internal logic.)

In this MOOC, Ros Barber seems to be taking a different and somewhat novel tack. She acknowledges that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men, even "an important member of the company" (as she said in one comment on this board), but she has gone out of her way to avoid saying that he was an actor, and has tried to guide students into thinking that there are real questions about whether he was, in fact, an actor. As near as I can tell, this is because she wants to lead students toward her preferred scenario, in which Shakespeare of Stratford was a "play broker" who put his names on plays he had bought for the company, but who didn't write any plays, and who didn't appear on stage except maybe in a few very minor parts. In doing so, though, she has had to distort the evidence and make seriously misleading statements about early modern theater.

Part 2

Back in week 1 of this course, in section A 2.1 "Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare", Ros summarized William Shakespeare of Stratford's life, and (some of) the evidence for his authorship of the plays and poems. Near the beginning of the summary, she says "At some point, he is thought to have moved to London and become involved in a theater company". Note the hedging "is thought to have" and the avoidance of any mention of acting. A little later she says the following:

"At the end of the following year, plays are performed in front of the Royal Court by a theater company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Theatrical troupes were owned by their members, who bought shares in the theater company, were the official owners of the scripts and props, and shared in the profits. Most shareholders were actors in the company, but some individuals were more involved in a business capacity. The payment record from March 1595, is the first evidence we have that William Shakspere was a key member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It seems likely that his being named as a payee marks him as a shareholder. We don't know when he joined them, but this record of payment for performances in December 1594 is the first evidence that he is an official member of the company. Note, this isn't evidence that he was necessarily an actor in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He may have been, but his naming on the payment record only means he's a sharer."

There are a couple of major problems with this. For one thing, Ros doesn't tell the listener what the payment record actually says, or give the full context, which you can find on the Shakespeare Documented site at http://shakespeared…. There were actually two theatrical payments made on March 15, 1595, one for £30 to "Edwarde AllenRicharde Iones & Iohn Synger seruauntes to the Lord Admyrall" for "three seuerall Comedies or Enterludes showed by them before her maiestie in xpmas tyme laste paste viz the xxviijth of December, on Newyeres daye & Twelfe daie", and the other for £20 to "William Kempe William Shakespeare & Richarde Burbage seruauntes to the Lord Chamberleyne" for "twoe seuerall Comedies or Enterludes shewed by them before her maiestie in xpmas tyme laste paste viz vpon St Stephens daye & Innocentes daye". Edward Alleyn, Richard Jones, and John Singer are known from Henslowe's Diary to have been actors and sharers in the Admiral's Men, and this record specifies that they were paid for two plays "showed by them" (i.e. acted by them) before the queen. The record also specifies that William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage were paid for two plays "shewed by them" before the queen, meaning they had performed the plays. Shakespeare is found here with Kempe, the company's clown, and Burbage, its leading man; I fail to see how the three of them could be paid for "showing" plays before the queen if Shakespeare was a "play-broker". (I'm going to keep using scare quotes around that phrase because it’s a non-existent profession in early modern England.)

The other major problem here is Ros's claim that even if Shakespeare was a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, he wasn't necessarily an actor, because some sharers "were more involved in a business capacity". This is false, and it betrays a basic misunderstanding about how early modern English theater companies worked. Only actors (players) were ever sharers in a playing company, meaning they collectively owned the company's scripts, costumes, and props, shared the expenses and profits from playing, and made decisions (like whether to buy a new script). If a sharer left or died, the other sharers would proportionally buy out his share, so that only active members of a company could be sharers. I assume Ros is thinking of people like Cuthbert Burbage, who was part-owner of the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses along with his brother Richard (and other actors including Shakespeare), but who was never an actor himself. But Cuthbert was never a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's or King's Men; he was only a householder, a shareholder in the two playhouses, whose ownership was organized under an entirely different legal structure. Playhouse shares could be bequeathed to heirs, bought, and sold, unlike a share in a playing company. Cuthbert Burbage was ineligible to be a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and I am unaware of any non-actor who was a sharer in any other playing company. Conversely, if William Shakespeare was a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, it necessarily means he was an actor.

Ben Jonson's cast lists

Thanks, knit, for the images

In week 4, module D.1.1, "The Folio and Ben Jonson", Ros mounts a sustained attack on Ben Jonson's credibility, depicting him as a slippery figure who can't be trusted; this is pretty much a necessity for any anti-Stratfordian, given Jonson's well-known testimony about Shakespeare. One of the points she uses to try to attack Jonson is the cast lists in the 1616 Folio edition of his plays. She says:

"The cast lists in Jonson's works, a large folio edition which he carefully edited and published in the year of Shakespeare's death, list William Shakespeare as a principal actor in two of his plays. One should recognize that even from the perspective of orthodox scholars these cast lists are not exactly truthful. We have no evidence to corroborate that Shakespeare was ever the principal actor in anything. Then as now principal actors were noticeable and remarked upon. No one ever remarked on Shakespeare's acting and scholars generally concur that if he took on acting roles they were very small ones. So why would Jonson list him as a principal actor with his name along with that of Richard Burbage topping these lists."

This attack on Jonson doubles as another attempt to cast doubt on William Shakespeare's acting career; we are told that "these cast lists are not exactly truthful" because "we have no evidence to corroborate that Shakespeare was ever the principal actor in anything". This claim would be surprising to any Shakespeare biographer. In addition to the 1595 record discussed above, the letters patent that created the King's Men in 1603 listed "William Shakespeare" second among nine men who were authorized "freely to vse and exercise the Arte and faculty of playinge Comedies Tragedies Histories Enterludes Moralls Pastoralles Stageplaies and suche others". The following year, in a list of royal servants receiving scarlet cloth for King James's coronation progress through London, Shakespeare appears first in a list of the same nine men, who are identified as "Players" in large letters in the margin. William Shakespeare was clearly one of the most important members of this company of PLAYERS, as they were consistently identified in official records.

But what about Ros's claim that "we have no evidence to corroborate that Shakespeare was ever the principal actor in anything", that "no one ever remarked on Shakespeare's acting" even though "then as now principal actors were noticeable and remarked upon"? I assume Ros must be aware of the just-cited King's Men records that feature Shakespeare very prominently, and so I assume she must mean here that we have no evidence that Shakespeare ever played a "principal" role in any specific play. This is extremely misleading, because we have virtually no records of roles played by any of the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men in any specific plays before 1610. Pretty much all we have is stray speech prefixes in the printed quartos of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado, which show that Kempe played Peter and Dogberry, and Richard Cowley played Verges. Even for Richard Burbage, all we have from before 1610 is 2 Return from Parnassus (1601), in which Burbage (as a character) teaches one of the gallants how to perform Hieronimo (from The Spanish Tragedy) and Richard III, leading scholars to assume that he played those roles himself. After 1610 there are a few records that show roles that Burbage played, but much of what we think we know about his roles comes from elegies written after he died, which should be out of bounds according to the rules anti-Stratfordians apply to Shakespeare.

Ros claims that "no one ever remarked on Shakespeare's acting", but what about John Davies of Hereford's 1610 poem in which he refers to Shakespeare playing "kingly parts in sport"? I know anti-Strats love to find all kinds of hidden meanings in Davies's words, but on its face this is a commentary on Shakespeare's acting, with wordplay on his status as a member of the King's Men. See my "Why I Am Not An Oxfordian" at for some discussion of the Davies poem in an authorship contest, and of Charlton Ogburn Jr.'s ham-handed attempts to deny Shakespeare's acting career.

I've gone on long enough. William Shakespeare was a professional actor in the Lord Chamberlain's / King's Men, and denying that fact requires ignoring or distorting a whole lot of documentary evidence.

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