Shakespeare at the Globe: 1599-1606

Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe: 1599-1606. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

If I had been more familiar with the landscape of Shakespeare studies twenty-five years ago, I might not have looked at Shakespeare at the Globe because Beckerman was well known as a practitioner of performance criticism. He had come to the academic side in the early 1960s from a fifteen-year stint as theater director at Hofstra College (1950-65) where he directed fifteen plays by Shakespeare, thirteen of which were “on the J. C. Adams full-scale model of the Globe” (according to Marvin and Ruth Thompson in the 1989 festschrift for Beckerman, Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance [p. 20]).

Beckerman anticipated that the primary reader of Shakespeare at the Globe was interested in an analysis of dramaturgical nuts and bolts such as “scenes, movement, entrances, exits, asides, kinds and number of properties, … number of people on stage, …, authority figures …, kinds of climactic plateaus, endings, and the like” in the performance of a repertory (Thompson, p. 20). But, lucky for me, he also knew that he needed to discuss that word, “repertory.” Although he half-apologized in the opening chapter that repertorial issues might seem a digression, he persisted because he believed that “an understanding of how a theatrical company goes about the business of presenting its plays is a necessary step in working out a theory of staging” (1).

In the second paragraph of the chapter, Beckerman asked a series of questions about “the Elizabethan repertory system … and how it operated” (1). One in particular is still cutting-edge: “How did an acting company market its wares?” (2). If Beckerman had answered his own questions fully, I would have had nothing to add in The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613.

In that “Repertory” chapter, Beckerman took at face value the evidence of theatrical practices in Philip Henslowe’s Diary, and with the common sense of an experienced director he linked Shakespeare’s company with those at the Rose in an industry-wide repertory system. Working with the edition of the diary by W. W. Greg, Beckerman did not know until his own book was in press that the 1961 Foakes and Rickert edition had begun a complementary rehabilitation of Henslowe’s reputation as a businessman (Beckerman completed that process [“Philip Henslowe,” in The Theatrical Manager in England and America, ed. Joseph W. Donohue, Jr.] 1989). Thus he analyzed Henslowe’s performance calendars and their implications for repertorial size, number of playwrights, and demands on the players with clarity, simplicity, and even a touch of wonder.

Beckerman was not so naïve that he did not know the fierce determination of previous scholars to separate the Chamberlain's/King’s players from the theatrical sweat-shop run by the exploitative, capitalist Henslowe. But he brushed those efforts aside as the product of “an idolatrous love of Shakespeare” (14). He knew that the separatists believed Shakespeare‘s company to be special because of its “band of brothers” partnership, but he counter-argued that “the system of management was the same” despite different financing (4). Even more ahead of his time, Beckerman argued for a parallel repertory strategy between the King’s and other companies: “What is really significant [about Henry Herbert’s records for 1623-24] is that the King’s men presented the same number of new plays as the Prince’s men, and that the practices of Shakespeare’s fellows were in harmony with those of other companies” (14).

Beckerman practiced what he preached by applying the repertorial logic of Henslowe’s Diary to the Chamberlain's players at the Globe. Pushing back against the old-fashioned notion that the company could have competed in the theatrical marketplace with few new plays (as long as the plays were by Shakespeare), he calculated that 116 plays were performed at the Globe in the decade of 1599-1609. Pushing back also against Leslie-Hotson-inspired arguments for special-occasion plays, he flipped the priority on venues, contending that the company used its readiness for court performances as a way to expand its offerings for public audiences. Beckerman even took up the issue of revivals. He saw evidence of Globe revivals without noticeable alteration to the playscript as well as serial literary revisions in the productions of “the narrative of Hamlet” over time (18). Impressed by the number of playing days in the Chamberlain's seasons, Beckerman calculated the “average yearly income” for the players, plus the extra revenue for sharers and housekeepers (22).

Radical as the repertorial arguments are in Shakespeare and the Globe, Beckerman was nonetheless a scholar of his time on other issues of theater history. He considered touring “an act of desperation” (2). He called Henslowe’s stable of playwrights “impecunious” (9). He identified plays with few performances in the diary as “flops” (8) and projected that commercial judgment on poorly documented Chamberlain's plays such as All’s Well That Ends Well (15). He claimed that James Burbage “exercised a strong influence on the course the company took” (ix), and he accepted the still-credited but wobbly belief in the elitism of the Blackfriars operation (xi). Though he did not have the currently-fashionable term “duopoly” to describe the post-1594 theatrical marketplace, he had little to say about companies at the Swan, Boar’s Head, and Red Bull (3-4).

In terms of my current scholarship in the Lost Plays Database, I find the only real irritant in Beckerman’s repertorial opinions to be the gulf he saw between Shakespeare’s plays and other offerings. Speaking of repertorial “filler” (16), he contrasted the “magnificent dramas of Shakespeare … with hack plays, near cousins to the present-day soap operas and grade-B westerns” (1). He saw the repertory system as an “extensive and actually wonderful process of winnowing out the chaff” (16), even though he had data to the contrary at hand in Henslowe’s Diary. Nonetheless, he did include non-Shakespearean and non-Jonsonian drama in his dramaturgical calculations. I cannot fault him for considering lost plays among the chaff. Indeed, by claiming that “we need be grieved little by the disappearance of 75 per cent of the plays” (16), he left an opening for me.

In the late 1980s, I complained to Bill Ingram that I could not find very much useful information on the subject I was researching, which was the repertory of the Chamberlain's/King’s players during Shakespeare’s tenure in their fellowship. He gave me the best advice a scholar could have: “write the book you wish you could find.” Shakespeare at the Globe was almost that book. Thank you, Bernie (if I may), for showing me that it is professionally acceptable to place the “plays we now regard as great literary works … in the harassing atmosphere of a commercial enterprise” (15). And thank you also for leaving a few aspects of the repertorial marketplace underdeveloped. Your judgments about the business of playing remain a bulwark against a suddenly resurgent cult-of-Shakespeare exceptionalism (Stephen Greenblatt, Jim Shapiro, Bart van Es), Shakespearean textual exceptionalism (James Marino), and Shakespearean companies’ exceptionalism (Andrew Gurr). For me, Bernie, your Shakespeare at the Globe is exceptionalism in scholarship.