The Queen’s Men on Tour

The Queen’s Men on Tour was my doctoral project. The thesis is lodged with WhiteRose eTheses Online at http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3833/.

Work derived from the project has been published in The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford, ed. J. R. Mulryne (Ashgate, 2012; Routledge, 2016) and will appear in Shakespeare Bulletin (2017)

Project Overview

The Queen’s Men were an all-star Elizabethan theatre company that for twenty years toured the nation’s town halls, country houses and inn-yards, performing its plays in front of aldermen and aristocrats, schoolboys and royalty. In the autumn of 2006, a company of actors and academics presented three plays by the Queen’s Men at an international conference hosted by McMaster University and the University of Toronto. Both my PhD research and the Canadian project were prompted by the observation that

‘if measuring the difference between Shakespeare and ourselves makes for good history, and if the Elizabethans are to be thought of as not another version of ourselves but as strangers from the past, and if things nearly forgotten are the proper objects for historians to keep in view anyhow, then we think the plays of the Queen’s Men are worth careful consideration’
(McMillin and MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays, 1998, xvi).

The majority of theatre-historical work has focused on the London-based theatres of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, concentrating on textual analysis of plays and documents, and on the performance opportunities offered by the reconstructed Globe on London’s Bankside. While these have opened up many new lines of inquiry, they place disproportionate emphasis on the capital and effectively ignore one the greatest resources in early-modern theatre research: extant standing buildings that hosted performances by travelling companies.

The Queen’s Men offer one of the most complete bodies of evidence for early-modern research: a corpus of published play-texts and a documentary paper trail that pinpoints their travelling customs and links their performances to the spaces they played, a number of which survive largely or completely unaltered.

My PhD research combined archaeological, historical and theatrical methodologies to build on prior work and offer a more holistic and interdisciplinary understanding of early-modern practices. The hypotheses on which I based my research questions are twofold and mutually informing. Firstly, that performance is ephemeral, but constrained by the material conditions in which it is situated. Hence, greater understanding of performance can be drawn from clues in the texts and spaces that informed and framed such performances. Secondly, that reconstructing performances is an essential tool in the interrogation of printed texts and spaces in which performance occurred. Only through practice and performance will we be able to better understand these texts and spaces. My research asked: What were the spaces used by the Queen’s Men? What was their quotidian function, who normally used them and how were they organised? What changes were made to these spaces to accommodate travelling players and their plays? To whom were the plays presented? How was the use and understanding of a space affected by performance? What were early-modern ‘original practices’ for presenting plays, and did these alter according to the physical and social nature of the performance space?

Stratford Guildhall Photo: Ollie Jones
Stratford Guildhall
Photo: Ollie Jones

To answer these questions I took the medieval Guildhall at Stratford-upon-Avon as my primary case study. The Guildhall was home to civic government, court proceedings, entertainments and education through the recently refounded King Edward’s Grammar School. I used archaeological survey to understand the construction and chronology of each space, and use the survey data and archival evidence to recover details of original fixtures and furnishings. I then examined the hall with a view to stage construction and audience configuration, and undertook a close reading of play texts to help inform the performance requirements of the Queen’s Men’s plays. In 2011 I took a company of actors to the Guildhall, where they performed extracts of The Troublesome Reign of King John.

Coronation of King John Photo: Ollie Jones
Coronation of King John
Photo: Ollie Jones

The film of the performance can be found in this post.

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a blog by Ollie Jones