Whilst I was writing Road to London, I had to view William Shakespeare through the eyes of Thomas Munmore, my thirteen year old protagonist. Thomas lived in Stratford-upon-Avon at the height of Shakespeare’s success and would have regarded this local hero as a superstar in the way that today’s teenagers would fawn over their pop idols or their football stars. Thomas must have heard the common gossip about the younger William who was probably regarded as a Jack-the-Lad, marrying in haste to a woman eight year’s older and gaining a reputation as a poacher. Tittle tattle said that he had been caught poaching and had fled Stratford to become an actor in London – a daring thing to do when actors were seen as little more that rogues and vagabonds.
Thomas must have found that very exciting particularly when he had made such a success of his life. Only five years after leaving his home town, he had written sonnets so popular they would have topped Waterston’s Best Sellers’ List and his plays were performed for the Queen Elizabeth herself – the equivalent of winning an Oscar. Like many of Manchester United goal scorers, Shakespeare bought himself a large house – the second finest in Stratford with five splendid gables and ten fireplaces (the equivalent of central heating). With this amount of wealth on display, what boy wouldn’t want to follow in his hero’s footsteps?
|A sketch of New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon.
But William Shakespeare’s wealth did not come from his plays. None were published in his lifetime and royalties and performance rights had not been invented. He would have been commissioned to write plays for a flat fee of around £6 for both the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men, two of the most successful acting troupes. He wrote in the way that Alan Ayckbourn writes plays today for the group of actors in his theatre in Scarborough.
But Shakepeare’s talent was not only for acting and writing. He was also a shareholder in the theatre and I couldn’t resist putting my favourite story about Shakespeare’s financial exploits into Road to London.
Soon after he arrived in London around 1592, he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and became an actor-shareholder. The troupe performed at London’s first theatre – named The Theatre - which had been built by James Burbage (the father of the actor, Richard Burbage, who was one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men). But the land on which The Theatre was built was leased from Giles Allen and when the lease ran out, the men quarrelled and Giles Allen refused to renew it. This meant that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had to move to temporary accommodation at the nearby Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. Two years later, James Burbage died having failed to resolve the problem of the lease thus leaving the Theatre in Allen’s hands. Now The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in danger of becoming homeless.
Richard Burbage discussed the matter with the five actor-shareholders which included William Shakespeare and they all agreed to provide 10% of the buildings costs for a share of the profits. They set about looking for land to rent and, in December 1598, found an inexpensive plot south of the river in Southark and signed the thirty-one year lease. They also decided that, as James Burbage had built The Theatre, they had the right to dismantle it and use the materials to build the new one.
|The frozen River Thames
|The Globe Theatre, Bankside.
Shakespeare’s initial investment of £70 was a large sum in 1599, but the yield would be great
– about £100 per annum.
– about £100 per annum.