Shakespearean players in early modern Europe

Drábek, Pavel and Katritzky, M. A. (2016). Shakespearean players in early modern Europe. In: Smith, Bruce R. ed. The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1527–1533.



From the records, we know that English players were active in many parts of Europe for almost a century, from the 1580s until their gradual decline in the later seventeenth century. For a number of reasons, research into this exceptionally transitory theatrical phenomenon, recognized for its crucial influence on the establishment of professional theatre in the German-speaking countries is particularly challenging. Not least, this is because the voluminous pre-1986 secondary literature is published in so many languages. Little, apart from the architectural and literary anchoring of their playhouses and other regular performance sites and the admittedly unrepresentative surviving play texts, provides continuity for the study of London theatre companies. English acting companies abroad present even more complex problems. One of those problems is language. How did the traveling English players manage to communicate with audiences who did not speak English? In 1586, an English acting troupe including at least three future partners of Shakespeare in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (William Kempe, George Bryan and Thomas Pope), performed in Elsinore (Helsingør), at the Danish court. Elsinore is also the location of the first English actors recorded on the Continent. In 1585, as indicated by civic accounts, unidentified English performers staged a show in the courtyard of Elsinore’s town hall. That same year, some English players received a payment from the city of Leipzig. As references to English players become more frequent, they are predominantly recorded in the Germanic lands. The evidence only rarely identifies performers, let alone their productions, and is problematic even with respect to identification of the actual types of activities they staged. Early modern records do not consistently distinguish between musicians and dramatic actors. Thus, it is not clear from the Elsinore records of 1585 whether they refer to drama or simply to spectacle. The unclear boundaries between the performing professions, even their very pragmatics, make it practically impossible to interpret the known records unambiguously. At home and abroad, English travelling actors engaged in what has been called “touring showmanship”, combining acting, fencing, singing, dancing, tumbling and various other acrobatics. They gave their audiences much more than plays. The entertainments for which they were employed at court, or paid by civic authorities or private individuals, did not necessarily involve scripted drama. It is most unlikely that the surviving corpus of early modern manuscript and printed play texts reflects a representative image of the players’ activities. Although approaching these performances from the perspective of “drama” is in many ways anachronistic, the English actors abroad did present versions of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline plays, and made a lasting impact on the theatrical cultures of mainland Europe.

This article considers what motivated early modern English actors to tour abroad (travelling, diplomacy, religious strife and the Thirty Years War), and what they performed. It reviews the activities of the English players in early modern Europe, and some of the difficulties facing literary and historical enquiries into them. These activities were transitory and amorphous. Unlike professional London performances, they possessed no central architectural focus in the form of a playhouse or theatre. They featured scripted drama, but also dancing, singing, acrobatics and other less easily categorizable forms of spectacle. Archive-based historical approaches contextualize them within the traditions of court and popular culture, puppet plays, the theatrical promotion of medical goods, Jesuit, Piarist and Lutheran school theatre, and hagiography, Easter plays and other religious ceremony and performance. Literary approaches draw on the surviving play texts to enquire into the themes, characters and stock figures, and dramatic structure of their performances. Viewed collectively, ongoing literary and historical approaches to English performance practice in early modern Germany are bringing into increasing focus a picture suggesting the combined results of influences from a wide range of central European as well as English textual and non-textual sources, adapted to reflect contemporary performance pressures such as court and civic-dictated didactic content and commercially successful audience-pleasing stage routines. Transactions between the English comedians and their continental audiences worked in both directions. Archival records reinforce the impression gained from the surviving play texts and other sources, that they are not simply dramatic texts but intertextual records mediating between their English and continental pre-texts and the performances resulting from them, whose music, improvisation and spectacle should be viewed as ‘not lesser but different’ to the tightly scripted drama of the London stage.

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