Part 2: Shakespeare stayed off the grid

James Breiner
5 min readApr 30, 2023

Incognito mode was safer in a media world filled with rumors and vicious gossip

In my previous newsletter, I talked about how Shakespeare lived and worked in a time of media disruption comparable to our own. He was an entrepreneur, a theater owner, a content creator, and a stage performer in the new business of public playhouses.

There was money to be made at the box office, and everyone was trying to cash in. Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, was one of the most successful. And in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth on the throne, the king adopted the company as his own — the King’s Men. This guaranteed the financial success of the company in Shakespeare’s later years.

The title page of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays shows a portrait of the man. It is “an important image. It’s one of the few portraits of Shakespeare to have been approved by those who had known Shakespeare themselves. It is credited to the artist Martin Droeshout in the small text just below it.” (From the Folger Library First Folio.)

A private life. Historians have despaired over how little we know about Shakespeare compared to several of his contemporaries. It would be like a famous actor today giving few interviews and avoiding Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

But two well regarded scholars have compiled a mountain of evidence to flesh out his private life — “Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare”, by Stephen Greenblatt, and “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare”, by James Shapiro.

It appears that maintaining a low profile may have been his intention, based on written comments of the small, competitive community of actors, playwrights, and theater people in London. Shakespeare, it seems, a voided their drunken revelries. He did less of the braggadocio and self-promotion of some of his peers. He seemed to prefer the background.

Why did he lie low? Perhaps because it was dangerous to call attention to yourself. Elizabeth’s courtly circle was a caldron of plots and conspiracies among those seeking to curry favor or remove her from power. It was Protestants vs. Catholics, insiders vs. outsiders, England vs. Spain.

The queen had made enemies with Catholic kings and Roman popes, and they plotted against her. She enforced adherence to the Protestant church started by her father, Henry VIII, who had closed the Catholic monasteries and confiscated their wealth and lands.

Catholics in the shadows

Spain launched several naval armadas with the aim of invading England and restoring a Catholic ruler (all failed). Spain also nurtured Jesuit priests who sneaked into England and even plotted Elizabeth’s assassination. Pope Gregory had promised that anyone who killed the queen would be exempt from the sin of murder and thus escape eternal punishment.

There is evidence that Shakespeare spent a year or two of his late teenage years as a tutor in the household of a Catholic sympathizer. At the time it was treasonous to harbor priests and celebrate the Mass.

When priests were caught, they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. The youthful Shakespeare may have experienced the anxiety and fear of discovery personally.

Careful what you say

His parents and many of their friends and associates had ties to the old Catholic faith, and some of their acquaintances were punished with loss of public office or imprisonment. Shakespeare certainly knew of these things.

Elizabeth regularly imprisoned or executed any of her courtly circle who showed disloyalty, most notably Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, previously a favorite, who spoke against her and then led a rebellion.

  • Ben Jonson and two of his fellow actors were imprisoned briefly in 1597 for their roles in “The Isle of Dogs”, which the queen’s Privy Council judged to be satirizing the queen and her inner circle. The play was immediately suppressed.
  • Shakespeare’s history play “Henry IV, Part 1” introduced the raucous comic character of Falstaff. However, the character’s name in the play originally was Oldcastle, the same as a source Shakespeare used. Yet when the play was printed, Shakespeare was pressured into changing the name to Falstaff to avoid offending a descendant of Oldcastle’s, William Brook.
  • “Brook was not the wisest choice of an antagonist,” biographer Greenblatt wrote, “for at the time or very soon after, he was appointed lord chamberlain, the post ultimately responsible for overseeing the licensing of plays” (p. 372). A play needed a license before it could be performed.
In the First Folio, William Shakespeare is listed first among the 26 principal actors who appeared in the plays. (From the Folger Library First Folio.)

Doubt about Elizabeth’s successor

It was adangerous time for free speech. Playwrights wanted to make their work current and relevant, but they risked offending various powers if they were too topical.

It was understandable that an autocrat like Elizabeth put controls in place to limit criticism of herself and her government. Just like all new media, the theater was viewed as potentially seditious and dangerous. It had to be regulated.

  • The public’s anxiety about who would succeed their childless, aging queen manifested itself in periodic rumors that she had died. Given that her predecessor, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), had tried to return England to Catholicism and burned Protestant bishops at the stake, many worried the pendulum might swing back to Catholicism after Elizabeth.
  • Other rumors circulated at court that she was being poisoned by her physician, Roderigo Lopez. There were whispers that Lopez, a Portuguese and supposedly a closet Jew, had accepted an enormous bribe from the King of Spain to assassinate the queen. Whether he was guilty or simply set up and victimized by his jealous enemies at court, he was nonetheless tried and executed in 1594.
  • Elizabeth made a pact with King James of Scotland to succeed her and preserve the Protestant Church of England. She died of natural causes in 1603.
  • Elizabeth’s successor, James I, a lover of literature, continued the golden age of English poetry and drama. He became the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company — now called The King’s Men — and their plays were favorites at the court. So Shakespeare enjoyed prosperous years as a theater professional up until his death in 1616.

Turbulent times

So Shakespeare had to protect himself but also remain topical to boost the box office. He treated the touchy subject of royal succession in plays cloaked in ancient history or legend, such as “Julius Caesar”, “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, and “Hamlet”. He could wink and claim, “It’s just a legend.”

Like today’s creative class, the playwrights and poets of Shakespeare’s time had to remain topical and entertaining without ruffling feathers. And they had to please their big patrons, who were as demanding as today’s investors.

In our Western democracies, the risk for media entrepreneurs is running afoul of regulatory agencies, which can levy fines or shut down operations. In our autocratic societies, or those without rule of law, a satiric tweet or video can lead to prison, execution, or assassination.

The same dangers ruled the media ecosystem four centuries ago. But just like today, the potential rewards encouraged many to take a risk. The demand for new and exciting entertainment drove innovation and great business opportunities.

So there was, like today, an oversupply of content. That is a formula for creating bankruptcies -and a few great fortunes.

Previously. In “ Part 1: Shakespeare the media entrepreneur” we saw how the new business of public playhouses disrupted the media world of the time.

Next, May 11. In “Part 3: Shakespeare and his media brand” we will consider some of the lessons for media innovators today.

Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.substack.com.

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James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia https://jamesbreiner.substack.com/