Edward Alleyn is considered one of the greatest actors of Shakespeare’s time. Born the son of a London innkeeper, Alleyn began his acting career in his late teens when he joined the provincial troupe the Earl of Worcester’s Men. The troupe toured the areas outlying London between 1584 and 1585, playing in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford many times. Alleyn, however, was not content to tour the provinces. In 1585 he left Worcester’s Men and moved to London with hopes of performing before Elizabeth and her court. Not long after his arrival in the great city, Alleyn joined the Admiral’s Men and promptly ascended to the role of principal actor. He gained the respect and admiration of some of the most influential people of the day by playing the title roles in popular dramas such as Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe, and in Orlando Furioso by Robert Greene. Noblemen, fellow actors, poets, and playwrights paid tribute to Alleyn’s dramatic flair. Ben Jonson declared:
If Rome so great, and in her wisest age,
Fear’d not to boast the glories of her stage,
As skilful Roscius and grave Aesop, men,
Yet crown’d with honors as with riches then;
Who had no less a trumpet of their name
Then Cicero, whose every breath was fame;
How can so great example die in me,
That, Alleyn’s I should pause to publish thee?
Who both their graces in thy self hast more
Outstript, then they did all that went before;
And present worth in all dost so contract,
As others speak, but only thou dost act.
Wear this renowne: ’tis just, that did give
So many Poets life, by one should live. (Hosking 36)
On October 22, 1592, Edward Alleyn married Joan Woodward, the stepdaughter of theatre owner and patron Philip Henslowe. Once married to Joan, Alleyn became part owner in Henslowe’s businesses. Henslowe continued to handle all the financial matters while Alleyn managed the theatres and produced the plays with great success. But sadly, in the spring of 1593, Alleyn and his men were forced to stop all productions within London city limits due to anoutbreak of the plague. Without a London venue, Alleyn and the Admiral’s Men were forced to embark on a tour of the English countryside. The following is a letter Alleyn wrote to his wife when he was performing in Chelmsford:
My good sweetheart and loving mouse, I send thee a thousand commendations, wishing thee as well as may be, and hoping thou art in good health, which I pray God to continue with us in the country, and with you in London. But mouse, I little thought to hear that which I now hear by you, for it is well known they say that you were by my Lord Mayor’s officer made to ride in a cart, you and all your fellows, which I am sorry to know; but you may thank your two supporters, your strong legs I mean, that would not carry you away, but let you fall into the hands of such termagants. But mouse, when I come home I’ll be revenged on them; till when, I prithee send me word how thou dost, and do my hearty commendations to my father, mother, and sister, and to thy own self; and so, sweetheart, the Lord bless thee. From Chelmsford, the 2nd May, 1593. Thine ever and nobody else’s, by God of Heaven – Edward.
We can deduce from the letter that Joan was somehow involved with “the fellows” — those “Admiral’s Men who remained in London and had infringed the order prohibiting playing” (Hosking 50). Joan was forced to ride in “a cart” that likely was equivalent to modern-day paddy wagon.
In late 1593 the current wave of plague had run its course, and Alleyn returned to London. The Rose Theatre became the temporary home of the Admiral’s Men, and over the next three years they would produce fifty-five new plays. The most popular with audiences was The Wise Man of Chester by Munday. It was performed a total of thirty-two times. In 1597 Edward left the theatre for a time and traveled with Joan to Sussex. While he was away, Alleyn left Gabriel Spencer in charge of the Admiral’s Men. But Spencer was the leader of the troupe for only a few months before his death at the hands of one of England’s greatest writers.
While in Sussex, Alleyn received a disturbing letter from his father-in-law, describing the strange and tragic course of events: “Since you were with me I have lost one of my company which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriell, for he is slain in Hoxton Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson”. Apparently, the duel between Ben Jonson and Gabriel Spencer was the result of a dispute over which was the better acting company – the Admiral’s Men or the company Jonson preferred, the Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe). Jonson was imprisoned and sentenced to hang, but he pled benefit of clergy and at the last moment was granted a reprieve. He was a free man, but his property was confiscated, and he was branded on the thumb as a felon.
By 1613 Alleyn was a very wealthy man – not at all unusual for a famed Elizabethan actor. “A man who was at once a sharing actor and a playwright, like Shakespeare, clearly had it in his power to make fairly large sums of money; and Alleyn, who had other sources of income, was in an even more fortunate position…The fortunate and respectable actor — even though he held no office under the crown like Alleyn’s — was received into good society and was befriended and admired by the best intellects of his time; he lived a comfortable and secure existence, and, perhaps, indulged in the purchase of a coat of arms” (Child § 27). Alleyn bought an estate in Dulwich and soon became the town’s most important resident. He created a hospital and founded the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich in 1619 (later renamed Dulwich College). The College is home to many great works of art and the book Henslowe’s Diary, from which we receive invaluable information about the Elizabethan theatre.
On June 28, 1623, Alleyn’s beloved wife Joan died. She was buried on the grounds of the College of God’s Gift Chapel. In Alleyn’s grief he turned to a family friend named Constance Donne, the daughter of the great English poet, John Donne, who at the time was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Within months, Constance Donne and Edward Alleyn were romantically involved and married on December 3, 1623. Edward was fifty-eight; Constance was twenty. The couple was wed only three years before Alleyn took sick on a cold and damp business trip to Yorkshire. Knowing he was not long for this world, Alleyn began to finalize his will. On Saturday, November 25, 1626, Edward Alleyn died.
Child, Harold. English Drama to 1642. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. 2000. http://bartleby.com. (04/04/00).
Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Hosking, G. L. The Life and Times of Edward Alleyn. London: Jonathan Cape, 1952.
Lee, Sir Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.