Shakespeare Hits the Big Time
Blackfriars Theatre was built by Richard Burbage in 1596 on the northern bank of the Thames. Unlike the public theatres, private theatres such as the Blackfriars had roofs and specifically catered to the wealthy and highly educated classes of London society. In addition, while there were strict regulations on public playhouses within the circuit of the old city wall, the private theatres in London were built upon grounds that belonged to the church — grounds that had been appropriated by Henry VIII and were therefore not under the control of the Lord Mayor.
The Blackfriars soon became the premier playhouse in all of London. The price for admission was up to five times that of the Globe, and it seated about seven hundred people in a paved auditorium. It was equipped with artificial lighting and other amenities that the other playhouses did not possess, but overall it quite closely resembled the public theatres with its trap doors, superstructure of huts (with wires and belts to hang props and lower actors), inner stage, and tiring house.
In 1603, when James I acceded to the English throne, the Chamberlain’s Men’s patron, Lord Hudson, stepped down and allowed James I, a lover of the theatre, to become the group’s new supporter. Hence, the Chamberlain’s Men quickly underwent a name change and were known thenceforth as the King’s Men.
The King’s men took on the lease of the Blackfriars from Richard and Cuthbert Burbage in August of 1608, for a period of twenty-one years at 40 pounds per year, with each member of the troupe holding a seventh share. They performed there during the winter months while continuing to spend the summers at the Globe. As Gerald Eades Bentley points out in his book Shakespeare:
…for more than half of his career in London Shakespeare shared in the enterprise of the Lord Chamberlain-King’s company as actor, patented member, dramatist, and housekeeper, first of the Globe and then of both the Globe and the Blackfriars. No other man of the time is known to have been tied to the theatre in so many different ways (110).
Bentley, Gerald Eades. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968.
Berry, Herbert, ed. The First Public Playhouse. Montreal: Queen’s University Press, 1979.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Rutter, Carol Chillington. Documents of the Rose Playhouse. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.