As I look around at the Shakespeare scene in England at the moment I’m struck by how many young people take to the stage. Actors have flooded in from around the world to participate in the Shakespeare festivities.
It’s interesting to reflect on the young man who came to London one day four hundred years ago and became an actor. Why would he want to be an actor? It wasn’t like today where it’s quite alright for a young person to have such an ambition: the acting profession is as respectable as any other. But in Elizabethan times actors were despised, considered to be the lowest form of life, classed, along with rats, as plague carriers as they travelled around the country. So why would this young man, the son of a Stratford dignitary, wish to demote himself so drastically?
Apart from being outcasts they were discriminated against by law, often arrested and imprisoned without trial for things they didn’t do simply because someone had accused them of something. Many of them had left apprenticeships to join a theatre group. Once they had done that they had no protection if they were dismissed, as they had forfeited the protection afforded by the powerful trade guild they had turned their back on. These days, news about Hollywood actors seems to have almost more unfair dismissal cases than anything else as there are contracts and conditions and expectations that protect actors, none of which existed in Shakespeare’s time.
In 1572, Parliament passed two acts which were devastating for the acting profession. In the first one, the Queen, wanting to curb the power of local grandees, forbade “the unlawful retaining of multitudes of unordinary servants by liveries, badges, and other signs and tokens.” The result was that hundreds of actors around the country were dismissed. The other act “for the punishment of vagabondes,” allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of the unemployed, including actors, often actors who had work but were caught wandering about the streets of London.
There were still rich and powerful theatrical sponsors, like the Earls of Sussex and Leicester, noblemen who were able to obtain royal permission for their players to perform in London. It is probable that this is how the young William Shakespeare entered the scene and was able to become an actor and also to walk about the streets of London without fear of arrest.
We have no idea of how Shakespeare became an actor. We have his plays and think of him first and foremost as a writer: we have no information about his acting life but he would have considered himself first as an actor, acting work being the bread and butter of his career. We know he didn’t become one of the big stars of the stage, like Edward Alleyne and Richard Burbage but we do think that he performed before the Queen.
It may be that it all began with him simply joining a group of travelling players in Stratford and ending up in London with them. One interesting idea that could account for Shakespeare’s interest in acting is that he may have performed in one of the cycles of Mystery plays mounted as Whitsun pastimes in Stratford. One of them, in 1583, was presented by one Davi Jones, a relative by marriage of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne. Perhaps the young man had his first taste of performance in that.
However Shakespeare happened to become a man of the theatre we are all pleased that he did. By doing so he’s made us all richer and given us the language with which to think about the world around us.