Philip Henslowe was an Elizabethan theatrical impresario, and one of the most energetic – and certainly best known – of London entrepreneurs. He is most famous for his activities in the world of theatre but, realising the huge potential of entertainment generally, he first cornered the brothel trade, then the sport of bear baiting, and then moved into theatre, where he became the biggest name in theatre management. When people talk about the ‘golden age of English drama’ there may not have been that golden age if it hadn’t been for him.
Apprenticed to a dyer as a youth, Henslowe married his master’s wealthy widow and set about acquiring property around Southwark. He opened more brothels, went into money-lending, pawnbroking, starch-making and even trading in goatskins. Soon he was making his own money and becoming very rich.
When he became interested in the financial possibilities of theatre management Henslowe built the Rose Theatre near Southwark bridge in 1587, which he hired out to various acting companies. Henslowe also built the Hope Theatre in Southwark with a partner, Jacob Meade, which combined plays and bearbaiting (in fact it had a removable stage to make room for the “Beares and Bulls”). One of the most famous actors of the period, Edward Alleyn, married Henslowe’s stepdaughter, after which the two men formed a partnership and founded the Admiral’s Men acting company, which became the main rival to the Chamberlain’s Men, the company part owned by Shakespeare.
Henslowe’s theatrical success generated enormous competition: the fictional ‘war’ among the theatres depicted in the popular film Shakespeare in Love is based on that fierce competition. Henslowe is played by the Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush, in the film. In spite of the rivalry the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s men combined their resources and worked together for a short time when the theatres were closed in June 1594 on account of the plague.
Henslowe’s diary is one of the most famous journals of Renaissance England and the primary source for much of what we know about the ‘golden age’ of English theatre. It’s mainly a business journal, recording the purchase of costumes and stage props. Such items as the dragon used in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus give us insight into the way plays were staged.
The diary also records payments to playwrights, including loans he made to them. Some of the names of those are Marlowe, Jonson, Green, Middleton, Dekker, Webster – in short, many of the most famous names of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Shakespeare’s name is not included but there are references to several of his plays in Henslow’s diary.
Henslowe saw theatre as essentially a business matter but, in the process of pursuing that particular business, he built the drama of his time into something enormous in English culture for all time. He died suddenly in 1616 while engaged in several theatre and other business projects.