Wednesday, 28 July 2021

28 July, 1597 - The Witch of Islington, The Isle of Dogs, and the closure of the theatres

Here's what the Admiral's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: 28 | tt at the wiche of Jselyngton | 01 | 08

In modern English: 28th [July, 1597] ... total at The Witch of Islington ... £1 and 8 shillings [i.e. 28 shillings]

London seen from Islington in 1665,
by Wenceslas Hollar
Today, the Admiral's Men performed The Witch of Islington, a mysterious lost play about which you can read more in the entry for 14 July. But Henslowe has something far more important to worry about: the government has ordered that the theatres of London be closed down and destroyed! 

We've seen closures before. At several points in the last few years the theatres have been shuttered in order to prevent the spread of plague, and more than once in response to riots and public unrest. Today's order is more extreme though. It's also mysterious, as the motivation is uncertain; however, circumstantial evidence suggests that a scandalous play at the Swan playhouse may have provoked a government crackdown on theatre. Let's look at what happened.

The closure of the theatres

The Privy Council in 1604. Detail
from The Somerset House Conference
Today, the Privy Council sent out a startling order to the justices of Middlesex. Instead of the usual demand that the theatres be closed for a specific reason, this one is more drastic. It begins by saying that the Queen has learned "that there are very great disorders committed in the common playhouses, both by lewd matters that are handled on the stages and by resort and confluence of bad people". It orders that "there be no more plays used in any public place within three miles of the City until Allhallowtide next" (that is, until the end of October).

But then it makes a far more extreme demand:

that you do send for the owners of the Curtain, Theatre, or any other common playhouse, and enjoin them by virtue hereof forthwith to pluck down quite the stages, galleries and rooms that are made for people to stand in, and so to deface the same as they may not be employed again to such use.

The theatre owners, in other words, must tear down and destroy their theatres. Although his own playhouse is not mentioned, Henslowe must be horrified. He could be looking at the end of his career as a theatre impresario. 

Spoiler alert: the theatres will indeed be closed until October, but they will not be destroyed. We don't know why, but we can at least explore one possible reason for this assault upon the players. 

The scandal of The Isle of Dogs

The most likely reason for the Privy Council's anger is that the players at the Swan playhouse, located close to Henslowe's Rose, performed a satirical play entitled The Isle of Dogs. Scholars have struggled to piece together the details because the evidence is fragmentary and because the forger John Payne Collier (whom we have met before) inserted fake references to the play into Henslowe's Diary. Once those are weeded out, we end up with the following information. 

On 10 August, Henslowe hired a new actor, contracting with him to begin performing as soon as the ongoing restraint on theatre is lifted. Henslowe mentions that the "restraint is by the means of playing The Isle of Dogs".

On the same day, a government inquisitor, Richard Topcliffe, wrote to the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, about an informant that he was working with, whom he describes as "the first man that discovered to me that seditious play called The Isle of Dogs", a play that was of "a venomous intent and a preparative to some far-fetched mischief". 

And on 15 August, the Privy Council wrote to Topcliffe that they had learned of "a lewd play that was played in one of the playhouses on the Bankside, containing very seditious and slanderous matter", and that they had thus "caused some of the players to be apprehended and committed to prison"; one of the players "was not only an actor but a maker of part of the said play". A different document reveals that the players in question were Gabriel Spencer, Robert Shaw and Ben Jonson, the latter of whom must have been the co-author as he was already a well-known playwright by 1597. 

The Council continued that Topcliffe must interrogate these men in order to find out "what is become of the rest of their fellows that either had their parts in the devising of that seditious matter or that were actors or players in the same, what copies they have given forth of the said play and to whom, and such other points as you shall think meet to be demanded of them". Decades later, William Drummond recorded the highlights of a conversation with Ben Jonson, who reminisced about his imprisonment, saying that "his judges could get nothing of him to all their demands but 'ay' and 'no'". 

The Council also ordered Topcliffe to examine "such papers as were found in Nashe's lodgings". This refers to another playwright, Thomas Nashe (whom we have earlier encountered as a possible co-author of The First Part of Henry VI), whose home had apparently been searched by the authorities. In 1599, Nashe wrote a book called Nashe's Lenten Stuff, which refers to "the strange turning of The Isle of Dogs from a comedy to a tragedy two summers past" and insists that he was an innocent party, having written only Act One : "the other four acts without my consent, or the least guess of my drift or scope, by the players were supplied, which bred both their trouble and mine too". It implies that he escaped to Great Yarmouth.
From these records, we can deduce that Jonson and Nashe wrote a play that was performed at the Swan and was perceived as seditious. It was reported to the authorities and the players ran away, save three who were captured and interrogated. The Isle of Dogs must have been quite a sensation, and there are many references to it in writings of the time. Unfortunately none of them tell us what the play was actually about (they seems to assume that their readers will know). The play's title refers to a swampy peninsula formed by a bend in the Thames east of London, but that is of no help in determining the subject matter. You can read various theories in Roslyn L. Knutson's article on the play for the Lost Plays Database.

Whatever The Isle of Dogs was about, it may have been the cause of today's closure of the theatres (although the two events may be unconnected). If it was the cause, Henslowe must be furious at the recklessness of his neighbours at the Swan. 

The Rose will thus be silent until October 11. See you then!


Information on The Isle of Dogs and the closure of the theatres

  • Carol Chillington Rutter, Document of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 113-18
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 1081.
  • Roslyn L. Knutson and others, "Isle of Dogs, The", Lost Plays Database (2021), accessed July 2021. 

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

No comments:

Post a Comment