Who were the Chamberlain's Men?

In this blog, we are journeying through Philip Henslowe's box office accounts, which record the daily performances of the 'playing companies' (that is, companies of actors), who occupied the theatres  on London's south bank. For just over a week in June, 1594, those accounts record the performances of a company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain
(early 1560s)
Playing companies always had a powerful aristocrat as their patron and called themselves his/her "Men" (that is, his/her servants). This company's patron was Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain of England.

When they appeared in Henslowe's Diary, the Chamberlain's Men were a brand new company, formed in 1594 from the remnants of others. At that time, the English playing companies were rearranging themselves after a period of struggle during the year of 1593, when the London theatres had been closed due to plague. Henslowe records several puzzling and brief runs of performances by the companies in various combinations, which suggest a period of flux.

At around this point, something important happened: the two powerful patrons of the Admiral's Men and the Chamberlain's Men, both of whom were members of England's Privy Council, managed to force all other performance venues in London to close, leaving only their companies' playhouses open. This effectively meant that for six years, the Chamberlain's and the Admiral's Men were the only two companies allowed to entertain Londoners. They worked at opposite ends of the city, with the Admiral's Men at the Rose on the south bank, far away from the Chamberlain's, who performed at a playhouse known simply as the Theatre, in Shoreditch, a suburb of north London.

Richard Burbage (unknown date)
Today, the Chamberlain's Men is best known as the company to which William Shakespeare belonged for most of his career, and for whom he wrote most of his plays. But for theatregoers of the time, the company's most famous performer was Richard Burbage, the leading man for whom Shakespeare wrote roles such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

Another star of the Chamberlain's Men was Will Kemp, a comic actor specializing in 'clown roles', that is, roles written to integrate his comic persona of a plebian fool into the drama. Kemp had previously performed at the Rose with Lord Strange's Men. With the Chamberlain's, he would create well-known roles such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.

The Chamberlain's Men appear only briefly in Henslowe's Diary, in which we encounter them at an early stage in their career, sharing a theatre with the Admiral's Men for just over a week. The theatre was a little-known one called Newington Butts on the outskirts of London. Following this, the Chamberlain's Men moved to the Theatre and they disappeared from Henslowe's Diary.

Further reading

  • Rosyln Lander Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613 (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), 
  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Playing Companies (Clarendon Press, 1996)
  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642 (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

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