Who were the Queen'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 Rose playhouse on London's south bank. From December 1593 to February 1594, those accounts record the performances of a company called the Earl of Sussex's Men. But after a short break, during with the theatres were closed due to fears of plague, Sussex's Men returned for a week in April 1594, now performing with another company, the Queen's Men, and staging the latter's own repertory of plays. So, who were the Queen's Men?

Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus
Gheeraerts, c. 1595
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 Queen Elizabeth herself. They seem to have been formed in 1583 as a kind of supergroup that brought together the best actors from several companies.

By 1594, however, the Queen's Men seem to have been declining in popularity in London. Their appearance at the Rose for one week is the last record of them in the city, and afterward they spent their time touring around England, with no base in the capital. Exactly why they shared the Rose with Sussex's Men for that one week is unknown, but the playing companies seem to have been going through a period of flux in the aftermath of the 1593 plague, with lots of breakups, mergers, and re-organizations. The companies would eventually settle into a 'new normal' in which two other companies would be the main ones in London, and the Queen's Men would hit the road.

Although they don't figure much in this blog, the Queen's Men are very important to the history of English drama. The plays that they performed seem to have been influential in shaping English Renaissance drama as we know it, and the young Shakespeare was clearly inspired by them. Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard III and King John are clearly reworkings of the Queen's Men's King Leir and his Three Daughters, The True Tragedy of Richard III and The Troublesome Reign of King John, while his two Henry IV plays and Henry V are elaborations of The Famous Victories of Henry V.

You can find out more about the Queen's Men in the book list below, but you can also check out two websites created by McMaster University. The first, Queen's Men Editions, presents texts of the company's plays. The second, Performing the Queen's Men, is about a series of workshop performances of the company's plays conducted in Toronto in 2006, which attempted to recreate Elizabethan working methods and performance styles as far as possible; it includes video of three productions (the videos are currently password-protected, but you can request access here).

Further reading

  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearian Playing Companies (Oxford University Press, 1996), 196-217
  • Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, The Queen's Men and their Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • "Queen's Men History and Times", Queen's Men Editions (2006), accessed June, 2017
  • Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin, "Locating the Queen's Men: An Introduction", in Locating the Queen's Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and the Conditions of Playing (Ashgate, 2009), 1-26

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