Playing Companies in Shakespeare’s TimeOur amazing Tour Guides…

Playing Companies in Shakespeare’s Time

Our amazing Tour Guides and Exhibition Assistants have been sharing their knowledge of Shakespeare’s Globe in a series of recent blogs.

Nicola discussed her experiences of becoming a Tour Guide, and this month is here to talk to you about Elizabethan theatre companies…


Today, most actors are self-employed freelancers, but this was wholly inadvisable in Shakespeare’s time. 

In Elizabethan England the term for self-employed was ‘vagrant’ and punishments were worse than just paying your National Insurance twice. A vagrant would wander around in search of work and risk being branded, fined or imprisoned in the process. To avoid such association, aspiring actors joined playing companies. Being a member of a company protected you from vagrancy laws – you had somewhere to belong. Young Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain being their patron. They later became the King’s Men, the premier theatre company of the time. Members of the aristocracy or the royal family often lent their name to companies, which, in addition to a financial benefit, also gave the company prestige and status. 

Each company had a company manager. In the case of Lord Chamberlain’s Men this was impresario James Burbage, responsible for the first purpose-built theatre in London (named, with great imagination, The Theatre), and then The Globe in 1599. James wasn’t an actor, but his son Richard played many of Shakespeare’s leads, including Hamlet, Richard III and Othello. (Richard also, allegedly, shares my birthday.) 

Richard was at the top of the actors’ hierarchy. Below him were 15 or so men and boys, all aware of their place. The older, more experienced actors would play the mature roles, such as Polonius in Hamlet, senior lords in the history plays. Lower down the company, actors would get two or three roles per play. As you might know, many of Shakespeare’s plays have fairly sizeable casts so there must have been a great deal of multi-role going on. At the bottom of the company are the apprentices, young boys attached to an older actor to learn their trade. These lads play the young Princes in Richard III, pages and children of nobles. Once they have learned a little stagecraft, but before their voices break, they might play the female characters, Viola, Rosalind, Imogen. Not every boy player went on to be a professional adult actor, in fact, very few of them did, although one or two were noted as being brilliant. 

The share-holders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were, in some reports, a band of brothers. Leaving each other gifts in their wills and sticking together for many years, these were the few who had put up money to build the Globe of 1599. These players were the backbone of the company. Some say that Shakespeare knew his men so well he wrote specific parts for specific actors, roles that suited their styles and manners. It’s certainly likely that the Fool or Clown parts differ due to the contrasting playing styles of the two comedians in the company, Will Kemp (who upon leaving the Chamberlain’s Men morris danced from London to Norwich, as you do) then the slightly wittier, better behaved Robert Armin

I wonder if these men and boys had any idea that in over 400 years, actors would still be playing those roles, saying those lines. That they would become some of the most revered roles in theatre. Although the names of many of these players are now lost, as members of the company for which Shakespeare wrote they certainly made their mark.

Find out more about theatre history and Shakespeare’s Globe on one of our Guided Tours.