Queen's Men - The Company
In March 1583, twelve of the most famous actors were removed from their companies and amalgamated under the patronage of the Queen to form a new "super-troupe," known as the Queen's Men (McMillin and MacLean 3). The Queen's Men were given royal privileges for playing at the theatres, on holiday occasions at court, and across the country (1-2). Often when acting companies toured they could be turned away by the city authorities; however, the Queen's Men were rarely turned away and were always paid more highly than other companies (45). They were “quite simply, the best known and most widely travelled professional company in the kingdom” (67).
In their seminal work on the Queen’s Men, Scott McMillin and Sally Beth MacLean argued that the company was formed to act as ambassadors for Elizabeth I across the country, to control theatre output, and to promote moderate Protestantism. For more on why the Queen decided to form a company in this period, see the patron section.
The Queen’s Men were England’s “all-star troupe" because of their many famous leads. They were particularly known for their great comic actors, and many of their plays feature complicated scenes of clowning.
McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean argue that their drama places great stress on the visual: with processions, clowning, elaborate costumes, emblems, and pageantry (see chapter 6). In addition to this, because of their role in promoting their patron's politics, there is a visible concern in their drama to tell the truth and to tell it plainly. As Sally Beth MacLean and Scott McMillin note the plays reveal a desire to, "tell the story plainly, and to tell it again, and to tell it so that no one can possibly miss it" (134).
For example, in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, the three Lords and their pages process across the stage and demonstrate the meanings behind the shields, mottoes, and emblems that they are carrying (Sig. B1r-B3v). Understandably, whilst this works well onstage, this reads a little dryly in print.
Another characteristic of the Queen’s Men is their talent at audience interaction. Frequently in their repertory, they engage directly with the audience. For example in Clyomon and Clamydes, Corin talks engagingly to the audience about his local parish, as if they live in the same area as him: "You know ha dwels by maister Iustice, ouer the water on the other side of the hill, Cham zure you know it, betweene my nabour Filchers varme house, and the wind-mill" (16.1401-1402). They also frequently feature characters singing and musical interludes to entertain the audience. In Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, the characters have a singing competition where the audience are invited to choose the winner (for more on dramaturgy see McMillin and MacLean, chapter 6).
The Queen's Men were formed with the most successful actors in the country. The Shakespeare and Queen's Men Project has pulled together a useful biography site on each of the company’s actors below:
- John Adams
- John Bentley
- Lionel Cooke
- John Dutton
- John Garland
- William Knell
- John Lanham
- Tobias Mills
- John Singer
- Richard Tarlton
- John Towne
- Robert Wilson
Richard Tarlton was perhaps the most famous actor in the company. Brian Walsh notes that "he was particularly noted for the physicality of his performances and for his extempore genius. He is reputed to have frequently engaged in improvisatory contests of wit with audience members" (33). Nashe recalls an anecdote about Tarlton in Pierce Penilesse (1592) when the company was touring the countryside:
"A tale of a wise Justice. Amongst other cholericke wise Justices, he was one, that having a play presented before him and his Towneship by Tarlton and the rest of his fellowes, her Majesties servants, and they were now entring into their first merriment (as they call it), the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head. Whereat the Justice, not a little moved, and seeing with his beckes and nods hee could not make them cease, he went with his staffe, and beat them round about unmercifully on the bare pates, in that they, being but Farmers & poore countrey Hyndes, would presume to laugh at the Queenes men, and make no more account of her cloath in his presence."
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