345 Theatre II: Playwrights


The University Wits was a term invented by Saintsbury for a group of 6 Elizabethan playwrights. They were not consciously a coherent group but part of a vibrant society of playwrights, actors and writers who made English theatre shine.

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Timeline of Renaissance English Playwrights




Last time we heard about the growth of public theatre, and I left you on a cliff edge – how, we wondered, were the poor old Privy Council, faced with such examples of scurrolicity, how would they re-establish proper right and meet control, as was their bounden duty?

Well, censorship was a well established tradition of course in early modern Europe, and it was to censorship they turned. Very often it has to be said censorship was not that effective, because, just organisationally it was often impossible to track down the type of people that pinned libels to gentry gates in the middle of the night, or put Catholic bills up on the doors of St Pauls. Or those tinkers in the Low Countries would get round English laws by printing illegal material there – and shipping it over. But here, in this theatre situation, censorship had a real chance; because here there were theatres and company they could get hold of, organisations that could be inspected and put out of business if they had to put a performance.

So as private theatre grew through established theatres and travelling companies, the Privy Council tried to extend its control; in 1572 the Master of the Revels, until then the equivalent of a students’ Union Ents committee for the Royal Court, became responsible for the licensing and censoring of all plays. Every theatre company must have a noble Patron, and must be licenced – with the additional benefit of raising a bit of cash for the government, on the ‘if you can’t beat them, tax them’ principle.

But the PC were also a good deal sneakier than that. In addition to the job of the Master of the Revels to carefully censor anything scurrilous, they tried to subvert the agenda, to skew the market, through the innovation of setting up their very own company in 1581, the Queen’s Men. Since her Maj herself, you know Gloriana and all that was the Patron, it would surely have the most prestigious reputation; also it would have a monopoly for a couple of years at least while it got its knees under the table, to performances at court, or a monopoly of two if that’s a thing, along with the boys companies who acted there, and mounted plays by John Lyly. John Lyly was another poet and playwright, and like Shakespeare was a serious chap, noted not for fresh air and fun but for his courtesy, and also notable for apparently being the source of the famous saying “All’s fair in love and war”. Anyway, the plays that Lyly wrote for the Boy’s companies celebrated the virtues of the Queen, and the ideals of her court and that sounds like a much more suitable use of drama, don’t you think?

The Queen’s men were supposed to fulfil the same role – glorifying the monarchy, dramatising elements of Tudor doctrine and mystical monarchy, building a healthy patriotism as is only good and proper. So plays like ‘The famous Victories of Henry V’ for example, did an obvious job; they did King Leir – not the Bard’s version I don’t think, Tom wasn’t a cold at all, he was all snuggled up and toasty – the message of which were the evils which follow from a divided kingdom; there was the Troublesome Reign of King John which interestingly focussed on the evils of papal interference and the joys of national unity, and includes the lines

If England’s Peers and People join in one

Nor Pope nor France nor Spain can do them wrong

Art, then as an instrument of the state. Like those big Communism statues of beefy women and hench blokes.

The idea was that the Queen’s men would blow everyone else out of the water, or at very least weaken them; it would also then have the added benefit of removing a source of rivalry among the nobility at court, with all those patrons jockeying for position. It did in fact have an impact – many of Leicester’s best actors left for the Queen’s company for example, why play for Manu U when you could be playing at Pride Park for the Rams? But the impact was temporary; by 1586 Leicester’s company were back performing at court. The rising star of the acting world, Edward Alleyn was performing with the Lord Admiral’s men at Henslowe’s new theatre the Rose. And the City of London complained that suddenly companies calling themselves the Queen’s Men had sprung up all over the place! The city was stuffed full of so-called Queen’s men, the little tinkers. Actors, really. Sheesh. No respect for authority.

But there was an impact from the Queen’s men. All those plays about England’s history and monarchy rather struck a cord, and other companies thought they’d do themselves no harm with Queenie if they started glorifying monarchy too. And so the national story and identity was a central part in the work of playwrights from then on, including of course, that bloke, who did a few. So also Thomas Heywood, a playwright and actor mainly during James’ reign, was able to write in 1612, writing in defence of Theatre, that plays had

Instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of all our English chronicles

And enabled Englishmen to

Discourse of any notable thing even from William the Conqueror, nay from the landing of Brute, until this day

Well, I can’t think of a finer contribution that could be made than discoursing history. Brute, by the way was thought to be the founding king of Britain to this time, Brutus to us. Not the ‘et tu Brute?’ chap who stuck a knife into Julius, but a Trojan, a descendent of Aeneas. Who came to Britain and landed at Totnes, interestingly, and London. When he died he divided Britain into 3 kingdoms for each of his sons – Alba, now Scotland, Kambria Wales of course, and Logria, England. So there you go – apropos of nothing.

The tradition of travelling around the country plying your trade did not die with the arrival of purpose-built theatres; companies still got together to organise a tour, because that meant you could go to glorious places like, you know, Leicester. In fact, the relative decline of the local urban play cycles probably made touring even more widespread than they had been. There were regular popular destinations though – Northampton, Coventry, Worcester, Gloucester, Shrewsbury, Bristol and Exeter being the most popular, but they’d visit smaller towns on the way. Rather than the whole company going on tour, they’d arrange collaborations with other companies, and form a temporary group to avoid if possible reducing the schedule in London. Sometimes they went horribly wrong; one organised by Richard Burbage flopped so badly, they had to sell everything, including all the costumes and props, leaving them with only what they stood up in t get them home

One very good reason for going on tour was to escape plague, to which London was of course rather prone. In particular the winter of 1591-2 saw a particularly bad plague – and all the theatres in London were closed, something of a financial disaster; it took until 1594 for them to re-open, so in the meantime travelling was the only option to keep the money coming in, since Elizabeth decided on a scheme to pay people to go on furlough.  Something like 11,000 people died in London alone, and the same would re-occur in 1603. Obviously, these plagues didn’t stick within London – so you had to be careful about your itinerary, keeping the surfboard of drama just ahead of the crest of the wave, if that’s what surfers do. But touring remained very important after plague ended anyway; the Queen’s progresses were always accompanied by pageantry and plays, and Patrons rather liked companies touring under their name- it did their reputation and prestige in the provinces no harm at all.

Commercial theatre then was apparently here to stay, and the capacity of public theatres grew steadily. By 1580, the total capacity of Theatres in London on a summer’s day was around 5,000; after 1610 this had doubled to 10,000. By 1595 it was estimated that 15,000 people every week were going to see the Lord Admiral’s men and Lord Chamberlain’s men alone. And the quantity of plays was remarkable. We think of runs of plays these days for extended periods depending on popularity; in those days there was none of that. Old and new plays rotated in performance six days of the week, with each company offering a dozen or up to two dozen plays in a season, or 3 different plays a year. The activity was increasing as we go through Elizabethan into Jacobean theatre; up to 1589 about 90 new plays were published; between 1590 and 1603 it was close to 400 plays. This meant that the pressure on playwrights was enormous – playwrights like Thomas Webster were absolutely shelling them out, and there was a lot of collaboration between playwrights, writing was often a joint effort. The demand was insatiable.

Different theatres and companies probably offered very similar cycles earlier on, but as time went by actors and companies might specialise a bit. We’ll talk more about Playwrights later, but the greatest actors would probably have an influence on direction, particularly one of the greatest of them all Richard Burbage. His father James of course had built the theatre, and Richard went straight in as a by actor at the age of 13. His brothers – a tough crowd obviously, the toughest – described him as brilliant. He became the most popular actor of his age, and continued acting, for various companies but famously for the Lord Chamberlain’s men with Shakespeare. He never retired, actors never retire they just meet Yorick – but continued to act until his death in 1619. Edward Alleyn, on the other hand, another of the most recognisable actors of the Elizabethan stage, had a much shorter career. He was the son of a publican, and his step father was then a haberdasher; he was certainly on the stage by 1583, when he was 17. But he retired at the height of his fame in 1598. But then he went into business with Phillip Henslow, staying in theatre, and I believe is the man that founded Dulwich college, still a school today.

So leading actors, possibly patrons, but mainly theatre owners, had an impact on where they focussed as far as plays were concerned. Henslowe’s preference was for historical epics like Tamburlaine. Burbage preferred the tales of English kings, but there was a lot of overlap. It’s thought though that Henslowe’s preference began to change with the Lord Admiral as a Patron – more towards plays that emphasised English Protestant values. Actually I read from the good professor that wrote about this, that they were even more specific – London protestant values. But I didn’t find out what that might be. Answers probably not on a postcard to be honest, lord knows what you’d all say.





Now then. Let us change pace a little. George Edward Bateman Saintsbury was a child of Southampton, though he died in 1933 in Bath. He was a renowned and much loved literary journalist, and a prof at Edinburgh university. According to the ODNB it was George who coined the title of ‘University Wits’ for a group of 16th century playwrights and writers, that includes the likes of Kit Marlowe. Today we are going to talk a bit about some of those characters and some others – the term doesn’t include either Shakespeare or Jonson, as it happens. We are going to talk about the sort of society they made, and the theatre they helped to make shine.

University Wits reflects one of the reasons I mentioned in the last episode for this extraordinary rash of playwrights; the downward spread of education, through the extension of Grammar schools. Going to school became a much more standard aspiration for the middling sort of family; when Hugh Latimer was being interrogated by Mary’s inquisitors prior to being burned, he described his father as a yeoman, with enough of a farm to produce an income of 3 or £4 a year. That’s not a vast amount of money – but Latimer Dad made sure he sent his son to school. Even for his limited needs, it was a priority, and the way to a better life. For many, this was enough; but for many, they also went on to university, whether or not they finished with a degree which in those days was by no means obligatory.

For many of the university Wits, the Theatre and London offered absolutely amazing freedom and liberation from the restrictions of rural and small town society; the parish community could be very supportive but it was without doubt restrictive, and dominated by the well heeled. In London they could within reason dress and behave as they please, and let me tell you some of them are really not well behaved. They knew each other, worked together, collaborated sometimes dramatically fell out with each other; so it’s entirely probable that some or all of them could be found drinking yelling and laughing together at various alehouses or more likely Taverns. They have been described as the Roaring Boys – which is co-incidentally the title of a very good book by Judith Cook, on which I have leant heavily. It’s important to note that the phrase Roaring Boys or Roarers was very much a contemporary phrase, not invented latter or for our characters, and in fact quite by chance I think I have introduced you to the concept in a previous episode. Roarers, I suspect were the Hooray Henries of the day; posh, loud, obnoxious, occasionally violent. The major difference being that the University wits on the one hand lived in a more violent society and had rapiers at their sides, and on the other they were not brainless products of over privilege.

There were six who carry the title of University wits; three of them – John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele—were graduates of Oxford University, whereas Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe had been to Cambridge. That leaves out one of the more famous of this first wave of dramatists and pamphlet writers, Thomas Kyd, since like Shakespeare he hadn’t been to university. As a result, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe sometimes made snide jokes at Kyd’s expense; and Greene did the same to Shakespeare, being generally assumed to be the author of that famous quote, describing him as the Upstart Crow, “beautified with our feathers’. All of these men though, and I am afraid most of what follows will continue to be all about men, whatever background, were largely forced to make a living on their wits and by their writing, or acting.

Going back to Saintsbury just for a moment, George gave them a number of unifying attributes – in a rather more literary way than me calling them Hooray’s:

they were all of academic education, and had even a decided contempt (despite their Bohemian way of life) for unscholarly innovators. They manifested (except in Marlowe’s fortuitous and purely genial discovery of the secret of blank verse) a certain contempt for form, and never, at least in drama, succeeded in mastering it. But being all, more or less, men of genius, and having the keenest sense of poetry, they supplied the dry bones of the precedent dramatic model with blood and breath, with vigour and variety, which not merely informed but transformed it[1]

Far be it from me to argue against George because he, unlike me, knew what he was talking about. It is worth noting that academics might not argue with this, but point out all the contributions that were made by other contemporary writers, and that this bunch didn’t think of themselves as a coherent group, much as they would have known and maybe frequently met each other.

John Lyly has a claim to be the most senior of them all, but can hardly be described as a roarer, known for his courtesy and good behaviour as he was; but his work Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, a compendium of witty anecdotes and humanist wisdom from the Ancients, was published in 1578 and made him the most fashionable writer in England. He became a member of the Earl of Oxford’s household, created plays for the Blackfriars theatre and Boys companies among other things. By 1600 though he’d largely fallen out of favour, seen as a product of an earlier age rather than the latest thing, and died in 1606. George Peele acquired a reputation as a wild bohemian, but was recognised as a playwright and poet; Thomas Dekker placed him in his ‘Elysium of poets’. In 1607 a book painted George as a character that wasted his talent in sexual adventure, a prodigal trickster who spent his life in taverns; which all sounds rather wild, young, bohemian and fun, but we are apparently not sure whether it’s true or not.

Which brings me to Robert Greene, who burns a highly contentious and disputed comet trail across the night sky of Elizabethan drama, full of dodgy reputation and questionable personal history. But he’s sort of a template for the Roister Doister life we like to imagine for all these writers and creative folks – a man described as the first professional writer in England, which itself is as dodgy a claim as Greene’s personal history. Incidentally, I first came across the name Roister Doister in Blackadder the second, when the foolish Percy greeted Bob, obviously a woman dressed as a boy “Hello there, Bob, you young roister-doister, you. You look a likely sort of lad for tricks and sports and jolly, rosy-cheeked capering”, which was funny in its buffoonery. Well, who’da thunk it, apparently Ralph Royster Doyster was a play from a schoolmaster called Nicholas Udall in 1552. Good golly, the things you learn doing podcasts.

Anyway life didn’t start out wild for Greene; he was brought up in a fine city, a Norwich lad, born to parents probably with a few bob but not posh, maybe cordwainers. He described his parents as respected for their gravity and honest life, which is nice – but not to be the trajectory for their son, who pretty early obviously decided that he was going to cut a dash. He did the double did Greene, a BA at Cambridge, MA at Oxford then he claims to have set off to see the world – Italy, Denmark, Poland and, rather enterprisingly, Spain. He reported later that he ‘sawe and practizde such villainie as is abhominable to mention’ which does not, it has to be said, sound as though he was being very apologetic. He was quite long on pushing the boat out was Greene and short on shame. It’s suggested that he married and then dumped his wife – certainly he is credited with writing a sort of penitential to his wife from his deathbed. Or maybe it was forged. Who knows – a man of mystery.

From travel, to London, independence, and more adventure. Over the next twelve years he published some twenty-five prose titles, ranging from courtly romance, so called ‘love pamphlets’, popular tales and crime exposé; England loved crime pamphlets, and the arcane language of the underworld, almost as much as it now loves true crime podcasts – it gave the respectable a lovely frisson. They called them ‘coney-catching’ pamphlets, or cozenage – fooling the unwary by the criminals – all about the names, language, tricks and villainies of the criminal classes. He also wrote some half-dozen stage plays, including black comedies about wives murdering their husbands that sort of, you know, flighty, not Norwich sort of stuff.

Greene took up with Emma Ball for a while, probably a prostitute, one of the Winchester Geese, described by one Gabriel Harvey as ‘a sorry ragged quean of whom [Greene] had his base son Infortunatus Greene’. We don’t know much about Emma but she was not well treated; she was the sister of a man called Cutting Ball Jack, a petty criminal who cut purses and threatened parts of the male anatomy if not given cash, and who ended his life on Tyburn Tree. Despite Emma’s pleading, Greene refused to recognise his son, and pretty soon dumped both of them, refusing to recognise him even on his death bed. As I say, short on shame.

Greene was a self publicist, and one of the first celebrity authors, his name plastered on bills and posters and pamphlets all over London publicising his works.

Who in London hath not heard of his dissolute, and licentious living; his fonde disguising of a Master of Arte with ruffianly haire, unseemely apparrell, and more unseemelye Company … his fine coosening of Juglers, and finer juggling with cooseners, … [his] impudent pamphletting, phantasticall interluding, and desperate libelling.

Wrote a contemporary. Greene created a career on the back of this self-made reputation, and fed it; he liked to wear doublet in delicate ‘‘goose turd’, a virulent yellowy-green; he greased his red hair into a cone shape behind his head while his beard, according Thomas Nashe,

‘is long and red like a steeple, which he cherished continually without cutting, whereat he might hang a jewel, it is so sharp and pendant’.[2]

Greene lived on his wits, and lived wildly; he sort of implied his parents had cut him off, he paid his way by writing and self publication. He didn’t make much money – he died of a thoroughly Elizabethan fever in a small garret somewhere. But he did without doubt cut a dash.



What I’m trying to do here is sort of build a picture of the variety and excitement of it all; I obviously can’t do a biopic of all. There’s such a range of personalities, and I suppose Christopher Marlow and William Shakespeare epitomise that range – obviously their stories are well known so I won’t go into any depth, but look at one end you’ve got Kit Marlow, university educated, who lived a short, dangerous life of brilliant creativity in poetry and plays, and extreme violence, probably involved in Espionage with the super famous Francis Walsingham. Who died a violent death in 1594. Into this be pulled another dramatist, very famous at the time, Thomas Kyd, the son of a London Scrivener – not one of the University wits since he never went to one. His play The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most popular of the time; according to those that know these things, he was one of the greatest innovators in English theatre, and may have been the first to use the play within a play device.[3] But Kyd was dragged into Bridewell house of Correction when Marlowe was arrested, being questioned about his supposed atheism, blasphemy and treason because Kyd had shared lodgings with Marlowe when Marlowe was writing his Edward II. Kyd finally got out of Bridewell in 1593, died the following year aged 35. An awful lot of these folks died terribly young; London was not a healthy place to live; the horrendous death rate is rather underlined when you realise its extraordinary population growth wasn’t organic, but was dependent on inward immigration from around the country, without which it would have been the size of Filey. I exaggerate for effect. Possibly.

And then to William Shakespeare, who needs no introduction, frequently described as the greatest writer in the English language. From a middling family, glove makers in Stratford, and whose personal life and ambition was very different; cautious and hardworking, carefully investing the money he made in property both in London and Stratford, given to romantic attachments and, politically, keeping his head down. Actor, poet and playwright of course, whose friend Ben Jonson described as “not of an age, but for all time’, and the ‘Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage’. Though Jonson also, it must be said, remarked once that Shakespeare lacked art, but then he was getting rat-arsed in Scotland at the time in front of the slightly horrified and scandalised Scottish poet William Drummond, on whose house Jonson had rather dumped himself. And when it was all done, Shakespeare went home, died back in Stratford at the age of 52, although according to legend died after a merry meeting with Drayton and Ben Jonson up from London.

I simply cannot go through them all, but at this point it’s also worth saying that although all of this has so far been all about the Elizabethan world, the story is every bit as much about Jacobean theatre as it is Elizabethan; Shakespeare of course bridged the reigns, and a new wave of playwrights follows on – many of whom take us into the reign of Charles I. Of these Ben Jonson looms largest, having tortured the school life of a substantial number of school children, though obviously not as many as Shakespeare, what with his Volpone and the Alchemist. But there is a load of others – Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, John Webster whose Duchess of Malfi even I’d heard of, Thomas Middleton. In this world they inhabited, it’s also not just about playwrighting, acting, or even the business of theatre; as I have tried to describe, many made their living by a wide range of writing, there are great architects knocking around in their society, Inigo Jones outstandingly of course, and poets, again some of whom I have actually heard of and know a few lines. Or make that one I’ve heard of, John Donne, the bloke who wrote

Come live with me, and be my love,

And we will some new pleasures prove

Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,

With silken lines, and silver hooks.”

Which is pretty, and

“No man is an island, entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

The world they lived in, whether they were head down, hardworking souls like Lily and Shakespeare, or wild child like Greene and Jonson – must have been extraordinarily exciting. Most of them were all very young; the world they played in was definitely not normative, to use that word that’s on my mind. There’s quite a common whiff of catholicism, which might be thoroughly normative in, say, Portugal, but was not in Jacobean England.  Quite a few were gay, there were accusations with folks like Marlowe accused of blasphemy; alchemists like Simon Forman were wafting around, and in the background was the continual howl of concern from authority and religious types about the impact they might be having on society. As one example the London Common Council fulminated against

The inordinate hauntyinge of great multitudes of people to playes, enterludes, and shews

John Stockwood thundered from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cross against

The gaine that is reaped of eight ordinary places in the city

The London theatres, it was claimed, created disorder by bringing together and mixing up the vulgar, the criminal with others out of their proper place: taking servants and apprentices from their work, parishioners from their worship, wives from domestic privacy, gentry from rural duties to idle recreation in the big smoke, and the money from the purses of all, by practicing on the stage nothing more than the vices of pretence and dissimulation.

As we’ll come to, it was not just about games; it conforms to that platitude with which we were showered continuously with at school, ‘work hard play hard’, and I hate myself for using the phrase, but for playwrights it was absolutely true. There is the sheer quantity of plays produced, which we just talked about; and most produced pamphlets as well to make a living or held down jobs such as scrivening, or acted as well. But there’s also the excitement. I think I might quote verbatim Judith Cook here, which I don’t normally do, but she does imagine the excitement rather well, so let me give you her words rather than mine

But for all of them the theatrical world had provided more than any could have imagined as schoolboys. From being just another anonymous boy growing up in the City or the son of an artisan craftsman in a small town or rural village, known only to immediate friends and neighbours, they were caught up in the excitement of creative activity, working with actors on a drama and finally seeing their work in production, able to stand inside and watch the reaction of a live audience to their latest play. It must have been heady stuff. Not to mention strolling into the nearest tavern or ordinary afterwards to accept the praise or criticism of those who had spent the afternoon in the playhouse, while looking across at the young women whose eyes were full of promise.

We’ll come to the hard work in a moment, but for the moment lets stick on the play hard angle, with Thomas Dekker. We don’t know much about Thomas but he was brought up in London, possibly of Dutch heritage, and seems likely he went to Grammar school, but that’s about it. He appears first as a writer for the Admiral’s Men in Henslowe’s theatre in 1598; he wrote about 40 plays for Henslowe, often in collaboration with others, and worked right through the Jacobean years. Not much of what he wrote survives, though I had come across The Roaring Girl, a city comedy that incorporates the real-life contemporary figure ‘Moll Cutpurse’, which was a collaboration with Middleton. He was also a prolific pamphleteer, still writing when he was incarcerated for debt in 1612 for 7 long years.

The reason not much of what he’s written survives may possibly perhaps have something to do with Ben Jonson’s judgement on him; Jonson thought Dekker was little more than a hack, and a “dresser of plays about town”. The two of them got into a major literary spat, called the War of the Theatres in 1600 and 1601, when the two of them viciously lampooned each other in a series of plays. I tell you, it’s a circus.

[1] Logan, R ‘University Wits’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[2] Cook, Judith. Roaring Boys, The History Press. Kindle Edition, location 94

[3] Mulryne, J Thomas Kyd, ODNB


One thought on “345 Theatre II: Playwrights

  1. Another excellent episode, many thanks.
    Good to mention the ur-Henry V, -Lear and -King John by the Queen’s Men. As well as Holinshed, Shakespeare is thought to have stolen from (er, drawn on) these for several of his greatest works. Martin Wiggins’ excellent (short, lively) book, Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time, points out that Shakespeare didn’t create various genres, such as the history play or pastoral comedy, but perfected them (luckily for us but possibly annoying to his contemporaries). As to Greene, the more I learn about him, the more his abuse looks like praise. “Upstart crow” is a great epithet for a country nobody who wrote the best plays going.
    True, the playwrights and indeed the actors were all male. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, describes the fate of a woman with Shakespeare’s talent.
    Finally, it is sobering to reflect on the explosion of lasting works in English (not just plays but the King James version of the Bible and poetry) that happened as English governance grew increasingly corrupt and inept. And it wasn’t just England. There was a similarly explosive flowering of theatre in Spain (Cervantes and Lope de Vega) about the same time.
    Can’t wait for episode three in this series!

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