Shakespeare in Love features a number of characters that are products of the playwrights’ imaginations: Viola De Lesseps, the strong-willed young heiress and would-be actor; Wessex, the nobleman who pursues her (and her father’s money); and Fennyman, the moneylender. Others, such as Will Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, and Richard Burbage, were definitely historical figures in Elizabethan England. A less well-known but equally factual personage is Philip Henslowe, a busy and entrepreneurial showman on the London scene, who, with a partner, built the Rose Theatre in 1587.
Like any good businessman, Henslowe kept detailed books tracking his theatre’s costs and profits, including wages to laborers; purchases of expensive props; and sums paid to playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Middleton for their work. (Playwrights were generally paid a flat fee for each script—no copyright, no royalties—of only six to ten pounds.) These invaluable records, known as “Henslowe’s Diary,” bring the hustle involved in producing Renaissance theatre to vivid life.
For example, Henslowe’s lists of box office takings (“Rd” = “received”) demonstrate the immense repertory of plays that the actors needed to be able to perform virtually simultaneously:
Rd at the Jewe of malltuse, the 26 of febrearye 1591 1ˢ
Rd at clorys and orgasto, the 28 of febreary 1591 xviijˢ
Rd at mulamulluco, the 29 of febrearye 1591 xxxiiijˢ
Rd at poope Jone, the j of marche 1591 xvˢ
Rd at matchavell, the 2 of marche 1591 xiiijˢ
ne Rd at harey the vj, the 3 of marche 1591 iij£ xvjˢ 5ͩ
Rd at bendo and Richardo, the 4 of marche 1591 xvjˢ
Of the above titles, we can recognize Marlowe’s immensely popular play, The Jew of Malta, as well as a play about the life of Pope Joan, and another on Machiavelli. Later entries for “Rd at Kinge leare, the 6 of aprell 1593” and “9 of June 1594, Rd at hamlet” refer to plays already in circulation when Shakespeare was living and writing in London, plays that young Will could easily have watched before crafting his own versions. However, Henslowe used a small notation in his production lists – “ne” – to denote new plays. This means that the new play listed above, “harey the vj” on “the 3 of marche 1591” may well have been the world premiere of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part One.