The King’s Lynn Shakespeare Festival
Friday 26th to Sunday 28th April, 2019
St George’s Guildhall, King Street, King’s Lynn PE30 1HA
King’s Lynn’s Shakespeare connection, by actor and festival organiser Andrew Jarvis
In terms of the history of King’s Lynn which relates strictly to the time of Shakespeare, there is a fascinating body of evidence leading us to believe that the Guildhall of St. George, whilst being probably the oldest and largest Medieval Guildhall surviving in the country, also qualifies as the oldest Guildhall to have once offered working theatre.
The evidence pointing to the specific possibility that Shakespeare may have performed at the Guildhall of St. George lies in several areas :
The Town Book records a payment of 20 shillings being made to the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1592, while they were on tour that year. This was a company of actors who had been forced to tour because of the closure of the London theatres due to the Plague. However, that factor was not the only reason that the tour took place. All the evidence regarding performance practise at that time suggests that touring theatre was a much more prevalent form than we sometimes think. That is, the act of touring performance, as opposed to permanent amphitheatre building-based performance, was more of the norm. We know that there were definite touring “circuits” which theatre companies exercised – one of the hubs of which was certainly in East Anglia.
Now to consider whether Shakespeare was indeed a member of a troupe of players.
In 1592 he was still relatively early in his career, his foremost role as an actor remaining the main element in the learning, but increasingly effective practise, of his trade. However, he was also an aspiring and increasingly competent young dramatist.
Those two factors together could easily make us believe that being a part of a theatre company would be the logical place to be. This, I believe, he had done several years before – during the “lost years”. But by the time that we are focussing on, there is already written evidence that he was considered a good actor. Henry Chettle, in late 1592, describes him as “exelent in the qualitie he professes.” How do actors attain that level of description – well, the only way is by doing it over and over again through many years. So, I am convinced that it is fair to assume that Shakespeare was a working actor and writer – and had been for several years.
Now to connect him more specifically with this one company – the Earl of Pembroke’s Men.
There are certain of the plays of Shakespeare, which we know from the frontispiece of the earliest printed versions, were seen as “Pembroke Plays”. That is, plays which “belonged” to that company. That in itself would suggest a Shakespearean involvement as a writer – or almost “Producer” – as we might nowadays think of it. As a writer he actively wanted that particular company to perform his plays. The strongest evidence that Shakespeare the actor – but also the writer - was indeed a part of that Pembroke touring company is expressed by one of our greatest Shakespearean scholars - a man who is a particular authority on the Shakespearean Playing Companies – Andrew Gurr. In his book The Shakespearian Playing Companies (1996) he states :
“I am almost convinced that Shakespeare was with his plays in Pembroke’s Company in 1592 and 1593. My reasons are not just the number of his plays showing evidence that some of Pembroke’s players were in them (2 and 3 Henry VI, in the versions known as The Contention and Richard Duke of York, and The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus), but the evidence in the quarto and octavo versions of The Contention and Richard Duke of York which indicate that he was on hand when they were staged.”
Professor Gurr then goes on to give textual examples to support the proposition of Shakespeare’s presence as a writer. (See Andrew Gurr – The Shakespearian Playing Companies – P. 271)
So, there seems to be evidence to support a dual role for Shakespeare in King’s Lynn in 1592 – fulfilling the requirement of being both actor and writer.
If that were to be the case, it leaves room for the contemplation that King’s Lynn could be of central importance as a location for Shakespeare’s work.
These possibilities alone make a celebration of the work of Shakespeare even more appropriate to the town of King’s Lynn.
In this introduction I have merely skimmed the surface of the evidence. We must go further.
And so we begin – with our inaugural Shakespeare Festival.