The dense story of the 1596 endeavor by a powerful, litigious countess to block the opening of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre in London.
A piece of choice London real estate sent Countess Elizabeth Russell (1528-1609), one of the most learned and fiercely Puritan women in late-16th-century Europe, to petition Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council to prevent the opening of the Blackfriars, commanded by the playwright, his troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, and their patron, George Carey. British Shakespeare scholar and lecturer Laoutaris (Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England, 2008) gets swept up in the overwhelming detail concerning these characters and their connections—e.g., Elizabeth’s two deceased husbands, one the ambassador to France, Thomas Hoby, the author of the influential Book of the Courtier, which Shakespeare would draw on; the other, John Russell, also a radical nonconformist more than a decade her junior. It was Hoby’s family property in the Blackfriars (formerly a monastery campus) that Elizabeth inhabited from 1570 onward, next to the Office of the Queen’s Revels, the hub of London’s theatrical district and an area that drew immigrant refugees from the ongoing wars of religion. These residents would support Elizabeth’s cause, and there was also the matter that Shakespeare frequently waded into explosive political material in many of his plays—e.g., in his flattery of the queen’s former favorite–turned-traitor, the Earl of Essex, in Richard II. When Elizabeth presented her document to the Privy Council, warning of “all manner of vagrant and lewd persons” consorting with the playhouse, she managed to secure the signatures of Shakespeare’s patron and his publisher, Richard Field. Plodding painstakingly through the research, Laoutaris reveals how Elizabeth's petition exploited the uneasy social conditions created by recent inflation and civil unrest. However, when one door closed, another opened—namely, Shakespeare’s legendary run at the new playhouse, the Globe.
Intrepid research translates into a sometimes-intriguing narrative stuffed with mystifying detail.