King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Act of parliament against vagrancy

Opening showing text entitled: An acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggers, with decorative initial letterOpening showing: An acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggersShakespeare’s move from the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon to the capital at some point in the 1580s embodied both the traditional trajectory of youthful ambition and a more general trend of urbanisation and gravitation towards London, the one major English city of the early modern period. However, provincial towns were by no means backward; they had highly developed systems of local government and education, and diverse cultural activities.

As the son of a successful tradesman who rose to become a magistrate in Stratford, Shakespeare had no rural upbringing, and he would probably not have been too discomfited by the shock of arriving in the big city. The items in this part of the exhibition illustrate his passage from the provinces to the capital, and from grammar school to theatre company.

To be an actor in the Tudor period could be a hazardous undertaking, as this ‘Acte for punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggers’ from the English parliamentary session of 1596-7 makes plain. Vagrancy and vagabondage were serious crimes – able-bodied vagrants were treated with suspicion and liable to be apprehended, punished and sent back whence they came. Acting or playing was barely reputable, and its practitioners required the patronage and protection of the socially powerful. Shakespeare’s involvement with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) is well known, but he may also have played or written for the Admiral’s Men, Lord Strange’s Men and Pembroke’s Men.

The inclusion of unpatronised players within officially proscribed vagrant groups was not only to prevent professional beggars from disguising themselves as actors, but also reflected unease at the politically and socially subversive potential of unlicensed performance itself. In the febrile atmosphere of the Tudor period, with its religious upheavals and political instability, the state sought to control criticism and dissent in public performance with a steadily hardening approach to players and companies.

After the accession of James I, privilege to license companies was restricted to the King himself, leaving only three London companies and severely limiting provincial performances. This saw the common view of players as disreputable transformed into outright censorship, and contributed to a perceived decadence in English drama throughout the 17th century.

In this exhibition


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