Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Jonson and Ostler get paid. Where’s Shakespeare?

Two Bills and Two Suits.
The William Ostler problem and the William Shakespeare problem

by Robert Sean Brazil
April 14, 2009

From Robert Cecil’s accounts.

April 14, 1609 — Bill of expenses for entertainment at Britain's
Burse when the King was present. Inter alia :

To John Taillor upon a bill for divers Indyan toyes bought of him. 15:13:6
To Henry Elmes for the like upon a bill. 9:13:0
To Inygoe Johnes upon a bill. 9:12:0
To Johnson the poyett. 13:6:8
To Ostler the player. 5:0:0
Tohisboye. 2:0:0
To Feild the key keeper. 4:0:0

Endorsed: "April 14, 1609. Chardges of preparations made at
the new buildings in Durhame Howse for the King."

Significance of the above
In the April 11 entry I discussed the entertainment held at the dedication of the New Exchange or “Britain’s Bourse.” Three days later payments were made, as recorded in Cecil’s account books.

Note that “Johnson the poyet” (Ben Jonson, poet) got paid 13 pounds, six shillings and eightpence for writing (and we assume) producing the entertainment. William Ostler was a boy player from the Children of the Chapel who, now of age, was being brought in to the King’s Men. He received a whopping five pounds! Ostler’s “boy” or assistant received two pounds. Inigo Jones got nine pounds and change. This cannot be for his architecture work on the New Exchange -- that fee would clearly be much more. Presumably he built or designed special sets for the entertainment. It is fascinating that Jonson got paid more than the famous architect. “Field the key keeper” is Nathan Field, another young actor in the King’s Men.

So where was Shakespeare in all of this? He was back home in Stratford-upon-Avon, biographers tell us, involved in a protracted lawsuit. Shakespeare vs. Addenbrooke (a tradesman) was a contract dispute in Stratford that dragged on from August 1608 to June 1609. At the end of the series of hearings, the court awarded Shakespeare 6 pounds & 24 shillings, simply because Addenbrooke missed the final hearing. It is not recorded if Shakespeare ever collected the 6 pounds/24. Shakespeare was apparently in Stratford the entire time, missing key performances by the King’s Men, the publication of the Sonnets, and opportunities like the state entertainment that netted Ben Jonson 10 pounds. Yet, we are assuredly told that Shakespeare was the preeminent Jacobean playwright and the leader of the King’s Men. Evidence suggests that such stories are fictions, not facts. Why fight in rural court for ten months for a mere six pounds when the newest actor in the King’s Men, Ostler, got paid five pounds for one night’s work?

Adding to the strangeness, after Ostler’s death his widow sued Heminges for Ostler’s theatrical shares (October 1615), and declared, under oath, that the Shakespeare of the Globe (and other actors) were dead -- "generosis defunctis" -- and could not appear as witnesses! (The standard story is the Stratford man lived "until his last birthday," April 23, 1616).

Let’s look deeper at Mr. Ostler:

William Ostler (d. 1614) was a boy actor who became a member of the King's Men around 1608.

Ostler began in the Children of the Chapel, in Jonson's Poetaster, 1601, with Nathan Field and John Underwood, two boys who would also be called up to the Kings Men. Ostler performed in Jonson's Alchemist 1610, and played Antonio in Webster's Duchess of Malfi.

He was noted contemporaneously as a fine actor; John Davies, in Scourge of Folly, 1610, called Ostler, "the Roscius of these times." At some point, Ostler became a shareholder, or "householder" in the Globe and Blackfriars (both used by the King's Men.) Of the Blackfriars shares, Ostler apparently held one of seven portions. Shakespeare is said to have held one of seven as well, but these shares do not appear in Shakespeare’s will and there is no record that he ever sold them. His daughters did not inherit them. Thus it is possible that Shakespeare’s shares in the Blackfriars, at least, were imaginary, or he was a placeholder or straw-man for someone else.

Ostler married Thomasina Heminges (1611), who was a daughter of John Heminges (King's Men). Ostler died (1614), without a will. While his property should have gone to wife, Thomasina, Heminges took control of Ostler’s Blackfriars and Globe shares. Thomasina sued her own dad (for 600 pounds) but Heminges retained control of the shares.

This suit (1614-1615) is fascinating because of the testimony regarding Shakespeare.

The Ostler case was discovered by Dr. C. W. Wallace, and described by him in The Times (London) for Oct. 2 and Oct. 4, 1909; the plaintiff's complete plea was printed by Dr. Wallace in the original Latin in a privately circulated pamphlet. This item is exceedingly rare. EK Chambers gives the Latin, but no translation and no comment about the statement that the following potential witnesses were all dead, as of October 9, 1615: Augustine Phillips, William Shakespeare, Thomas Pope, and William Kempe. [We know Phillips died 1605, Pope in 1603, and Kempe circa 1603. Why would Thomasina Heminges Ostler be right about those men and wrong about Shakespeare? Most Shakespeare biographers run away from this material, focusing instead on Thomasina’s testimony about the value of the Globe and Blackfriars shares. [You can see a portion of the Latin document transcription in Ruth Miller's excellent article on the subject in Oxfordian Vistas Vol II p. 280-3.

The following is an excerpt from the DNB on Ostler. They do NOT mention the Shakespeare problem.

Ostler, William (d. 1614), actor, had a brief but notable career among the King's Men early in the seventeenth century. He first appears as a boy actor among the children of the Chapel Royal who performed Jonson's Poetaster at the Blackfriars playhouse in 1601. He was probably also a chorister, since he is not one of the seven chapel boys mentioned in December 1601 as actors not musicians. He next appears on 11 April 1609 as the first of three players, all recently or still belonging to the Chapel Royal, who performed a hastily arranged entertainment (published by J. Knowles in Butler, 1999), written by Jonson, mounted by Inigo Jones, and played before the king and the royal family at the opening of the New Exchange in the Strand. He played a shopkeeper and was by this time an adult, for he had a servant, Giles Gary, who played the boy in the shop (the other actor was Nathan Field, who played the key keeper). Probably later in that year Ostler was one of the players from the Chapel Royal whom the King's Men took on as adults ‘to strengthen the Kings service’ when the King's Men began to use the Blackfriars playhouse as well as the Globe.

Ostler soon became a principal member of the King's Men. He appears in the cast lists of six of the company's plays: Jonson's Alchemist (1610) and Catiline (1611); Beaumont and Fletcher's Captain (c.1609–12), Boudica (c.1609–14), and Valentinian (c.1610–14); and Webster's Duchess of Malfi (c.1612–14). In this last play he played Antonio, a virtuous hero surrounded by corruption, the only part he is known to have played in a regular play. In celebrating a brawl in which Ostler came off badly, John Davies called him in 1611, perhaps ironically, ‘the Roscius of these times’ and ‘Sole King of Actors’ (Davies, epigram 205). Ostler acquired the lease of a share in the Blackfriars playhouse on 20 May 1611, and he bought one in the Globe on 20 February 1612, so that he held a seventh of one playhouse and a fourteenth of the other, both leases to expire in 1629.

Ostler married Thomasin, daughter of the actor John Heminges, who was the company's treasurer, about 1611, when she would have been sixteen. The Ostlers' child, Beaumont (named presumably for the playwright), was baptized on 18 May 1612 at St Mary Aldermanbury, London, where Heminges lived and Thomasin had been baptized on 15 January 1595. Ostler died intestate, apparently in his twenties, on 16 December 1614, leaving to his widow (who became his administratrix six days later) only his two shares ‘for her relief and maintenance’ along with debts of ‘a very great value’ . She gave the shares to her father in trust and in 1615 brought a famous lawsuit against him when he would not return them or give her the income from them.

In summary: The first mystery is why Shakespeare-of-Stratford preferred pointless, profitless lawsuits in the country to earning fast cash entertaining King James. Then, how did Ostler, a talented actor, go from obscurity to a five-pound payday overnight? The next mystery is why did Ostler die so young, to have his father-in-law grab all his properties and shares, denying all to his (Heminges') daughter, the widow Ostler? Further, why does her sworn testimony of October 1615 include the seemingly uncontested fact that all parties believed Shakespeare, whomever he had been, was dead and gone? Did the man from Stratford die earlier than we know, necessitating various posthumous legal frauds? Or was he simply so long gone from the London scene that no one even knew where he was anymore? Did Thomasina Ostler perhaps remember stories that "Shakespeare" was a name on a contract and referred to another man, also dead?

UPDATE #1 - Here's an interesting presentation of Shakespeare vs. Addenbrooke 1608-09. Click the sequential stories one at a time starting with "August," then use the provided yellow triangle to go back to the Addenbrooke portal each time:


  1. I've read the Wallace articles in the Times you refer to. The first summarizes his conclusions about the document he discovered. The second is a translation of the original legal document, which Wallace describes as "merely latinized English", into readable modern English.

    Because the document goes into detail about the history of how the shares came to belong to Ostler, the names of original shareholders are listed at several junctures. One mentions how Nicholas Brend originally leased the land the Globe stands on to "...these certain ones, Cuthbert Burbadge and Richard Burbadge, of London, gentlemen, to the forementioned William Shakespeare, and to Augustine Phillips and Thomas Pope, of London, gentlemen, deceased, and to the foresaid John Hemyngs and to William Kempe, recently of London, gentleman, deceased..."

    On the basis of this transcription the document is not referring to Shakespeare as deceased, it's referring just to Phillips and Pope.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rita.
    But Wallace supplied the translation, not the original. Those who have seen the Latin write that the interpretation throughout could go any way the reader likes. So my view is that this is intriguiging, but really can't be used as damning evidence.

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