Becoming an Actor or Playwright in the Early Modern Period

    Patrons' protection of their acting companies was economic.  He assured me that, apart from pitifully small purses given for command performances at court, the "King's" or "Lord Admiral's" or "Lord Chamberlain's Company" got nothing of monetary value from the relationship.  Rather, because "actor" was not a recognized legal profession, and because the Elizabethan "Poor Law" established penalties like being whipped through the streets for "sturdy beggars" who roamed the countryside without legal work, only membership in a noble's "service" could protect a traveling player from arrest.  This works even better for our "Medieval vs. Early Modern" mentality discussion.  Think about Oswald, Kent, Edmund, Mosca, Nano, Castrone, Androgyno, and other courtiers, speeding about the countryside on their patrons' business, identified by the badges of livery symbolizing their service to the lord-patron.  "The Great Shakespeare" and "Saint Ben" Jonson were also socially identified as servants of their lords.  Only these "courtiers" served by acting and writing and producing plays.  I think it takes until the Restoration for acting to be even moderately socially tolerable to the general populace.  But they went to the plays, just as they went to astrologers, prostitutes, and other practitioners of forbidden arts, for the excitement of an entertainment of questionable legality.

        Do you see evidence of the ambiguous status of plays and players in the sonnets (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, especially) and in the plays (Lear, Volpone, and The Way of the World).  Look for the theater and acting roles as metaphors.  Notice who is cast as the "audience" and who is the "player."  What is the poem's attitude toward reality vs. representations of reality?  Even in supposedly non-fiction works, like Lady Anne Halkett's Memoir or Lucy Hutchinson's Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, you can see theatrical events being constructed.  Hitchinson's prose often takes the form of dramatic dialogues without a narrator's interpretive function, forcing her readers to infer the dramatic significance of what is being said.