Young Actors
Historical Background
Miranda's meetings with Shakespeare
Shakespeare Statue

The First Folio 1623

The Tempest is the last play accredited solely to William Shakespeare and was first performed at Court for King James I in November 1611. It is of interest that although written near the very end of his career, The Tempest opens the complete works published as the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. The story of Prospero and Miranda as castaways on an enchanted island clearly contains ideas fundamental to the threads of philosophy that weave throughout all of Shakespeare’s plays.

The First Folio was almost certainly financed by a private group of individuals linked with members of the King’s Men and published for posterity, rather than for commercial gain. This group, possibly secretly led and advised by Sir Francis Bacon, saw the publication of the works as a philanthropic act for the benefit of future generations, rather than a contemporary audience. The Tempest therefore provided a fitting way to open the set of writings.

The tale of the shipwrecked members of the royal family finding reconciliation with the once exiled magician and his daughter is profound in its meaning and simplicity. The notion of the ‘castaway’ as a way of shedding light on our own journey to salvation is also powerful and provocative and sets the scene for a collection of plays that invite analysis at many levels.

The 36 plays of the First Folio have since provided the world with core themes and story lines for thousands of films, books and writings and remains today the greatest collection of plays and poetry every written and an unending source of interest around the world.

The English Theatre Renaissance

The Miranda tales are set in the richest and most creative period of theatrical production in English history. Between 1575 and the mid 1620s playwrights working alone or in short-lived partnerships created many thousands of plays in and around London. Only a small percentage of the plays still survive in printed form. The incredible flowering of theatre works during these 50 years was stimulated by the interest and patronage of Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James I.

New playwrights and authors found an outlet for their work in London’s many open air and public house theatres, where eager audiences gathered. The sudden explosion of creativity and rapid expansion of new knowledge at this time can be compared to the growth of the Internet in our modern times.

The Blackfriars was unique as a playhouse at the time and imagine the atmosphere that was present in the grand hall of the ancient monastery only lit by lamps and candles; undisturbed by traffic noise or the bustle of our modern technological and industrial society. In a world without cinema or TV the theatre was also a very important arena for the communication of ideas and news. People were able to learn new views of history, and the world beyond England and Europe was more and more accessible through the explorations of the great mariners of this age.

It is the author’s belief that the naming by the King’s Men of their most well known theatre The Globe was a radical idea in the late 1500s. Some authorities at the time would still not even acknowledge that ‘the world was round’. Shakespeare will have heard of Sir Francis Drake’s explorations all over the world, proving the earth was not flat. Islands such Tenerife and the Bahamas were newly discovered and his plays were often set in similarly foreign and exotic places and this may have been an attraction for people to see plays at the Globe. Galileo, the famous Italian astronomer, also discovered by 1610 that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but revolved around the sun. As Shakespeare was writing his last plays at the Blackfriars, peoples’ views of the world, religion and their ways of life were being revolutionised.

Blackfriars Playhouse

A converted Dominican monastery near Water Lane in London was the site for the Blackfriars Playhouse used by the King’s Men and William Shakespeare from 1608. Unlike the Globe, the whole audience could be seated and it was uniquely located close to the Old City, in an area known as a ‘liberty’. Ancient rights gave the King’s Men freedom to operate under the watchful eyes of the puritanical City Fathers, although all theatres could be closed at any time if the plays were seen as politically subversive. Towards the end of his career William Shakespeare not only worked at the Blackfriars, but he also bought the Gatehouse to the monastery. As far as we know he never lived there, choosing to rent it out, but there was much talk at the time of ancient tunnels leading from here to beneath the old monastery. Also the scenes in the book set in the vaults are based in the fact that the King’s Men leased this area, whilst owning the grand hall where the Playhouse was housed.

Most theatres were open to the elements and could only be used in the summer, but the enclosed Blackfriars offered new possibilities for creative expression, enhancing the theatrical atmosphere. Special effects were used in The Tempest such as props lowered from the Heavens, a box suspended from the ceiling, and it is likely that Shakespeare wrote the play with its presentation as an indoor production in mind. The young Miranda, in this imaginary story, witnessed some of the mysteries of Shakespeare and the King’s Men as they rehearsed The Tempest. It is intriguing to think what insights and wonders the audience of 1611 experienced as this magical tale of an Enchanted Island was enacted before them at the Blackfriars, lit from above by flickering lamps hanging from the ceiling.

There are no surviving pictures of the playhouse in 1611. Images in this book are based on an original impression by J.H. Farrar, of a drawing appearing in the book Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse by Irwin Smith (New York University 1964). The theatre hall was probably some 15 meters wide and 22 meters long with a gallery on three sides and a stage on the fourth. Unlike the Globe, there was no standing room and the pit was filled with benches. Music was a great feature at the theatre. Musicians entertained the audience whilst the candles were trimmed between acts, and it may also have been the first playhouse in London to use scenery and under-stage sound effects extensively.

As the name implies, the King’s Men theatre troupe was granted its license to perform by King James I and was the most important group of actors of the period. William Shakespeare was both an actor with the company, a shareholder and the principal playwright. He was also a partner in the ownership of the Blackfriars and Globe theatres. It is probable that the Blackfriars was the focus for the last five years of Shakespeare’s playwriting. The home he bought within walking distance of the theatre, known as the Blackfriars Gate House, was left in his will to his daughter Susannah.

The Blackfriars Playhouse continued until the Puritans were finally granted the right to enforce the closure of the London theatres in 1642. The grand meeting hall, housing the Playhouse, was eventually demolished in 1655 marking the end of an era.

Where is The Blackfriars Playhouse in the City of London Today?

With no plaque and nothing unusual to draw the attention of passersby, the name Playhouse Yard is the only clue to the historical background of this area. Yet it is one of few remaining places that can boast genuine links with England's greatest dramatist. The author is in the process of generating support for a statue or some permanent reminder of the Playhouse and William Shakespeare for local people and tourists in Playhouse Yard.

Close to the Blackfriars public house, Playhouse Yard leads to a hidden churchyard and a maze of alleys. These would have been familiar to Miranda and William Shakespeare when he lived and worked here at the end of the 16th century and up to 1613.

The Blackfriars was big enough to hold between 600-700 people and Burbage's company, first called the Lord Chamberlain's Men and then the King's Men, would have performed many of the plays that Shakespeare had written here and at their sister playhouse, the Globe on Bankside. The works of other writers were also presented; amongst them Ben Johnson's Every Man in his Humour in which Shakespeare performed as an actor in 1598.

Francis Bacon, Ciphers and the Elizabethan Alphabet

Sir Francis Bacon was an eminent philosopher, secret service agent for Queen Elizabeth, possible leader of the Rosicrucians and writer of important books such as the Meditationes Sacrae 1597, The Advancement of Learning 1605. In Felicem Memoriam Elizabethae, a eulogy for Queen Elizabeth 1 written in 1609 and New Atlantis released in 1627. The new King James Bible completed in English by 47 scholars and published in 1611 was overseen by Bacon on behalf of the King for all people in the land to read and use in the new Church of England. Bacon was also a secret supporter of the arts and theatre and saw it as an important vehicle for the development and expansion of the English language.

Bacon learnt the use of ciphers whilst in the secret service and the simplest of the ciphers used by him and his colleagues were numerical ones, wherein each letter of the alphabet has an equivalent numerical value. The basic Simple Ciphers are. A = 1, B = 2, through to Z = 24 or using the root numbers 1 to 9, A = 1, K= 1 etc. When ciphering words from this period it is important to remember that the Elizabethan alphabet had 24 letters compared with our present day 26.

SIMPLE CIPHER (based on the Elizabethan Alphabet of 24 letters)
A B C D E F G H I /J K L M
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 /1 11/2 12/3

N O P Q R S T U/ V W X Y Z
13/4 14/5 15/6 16/7 17/8 18/9 19/1 20/2 21/3 22/4 23/5 24/6

Using the above table the ciphers shown in this book can be worked out as follows:

BACON = 33 (known to be his cipher signature number)

FRANCIS (original meaning FREE) and FREE = 33 (Bacon’s Cipher Signature)

In this story two sections from The Tempest have been quoted, which allude to Bacon’s identity:

In Act 1 Scene 2 Miranda speaks to her father Prospero:

“You have often
Begun to tell me what I am, but stopp'd
And left me to a bootless inquisition,
Concluding 'Stay: not yet.”

The final word in the First Folio edition of The Tempest (spoken by Prospero) is FREE (Act V, Scene I):

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,

Let your indulgence set me FREE.

T.T. (The title of the play Tempest) is another way of possibly showing Thirty Three and it is interesting that in the First Part of King Henry the Fourth, the word "Francis" appears 33 times upon one page in the 1623 First Folio. To attain this end, obviously awkward sentences were required, as: "Anon Francis? No Francis, but tomorrow Francis: or Francis, on Thursday: or indeed Francis when thou wilt. But Francis."

For those interested in further research there is also a reverse cipher that was used at the time.

REVERSE CIPHER (based on the Elizabethan Alphabet of 24 letters)
24/6 23/5 22/4 21/3 20/2 19/1 18/9 17/8 16/7 15/6 14/5 13/4

12/3 11/2 10/1 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The reverse count of the word FREE is 67 and the simple count of the word FRANCIS is also 67, which further adds weight to the signature of Francis Bacon possibly being hidden in the play The Tempest.

As further study of hidden ciphers indicating Francis Bacon’s involvement there is compelling evidence that even the memorial statue to William Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey contains a cipher which shows that its designers were well aware of the involvement by the philosopher in the playwright’s work. Please see the book by K. F Hollenbach in the Bibliography.

The Apothecary

The Miranda Tales are set mainly at an apothecary and unbeknown to the author when writing the original Miranda story, there is today a lane called Apothecary Street, close to Playhouse Yard, London EC4 (the site of the original Playhouse). It is intriguing to think that an apothecary may have existed there, as described in this book.

The Mummer

The word Mummer can be traced back through the English language and has the meaning 'masked player'. The mummer does not necessarily wear a mask, but may  play a part in a play that is so convincing that the actor's personal identity becomes secondary to the acting. The word first appeared in print in William Langland's Middle English narrative poem Piers Plowman, in 137 and masks have been worn in theatre since Grecian times. As with most arts there are three levels of interpretation and it is the first that refers to the mixture of pantomime, Morris dancing and mime commonly associated with the word. The second level is best characterised by the advanced skill known as ‘method acting’, used by eminent actors such Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. In the Miranda Tales the word mummer is used to describe a little known third level, which is the bringing to life of imprinted history, the lives of Kings and Queens, and other events held in the collective consciousness of the human race. Other examples of this kind include the Noh players of Japan, and aboriginal, native dance and music.

Boy Actors and Women on Stage in 1611

Boy actors, such as Nathan in our story, were part of households, such as the King’s Men. The up and coming young actors were a source of new acting talent for the adult companies. Also, the Blackfriars Playhouse was used by boy troupes and boys’ companies throughout the period. It is interesting that the term Playboy originates from this time – meaning a boy who played female roles in the plays.

There was no law at the time preventing women from acting upon the public stage. It was, however, an accepted social convention that only boys or men acted in public. Women could act in private masques and there are even occasional references to women acting on stage in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. But it was only after the Civil War and the Restoration that Charles II granted licenses for theatre troupes to operate in London once again, and these included women actors. If Miranda lived to an old age it is conceivable that she could have seen her granddaughter act legitimately on the stage at venues like the Little Theatre in Haymarket after 1660.

Ghosts and Apparitions

There are many references in books available to read at the British Library to ghosts or apparitions being seen in the playhouses or on stage during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period and theatres today still maintain the tradition of keeping a light on stage overnight to ward off ghosts. It is possible that the environment in the City, without cars, mobile phones, electrical machinery and so on, allowed paranormal activity to be witnessed more easily. In his role as an actor, whilst playing Hamlet’s ghost at the playhouse, Shakespeare is said to have witnessed a phantom that materialized from within the great wall of the old City.

There is much to suppose that actors at the time experienced what we might call the mystical, whilst on stage. There is also some evidence that acting troupes, such as the King’s Men, could summon the presence of great people and events from the past through acting skill, barding and their plays.

Bryan Ritz 2012

Backstage Books supports a permanent commemorative sign or statue identifying Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse to be located in Playhouse Yard, City of London, EC4 - would you be interested in joining us?

The statue could be ready for April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616)

If you interested in having your own or your organisation's name shown on a permanent statue by making a donation towards the statue please contact Bryan Ritz on 01923 248294 via bryan-ritz@zen.co.uk or info@backstagebooks.co.uk