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The Bard’s untamed shrew: Shakespeare and the Countess by Chris Laoutaris

The Countess Russell drew up a petition to prevent Blackfriars Theatre from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

Drama queen: the Countess Russell. Image: Red Edge/Girts Gailans

Shakespeare and the Countess:
The Battle That Gave Birth to the Globe

Chris Laoutaris
Fig Tree, 503pp, £20

Shakespeare was the neighbour from hell, according to Elizabeth Russell, the dowager countess of Bedford and Puritan zealot who had the misfortune to live next to his newly built Blackfriars Theatre.

Not only did she put up for months with the hammering and clattering of builders, whose carts of rubble rattled ceaselessly past her front door, but once the “house of Satan” was complete, she faced a future of roads gridlocked with revellers as well as the interminable racket of “drums and trumpets” rising from the stage. Shakespeare’s business partner James Burbage was hoping to create a state-of-the-art playhouse to attract a quality audience, but as far as Elizabeth was concerned, any audience was corrupting public morals. Preferring the “divine service and sermons”, she considered the theatre to be at best a “market of bawdry” and at worst the focus of civil unrest.

It was 1596 and these were nervous times; so, to preserve the peace, Elizabeth did what any soldier of Christ and servant of the queen would do. She drew up a petition to prevent the den of iniquity from opening and to drive the dramatist and his wretched troupe from her turf.

In doing so, she derailed Shakespeare’s career, but only temporarily. He avenged himself, Chris Laoutaris suggests, by sending up her kinsmen in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor and immortalising her son, Thomas Posthumous Hoby, as the Puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Several scenes from her life are encrypted in his plays and Elizabeth’s final appearance in Shakespeare, Laoutaris moots, is as the dowager countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Shakespeare and the Countess is a work of historical and literary detection which takes us straight to the heart of religious politics in Elizabethan England. Homing in on the countess’s petition, Laoutaris – a lecturer at Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute – vividly reconstructs the neighbourhood of Blackfriars in the City of London, where courtiers, tradesmen and French émigrés lived cheek by jowl, and unravels the relationships between the signatories. These are not as straightforward as you might assume: the author shows how one of the petitioners was Shakespeare’s own patron George Carey; another was the publisher of his Venus and Adonis, Richard Field, a childhood friend. It was quite normal, in the extreme world of Elizabeth Russell, for everyone to be deceiving everyone else almost all of the time.

There is a great deal to admire in this hugely ambitious book but the title is misleading. The Bard has only a walk-on role in the overall drama and, strange to say, the scenes in which he appears could be cut without any great loss. His presence will obviously appeal to the audience and his name does not appear without a drum roll, but Laoutaris is less interested in Shakespeare than in Elizabeth Russell: occasional poet, pushy parent, self-promoting Puritan and the most litigious woman who ever lived. Putting the playwright out of business was as nought in comparison to the punishments meted out from her country estates to neighbours with whom she fell out. Kidnap, forgery and hanging men by their heels were Elizabeth’s usual responses to disputes over land. Ironically, she had a lively theatrical streak and blossomed in battle.

She was an extremist in all things and her life was organised around promoting her children, acquiring and protecting her property (she was the first woman to be the keeper of her own castle) and destroying the Catholic cause. Her afterlife has been just as hectic, with Bisham Abbey, one of her houses, reputed to be home to her furious ghost. Mysterious green lights flicker in the tower room and a hooded woman has been seen rowing a boat on the river in a swath of blue mist.

In the only living likeness of her that still exists, Elizabeth stares out like a cobra from beneath a white headdress of astonishing dimensions, and Laoutaris paints an equally striking biographical portrait. She was given the education of a king because her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, was tutor to Edward VI and Elizabeth shared the boy’s lessons. As such, she was raised to believe in her social superiority, her civic duty, and the importance of crushing those who were not on her team. The Cooke family operated at the centre of
the court: one of her sisters married William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England, and another married Sir Nicholas Bacon and became the mother of Francis Bacon. Elizabeth married twice; first to Thomas Hoby, the English ambassador to France, and then to John Russell, heir of the Earl of Bedford. Russell died before he inherited the title, but this detail did not deter his widow from calling herself the dowager countess.

Probably wisely, Laoutaris at all times takes the side of his subject, even if this involves giving credit where none is due. She was, he argues, a pioneering “feminist” who stood up for women as independent owners of property. Elizabeth Russell, however, was concerned with the rights of no woman other than herself. He praises her courage as a “single mother”, a modern expression that has little meaning for an age and class in which the requirements of parenthood were so different. She seems to have been singularly unpleasant as a mother; iron-willed, she manipulated the marriages of her children, alienated her sons and was rumoured to have beaten one of them to death when, as a boy, he marred his copybook. Laoutaris swipes this story aside like an irritating fly.

In attempting to destroy Shakespeare’s career, Elizabeth inadvertently gave it a boost: had she not shut down the Blackfriars Theatre, he would not have crossed the river and built the Globe. And without the Globe, Laoutaris suggests, we might never have had Hamlet, Othello, King Lear or Macbeth, all of which appeared in the first six years of its opening. He ends on bended knee, thanking Elizabeth Russell for these late, great tragedies and for her role in the flowering of our culture. She is celebrated for giving us the very thing she fought to take away. The world’s turned upside down.

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)