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Anne Somerset

Out, Damned Nightspot

Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe
By Chris Laoutaris (Fig Tree 528pp 20)

William Shakespeare had good reason to hope that 1596 would prove a prosperous year for him. At great expense the impresario James Burbage had recently acquired and refitted a magnificent theatre where Shakespeare's works could be staged. Unlike the premises at which Shakespeare's theatrical company was then based, the new theatre at Blackfriars was not open to the elements, so plays could be put on even in winter. Large sums had been invested to provide excellent lighting and special-effects technology. Seats would be pricey and Shakespeare would be entitled to a share of the profits. Unfortunately for Shakespeare the venture incurred the disapproval of Elizabeth, Lady Russell, a venerable Blackfriars resident who set about organising a petition against the theatre. She prevailed upon almost all her neighbours to sign it, including her friend Lord Cobham.

Lady Russell was a fearsome adversary. As the sister-in-law of Queen Elizabeth I's lord treasurer, Lord Burghley, she was extremely well connected, and she was also a formidable personage in her own right. Most unusually for the time, she and her sisters had been educated to a very high standard by a father who believed 'women are as capable of learning as men'. All five of his daughters were famed for being 'learned above their sex', with the ability to 'entertain all kind of men with talk worthy the hearing'. From her earliest youth Lady Russell had been exposed to radical religious ideas and was passionately committed to upholding her own advanced form of Protestantism. When the uncompromising beliefs of Puritan divines landed them in trouble with the authorities, she interceded on their behalf, often extricating them from difficulties.

Following the death of her second husband in 1584, Lady Russell had made valiant efforts to protect her daughters' birthright. Her husband had predeceased his father, the Earl of Bedford, but Lady Russell insisted that when Bedford died, his property should be shared by his granddaughters, instead of being bequeathed, as was customary, to his nearest male relative. She conducted an eight-year lawsuit, only for the judges to pronounce against her.

These were by no means the only controversial proceedings she engaged in. Though physically frail and in 'most extreme pain' from a back injury, she was dauntless in confrontations with perceived enemies. During a bitter property dispute, she led 12 armed servants in an assault on people she maintained were wrongfully occupying one of her houses. In a 'most furious, forcible and riotous manner' she not only ousted the unfortunate tenants but also dragged two of them off to another of her residences, where they were 'fast locked' in the stocks for several days. Not long afterwards a bailiff who had displeased her was left 'in utter despair of his life' after it appeared that Lady Russell's servants were planning to string him up in the woods without the formality of a trial.

Towards the end of her life she embarked on further litigation in the Court of Star Chamber. Having first roughly handled a privy councillor who cast doubt on her claims, she shouted down the lord chancellor. To the consternation of the men present, she 'violently and with great audacity began a large discourse and would not by any means be stayed or interrupted'. Once again she lost the case, but at least one observer was filled with reluctant admiration for her 'more than womanlike' courage. Paying tribute to her 'many excellent gifts', he acknowledged her 'great spirit', while regretting that it was 'blemished ... with extreme pride'.

This, then, was the alarming woman with whom Shakespeare found himself in contention in 1596. In part Lady Russell's objections to the Blackfriars Theatre arose from simple nimbyism, for she argued that the increased crowds and traffic would cause 'a general inconvenience to all the inhabitants of the same precinct'. She exploited the authorities' fear of riotous behaviour by suggesting that 'vagrant and lewd persons ... under colour of resorting to the plays will come thither and work all manner of mischief'. She may also have had a more particular grudge against Shakespeare. His recently staged Henry IV, Part 1 had featured a fat, drunken knight called Sir John Oldcastle (an ancestor of her friend Lord Cobham), whose reprobate friend John Russell was the namesake of Elizabeth Russell's late husband. This was probably not a coincidence, but if Shakespeare had been teasing Lady Russell and her circle he came to regret causing such offence. When the play was next staged he tried - too late - to make amends by renaming the two characters Falstaff and Bardolph.

Lady Russell's petition against the Blackfriars Theatre was successful. The authorities refused to allow it to open, ruining James Burbage, who died shortly afterwards. Forced to find an alternative venue, Shakespeare's theatrical troupe, the Chamberlain's Men, moved to Bankside. There they erected the Globe, the theatre forever associated with Shakespeare's name.

Shakespeare may have revenged himself on the triumphant Lady Russell by inflicting subtle pinpricks on her and her family in subsequent works. Chris Laoutaris argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor contains references to Lady Russell's violent behaviour towards wayward tenants, while Malvolio in Twelfth Night is perhaps based upon Thomas Hoby, Elizabeth Russell's son from her first marriage. Possibly, however, Shakespeare later portrayed her in a more flattering light in the hope of commending himself to her powerful nephew Robert Cecil. It seems likely that the doughty widow the Countess of Roussillon in All's Well that Ends Well was inspired by Lady Russell.

Laoutaris delves into all this with immense gusto, introducing his readers to a dizzying cast of characters and approaching his subject from myriad different angles. There are times when his enthusiasm runs away with him. His claim that Lady Russell was a spy who played a part in 'some of the greatest conspiracies ever to have rocked the English throne' is, I think, hyperbolic. Even so, thanks to Chris Laoutaris's impressive research, this largely forgotten figure emerges as a woman of great erudition, determination and courage, scarcely less remarkable than her namesake and contemporary Elizabeth I.

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Anne Somerset has written biographies of Elizabeth I and Queen Anne, and is now working on a book about Queen Victoria's political life.

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