Male performers may have dominated the early modern stage, but female investors were a driving force behind one of the most important theaters of the 17th century, according to new research.
Academics found that women made up much of the financial force behind the Fortune theatre, the Globe’s great rival, partly built by the actor for whom Christopher Marlowe wrote plays and where they were first staged the dramas of Thomas Middleton.
While some female Fortune investors were previously known, it has now been revealed that they made up a third of the theater’s financial backers between the mid-1920s and late 1940s. Of the 71 investors, including the carpenter who had worked on the cottage, 24 were women and, at one time, owned the majority of the shares. While some inherited them, others bought them for themselves, despite having no previous ties to the theatre.
Lucy Munro, professor of Shakespeare and early modern literature at King’s College London, told the Observer that, researching theater, she never expected to find that women had such a large financial stake. “This challenges the stereotype of the all-male early modern stage and the idea that it is completely dominated by men,” she said.
“We know the people who performed in the Fortune shows were men and boys, but I find it really exciting that these women thought theater was for them, and that it wasn’t just for men.”
The Fortune Theater was built in the 1600s by Edward Alleyn, one of the foremost actors of his day, and his stepfather, Philip Henslowe, the foremost English theater owner and manager of the Elizabethan era. Originally a square timber-framed building open to the elements, it stood between Whitecross Street and Golding Lane – now Golden Lane – in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, beyond the northern walls of the City of London.
His initial resident company was the Admiral’s Men, to whom James I granted the patronage of his son Prince Henry. Audiences flocked to see shows like Doctor Faustus by Marlowe e The roaring girl by Thomas Dekker and Middleton. The theater was named after the Roman goddess of fortune, but was destroyed by fire in 1621, nearly a decade after the Globe fire.
The research was led by Munro and Clare McManus, professor of early modern literature and theater at the University of Roehampton.
In a forthcoming online post, they write: “To finance the rebuilding of the cottage – this time in brick – Alleyn created a 12-part lease, issuing whole and half shares of the second Fortune to investors who paid £83 6s 8d for a full share and £41 13s 4d for a half share. This would be around £11,000 and £5,500 today, so the lessees must have been relatively well off.
But they add: “Most of these women came from what historians have termed the ‘average type’ – those who were neither very rich nor very poor. They were the daughters, wives and widows of London merchants, officials and actors. Many of them were literate enough to leave signatures or complex marks on legal documents such as wills and depositions.” Munro said, “These theaters were vulnerable but, when it was right, they could make a lot of money.”
Although the theater was rebuilt, it was eventually demolished after the site was sold in 1661 to allow for the building of houses.
Fortune’s female investors included Margaret Wayte Wigpitt, widow of its mason Thomas, and Elizabeth Pierpoint, a servant whose grateful mistress had left her two half-stocks.
While documentation for investing in an early modern theater rarely survives, the original lease documents issued by Alleyn can be found in his papers archive at Dulwich College, the charity he founded in 1619.
The academics write: “After his death in 1626, the theater rents were managed by the college and the tenants appear in a number of rent books and account books kept in Dulwich.
“These fascinating documents detail the payment – or non-payment – of rent by Fortune tenants, quarter by quarter, between 1626 and 1649, when the college evicted tenants for non-payment of rent during the Civil War .
“They present the most detailed evidence yet discovered for the finances of a 17th-century theatre.”
I find it really exciting that these women thought theater was for them, and that it wasn’t just for men
Lucy Munro, of King’s College
Asked why Fortune’s female investing has so far been overlooked, Munro said the documents were “almost hidden in plain sight” in the archives: “They’re catalogued, but just in some sort of outline. I actually came across a scholarly reference stating that the Fortune accounts do not survive. Well they do.
Noting that they also studied wills and other documents at the National Archives at Kew, he believes historians often stopped researching after reaching 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, because they were more interested in him than in anything else. : “But interesting things happened after That.”
The research project, Engendering the Stage: The Records of Early Modern Performance, was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.