It is commonly thought that Queen Elizabeth never condescended to attend a performance in a public theatre. But it appears that she did—at least once. Buried in E. K. Chambers’ William Shakespeare (ii, 327) is a letter from Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain dated 29 December 1601. Carelton writes, “The Q. dined this day priuatly at my Ld Chamberlains [George Carey, then patron of Shakespeare’s company]; I came euen now from the Blackfriers, where I saw her at the play with all her candidae auditrices.”
This is proof that the Queen indeed attended a public theatre. It may be added that since she dined with her cousin George Carey, who lived at Hunsdon House, Blackfriars, she did not have far to travel. Her appearance in the theatre must have caused a sensation. The following day’s gossip must have been all about the Queen and what she was wearing, the play forgotten. It should go without saying that the Queen sat on the stage with her candidae auditrices, not among the audience.
James Burbage purchased the Blackfriars rooms on February 4, 1596. However, the Privy Council had ruled that the premises could not be used as a public playhouse, the Blackfriars residents being dead against it. Since boy players had been tolerated in the past, it was thought such a scheme would work again. With this in mind, Burbage, and Henry Evans who had briefly managed what we might call the First Blackfriars, entered into a lease for twenty-one years at a rate of £40 per annum. (Smith, Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse, 172-5)
The Children of the Chapel must have been an immediate success. And why not? The children were well trained, and all of the top playwrights in London, except Shakespeare, were writing for them. Moreover, they managed to steal a large segment of the audience from the adult companies sparking Shakespeare’s “little eyases” passage in Hamlet. Ben Jonson in Poetaster informs us “this winter ha’s made us all poorer, then so many starv’d snakes. No bodie comes at us; not a gentleman.” (Smith, 178-80)
After an absence of seventeen years, the Children played at Court on January 6 and February 22, 1601. On December 29 the Queen was at Blackfriars. Did she witness Jonson’s 1601 play Poetaster?