A real Comedy of Errors
Did Shakespeare make an appearance at the Old Royal Naval College? And is it true that his play did not go to plan?
The favourite retreat of Tudor Kings and Queens, Greenwich Palace once stood on the site of the Old Royal Naval College, the centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich. This UNESCO World Heritage site has a rich history spanning over 500 years and connections to a cast of historic characters, including one of the world’s most famous, William Shakespeare.
Over the Christmas of 1594, William Shakespeare and his newly-formed theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, played twice at Elizabeth I’s court at Greenwich Palace. The accounts of Sir Thomas Heneage, Treasurer of the Queens Privy Chamber, include payments to William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage and William Kempe, for their performance on 28th December. This is the earliest document that links Shakespeare to the Chamberlain’s Men and shows that he was one of its leaders. It also tells us that the Company was important enough to perform before the Monarch that winter.
The Great Chamber at Greenwich Palace was used for the performance. The court audience would have sat in sloping banks of seating, set against the side walls and behind the Queen’s seat, creating an effect similar to a modern-day sports arena. The chief difference, from Shakespeare’s point of view, would have been the effect created by the glow of hundreds of candles, suspended on decorated chandeliers hung from the roof. The light from this scintillating arrangement would have been picked up in the jewels and spangled fabrics of the richly dressed and high‐born audience assembled to watch the play.
Although documents do not reveal which of Shakespeare’s plays was presented to the Queen, we do know that Shakespeare had, at this point, just written a new play, The Comedy of Errors. This was performed later that evening, on 28th December, at Gray’s Inn in the centre of town. Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels, may well have thought it suitable fare for the Court Revels season, an annual holiday celebration.
Few written reviews of Shakespeare’s early productions survive, but there is an account of the Gray’s Inn play given by William Canning in his book Gesta Grayorum. It seems the performance did not go well. Canning describes the players as a ‘company of base and common fellows’ who didn’t begin at the appointed time and by the time they did turn up (after midnight), the temporary stage had been removed. The rest of the performance was therefore a disaster, described as a ‘Night of Errors’.
It is a reasonable assumption that, despite having already been contracted to perform at Gray’s Inn that evening, when invited by royal command to perform on the same date at Greenwich Palace, they were unable to refuse. Consequently, they were late for the Gray’s Inn performance, having to travel back north of the River Thames by boat, resulting in the debacle that would henceforth be known as ‘The Night of Errors’.