Houghton’s latest exhibition, Shakespeare: His Collected Works, marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Here is a closer look at one object on display.
Actress and royal mistress Nell Gwyn began her career in the theatre selling oranges for sixpence. By 1676 she had retired from the stage and had born Charles II two sons, yet she remained an avid playgoer. Late that year the management of the Dorset Garden Theatre sent her a bill for theater tickets which she had run up over two seasons. This and other expenses—for a silver-ornamented bedstead, for a sedan chair, for satin shoes, petticoats, and nightgowns—were forwarded to the king for payment despite the fact that he had already settled on her an annual pension of £5,000.
Account of expenses for Nell Gwyn’s theater tickets, ca. 1676. MS Thr 56
The plays seen by Gwyn and her companions, together with dates and charges, are listed on both sides of a single folio leaf and provide some of the earliest evidence of Shakespearean performances in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Gwyn saw fifty-five plays between September 1674 and June 1676. Most were the work of contemporary dramatists, but at least ten were by Shakespeare, including new operatic versions of Macbeth and The Tempest. The latter was adapted by John Dryden and Sir William D’Avenant (and further adapted by Thomas Shadwell) and was most familiar to audiences until William Macready’s production of Shakespeare’s original more than 150 years later, in 1838. Gwyn saw it four times in three months.
She also saw the only known Restoration performance of King Lear before Nahum Tate’s happy ending adaptation of 1681, which, like Dryden’s Tempest, held the stage for more than a century and a half. We can only guess if Gwyn saw as many plays at Drury Lane, the only other patented playhouse (with whom Dorset Garden had divided rights to Shakespeare’s plays) and where Gwyn likely enjoyed freedom of the house.
Lord Chamberlain’s warrant for plays seen by Charles II at the Dorset Garden Theatre, ca. 1675. MS Thr 57 (4)
We know from warrants for Charles II’s own playgoing (pictured above, also in the Harvard Theatre Collection) that the king was present ten times when Gwyn attended the theatre, though the two sat together in the king’s box only once. From her side box, we can envision Gwyn catching the glance of the king with the queen at his side or with her chief rival for his affection, the Duchess of Portsmouth.
It is interesting to note that performances at court cost the crown double: £20; and that the king’s bill is signed by Thomas Betterton, of whom it was said that he was “an actor as Shakespeare was an author, both without competitors, formed for the mutual assistance and illustration of each other’s genius.’”
Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post. Read more about Nell Gwyn’s playgoing in William Van Lennep, “Nell Gwyn’s Playgoing at the King’s Expense,” Harvard Library Bulletin 4, no. 3 (1950): 405-408.