Baconian Theory - Gray's Inn Revels 1594–95

Gray's Inn Revels 1594–95

Gray's Inn law school traditionally held revels over Christmas: dancing and feasting were complemented by plays and masques. The evidence suggests that, prior to the revels of 1594 and '95, all performed plays were amateur productions. In his commentary on the Gesta Grayorum, a contemporary account of the 1594–95 revels, Desmond Bland informs us that they were "intended as a training ground in all the manners that are learned by nobility dancing, music, declamation, acting." James Spedding, the Victorian editor of Bacon's Works, thought that Sir Francis Bacon was involved in the writing of this account.

The Gesta Grayorum is a pamphlet of 68 pages first published in 1688. It informs us that The Comedy of Errors received its first known performance at these revels at 21:00 on 28 December 1594 (Innocents Day) when "a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players ." Whoever the players were, there is evidence that Shakespeare and his company were not among them: according to the royal Chamber accounts, dated 15 March 1595 – see Figure – he and the Lord Chamberlain's Men were performing for the Queen at Greenwich on Innocents Day. E.K. Chambers informs us that "the Court performances were always at night, beginning about 10pm and ending at 1am", so their presence at both performances is highly unlikely; furthermore, the Gray's Inn Pension Book, which recorded all payments made by the Gray's Inn committee, exhibits no payment either to a dramatist or to professional company for this play. Baconians interpret this as a suggestion that, following precedent, The Comedy of Errors was both written and performed by members of the Inns of Court as part of their participation in the Gray's Inn celebrations. One problem with this argument is that the Gesta Grayorum refers to the players as "a Company of base and common fellows", which would apply well to a professional theatre company, but not to law students. But, given the jovial tone of the Gesta, and that the description occurred during a skit in which a "Sorcerer or Conjuror" was accused of causing "disorders with a play of errors or confusions", Baconians interpret it as merely a comic description of the Gray's Inn players.

Gray's Inn actually had a company of players during the revels. The Gray's Inn Pension Book records on 11 February 1595 that "one hyndred marks to be layd out & bestowyd upon the gentlemen for their sports and shewes this Shrovetyde at the court before the Queens Majestie ...."

There is, most importantly to the Baconians' argument, evidence that Bacon had control over the Gray's Inn players. In a letter either to Lord Burghley, dated before 1598, or to the Earl of Somerset in 1613, he writes, "I am sorry the joint masque from the four Inns of Court faileth here are a dozen gentlemen of Gray's Inn that will be ready to furnish a masque". The dedication to a masque by Francis Beaumont performed at Whitehall in 1613 describes Bacon as the "chief contriver" of its performances at Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple. He also appears to have been their treasurer prior to the 1594–95 revels.

The discrepancy surrounding the whereabouts of the Chamberlain's Men is normally explained by theatre historians as an error in the Chamber Accounts. W. W. Greg suggested the following explanation:

"he accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber show payments to this company for performances before the Court on both 26 Dec. and 28 Dec . These accounts, however, also show a payment to the Lord Admiral's men in respect of 28 Dec. It is true that instances of two court performances on one night do occur elsewhere, but in view of the double difficulty involved, it is perhaps best to assume that in the Treasurer's accounts, 28 Dec. is an error for 27 Dec."

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