Maypoles and Christmas apart, the one activity which really aggravated the pious Puritan was theatre-going. The characters in plays were almost always ungodly, and included such sinners as necromancers, adulterers, infidels, papists, Jews, loose women, drunks, witches, thieves, murderers, and cheats, not all of whom were seen to get their just desserts. One spittle-flecked preacher denounced plays as being ‘sucked out of the Devil’s teats to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry and sin’.
Theatre was not confined to London or big towns. When Shakespeare introduced a troupe of travelling players to the stage in Hamlet, he was writing about his own experience as an actor. Both London-based and provincial companies toured the country, playing in town halls, inns, or inn-yards, churches, churchyards and country houses. Stages were often improvised, furniture and props borrowed and if necessary the play itself adapted to fit the environment. ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is not easy to achieve on the London stage, let alone in a provincial town hall.
Trumpets and drums heralded the arrival of the troupe in the town. The peace was disturbed. The plays were strange, exotic and sometimes erotic. Apprentice boys stayed up late and could not get up for work next morning. Quite often, the players were not sufficiently respectful of the town’s dignitaries, and quite often too the plays mocked their sort. All-in-all, the theatre was dangerously subversive.
The Cinque Ports were on one of the companies’ main travelling routes, from London via Canterbury, and Hythe had its fair share of visits. Most companies had a royal or noble patron, which was important to avoid being accused of vagrancy, with all the undesirable consequences that entailed. The King’s Players, the Queen’s players, the Earl of Sussex’s players, Lady Elizabeth’s players and Palsgrave’s men all visited Hythe in the early years of the seventeenth century, by arrangement with the corporation, who usually paid them twenty shillings for each visit.
Something happened in 1615 to upset these arrangements. In December the corporation issued a decree concerning players, which strictly limited when they could perform. They had, in the past, been limited to a specific number of plays, but ‘they disobeyed and have bearded and opposed themselves against the mayor’. Henceforward, they could only perform two or three plays a day, ending before 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer, and none on the Sabbath. If they disobeyed again they would be completely banned and any inhabitants allowing their houses to be used contrary to this would be fined. Next year, the Palsgrave company, which had already been contracted to visit were paid, but told to leave the town without performing.
There are two ways of interpreting this turn of events. It may be that the corporation were influenced by Puritan dogma and wished to limit the amount of damage caused to the morals of the townsfolk. Puritan corporations across the country were making similar decrees. In Dorchester in 1607, Lord Berkeley’s Men were banned after playing on the Sabbath, and later the Prince’s Players, even with a warrant from the King’s Master of Revels, were turned away. Or it may be that the Hythe mayor had taken exception to being ‘bearded’ was getting his own back. In any event, the ban did not last long. In 1618, four different troupes performed in the town.
The repertoire of these companies had something for every taste. Robert Greene’s hit Friar Bungay and Friar Bacon was a complicated story of seduction, love lost and found and a talking brass head. Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is an even more convoluted tale of the adventures of Moll Yellowhammer, her intended husband Sir Walter Whorehound and her true love Touchwood which involves several cuckolded men, love potions, elopement and a duel, before the main characters are all happily married off. This was a standard of Lady Elizabeth’s Men. The King’s Men, of course, had the whole of Shakespeare’s canon to work with.
Which brings us to the question of whether Shakespeare visited Hythe. Shakespeare acted with and wrote for the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) for much of his career. Hythe corporation paid the King’s Men twenty shillings for performances in 1609, but on many other occasions they played in Dover, most notably in 1605, when Shakespeare was writing King Lear and described the cliff on the outskirts of town which now bears his name. Was Shakespeare with the players in 1609? Unlikely – he was by then a successful playwright and part owner of the Blackfriars Theatre. Were there other, unrecorded visits of the company to Hythe – very likely, the records are far from complete. Did he ever make the journey from Dover to Hythe – possibly: he certainly wandered or rode out into ‘the country near Dover’. The answer to the original question – maybe. If he did, then he did not see any feature in Hythe’s flat landscape worth recording, but maybe, just maybe, one of Hythe’s men or women is immortalised in one of the many wonderful minor characters which populate the works of England’s finest playwright.