Chris Laoutaris is the author of the new book Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. He also has written Shakespearean Maternities, and his work has appeared in the Financial Times and Sunday Express. He is a Lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at The Shakespeare Institute in Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Q: How did you first learn about Lady Elizabeth Russell, and what surprised you most in the course of your research for this book?
A: I first came across the formidable Elizabeth Russell while conducting research for my doctorate. She was, highly unusually, a prolific designer of funerary monuments (normally a male occupation). This intrigued me, so I decided to delve deeper.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that she had also led an uprising of local neighbours to ban Shakespeare and his fellow actors from their newly built theatre in the Blackfriars district of London! She won that particular battle, and it was one of many battles during her controversial career.
During my research I discovered more of her extraordinary exploits, like the fact that she had constructed her own personal dungeon in the grounds of her country estate, in which she would regularly incarcerate her enemies.
She also instigated several riots, which resulted in acts of kidnapping, breaking-and-entering and armed clashes. Elizabeth Russell was always ready for a fight!
Q: How would you characterize the impact Elizabeth had on William Shakespeare's life and career?
A: Thanks to Elizabeth Russell, Shakespeare and his business partners had to completely change their plans. Originally they wanted to move into a new indoor theatre in the Blackfriars, which would have been the most state-of-the-art playhouse in the country.
Unfortunately for them, it was built just paces from her home. She mounted a successful campaign to prevent them from using the playhouse just before it would have opened its doors, practically bankrupting the backers of the theatre in the process.
As a result they had to come up with a new scheme – a plan B – to save the playing company. They decided to build the Globe Theatre instead. This has since become one of the most iconic playhouses in history.
It also secured Shakespeare’s fortunes, because he was offered a slice of the action. In exchange for a fast injection of capital to the tune of around £100 to fund the building of the Globe, he became part owner of the playhouse, entitled to a handsome share of the profits. This made him a very rich man and forever the Shakespeare of the Globe.
Q: You write of Elizabeth, "She was the first female in the country to become her Queen's soldier, acquiring the Keepership of her own castle..." How was she able to accomplish this, and what does her life say about the role of women in England during this period?
A: Lady Russell offered huge bribes to Queen Elizabeth I because she wanted to be governess of her own castle. Being a “Keeper” of such a fortress was a role that, up until then, only men could perform, because it carried military responsibilities.
But Elizabeth Russell refused to let this stop her. She sent fabulous jewels, sumptuous fabrics, elaborate hats and purses stuffed with cash to the Queen in hopes of convincing her to grant her Donnington Castle in Berkshire. Eventually she managed to wear her monarch down.
Elizabeth was living in an age in which there were many restrictions placed on women. She had to live by her wits or even physically battle for her rights to manage her own property.
But her life under Queen Elizabeth does show that there were possibilities at least open to learned and elite women. Elizabeth I occasionally offered such protection and advancement to women in her court, fully understanding the inequalities women faced.
Lady Russell would not be so lucky under Elizabeth I’s successor, James I. He was less supportive and eventually took her castle away from her.
Q: Are there other historical figures you would compare to Elizabeth in terms of personality and character, and if so, who?
A: I would certainly compare her to powerful, politically minded, Renaissance women like Elizabeth I or even Bess of Hardwick.
Bess was, like Elizabeth Russell, a canny businesswoman who knew how to make investments and manage large estates and immersed herself in the political intrigues of the period.
Unlike Bess, however, who amassed a huge fortune as a result of her many marriages, Russell remained a widow most of her life. She did marry twice, but after the death of her second husband, she decided she loved her independence too much to take another husband, despite the fact that this meant that she was often without protection and had to fight all her own legal battles.
Elizabeth Russell and her sisters were among the most learned women in Europe, and often compared to the daughters of Sir Thomas More, who was an early pioneer in women’s education.
One contemporary described Russell’s childhood home as a “little university … in which the studies of women were thriving.” Elizabeth, like these female kindred spirits, was a real trailblazer!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book about the men who put together Shakespeare’s First Folio. This was the first edition of his collected plays, published in 1623.
Thanks to his friends and fellow-actors, and the dedicated printer-publishers, who backed the volume, half of Shakespeare’s plays (which don’t survive in any other early editions) have been saved from oblivion.
We owe them a great deal. Without them, Shakespeare would simply not be the Shakespeare we know and love today.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the mysteries I grappled with in Shakespeare and the Countess was the fact that Shakespeare’s own patron and publisher both joined Lady Russell in her rebellion against the players.
I found an unexpected tale of betrayal at the heart of this segment of theatrical history and it was fun to research! I enjoyed being a history detective as I teased out the threads of the story that explained why they agreed to stab Shakespeare in the back.
I also learned just how much Shakespeare’s career was influenced by the political upheavals of the time. The “wars of religion” which were taking place across Europe (and which would involve Lady Russell herself) had a direct impact on the character and radicalism of the community, which would eventually back Elizabeth’s move to bring the curtain down on the Blackfriars Theatre.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb