By Chris Laoutaris (Fig Tree 528pp £20)
William Shakespeare had good reason to hope that 1596 would prove a prosperous year for him. At great expense the impresario James Burbage had recently acquired and refitted a magnificent theatre where Shakespeare’s works could be staged. Unlike the premises at which Shakespeare’s theatrical company was then based, the new theatre at Blackfriars was not open to the elements, so plays could be put on even in winter. Large sums had been invested to provide excellent lighting and special-effects technology. Seats would be pricey and Shakespeare would be entitled to a share of the profits. Unfortunately for Shakespeare the venture incurred the disapproval of Elizabeth, Lady Russell, a venerable Blackfriars resident who set about organising a petition against the theatre. She prevailed upon almost all her neighbours to sign it, including her friend Lord Cobham.
Lady Russell was a fearsome adversary. As the sister-in-law of Queen Elizabeth I’s lord treasurer, Lord Burghley, she was extremely well connected, and she was also a formidable personage in her own right. Most unusually for the time, she and her sisters had been educated to a very high standard by a father who believed ‘women are as capable of learning as men’. All five of his daughters were famed for being ‘learned above their sex’, with the ability to ‘entertain all kind of men with talk worthy the hearing’. From her earliest youth Lady Russell had been exposed to radical religious ideas and was passionately committed to upholding her own advanced form of Protestantism. When the uncompromising beliefs of Puritan divines landed them in trouble with the authorities, she interceded on their behalf, often extricating them from difficulties.