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How did a formidable Renaissance woman influence Shakespeare’s career?

How did a formidable Renaissance woman influence Shakespeare’s career?

Dr Chris Laoutaris writes about his Postdoctoral Fellowship project to explore the life and influence of Elizabeth Russell on William Shakespeare.

• Dr Chris Laoutaris

Chris LaoutarisMy subject:
Literature, Biography and History

About me:
My name is Chris Laoutaris and I am a lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon (part of the University of Birmingham). As a biographer and historian I have published with Penguin Random House and recently signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins in the UK and Pegasus Publishers in the US. I have also written for the Financial Times, Sunday Express, Times Higher Education Supplement, the History News Network USA, BBC History Magazine, BBC Shakespeare Lives, and supplied film consultancy to the Weinstein Company for their much-anticipated sequel to Shakespeare in Love.

What is my research project?
Would it surprise you to learn that the course of William Shakespeare’s career was determined in a decisive way by a little-known woman named Elizabeth Russell, and that without her intervention the famous Globe Theatre would probably never have existed? In 2007 I was awarded £242,737 for a three-year Postdoctoral Fellowship at University College London to explore the life and influence of this formidable woman. The project became a commercial book entitled Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe, which was published by Penguin for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, and by Pegasus in the US the following year.

In November 1596 Lady Russell led an uprising against the theatrical troupe to which Shakespeare belonged, preventing the company from occupying a newly-constructed playhouse in the Blackfriars district of London. In the process she sparked an enduring mystery, for she convinced the two men who stood to gain the most from the playwright’s continuing success to betray him. In a scarcely-believable act of disloyalty Shakespeare’s patron, the Lord Hunsdon, and his publisher, Richard Field, joined her personal army and helped ban the players from the Blackfriars Theatre. The purpose of my research was to uncover this largely untold story, as well as to shine a spotlight on the activities of elite women during this period.

Elizabeth Russell, self-styled Dowager Countess of Bedford, was one of the most well-connected and educated women in the country, with a fearsome reputation to match. During a long and controversial career she sparked numerous riots, and became embroiled in acts of violent affray, kidnapping, breaking-and-entering, bribery, blackmail and armed combat. For Lady Russell warfare was a way of life and, as Shakespeare and the backers of the Blackfriars Theatre discovered to their cost, she was not a woman to mess with.

Facing financial ruin, the players needed a new theatrical venue and decided to build the Globe Theatre. This was a plan B into which they had been forced by Lady Russell, but it would secure Shakespeare’s future success and tie his legacy indelibly to the iconic playhouse.

How my British Academy award helped me:

The British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship led to my securing a permanent post at the Shakespeare Institute, where I was awarded a Birmingham Fellowship to complete my research into the history of the Blackfriars Theatre and begin working on my next book project. Shakespeare and the Countess was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for Biography, was a ‘Book of the Year’ for both the Telegraph and the Observer, a Sunday Telegraph ‘Book of the Week’, one of the Daily Telegraph’s Top 10 summer history reads, and one of the New York Post’s ‘Must-Read Books’. It featured on BBC1’s flagship magazine programme The One Show and on numerous other radio and television programmes across the globe. This in turn resulted in my being offered a two-book deal with HarperCollins’ oldest imprint, William Collins. The British Academy’s support – and the unique way in which it bridges academic, public and commercial institutions through the projects it funds – was instrumental both in my academic career and in my being able to fulfil a childhood dream of becoming an author of popular biographies and historical books.

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