Edward Alleyn is considered one of the greatest actors of Shakespeare's time. Born the son of a London innkeeper, he began acting in his late teens when he joined the provincial troupe the Earl of Worcester's Men, touring the areas outlying London between 1584 and 1585 and playing in Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford many times.
In 1585 Alleyn moved to London, hoping to perform before Elizabeth 1 and her court. He joined the Admiral's Men and promptly became principal actor, gaining respect and admiration of some of the most influential people of the day.
On October 22, 1592, Edward Alleyn married Joan Woodward, the stepdaughter of theatre owner and patron Philip Henslowe and became part owner in Henlowe's business. In the spring of 1593, an outbreak of the plague forced Alleyn and his men to stop all productions within London city limits. The Admiral's Men were forced to embark on a tour of the English countryside.
In late 1593 the plague had run its course, and Alleyn returned to London. The Rose Theatre became the temporary home of the Admiral's Men, and over the next three years they produced fifty-five new plays. In 1597 Alleyn left the theatre for a time and travelled with Joan to Sussex, leaving Gabriel Spencer in charge of the Admiral's Men. But Spencer was the leader of the troupe for only a few months before his death at the hands of Benjamin Jonson. The duel between them was the result of a dispute over which was the better acting company - the Admiral's Men or the company Jonson preferred, the Chamerlain's Men (Shakespeare's acting troupe). Jonson was sentenced to hang, but he pled benefit of clergy and at the last moment was granted a reprieve. His property was confiscated though, and he was branded on the thumb as a felon.
Alleyn decided to retire from the stage in 1598. However, his adoring fans refused to accept his absence, and Queen Elizabeth herself requested that he return to acting, so he organised a few performances around his more important dealings. On January 8, 1600, Alleyns and Henslowe undertook the building of a new theatre, the Fortune. Alleyn told carpenter Peter Street that he wished the Fortune to be a replica of the Globe (which Street had built the previous year). They also obtained leases to several arenas in and around London to capitalise on the popular but cruel and barbaric sport of bearbaiting. On March 29, 1603, Elizabeth 1 died. Alleyn never returned to acting.
Alleyn bought an estate in Dulwich and soon became the town's most important resident. He created a hospital and founded the College of God's Gift at Dulwich in 1619 (later renamed Dulwich College). The College is home to many great works of art and the book Henslowe's Diary, from which we receive invaluable information about the Elizabethan theatre.
On June 28, 1623, Alleyn's beloved wife Joan died and was buried on the grounds of the College of God's Gift Chapel. In Alleyn's grief he turned to a family friend named Constance Donne, the daughter of the great poet, John Donne, who at the time was the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Constance and Edward were marred on December 3, 1623. Edward was fifty-eight; Constance was twenty. They were wed only three years before Alleyn took sick on a business trip to Yorkshire. On Saturday, November 25, 1626, Edward Alleyn died.
This article first appeared in Sydenham Life, March 2006.
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