Henslowe’s Diary (1591-1609) - MSS 7, folios 11r, 65v, and 90r

MSS 7, folios 11r, 65v, and 90r (MSS-7/011r MSS-7/065v MSS-7/090r)

S. P. Cerasano

In many ways MSS 7—a manuscript notebook of 238 folios—is undoubtedly the single most important document of early modern English theatre history, and is thus the best-known manuscript in the Dulwich collection. The book seems to have been owned originally by John Henslowe, the brother of Philip Henslowe, who used a small portion of it to record forestry accounts relating to Ashdown Forest, Sussex, near to Lindfield where the Henslowe family resided. At some point before 1591 the book was acquired by Philip, who lived in London.[1]

The Diary—a treasure trove of information about the Elizabethan theatre—contains records of payments to dramatists, loans to authors and actors, disbursements for costumes and playhouse construction, payments to the Master of the Revels, and daily performance receipts for the Rose Playhouse, which Henslowe built in 1587. Especially prominent in the early 1590s are plays written by Christopher Marlowe, including Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great, and The Jew of Malta. Included also are receipts for a brief period during the summer of 1594 when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men performed together at the playhouse in Newington Butts (south of London) because plague had shut down the theatres in the city. Additionally, Henslowe’s book preserves signatures of both prominent and lesser known dramatists—George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Samuel Rowley—as well as business transactions with others, amongst which are Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Henry Chettle, Thomas Middleton, and Anthony Munday, giving us unique insight into how, when, and with whom such authors collaborated. As such, Henslowe’s Diary provides a unique picture of the financial workings of an early modern playhouse.

The folios shown here offer evidence of the riches in Henslowe’s book. On folio 11r (MSS-7/011r) which records playhouse receipts from December 17, 1594 through February 15, 1594/5, are familiar titles, such as Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2 and Doctor Faustus alongside other successful plays of the time. Some of these, such as Mahomet (on February 5), were probably modeled on the Tamburlaine plays, while others, such as The Wise Man of West Chester, are relatively unknown now, but were popular then. Interestingly, Henslowe notes that the receipts totaled £3 or more (a high return) at three different performances of Wise Man—a comparatively new play at the time—while Doctor Faustus which had been in the repertory for a longer period, was bringing in less money. Also worth noting is the entry written January 1, 1594/5 for Tamburlaine, Part 2, which also premiered during this season, and was highly successful, bringing in over £3. Other plays, such as A Knack to Know an Honest Man (January 13), The Grecian Comedy (January 10), and Long Meg of Westminster (February 14) were the kinds of solid money-makers that filled in the repertory. Because the season between Christmas and Candlemas (February 2) was generally the busiest time of the year for the London playhouses, the receipts shown here indicate that following the plague closings of 1593 and early 1594, the Rose Theatre quickly returned to its customary level of activity. In fact, the 1594-95 holiday season produced robust returns.

In commercial terms, folio 65v (MSS-7/065v) represents the ‘opposite’ side of the diary in which Henslowe recorded outlay for theatrical expenses. Here, in his own terminology, Henslowe ‘lent’ 20s to two dramatists, William Haughton and John Day, at the appointment of Thomas Downton, an actor-manager in the acting company, to write a tragedy entitled Cox of Collumpton. The subsequent entry is an annotation, signed by Downton, attesting to the fact that 40s were advanced to a different dramatist, Thomas Dekker, to write The History of Fortunatus. The receipts section of Henslowe’s Diary is best known for its annotations pertaining to dramatists; however, all theatrical expenses—for costumes, for the commissioned writing of special prologues for the Court, for copper lace, or for licenses from the Master of the Revels—are recorded here. Finally, the upper portion of folio 90r (MSS-7/090r) records a bond between Henslowe and dramatist George Chapman, written on October 24, 1598, for a personal loan of £10 10s. Chapman’s signature, in an Italian hand, is presumed to be an authentic autograph.

In addition to preserving records of his commercial interests, Henslowe’s memorandum book contains some personal information. From it we learn that his nephew Francis became a member of the Waterman’s Company and also purchased a half share in a playing company. Loans to actors, extended by Henslowe’s wife Agnes and stepdaughter Joan, are recorded as well, and one page preserves the costs of what might have been a goblet made for the marriage of Joan to Edward Alleyn, the lead actor in the Lord Admiral’s Men and, later, the co-owner, with Henslowe, of the Fortune and the Hope playhouses. Folio 16v (MSS-7/016v) records directions for casting a child’s nativity (i.e., horoscope), while folio 17r (MSS-7/017r) preserves a series of magic spells that Henslowe purchased from the well-known astrologer Simon Forman, including one ‘To make A fowle ffalle downe’ and another to discern where a stolen object could be found.[2]

Unfortunately, the manuscript has suffered some mutilation, both in Henslowe’s time and in later periods. Several groups of signatures, cut out of the diary by subsequent readers, have found their way into the collections of major libraries, including the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Belvoir Castle, and in other cases it appears that entire pages might well have been removed. Although it is impossible to tell precisely what has been lost, what remains of Henslowe’s Diary is unmatched in terms of the ways in which it reveals the fascinating complexity of theatrical life and theatrical commerce in London, especially during the period between 1592 and 1605.[3]


1.S. P. Cerasano, 'Henslowe's Curious Diary', Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 17 (2005), 72-85. Back to context...

2.S. P. Cerasano, 'Philip Henslowe, Simon Forman, and the Theatrical Community of the 1590s', Shakespeare Quarterly, 44 (1993), 145-58. Back to context...

3.S. P. Cerasano, 'The Geography of Henslowe's Diary', Shakespeare Quarterly, 56 (2005), 328-53. For an authoritative transcription of the full diary, see Henslowe's Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Back to context...