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The Meaning of Success: Stories of 1594 and its Aftermath


“The Meaning of Success” offers a fresh assessment of what we can and cannot claim to know about the years that have often been described as pivotal to the development of early modern commercial theater, the mid-1590s. While many influential interpretations, in particular, the alleged duopoly of the Admiral’s and Chamberlain’s Men after 1594 and the abiding dominance of Marlowe and Shakespeare in their repertories, have treated success at court, in print, and on the public stage as equivalent and analogous phenomena, a serious reconsideration of the available data, especially that of Henslowe’s Diary, suggests that these three kinds of popularity should be considered as separate and distinct trajectories. The most successful plays in the Diary were either never published or failed in printed form; Marlowe was popular in print but had practically vanished from the stage by 1596/7; court success is a poor indicator of theatrical success; and there is far more evidence for a continued and increasing diversity of theatrical activity in 1590s London than for a radical restriction of playing to performances by two companies at two officially sanctioned theaters (a proposition for which there is virtually no evidence until 1598). Syme argues that we need to accept that the Diary and stationers’ publishing decisions represent complex situations and responses, and that abstracting clear and unambiguous rules and conventions from these records is a highly problematic undertaking, likely to confirm rather than challenge prior assumptions and narratives.

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