The Law’s Delay,|The Insolence of Office

     I don’t think a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – I think a lot of knowledge is. That’s how it is with Mr. E.K. Chambers, anyway, whose book, “The Elizabethan Stage,” is required reading for professors who grow up to be even more boring than I am.
     Chambers spent 20 years writing it. He called it “preliminary investigations for a little book on Shakespeare.” It’s 2,000 pages long. Now I know way more about the Elizabethan stage than I want to.
     There’s something fascinating about such an enormous pile of dust.
     Most fascinating is to see how the enormous structure of the English government grew over the centuries out of a bunch of guys who were supposed to take care of the body of the King – his actual body.
     The constabulary took care of the King’s courtyard, the stewards took care of the Great Hall, and the Lord Chamberlain took care of the King’s chamber. These were actual rooms, and the centuries-long toadying, treason, plotting and catfights among courtiers and their ladies involved, to a great extent, how to worm one’s way from one room to the next – to get closer to the royal body.
     The Lord Chamberlain was entrusted with taking care of all parts of the King’s body except his mouth. And the “Officers for the Mouth” grew – I am not making this up – until they included “the Kitchen, the Bake-house, the Pantry, the Cellar, the Buttery, the Pitcher-house, the Spicery, the Chandlery, the Wafery, the Confectionery, the Ewery, the Laundry, the Larder, the Boiling-house, the Accatry, the Poultry, the Scalding-house, the Pastry, the Scullery and the Woodyard.”
The Wafery?
     There were also Masters and Grooms of the Tents, Master and Grooms of the Toils, Porters, Carvers and Cup-bearers, Sewers (Servers) and Surveyors of the Dresser.
     My favorite officer, though, was the Knight Harbinger. This dude had four Subordinate Harbingers who rode with him, ahead of the King or Queen, when the Royal Bodies “made a progress,” that is, went out a-visitin’. The Knight Harbinger was in charge of arranging the sleeping arrangements for the night.
     Actually, I’d prefer to be a Subordinate Harbinger. I’d put it on my business card: “Robert Kahn – Subordinate Harbinger.” I could be happy my whole life with a title like that.
     It got complicated when the officers of the Royal Household, who tended to the King’s body, grew as powerful and numerous as the officers of the state. In fact – just about everyone should hate me for saying this – this system reminds me of the Chinese Communist Party.
     Just as there was a King’s Household officer to stick his nose into every department of the English government, the Communists appoint a Party member to stick his nose into every real job. Both systems grew to be unwieldy, way too expensive and corrupt. But both have muddled along somehow.
     Chambers is most concerned with the Office of the Revels, which paid for the plays – when it paid at all. The archives show what kind of nonsense Shakespeare had to put up with.
     A simple purchaser in the Revels Office, “Poore Bryan Dodmer,” who pointed out that Her Majesty was 5 years behind in paying for her revels, billed Queen Elizabeth 40 shillings one year for “paynes in pervsing and reforming of playes sundry tymes as neede required for her Maiestie’s lyking.”
     In other words, some jerk of a clerk in the Revels Office edited and “reformed” Shakespeare’s plays before Her Majesty could see them – and took a cut for his paynes.
     The lords were a light-fingered lot. After the royal presence visited Leicester, the township had to write the court “aboute lynnyns and pewter that was myssinge.”
     And when the Lords of the Household took bit parts in “masks” for Her Majesty’s pleasure, they walked off with the props and costumes. The Revels Office was always complaining about it. And there was no use for Dodmer – or Shakespeare – to appeal to the Master of the Revels about it. Chambers explains why:
     “The Master had to be a courtier, dancing attendance upon the Queen and Lord Chamberlain, and was likely to have the qualities and failings of a courtier; and then he came to the office, and gave instructions to people who knew their own business much better than he did.”
      This is still the system we use today.

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