Acting companies who were based in London needed a noble patron – an aristocrat who would be granted a licence to allow the company to perform. The company would be named after the noble who was their patron. Shakespeare’s company were the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the actors all had shares in the company. Their main rivals were the Admiral’s Men, whose patrons owned the company, and merely employed the actors.

The king or queen might occasionally commission a play or pay especially for a performance but would not be the full patron of the company. The exception to this was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who became the King’s Men when James I came to the throne and took over as patron of their company. James loved the theatre and the company performed at court twice as often as they had under Elizabeth.

Did you know?

  • Shakespeare tried to flatter the Earl of Southampton into being his patron by dedicating his first long poem, Venus and Adonis, to the Earl. It seems to have worked – he published a second long poem also dedicated to the Earl.
  • The word ‘patron’ comes from Latin, and is related to the word ‘pater’ meaning father – your patron provided for you and looked after you, like a father. We still use the phrase ‘patron of the arts’ to describe someone who funds art projects.