The Master of the Revels: Edmund Tilney

Nicole Galland

The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (Tylney, Tyllney), makes a few cameo appearances in pop-Bard culture, but he always gets a bad rap. Most famously, Shakespeare In Love depicts him only doing the part of his job that gets our modern knickers in a twist: censoring the arts. (He’s the one who keeps trying to shut the theater down because a woman is onstage). I’m a Shakespeare In Love fan, and of course, as a historical novelist, I understand the need for creative license. But my most recent novel is called Master of the Revels for a reason, and I must give props where props are due. Shakespeare’s theater and Tilney had a symbiotic relationship. So, here’s a quick introduction to the Master.

Tilney lost his father young, and the boy was taken in by Charles Howard (kinsman of Henry VIII’s wife #5, Catherine). He was raised for a career in court; there is little of note in the first half of his life, beyond a brief stint in the House of Commons. Then around 1578, Howard arranged for him to take over the Revels Office, which organized performances at court. At the risk of sounding trite, the rest is literally history – arguably including the very existence of the Folger Shakespeare Library. At the very least, Tilney is the unsung hero of every AP English class.

The Revels Office was in a shambles, financially and organizationally, and required whipping back into shape for Queen Elizabeth. Whatever skills Tilney developed during his first 40-odd years, by a happy accident they prepared him to revolutionize London’s performing arts scene.

First, to save money, he quietly redirected the queen’s cultural consumption. Rather than emphasizing expensive masques (elaborate amateur variety shows with fancy sets and costumes), Tilney took advantage of London’s theater companies: in modern parlance, he simply jobbed them in. Plays were inexpensive compared to masques, banquets, or balls. The professional actors – who showed up already rehearsed, which mitigated Tilney’s workload – brought their own costumes, props, sets, and scenery. Hey, presto! Cheap and easy entertainment. High quality, too: It had already been product-tested in public performances, at the public’s own expense. Her Majesty was pleased.

Within a couple of years, the Revels Office was in the black, and the court’s entertainment had become theater-centric.

Not entirely, of course. Showing off your fancy hi-tech entertainment system is a time-honored Alpha Wealth Display, and Elizabeth kept Tilney busy. The Master was still responsible for producing masques, banquets, indoor martial exhibitions, and acrobatics. Ensconced for most of his career in the decommissioned Priory of St. John in a north London suburb, he oversaw workshops that created everything from pyrotechnics to wigs. The Revels budget included hosiers, tailors, basket-makers, drapers, embroiderers, chandlers, furriers, armorers, ironmongers, wire-mongers, animal-handlers, painters, and woodworkers. As well as organizing and producing the masques (which were performed by amateurs of higher status than himself), he often had to write the scripts that tied the music, dancing, special effects, and costumes into a unified theme. The modern equivalent would be a theater company with a single person functioning as producing director, executive director, artistic director, production designer, production manager, and dramaturge. While answering to God’s anointed ruler. No wonder he sought every opportunity to hire professionals, who handled everything themselves!

By a useful coincidence, the first playhouses were being built, and the companies who performed in them were earning the patronage of high-status nobles, which meant they could be tastefully brought to the court. By the time Shakespeare appeared on the scene, more than a decade into Tilney’s regime, theater was culturally respectable in a way it would not have been if the Master of the Revels had not been desperate to balance his budget.

This courtly elevation of theater led to the next Revels revolution. In the interest of quality control, the number of companies welcome at court diminished until there were only two: the Chamberlain’s Men (scribbler-in-chief: William Shakespeare) and the Admiral’s Men. Meanwhile, through a series of commissions, Tilney expanded his authority until he was in charge of licensing all play texts for all public performances. His reasoning: any play might end up migrating to one of those two companies, and therefore come to court. And any play that might come to court had to be curated by Tilney, to make sure it would not displease Her Majesty.

Here’s how the process worked. The actors came to Tilney’s office and recited the new play for him; most of the time, Tilney immediately approved it by affixing his seal to the official manuscript. This seal was invaluable. It meant the company had the right to perform the play as written. Important detail: he charged a fee for every script he stamped, plus he benefited financially when playhouses were open for business, as well as when a play came to the court. So, it was not in his financial interest to censor anything.

But there were times when he would order revisions and withhold his approval until they had been made. Sometimes, these were practical production matters. And sometimes, the reforms were based on political concerns – which is why he’s often seen as a censor.

But governmental censorship is usually associated with an overarching political philosophy, and that was not the case here. There were no absolute or general taboos under Elizabeth (beyond traitorous remarks, which were taboo everywhere). When Tilney asked for changes, they reflected the crown’s immediate concerns. In the single surviving example we have of his “censorship” – his mark-up of the play Sir Thomas More – he wanted to avoid inflaming the xenophobia sweeping London. He asked for the removal of dialogue about Englishmen being mistreated by foreigners, as well as references to the anti-alien May Day riots of 1517.

He made these changes because anti-alien riots were breaking out all over London when Sir Thomas More was written, and the organizers of those riots used play-going as an excuse to meet. Tilney knew how dangerous things could get when extremists gathered near the seat of government while listening to dialogue that encouraged them to riot. Given recent events closer to home, I find it hard to fault his concern. Call his reforms censorship if you will. (As censorship goes, it’s hardly in the same ballpark as closing a theater for letting a female onstage.) But he was also the champion, and often the producer, of every play he reformed. Shakespeare was not selling out, but he understood from the beginning of his career that his most important audience was Tilney.

Because of Tilney, playwrights became more revered among the reading classes; because of Tilney, only certain playwrights’ works were greatly revered; because of Tilney, Shakespeare was chief among those playwrights. That he remains chief among playwrights is a testament to his genius, of course. But the fact that he was positioned to be recognized as such is largely due to Edmund Tilney.


Nicole Galland’s most recent novel, Master of the Revels, is a time-travel romp centering on the debut performance of Macbeth in 1606.

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