Shakespeare's First Theatre

By lucy inglis on 17 Sep 2010

In 2008, The Tower Theatre Company stood examining a plot of land in Shoreditch, wondering whether it would provide suitable accommodation for their troupe. Little did they realize another theatre company had stood there four hundred and sixteen years earlier thinking exactly the same thing, amongst them James Burbage and William Shakespeare.

Both companies decided the site was ideal. The Tower Theatre Company called in MoLA (Museum of London Archaeology) to conduct the necessary works to establish what lay beneath the lighting warehouse that had occupied the site since WWII. Almost immediately, the team discovered what appeared to be the corner of a polygonal structure in the western corner of the dig, the kind of structure that would indicate a Tudor theatre.

The idea of finding a Tudor theatre in Shoreditch was hugely exciting; for years archaeologists and historians had been trying to pin down the site of ‘The Theatre’, James Burbage’s purpose-built playhouse, erected on a corner of the site of the old Holywell Priory. Tudor London was incredibly densely populated, challenged only by Edo (old Tokyo) in terms of people per dwelling. The space for entertainments was limited, both physically and legally, with strict controls on where and when plays could be performed.

In 1575, the City fathers banned plays for the public within the City walls. Troupes could still perform for the wealthy within private houses, but cheap theatre for the masses had to find a new home. James Burbage was a carpenter-turned-actor, leading a group of actors under the patronage of the fabled Robin Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In 1576, disgruntled with the lack of a popular playhouse (and the revenue playing to the masses brought in), Burbage began to eye up potential sites for a theatre; Shoreditch was perfect. Just outside the City walls, Shoreditch was ideal for a walk to the theatre, and was outside the City regulations so things such as drinking and prostitution could operate unhindered by the authorities.

The Theatre was an instant success. People crowded to see the productions; Jonson, Marlowe, and Thomas Kydd’s Revengers’ Tragedy were performed regularly. Theatre-goers walked up a narrow stone path and dropped their entrance fee in to earthenware boxes which were broken open after the performance (and kept in a small, safe room which soon became known as ‘the box office’). Once inside the theatre, much like the modern Globe, the groundlings stood in the open whilst those who had paid for seats sat in tiers around the polygon. The actors, protected by a roofed stage, performed in the open.

So popular was The Theatre, others soon followed suit, with The Curtain opening only 200m to the south. At the height of The Theatre’s popularity, a new young playwright appeared: William Shakespeare. After being befriended by Burbage, Shakespeare’s work began to appear on stage at The Theatre from 1594, including the first ever showing of Romeo and Juliet, as well as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Shoreditch site has produced many surprises, partly due to the nature of it being built on and occupying some of the Priory outhouses. Burbage didn’t choose an open piece of ground for his theatre, and the paved pathway to it (discovered at the very end of the dig) led between other buildings. Further evidence of the presence of the theatre was discovered in the form of pieces of seven pottery ‘money boxes’, the disposable, sealed earthenware vessels used to collect the entrance fees. These were stored in the small room that rapidly became the ‘box office’ and smashed open at the end of the evening so the takings could be counted.

In 1594, James Burbage died and his sons inherited their father’s chaotic, speculative legacy. He had been involved in too many deals, and the lease on The Theatre’s plot was rapidly running out. In 1597, time was up and the owner of the land refused to renew. The brothers made a plan and took a 31 year lease on a plot in Southwark.

On the 28th of December, 1598 in the middle of a snowstorm James Burbage’s widow, his two sons, a builder and a dozen labourers arrived at The Theatre. They took it down, numbering each timber and carted it to the frozen Thames, where it was dragged across that night. In the summer of 1599, the timbers had been reassembled and a new theatre was ready to open: The Globe.

The Shoreditch site was taken over by tenements and warehouses. A thousand human dramas have since played out in the plot occupied by Burbage’s playhouse. Those stories are lost, but evidence of the players in them remains in the finds the Museum of London archaeologists made: pottery, money and blackened hearths. In what was a garden behind one of the small houses that would have stood there in the 18th century, was found the skeleton of a dog, interred with his bowl as if merely asleep.

The Tower Theatre Company’s serendipitous choice of a new location has resulted in the discovery of a missing piece in the story of early theatre in London. This summer, just before the dig closed, I was lucky enough to be part of the last audience of The Theatre, when Paul McGann and Susannah Harker, both supporters of the Tower Theatre Company, read from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, recreating the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s first playhouse. The discovery of The Theatre has been referred to as ‘the holy grail of English Theatre’, but I think that small performance amongst scaffolding and duckboards, glasses in hand was as close to the original spirit of Shakespeare’s time as we are likely now to come: entertainment with just a little bit of magic.

My words here are just an overview of the huge amount of work done on the dig. The team working on site created a brilliant and very detailed blog on their work. Do click to have a read:

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare's First Theatre

  1. Paul Geake Chairman The Shakespeare in Shoreditch Society says:

    What has happened to the comment I posted a few days ago?

    In it I pointed out that The Shakespeare in Shoreditch Society had given the location for The Theatre to the Museum of London thirty years ago and they responded saying the could not do anything as it was outside the walls of the City of London.
    Twenty years later the “announced” they had “discovered” the site?
    Fortunately Hackney Council had already placed a brown plaque on the wall in Curtain Road unveiled by the then unknighted Ian McEllen. So anyone looking only had to read the plaque
    So The Tower Theatre Company who say “Little did they realize another theatre company” should have opened their eyes wider

    Is the removal of comments censorship by the Museum of London to excuse their lack of interest when we pointed the site out to them many years ago?
    Paul Geake
    he Shakespeare in Shoreditch Society

    Will this comment be posted?

  2. Bilkis Mosoddik says:

    Hi Paul,

    You posted the comment on the ‘Discovering the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ blog entry:

    and then posted the exact comment again in the ‘The Theatre – Archaeological Dig’ blog entry:

    As the comment on the first post appeared to have no relevance, I did not approve it, assuming that you posted the comment again on another post where it was relevant and the first entry was a mistake.

    You actually did not post a comment on this entry. If you want to check, I am happy to go an aprove your comment on the ‘Discovering the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ blog entry. We do not censor comments unless they are offensive to the public.

    If you wish to, you can copy and paste your comment again here and Lucy will respond to you directly.


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