Think of Shakespearean Theatre and you might generally think of the Globe on the South Bank. But that’s not the whole story of this golden age, the birth of theatre-going in England.
Although the Globe is probably the best known, the first theatres in the city were actually in Shoreditch. The first two theatres stood just a few metres apart in the grounds of the old Holywell Priory, they were called ‘The Theatre‘ and ‘The Curtain’.
The Theatre was so called because it was the first purpose built playhouse of its kind anywhere. It was literally called ‘the theatre’ because there were no others. The Curtain took its name from the curtain wall which encircled the old city and which it will have been able to see from where it stood just north of where Liverpool Street is today.
Other theatres of the time included the Rose, the Swan and the Hope, all on the South Bank, not far at all from the Globe in the mini theatre going district of Bankside. The Fortune Theatre was built close to Whitecross Street and would have been a short walk over the Moorfields from the Theatre and the Curtain. Whilst the Blackfriars, built on the site of the old Blackfriars monastery became the first covered theatre meaning plays could be performed when it got dark and when the seasons got colder.
Shakespeare lived at a time when going to watch plays was becoming hugely popular. The authorities however would generally tend to have a different view and the birth of formalised theatre going was a difficult one. This was a time when bear baiting and cock fighting were also considered the height of entertainment.
Theatre evolved from the troupes of wandering players who would band together and put on performances up and down the country. The venues they would perform in become known as ‘players inns’. They weren’t purpose built, they would generally have yards just big enough for the performances to take place. Although as it evolved some like the Old Red Lion in Whitechapel created semi-permanent areas and stages to allow more regular plays.
Going back further, the evolution of theatre going as we know it today could even be traced back to the mystery plays which would have been performed by monks. London, it is often forgotten these days, had a huge amount of monastic houses prior to their dissolution by Henry VIII. After the dissolution there were a whole load of unemployed monks who needed a way of making a living so it’s not beyond the realm of fantasy that some would become wandering players.
Shakespeare is remembered as representing this period in history when Elizabethan theatre came into being. However despite being the most renowned playwright of his time he was but one piece in the literary puzzle. There were other actors, playwrights and theatre owners who played their part in the development of the art form we know today.
So for todays post and in this year that represents 400 years since Shakespeare’s death,we are going in search of the old theatres of Elizabethan London. We’ll find out where they were and get a feel for some of the characters around at the time who helped to shape them.
- The Theatre, Curtain Road, Shoreditch – 1576 to 1598 (now New Inn Yard, Shoreditch)
The first purpose built theatre was conceived and built on Curtain Road in Shoreditch by James Burbage an actor and carpenter who had spent a career touring as part of the ‘Earl of Leicester’s Men’ and his wife’s brother John Brayne who himself had converted the Red Lion Inn into a venue for the performing of plays.
During the time it was open it proved a very popular venue, only closing in 1598 following a dispute over the lease with Giles Alleyn, the owner of the land on which it stood. On the 28 December 1598 the sons of James Burbage, Richard and Cuthbert, along with the band of players known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men began dismantling the building in order to transport the timbers across the Thames and build what would become known as the Globe.
The Theatre today has been rediscovered and it’s remains lie behind some hoardings on New Inn Yard in Shoreditch. There has been talk of building a new theatre on the site but as yet those plans have come to nothing much.
2. The Curtain, Curtain Road, Shoreditch – 1577 to 1622
Opening not long after the Theatre, the Curtain opened literally just down the road on the same thoroughfare of Curtain Road. It is believed to have been built by Henry Lanman who it is known was the one time owner and who in 1585 did a deal with James Burbage to allow the reciprocal staging of plays at each theatre.
Today it is being excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology as part of a major development and the site is to be turned into a museum. In its day it was hugely popular and often hosted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and plays written by Shakespeare. In particular between 1597 and 1599 it was the main venue for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men prior to them moving from their main base of activity at the Theatre, just up the road, to the Globe on the South Bank.
It is actually uncertain when the Curtain Theatre closed or when it was pulled down. It is last heard of in the historic record in 1622 and after that it is uncertain how long it lasted. In 1648 parliament ordered the destruction of a number of its contemporary theatres so it is feasible that the Curtain might have also met its fate at this point.
3. The Rose Theatre, Maiden Lane, Bankside – 1587 to 1605 (now Park Street)
The first purpose built theatre on the South Bank, the Rose has now been excavated and is the best preserved example of an Elizabethan theatre in London. In its time though it was a serious rival to the Theatre and the Curtain opening up as it did a whole new quarter for theatre going south of the river.
Bankside did not have the best of reputations, there was a lot of crime and prostitution was rife. It was built next to a place called the Rose Tavern, a brothel and is where it may have taken its name. It was built by Phillip Henslowe and John Cholmley and became the chief location of the players known as the ‘Lord Admiral’s Men‘ so called after Charles Howard the Earl of Nottingham who became the Lord High Admiral in 1585. Chief amongst them was Edward Alleyn, one of the stars of his day and the future founder of Dulwich College. The Lord Admirals Men were so popular that it meant the Rose itself had to be expanded.
The Rose Theatre was abandoned in 1605 when the lease ran out on the land. Henslowe however had already set about building the Fortune Theatre just off Whitecross Street and so when it closed he moved a lot of the performances there. The newly excavated Rose was re-opened to the public in 1999 and plays re-commenced, albeit sporadically, in 2007.
4. The Swan, Paris Gardens, Bankside – 1595 to 1628 (now Hopton Street)
Built by Francis Langley, a chap who by all accounts was a bit of a roguish character, the Swan played host to the troupe of players known as the ‘Pembroke’s Men‘ whose patron Henry Herbert was the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. It is notorious for being the location of the ill-fated performance of a play called the Isle of Dogs which when performed for the first time in 1597 was apparantly so seditious that it incensed the local authorities and caused the closing of not only the Swan but all theatres for the entirety of the summer season.
Written by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe, it is sad that not a single copy of the Isle of Dogs now exists. Whatever was contained within it though must have been bad though as Jonson found himself thrown in jail along with two other actors Gabriel Spenser and Robert Shaw whilst Nashe escaped to Norfolk. The Privy Council at the time then ordered all playhouses to be pulled down which could have been the end of the brief Elizabethan experiment with theatre, although luckily they recanted the order later.
After that, the Swan kept going as a venue but struggled to get plays. The owner Francis Langley found himself persona non grata and the Pembroke’s Men ended up struggling to make ends meat and effectively disbanding to other troupes with the Swan still tainted as a venue from the performance.
Nowadays there is no trace of the Swan but it’s approximate location is halfway up Hopton Street, a short walk from the south bank entrance to Blackfriars station.
5. The Blackfriars, Blackfriars Monastery – 1596 to 1655 (now Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars)
The first purpose built inside theatre was built on the site of the old Blackfriars Monestary by James Burbage, the founder of ‘the Theatre’. With his primary venue having problems with the lease he decided to try his hand somewhere else and with the Bankside becoming quite busy theatre wise he chose to go to the Blackfriars.
A theatre had existed here previously from 1576 although that version, built for child actors from the Queen’s chapel didn’t prove profitable and closed in 1583. Burbage though needed his version to succeed, knowing full well that if he wasn’t able to sort a different venue out, he’d lose the Theatre and his band of players, the Lord Chamberlains Men would need to find somewhere else.
He built the venue as an indoor playhouse lit by hundreds of candles meaning that plays could be performed for longer into the evening and also in the winter as it would not be exposed to the elements. Legal issues prevented him from using the place though and Burbage died before he would see his dream fulfilled.
As with the other theatres the Blackfriars fell victim to the puritans on the outbreak of the English Civil War and was demolished in 1655. Nowadays however it lives on as the inspiration behind the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Bankside. The intimate theatre next to the new Globe aims to recreate the environment of the first purpose built interior theatre.
6. The Globe, Maiden Lane, Bankside – 1599 to 1613 and 1614 to 1642 (now Park Street)
The Globe became hugely popular and the main venue for the performing of Shakespeare’s plays when it became the home of the Lord Chamberlain’s men following the loss of ‘The Theatre‘, the timbers of which it was partly built out of. A fire in 1613 destroyed it but it was rebuilt the year after and then closed down by Puritans in 1642.
It was designed by Peter Street, a carpenter who helped dismantle the old building. It would have been similar to the old theatre but larger with the belief that it may also have taken inspiration from classical Roman architecture with the interior pillars painted to resemble Italian marble. Shakespeare himself would choose to live in a house close by.
Nowadays the Globe has reopened albeit in a different location in 1997 following a successful campaign led by Sam Wanamaker. The original footprint of the original Globe being all but lost, covered over with housing although faint parts of the original building have been discovered although are kept hidden from view underneath paving in the yard of a gated community in modern day Park Street.
7. Fortune Theatre, Golden Lane – 1600 to 1621 and 1623 to 1642 (now Fortune Street near Whitecross Street)
With the Globes arrival just down the road, the much smaller Rose Theatre’s days were numbered and so with remarkable foresight Phillip Henslowe and his leading man Edward Alleyn decided to go back north of the river and build a new theatre near to Whitecross Street. The building itself was built by Peter Street, the same man who built the Globe.
The theatre became popular and hosted the Admirals Men as their main base of operations. It burnt down in 1621 and was rebuilt in 1623 along a slightly different design, the first version being square, the rebuilt one being round. It closed in 1642 as the Puritans ordered all the playhouses to be closed and was eventually pulled down in 1649.
Incidentally we wrote one of our Curious Routes, free tours of London around the area of Whitecross Street and the Barbican and it takes in the location of the Fortune Theatre on route. Check it out here.
8. Hope Theatre, Bear Gardens, Bankside – 1614 to 1656 (now Bear Gardens)
The Hope Theatre, built by Phillip Henslowe and Jacob Meade was the fourth and final theatre to be built on the Bankside prior to the English Civil War when they were all closed and torn down. Henslowe had formerly run the Rose which closed in 1605 and then opened the Fortune, north of the city.
Built on the site of a former bear baiting yard, the theatre would also have a dual purpose and bear baiting would still be held there. It’s tempting to speculate that Henslowe took the opportunity to build the Hope following the fire which burnt down the highly successful Globe in 1613. The only other competition at that time on the Bankside would have been the Swan.
Henslowe died in 1616 with Edward Alleyn taking over. After that it evolved into more of a diverse venue which would host plays as well as bear baiting, prizefighting and other pursuits popular at the time. Again it’s tempting to speculate that once the rebuilt Globe re-opened, just down the road, that became the premier venue for plays and the Hope decided not to directly compete.
9. The Cockpit / The Phoenix, Drury Lane – 1616 to 1665
Alongside watching plays and bear baiting, cock fighting was the height of entertainment in the London of the early 1600’s. As it’s name suggests, the Cockpit started out life as a cock fighting venue in 1609 only evolving into a theatre later on when it was re-modelled in 1616 by Christopher Beeston. It burnt down in 1617 and re-built the year after re-branding with the name ‘The Phoenix’ on account of it being risen from the ashes and was more than likely designed by Inigo Jones.
The Cockpit was also the first theatre to appear on Drury Lane, now well known for its theatres. It was further west than a lot of the others around at the time which were clustered around the outskirts of the old city. Despite suffering the same fate as other theatres when the Puritans came to power, the theatre actually managed to survive longer than its counterparts.
Despite closing officially in 1642 it continued to put on plays illegally struggling through until 1660 when Charles II was placed on the throne and theatres were allowed to open again. It closed in 1665 following the opening of the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane.
To find out more about the theatres of Shakespearean London try these links:
And some posts from some of our favourite historical bloggers