Shakespeare’s Lost Playhouse: The Curtain Theatre

Last month saw the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In those 400 years, no other writer has made such an indelible mark on British culture and world literature.

Shakespeare is believed to have moved to London from his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in around 1590. By 1592, at age 28, he was known well enough in London to be derided in print by the poet and dramatist Robert Greene, who called Shakespeare an ‘upstart crow’ in his Groats-Worth of Wit.

9. Hackney Curtain Theatre plaque (c) MOLA

The old Hackney Curtain Theatre plaque (c) MOLA

Shakespeare’s Buildings

Many of the London buildings which staged the Bard’s plays during his lifetime have long since disappeared, although the reconstructed Globe Theatre now stands metres away from its original site on the South Bank. You can read more about Shakespeare’s Buildings here. While many of the sites linked with Shakespeare are no longer standing, it is possible to see their traces today and to still be able to explore the rich world of our greatest writer.

The Curtain Theatre was one such building; from 1577 it was used as a playhouse in an area of land called Curtain Close in the London neighbourhood of Shoreditch. Its location was approximately 200 yards south or southeast of London’s first playhouse, the Theatre which opened in 1576. The Curtain survived an earthquake in 1580, and was forced to close from 1592-1594 as the Great Plague swept across London.

8. Trial excavation at Curtain Theatre site (c) MOLA

Trial excavation at the Curtain Theatre (c) MOLA

The Theatre and The Curtain

Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed at the Theatre until the expiry of its lease and a dispute with the landlord forced them to leave in 1597. Unable to resolve the dispute, the company dismantled the Theatre, shipped its timbers across the Thames and used them to build the Globe, which opened in 1599.

In the intervening year the Lord Chamberlain’s Men used the Curtain as their premier playing space before moving to the Globe. Shakespeare immortalised the Curtain as a ‘wooden O’ in the prologue to Henry V: ‘may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt’? In 1599 the Curtain played host to the very first performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Plays were staged until about 1625, and by 1630s it had been converted into tenements.

5. brick wall thought to support inside timber frame of Curtain Theatre (c) MOLA

Brick Wall thought to support inside the timber frame of Curtain Theatre

Discovery of The Curtain

The Curtain’s exact location remained a mystery until 2012, when experts from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) uncovered its remains during exploratory digs. The remains are next to what is now the Horse and Groom pub on Curtain Road, only a few metres away from a plaque marking the previous best guess at the theatre’s location.

MOLA archaeologists dug the initial trenches in the only available open space; amazingly, this turned out to be exactly the right location. They discovered a brick wall dating to the late 16th Century, a gravel surface and fragments of pottery. The remains suggest architecture characteristic of Elizabethan playhouses: a polygonal structure comprising a chunky inner wall and a thinner outer wall, with a space of around 3.8m in between.

Shakespeare stature

Tribute to Condell and Heminge in the St. Mary Aldermanbury Gardens

Preserving The Curtain

A detailed excavation is set to begin this summer which will allow archaeologists to unearth all the surviving remains and discover more about the Curtain and its history. But what is to happen to these excavated and preserved remains? Galliard Homes with joint venture partners Cain Hoy, McCourt, Vanke and The Estate Office Shoreditch is developing The Stage where Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre once stood. Incorporating the remains of The Curtain Theatre, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan playhouse, it covers a 2.5 acre site and will include 32,668 sq ft of retail, 205,634 sq ft of office space, a 37-storey residential tower, an acre of vibrant public space, an international visitor centre and cultural and performance space.

Shakespeare’s Lost Playhouse:  The Curtain Theatre is a guest post from Heather Watson.  The Curtain Theatre is currently being excavated as part of ‘The Stage’ redevelopment on Curtain Road.