Visitors to the Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre archaeological excavations (c)MOLA

Shakespeare’s London venues and players

Brigid Geist

London’s Curtain playhouse is famous for its association with William Shakespeare who is known to have performed there himself. But what about the origins of this theatre and Tudor London’s other playhouses? Who were the players that brought the Curtain to life? And just how did London’s original theatreland spring to life? In this blog, archaeologist Brigid Geist explores London, the Curtain, and Burbage.

In our last post we discussed the differences between a Shakespearean theatre and a playhouse and promised to discuss the architecture of some of the pioneer acting venues and the players involved.

Before the excavations of the Rose in Southwark and the Theatre in Shoreditch much of what was written about the form of Elizabethan playhouses was little more than conjecture. While both were discovered to be polygonal in shape, and open galleried, others were not. Although the London playhouses were quite a bit smaller than some contemporary examples on the Continent, there are some similarities. In Italy, for example, tournament playhouses, such as the Teatro di Sabbionetta and the Teatro del Torneo, employed a rectangular, galleried, open floored and roofed, design. The corrales of the Spanish Golden Age also displayed galleried, open roofed structures. Many other architectural features were based on Italian Renaissance and Greek Classical styles, like the pillars which we see in many depictions of 16th century theatres and playhouses.

In London, the earliest theatres popped up in indoor halls and city inns. For example the Bell Savage and the Cross Keys Inn hosted Elizabethan players until about 1597 when authorities forbade theatrical performances in the city’s inns, citing them as a cause of amoral behaviour.

One of the most famous figures involved with the beginnings of the Curtain was James Burbage. Born in the 1530s, Burbage was a joiner, entrepreneur, and actor. In 1574 Burbage was granted a licence by the Queen to 'exhibit all kinds of stage plays during the Queen's pleasure in any part of England' (Leacroft 1973, 26). In 1576 Burbage was the driving force behind the building of the Theatre in Shoreditch as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare’s troupe. Burbage chose a site outside of the city walls to be free of the restrictions imposed by City authorities and in 1585 Henry Lanman (or Laneman), the then owner of the Curtain, made an agreement with James Burbage and John Brayne (Burbage's father in law) for the two Shoreditch playhouses to share profits until 1592. So it can be supposed that this was a way for Burbage to eventually purchase the Curtain.

In future blog posts we hope to expand more upon the Burbage clan and other behind the scenes characters connected to the late 16th and 17th century theatre scene.

Follow the action from the Curtain dig on Facebook and . To see the Curtain archaeological site for yourself, come along to the MOLA Open Day July 2.