Shakespearean playhouses in four archaeological artefacts

MOLA team
22.03.2016

Over the next few weeks we’re celebrating Shakespeare 400 with a series of walks, talks, and performances, in advance of our Curtain Theatre dig for The Stage. We thought we’d get in the Shakespearean mood so we’ve picked our favourite artefacts from our Elizabethan playhouse excavations. Artefacts, their use and the people that may have owned them will be explored in our Shakepsearean events series.

Cannon ball: Special Effects

This 16th-century ragstone cannon ball would have once been part of the Tudor special effects department. We even have glimpses of its use in the plays themselves from historical records. Ben Jonson refers to “the rolled bullet” as it trundled along a wooden or metal surface thus emitting a rumbling noise to emulate thunder. Shakespeare’s Othello even cries “Are there no stones in heaven, But what serve for the thunder?” Other items in the special effects arsenal included fireworks and trap doors set in the stage and hoists and pulleys in the roof to make characters appear and disappear.

Beaker: Food and Drink

Found at the site of The Theatre in Shoreditch, this beaker was made in the Surrey-Hampshire area. It was a common form of pottery in the late 16th-early 17th century and is likely to have been used for wine, ale or even water. Drinking and eating in playhouses was common and, just like today, refreshments were occasionally sold within the playhouses themselves.

Pottery sherd: Who Could This Be?

This fragment is from a serving jug, of the same style as the above beaker, also found at the site of The Theatre, although in many more pieces. It may have also played a part in the sale of refreshments at the playhouse. What is intriguing  is the resemblance of the figure to a certain well-known playwright. Sadly, it’s unlikely to be the Bard himself as most men in the late 16th-century dressed like this. Nevertheless, similar fragments from serving vessels have been found at a number of playhouse excavations, which suggest that the theatre ‘industry’ in Shoreditch was thriving and possibly pretty lively too.

Shoe: What They Wore

This late 16th century ‘slip-on’ shoe reveals something about its owner. The deliberately cut hole at the toe end, was most probably to relive a bunion! It is a plain shoe but has nice ‘pinking’ (zigzag) decoration around the heel – a reminder of Shakespeare’s reference to Gabriel’s shoes (in The Taming of the Shrew) being so plain that they “were all unpinkd I’ the heel”. Other shoes, boots and fragments of clothing were also found with this one at the Rose Playhouse, possibly remnants of actors costumes but, more likely to have belonged to the audience.

To hear more about the nature of the theatre in Elizabethan London, as well as everything from rogues and villains to food and drink, be sure to book your tickets today. “The Early Modern Theatrical Scene in London: In Conversation with Prof Duncan Salkeld and Dr Andy Kesson” is on 11 April or explore the full programme of Shakespeare events.

  • Shakespeare
  • From the experts
  • Artefacts
  • Research
  • Post-medieval
  • Event
  • Excavation

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