The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the South, an engraving by Abram Booth c. 1599

The Curtain Theatre: what do the records reveal?

MOLA team

Excavation of one of Shakespeare’s least historically documented playhouses, the Curtain Theatre, is almost upon us, as preparations begin at the site of The Stage in Shoreditch. With so few historical references surviving, the archaeology has huge potential to provide new knowledge of the playhouse where Henry V premiered. The glimpse that historical accounts offer are tantalising and telling.

Prof. Duncan Salkeld of the University of Chichester and Andy Kesson from the University of Roehampton explore the nature of Elizabethan theatre and its place in 16th and 17th century culture on the 11 April in an ‘in conversation with’ at the Rose Playhouse. In advance of this event, we’ve pulled together some of the most revealing historical quotes to help visualise how theatre was perceived and what it was like to visit the Curtain Theatre.

‘wickedness and vice to be learned in.’
This is the first mention of the Curtain Theatre from an anti-theatrical treatise published in 1577 by John Northbrooke's on ‘vain plays’ and ‘other idle pastimes’ describing the Curtain and the Theatre.

‘At one end of the meadow are two very fine theatres. One of which is magnificent in comparison with the other and has an imposing appearance on the outside.’
This quote comes from a description of London by Louis de Grenade who resided in the city for most of 1578. It compares the Theatre and the Curtain and goes on to say that one of the playhouses was erected by a ‘great Lord’, although we do not know which.

‘played his scholar's prize at the Curtain in Holywell on 25 August 1579 at two weapons: the long sword and the sword and buckler’ (Wickham et al 2000, 409)
This quote refers to the actor and playwright Richard Fletcher, a member of the King’s Company. The passage refers to a display of fencing at the Curtain, a common practice at many 16th century playhouses.

‘There are some peculiar houses that are so made as to have about three galleries one over another so that a great number of people always come in to see such entertainment.’
This comes from a contemporary description of theatres from  1585-1611. Hassler, Die Reisen des Samuel Kiechel. In it, Keichel describes his visit to the London in the autumn of 1585 and noted the ‘daily comedies’ that could be seen.

‘Built of timber and thatched, now in decay, called the 'Curtaine'
This reference, describing some of the material the Curtain was made from, is dated to 1 July 1611 and accompanied a financial documents linked to an Edward Morris.

‘he went the other day to a playhouse that is called the Curtain…a place as dubious as they come, and where you would never see the face of a gentleman, let alone a nobleman. And what made it worse, so as not to have to pay sixpence…he chose not to go to one of the boxes and not even to be seated in one of the degrees they have but there but preferred to stand below in the middle, among the rabble of porters and carters, pretending that he needed to stay close by because he was hard of hearing, as if he really understood what was being recited.’
This is from an updated letter to Andrea Cioli, Secretary of State at Florence, from Antimo Galli. The letter is a description of the exploits of Antonio Foscarini, Venetian ambassador to London 1611-5, at the Curtain

Find out more about Shakespeare's London on 11 April at 'The Early Modern Theatrical Scene in London: In Conversation with Prof Duncan Salkeld and Dr Andy Kesson'. To explore the full events programme for The Stage Shoreditch visit the MOLA blog and keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter for updates on the excavation as it unfolds.

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