Much ado about Something in Shoreditch: Shakespeare’s first theatre uncovered

MOLA team

In one of the most exciting finds of recent years, Museum of London archaeologists have unearthed the remains of what is believed to be one of London’s earliest playhouses, and Shakespeare’s first, in Shoreditch.  A wonderful serendipity saw the discovery made during excavations on a site being prepared for the building of a new theatre, by the Tower Theatre Company.  To quote the Bard: “The wheel has come full circle.”

It has long been known that an open air playhouse, called The Theatre, stood in this area, but traces of its exact location have proved elusive. A venture of the travelling player James Burbage, it was one of London’s first dedicated playhouses when it opened in 1576, and it was here that a young William Shakespeare trod the boards as part of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men company of players, and had his first plays performed.

A tenancy dispute led to The Theatre being dismantled and its timbers transported south of the river, where they were used to construct The Globe in 1599.

Museum of London Archaeology, whose previous excavations at the sites of the Rose, Globe and Hope theatres, and earlier work on The Theatre, has helped map out the Shakespearian city, found the footings of what appears to be part of a polygonal structure during their evaluation of the site at New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch.  The shape, age and location of these remains all point to their being part of the lost Theatre.  It is thought that they form the north-eastern corner of the building, which followed a design described in Henry V as “this wooden O”.

Jo Lyon, Senior Archaeologist at Museum of London Archaeology said:

“It's extremely exciting to be so close to the known location of The Theatre and then find remains that look to be associated with it. As well as allowing us to walk in the footsteps of Shakespeare himself, the remains help us to start uncovering one of London's enduring secrets.  We can now start to work on the detail of what the building here might have looked like, and expand our knowledge of the playhouses of Elizabethan London."

Jack Lohman, Director of Museum of London said:

“The work of Museum of London Archaeology brings together past and present in a unique and vital way, connecting us to Londoners who continue to speak through the centuries.  The finds at New Inn Broadway offer a tantalising glimpse into Shakespeare’s city, and the proposed theatre development on this special site seems a fitting way to harness the energy and spirit of a place that is so central to the story of London and Londoners.”

Jeff Kelly, Chairman of the Tower Theatre Company said:

“We are very excited that our plans for this site will not only create a valuable community facility for the area, but also bring public theatre in London back to its historic roots.  The discovery that we shall be building a 21st century playhouse where Shakespeare and Burbage played and where some of Shakespeare's plays must first have been performed is a huge inspiration.
“We are delighted that informal discussions with Hackney's planning officers have been extremely positive. In the run up to submitting a formal planning application we, our architect and structural engineer will all be working with English Heritage and the planning authority to ensure that the design of our building enables the archaeology to be retained in situ.  We are currently concluding discussions to secure the freehold of the site, at which point we shall be more than half way towards our target. The next step will be a major campaign to raise the remaining £3 million required to complete the project."

Taryn Nixon, Director of Museum of London Archaeology said,

"This discovery gives us a real sense of place - a wonderful slice of continuity across the centuries. As archaeologists it's a thrill to be able to discover the identity of a place but also to think of the plays and stories to be retold on this site for years to come."
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