In 1572 two Acts of Parliament materially affected the status of the players. The earlier of them, promulgated in January, restricted the number of retainers that any nobleman might keep in his service. It was a device by which Elizabeth and her advisers hoped to curb the power of over-mighty lords, but it had an effect upon certain troupes of actors who were cut adrift from noble patronage. So James Burbage wrote to the Earl of Leicester, asking him to reaffirm his patronage of his players.
The urgency of his request is explained by the second Act of Parliament of 1572, which set down conditions for “the punishment of Vagabondes”; among such vagabonds were included “all fencers, bear-wards, common players in interludes, & minstrels, not belonging to any Baron of the realm or towards any other personage of greater degree.”1 If you were not a retainer of a great lord, you could be whipped and burned through the ear. So these were the conditions that created the new world of players that Shakespeare entered. By force of necessity they had grouped themselves around certain settled employers or patrons. They were also searching for fixed and stable premises where they might perform in London. It was a way of acquiring respectability and of escaping legal punishment. The stratagem was not completely successful—actors and playwrights were routinely hauled before investigations or consigned to prison—but in hindsight it can be seen as a first step in the creation of the London theatrical world and the eventual emergence of the “West End.”
When Shakespeare arrived in London there were several familiar venues for theatrical performances. The oldest of them were the inns or, rather, large rooms within inns which would otherwise have been used for meetings or assemblies. There is a belief that inn-yards, with covered galleries all around them, were the first public theatres; but a moment’s consideration reveals the impracticality of such an arrangement. Inn-yards were places where travellers arrived, where horses were tethered, and where supplies were delivered: places of public ingress and egress. These are not the ideal circumstances for public performances. The only exception occurred in an inn such as the Black Bull, where there was an extra yard connected to the rear yard by a covered alley.
There must have been many more places for performance than are currently known, but a few have been recorded for posterity. The Cross Keys was in Gracechurch Street, where Lord Strange’s Men performed, and the Bell Inn was on the same street. The Belsavage was located on Ludgate Hill, the Bull in Bishopsgate Street and the Boar’s Head was on the north side of Whitechapel Street beyond Aldgate. It is not clear how much they resembled theatres rather than inns; it seems likely, given the continuities of London life, that they were close to the early nineteenth-century “musical saloons” or “music halls” where drink or “wet money” was served to paying customers. Certainly it would be a mistake to think of them as inns that simply put on plays as additional entertainment. The Boar’s Head, for example, had erected a permanent theatrical space on its premises, and for the Earl of Worcester’s Men “the house called the Bores head is the place they haue especially vsed and doe best like of.”2 Some of the earliest companies employed, for a stage, wooden planks placed across beer barrels that had been roped together. The great companies worked in the inns, and one contemporary described “the two prose books played at the Bel-savage, where you shall never find a word without wit, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain.”3 These are precisely the places where Shakespeare learned his craft at first hand.
By the time of Shakespeare’s arrival, however, there were at least four large structures built as general resorts for entertainment in which the theatre took its place alongside wrestling and bear-baiting. The first ever recorded in London documents, the Red Lion at Mile End, had been constructed in 1567 by John Brayne, citizen and grocer, as a financial speculation. Since he was also brother-in-law to James Burbage, there may have been some family interest in profiting from various forms of public entertainment. James Burbage began as a player but, in the changed circumstances of city life, he became a noted theatrical entrepreneur and father of the celebrated actor who played many of Shakespeare’s most important roles. He was one of those skilful businessmen who seem to sense the movement of the time.
The growth of the city, and the increasing appetite for urban entertainment, presented Brayne and Burbage with an opportunity. The Red Lion sounds like an inn but it was in fact a permanent playhouse, attached to an old farmhouse. Its stage was 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep; there was a trap-door for special effects, and an 18-foot “turret of Tymber” was built above the stage for scenic ascents and descents. The coherence of its design suggests that it was based upon previous models, and was therefore not the first of its kind. It is sometimes suggested that the drama before Shakespeare’s arrival was coarse and rudimentary, complete with wooden daggers and bladders of ox blood. But that is not necessarily so. Of course there must have been much trash, as there has always been—trashy plays were known colloquially as “Balductum” plays—but it would be unwise to underestimate the skill and subtlety of early writers and performers. There is no progress or evolution in theatrical matters—the nineteenth-century theatre is signally worse than the sixteenth-century theatre—and plays now lost were no doubt excellent of their kind.
The Red Lion was followed by a joint venture between John Brayne and James Burbage. They picked another spot outside the city walls, in Shore-ditch, and there in 1576 erected a public building known as the Theatre. They deliberately chose the name from the Latin “theatrum,” and may have hoped that the classical connotation would augment the status of their enterprise; they could not have anticipated that the word would take on generic status. It was a large building, with capacity for some fifteen hundred people seated in three levels of galleries around an open yard; the yard was also used by members of the audience, and the stage was set against one side. This fixed stage had a roof, supported by pillars, and a “tiring-house” at the back that was used for exits, entrances and changes of costume. It resembled the general shape of all future public theatres of the period, in other words. It became the formal setting for Shakespeare’s own plays. Its coherent design again suggests, however, that it was based upon lost originals. It was polygonal in structure, plastered black and white, with a tiled roof. There was a principal entrance, but two external staircases led to the different levels.
It was located in the ancient land of Halliwell or Holy Well, so named from a holy well harboured within a Benedictine nunnery in the vicinity. The name of Holywell Street survives to this day. It marks an interesting association, since other theatrical sites have sprung up beside holy wells. The first miracle plays in London were performed at Clerkenwell beside the clerks’ well, for example, and the Sadlers Wells theatre was erected beside a healing well of the same name. The association has never been properly examined, but it suggests that the theatre was still in a subliminal sense seen as a sacred or ritual activity.
The Theatre itself was erected on the site of the convent, just west of its old cloister. It was close to a horse pond and a great barn. Bordered on its southern and western sides by the Finsbury fields and open ground, it had Shoreditch High Street to the east and private gardens to the north. A ditch and a wall separated it from the fields, and a breach was made into the wall to allow the citizens to walk or ride up to the playhouse. Two years after the establishment of the Theatre a preacher asked: “Will not a fylthye playe with the blast of a trumpette [sooner] call thither a thousande … so full as possible they can thronge?” 4 At the blast of a trumpet, then, the people gathered. It is depicted as if it were a relatively new phenomenon, the urban crowd out in force to seek entertainment. In Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory, Richard Tarlton narrated how “I would needs to the Theatre to a play, where when I came, I founde such concourse of unrulye people, that I thought it better solitary to walk in the fields, then to intermeddle myselfe amongst such a presse.” He fell asleep close by, in Hoxton, and when he awoke “I saw such a concourse of people through the fields that I knew the play was doon.”5
Where there were crowds, there were also riots and affrays. Four years after the construction of the Theatre, Brayne and Burbage were indicted for causing “tumults leading to a breach of the peace” as a result of showing “playes or interludes.”6 In 1584 there was a serious riot involving gentlemen and apprentices. The official documents of the period constantly refer to “the baser sorte of people,” “the refuse sorte of evill disposed and ungodly people,” “maisterles men and vagabond persons,”7 who haunted the vicinity of the Theatre.
And what were the entertainments on display there? There were “playes, beare-bayting, fencers and prophane spectacles.” Among the “playes” were The Blacksmith’s Daughter, Catiline’s Conspiracy, The History of Caesar and Pompey, and The Play of Plays. It was the occasion for spectacle and melodrama as well as stage fighting and bawdry. Mention is made of “a baudie song of a maide of Kent and a litle beastly speech of the new stawled roge.”8 Yet this was also the setting for some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. There is an allusion to “the visard of the ghost which cries so miserably at the Theator, like an oister-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” The playwright, Barnaby Rich, wrote of “one of my divells in Dr. Faustus, when the olde Theatre crackt and frighted the audience.”9Marlowe and Shakespeare were on the same ground as the fencers and bear-baiters. They had to match them.
It was a commercial venture by Brayne and Burbage, and was so successful that only the year after it opened another Londoner, Henry Laneham, built a new playhouse a few hundred yards away. This was named the Curtain—not after any theatrical curtain, which did not exist in the period, but after a wall on its ground that offered some relief from wind and bad weather. It was built on the same plan as the Theatre, with three tiers of galleries surrounding an open yard and raised scaffold as stage. A foreign visitor noted that it cost a penny to stand in the yard, and a further penny to sit in the gallery. It cost 3d, however, for the most comfortable seats with cushions. There is an engraving of the period, “View of London from the North,” showing both theatres with flags flying from their roofs; there are fields to the south of them but, to the east, are closely congregated thatched dwellings and barns. These were the suburbs of Shoreditch, where Shakespeare would dwell.
The Curtain and the Theatre soon ceased to compete with one another, and came to a profit-sharing arrangement whereby the Curtain became an “easer” or second home for the theatrical companies. With the presence of two playhouses Shoreditch enjoyed a novel reputation as a place of resort and entertainment, on a larger and more garish scale than any other part of London. It was a centre for passing trade of every description—for sales of food and beer, for trinkets and playbills—and the site of taverns and of brothels. It became a fairground and a market, quite unlike anything else, and was no doubt deeply unpopular with the older residents of the area.
The playhouses themselves were decorated and gilded; the wooden pillars upon the stage were painted so that they resembled gold and marble, while all the accoutrements were designed to be as gaudy and as elaborate as possible. There were painted walls, carvings and plaster modellings. If the Theatre itself was named after alleged classical predecessors, then it was important that it had the air of glamorous antiquity. When Thomas Nashe attempts to describe a Roman banqueting house in The Unfortunate Traveller, he says that “it was builte round of greene marble, like a Theatre without.” In that respect the sixteenth-century playhouses were close in spirit to late nineteenth-century music halls or to early twentieth-century picture palaces. A new communal art demanded new and enticing surroundings. These were the circumstances in which some of Shakespeare’s dramas were performed. Romeo and Juliet “won Curtain plaudities,”10 and when the Prologue in Henry Prefers to “this wooden O” he is alluding to the Curtain. It is often suggested that Shakespeare himself played the part of the Prologue, in Henry V, and so we can place him on the creaking boards of this theatre.
There was at least one older playhouse south of the river, on the road leading from Southwark High Street and crossing St. George’s Fields. It was erected in 1575 or 1576 and is known to historians only as the playhouse at Newington Butts, after the locality in which it was built. It does not seem to have been as great a success as the Theatre and the Curtain in the north. Nevertheless this southern playhouse was the home of the Earl of Warwick’s Men for four years from 1576, after which it was leased to the Earl of Oxford’s Men.
Even as Shakespeare made his way through London, a new theatre called the Rose was being erected on the south bank of the river by Paris Garden. It seemed to be a harbinger of popular and successful times for plays and players. The Rose itself was being financed and managed by one of a new breed of theatrical entrepreneurs. Philip Henslowe plays a large role in Elizabethan cultural history, in part because of the survival of his “diaries” or registers of payment. In true sixteenth-century fashion the dry account of receipts and payments is interrupted by notations on magical spells and astrological matters. He was a merchant and commercial speculator, only thirty-two at the time of the building of the Rose. It might seem that the Elizabethan theatre was a young man’s game and opportunity, especially when the average age of mortality was forty. Henslowe owned much property in Southwark already, having married a wealthy widow of that neighbourhood, and earned his living from starch-making and money-lending as well as the theatre. But he was another of those businessmen who sensed the direction of their time; he became involved in the building and leasing of three other theatres. It was the “growth industry” of the period that also became a highly profitable one.
The Rose itself was situated on Bankside in Southwark, close to the High Street and in the parish of St. Saviour’s. It was smaller than its predecessors, in large part because of the premium on building land. Its walls were of lath and plaster, its galleries roofed with thatch. It was situated beside two houses for the baiting of bulls and bears, suggesting that it harboured a distinct but associated activity. The discovery of a bear skull and other bones, in recent excavations, does suggest that it also reverted to type. The actors performed among the very reek of animals. The theatre itself was built upon the site of a former brothel, “rose” being the slang name for a prostitute as well as an heraldic emblem, and there were many houses of assignation in the vicinity. Philip Henslowe owned some of them.
In his contract for the theatre there was a clause concerning the repair of bridges and wharves that were part of the property, suggesting the marshy and riverine nature of the area. The excavations have revealed that the Rose was a fourteen-sided polygon, which was the closest approximation to a circle then possible. The advantages of a “wooden O” had become obvious from the success of the Curtain. The archaeologists have come to the provisional conclusion that the theatre was in fact built without a stage, suggesting that Henslowe conceived a multitude of purposes for the space. But then in the course of the first year a stage was added. It stretched out into the yard, and was so located that it received the full light of the afternoon sun; the yard itself was “raked” or sloped downwards, presumably to allow a better angle of vision for the audience congregated there. When the site was investigated in 1989 it revealed, among other items, “orange pips, Tudor shoes, a human skull, a bear skull, the sternum of a turtle, sixteenth-century inn tokens, clay pipes, a spur, a sword scabbard and hilt, money boxes, quantities of animal bones, pins, shoes and old clothing.”11 So the life of the period is retrieved.
It has been calculated that in its original form the Rose held some nineteen hundred people and, after a remodelling of its interior five years later, some 2,400 customers. But the diameter of the theatre measured only 72 feet, roughly the size of London’s smallest contemporary theatres. The diameter of the inner yard itself was some 46 feet. When it is recalled that one of London’s largest theatres, the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, has a maximum capacity of less than nine hundred, the sheer accumulation of people in the Rose is little short of astonishing. It was jammed at least three times as full as any modern place of entertainment. It smelled of rank human odours, of bad breath and of sweat, of cheap food, of drink. The theatres were open to the air in part to expel this miasma of noisome savours. That is perhaps why Hamlet, when meditating upon the stage scenery of the world with its “majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” then alludes suddenly to “a foule and pestilent congregation of vapoures” (1233-4). This was the atmosphere in which the young Shakespeare acted and in which the plays of Marlowe were performed.
These theatres, north and south of the river, north and east of the city walls, varied in size and in construction. It has long been debated whether they were built upon classical principles, or whether they were modelled upon the more impromptu art of the street theatre. Theatrical historians have reached some consensus, however, that these buildings represented the first public theatres in London. But there is reason to doubt that claim. There were certainly public theatres in Roman London, and it seems likely that there were popular venues in the period after the re-emergence of London in the ninth century. In the early twelfth century William Fitzstephen, the first historian of London, noted the prevalence of dramatised saints’ lives in public places. There are also references to“spectaculis theatralibus” and “ludis scenicis.”12 In 1352 Bishop Grandisson of Exeter referred to “quondam ludum noxium,” a certain unpleasant entertainment, “in theatro nostrae civitatis” in the theatre of our city.13 This plainly suggests that there was a building in Exeter which was popularly known as a “theatrum.” If there was one in a provincial city, it seems likely that there was also one and perhaps more in London itself. All the evidence suggests that there was much more secular dramatic activity than is generally recognised, and that certain places in the city were designated as playing areas. Why not, for example, the old amphitheatre that has recently been discovered by the Guildhall? There was also an amphitheatre at Southwark at a very early date.
It has also been argued that the mimi and histriones of medieval provenance continued their work well into Shakespeare’s own period. The mimus put on an ass’s head, as did Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he worked with a dog, as did Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Thus Shakespeare, and other sixteenth-century dramatists, emerged from many hundreds of years of cultural practice. What could be more natural—inevitable, almost—than continuity rather than abrupt or unanticipated change? Life is a process rather than a hurdle race. It is wrong to assume that somehow the English drama began with the emergence of Shakespeare. He entered what was already a swiftly flowing stream.