Curtain up on Shakespeare’s lost theatre

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Museum of London archaeologists have uncovered the playhouse which staged the first performance of Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare’s company moved to the Globe.

The remains of the Curtain Theatre, which opened in Hackney in 1577 and is expected to be among the best preserved examples of an Elizabethan theatre ever found in the UK , were discovered beneath a Victorian warehouse during exploratory excavations ahead of redevelopment work. So far two sections of exterior wall, which would have supported the theatre’s galleries, as well as an outer yard paved with sheep knucklebones have been uncovered.

‘This is a fantastic site which gives us unique insight into early Shakespearian theatres,’ said MOLA archaeologist Chris Thomas who is leading the investigations.

Named after the road on which it stands and built  just a few hundred yards from Shakespeare’s first theatre (imaginatively  called ‘The Theatre’ and discovered by MOLA in 2008), the Curtain was home to Shakespeare’s players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and until the Globe was completed in Southwark in 1599 (see CA 124), the newly-discovered theatre was the main venue for his plays.

But despite being immortalised in Henry V, in which it is referred to as ‘this wooden O’, the Curtain vanishes from the historical record in 1622 and its precise location was lost to memory.

Now MOLA archaeologists have rediscovered London’s second playhouse and hope to uncover more of its layout during excavations next year. A small section of the theatre is thought to lie beneath an adjacent building but it is expected that the majority of the structure can be exposed.

‘This is an outstanding site — and a fortuitous find in the year of the worldwide celebration of Shakespeare,’ Kim Stabler, Archaeology Advisor at English Heritage, said. ‘Developer-led archaeology has undoubtedly enriched our understanding of our towns and cities and a sensitive and creative public presentation of these remains would be a fantastic addition to telling the constantly unfolding story of London.’

Watch this space: we will be covering this discovery in greater detail in the next issue of Current Archaeology (#269)

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