New evidence found at Shakespeare’s Theatre

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A 3D reconstruction of the Theatre as it may have looked when Shakespeare staged some of his earliest plays there. (IMAGE: David Toon, Lee Sands, and MOLA)

Recent excavations at the Theatre, the playhouse where most of Shakespeare’s early plays were first performed, have uncovered evidence from the first stages of its use, when it was remodelled from Holywell Priory into an Elizabethan performance space.

The playhouse was built in Shoreditch by James Burbage in 1576, and Shakespeare performed at the Theatre soon after arriving in London as a young man. He was also its resident playwright in the mid-1590s, during which period some of his most famous plays, including Romeo and Juliet, are thought to have been staged at the venue. When the lease on the land was revoked, Shakespeare’s company dismantled the playhouse and moved to a new location in Southwark, where they opened the Globe.

In 2008, MOLA excavations revealed the polygonal structure of the playhouse, the gravel yard where theatregoers would watch the plays, and small finds illuminating the lives of these people (see CA 225). Now further investigations, again by MOLA, have concentrated on areas immediately outside the complex. The team has so far discovered a possible brewhouse and bakery, revealing how the playhouse fitted into the local landscape.

This new work was undertaken in advance of the construction of a public exhibition space on the site. Planned to open in late 2019, this new centre will allow the public to view the in-situ remains of the Theatre and explore its enigmatic history.

‘It is incredible to be back on site at the Theatre,’ said Heather Knight, lead archaeologist on the project. ‘It is an internationally significant and iconic archaeological site, and a really special place for archaeologists, historians, thespians, and Londoners, but especially for Shoreditch, London’s first theatreland. It was the discovery of the Theatre that gave the Borough of Hackney its first Scheduled Ancient Monument.’

This article appeared in CA 344.

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