Although we tend to think that Shakespeare spent most of his time in The Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames, he actually spent a fair amount of time honing his writing skills and performing his plays in the heart of the East End of London. Before the Globe was built, Shakespeare was an East End boy spending most of his time working in Shoreditch.
Shakespeare and Shoreditch
During Tudor times, the people who ran the city of London were a little bit particular about what went on in the centre. Plays and entertainments were rowdy affairs for the common people. People who lived in the city didn’t necessarily want theatres, their audiences, and the gaming houses and brothels they brought with them lowering the tone of their neighbourhoods. Plus, in the 1570s, the Mayor of London banned plays from central areas completely to minimise the spread of plague and ordered all actors to leave London.
Theatre in Shoreditch
So, many theatre companies set up shop on the outskirts of the city or over the river. Shoreditch became fairly well known at the time as an entertainment hub. In 1576, the actor and theatre manager, James Burbage, built a theatre in Shoreditch. This was quaintly called just The Theatre. It is considered the first or second theatre built in the country, depending on which source you believe, but it is likely to have been the first successful permanent playhouse we have ever had. Its success soon led to the building of another theatre in Shoreditch called The Curtain. The two venues made Shoreditch the place to be for a good night out.
Burbage acted in a variety of theatre companies during his career, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare was also a member of this troupe. He was its primary writer and did some acting — some of his early plays were performed at The Theatre in the late 1500s. The company had exclusive rights to perform Shakespeare’s plays – if you wanted to see one of them; you had to visit their theatre.
At the time, theatre companies were run under the influence of a patron. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were patronised by Henry Carey who was the Lord Chamberlain of England and who was in charge of court entertainment for Elizabeth I. Having Henry Carey as their patron gave Shakespeare and the company some fantastic privileges. In 1594, some of the company, including Shakespeare, were summoned to the court at Greenwich Palace to act in front of Elizabeth as part of her Christmas celebrations.
Despite the success of the company, things were not going that well for them. By 1596, James Burbage was having problems with the landlord of The Theatre over his rights to the lease. By the following year, the company could not put plays on there any longer. So, the troupe moved to The Curtain Theatre which was just down the road in Shoreditch and started working there as an interim measure. The Curtain theatre was known for its wooden “O” shaped stage, which Shakespeare famously referred to in Henry V.
They continued to put on performances of Shakespeare’s work for at least the next two years in this location while they tried to sort out a solution to the problems with The Theatre. They probably debuted stage performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V in The Curtain. Shakespeare also acted for the company and it is thought that he performed a role in the Ben Jonson play, Every Man in His Humour. He also probably played some minor roles in his own plays, but was not likely to have been given any leading roles, as those were reserved for the company’s lead actors such as Burbage himself.
The Globe Theatre and James Burbage
James Burbage died in 1597; however, his family continued to fight for their rights to use The Theatre. When they realised that they were getting nowhere and that their lease was about to run out, they decided to dismantle The Theatre and move it somewhere else to create a new permanent base. They took the theatre apart piece by piece on the night of the 28th December 1598 and put it in storage. The following year, they took the pieces over the Thames and used them to build The Globe. The rest, as they say, is history.
Visitors to Shoreditch may soon be able to visit the sites of both The Theatre and The Curtain, both of which have been recently rediscovered in archaeological digs. The site of The Theatre may be turned into a new theatre complex; it is planned that visitors will be able to look at the original foundations and excavations through glass panels. The Curtain is part of a commercial property development site and its owners plan to allow visitors to view its remains in a space open to the public.