10 sites from Shakespearean London – 4. Shakespeare’s Shoreditch theatres…

While the association between the Bard and Bankside’s Globe Theatre is well known (see our earlier post here for more), the Bard and his plays were also performed in various other theatres around London. Here we take a quick look at a couple in Shoreditch, then a more rural suburb of London known for its associations with the (somewhat seedy) entertainment industry…

The-Theatre The Theatre, Shoreditch. Built in 1576 by James Burbage on property that had once been part of Holywell Priory, the Theatre was the home of a number of acting companies including The Lord Chamberlain’s Men of which Shakespeare was a member. The polygon-shaped theatre served as the home of the company between 1594 and 1598 when a dispute with a landlord over the lease led them to leave, temporarily settling at The Curtain Theatre, before rebuilding their theatre, now renamed The Globe, in Southwark. Between 2008 and 2010, archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) carried out an investigation beneath a disused warehouse in New Inn Broadway, near the intersection of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street, and found the remains of a 14 sided theatre about 22 metres across. Plans have been mooted to build a new theatre on the site. To find out more about The Theatre and see a terrific animated recreation by Cloak & Dagger Studios and MOLA (pictured), head to www.explorethetheatre.co.uk. PICTURE: Courtesy of MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and Cloak and Dagger Studios.

The Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men only performed here temporarily, between 1598-1599, before relocating to Southwark. Henry V (the reference to “this wooden O” in the prologue of the play is taken to refer to this theatre) and Romeo and Juliet are believed to be among Shakespeare’s plays which premiered here. Located just a couple of hundred yards south of The Theatre and built the year after it, it also hosted Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, a play in which Shakespeare is known to have performed. The polygonal theatre’s name comes from the road on which it stood – Curtain Road, which, it has been suggested, was named after the Holywell Priory’s ‘curtain wall’. It continued as a theatre until the 1620s and was later converted into tenements. The remains of what is believed to have been the Curtain Theatre were found by MOLA archaeologists in 2012 and further excavations are expected with the hope that one day the site will be open to the public with plays performed here. There is a plaque commemorating the site at 18 Hewett Street which is only a short distance from where the excavations were carried out. For more on the Curtain Theatre, check out www.shakespearesshoreditch.com.

For more on Elizabethan theatres, see Julian Bowsher’s Shakespeare’s London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama.

What’s in a name?…Shoreditch

The origins of the name Shoreditch – now a slowly gentrifying area to the north of the City of London within the Borough of Hackney – are lost to time but there are a few interesting theories around.

While the name probably comes to us as a derivation of Soersditch or Sewer Ditch – perhaps in reference to a drain that was once here – a more tragic version has it named after Jane Shore.

A mistress of King Edward IV in the mid to late fifteenth century, she, so the story goes, was buried in a ditch in the area after dying in a state of penury following a dramatic fall from favour during the subsequent reign of King Richard III (the king apparently had Jane arrested and made her perform a public penance for being a harlot).

There was an important priory here – the Augustinian Priory of Holywell – in medieval times and by Elizabethan times, some substantial houses. In 1576, James Burbage built England’s first theatre – known as The Theatre – on its site located near Curtain Road. Some of William Shakespeare’s plays were performed here and at the nearby rival, the Curtain Theatre, before a dispute with the landlord in the late 16th century saw the theatre relocated to Southwark in the dead of night (although the foundations must have remained – these were excavated a few years ago). Both Shakespeare and follow playwright Christopher Marlowe had associations with the area.

The area, which centred on St Leonard’s Church (while the current building dates from around 1740, there is believed to have been a church here  – at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road – since Saxon times), become known for its textiles in the 17th century and later for its furniture industries.

It was still known as one of London’s premier entertainment districts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with well known music halls and theatres but by then was also just as well known for its poverty.

Shoreditch suffered heavily during the Blitz and while the area continues to suffer from urban decay there is now some new life being breathed into it with the arrival of projects as the Boxpark Shoreditch which, made from shipping containers, is billed as “the world’s first pop-up mall”. There’s also an annual festival, the Shoreditch Festival, held in summer along Regent’s Canal.

PICTURE: View down Shoreditch High Street to the City – © David Adams.

Around London…

• A team of archaeologists from the Museum of London have unearthed the remains of a brewhouse close to the purpose-built theatre, known simply as The Theatre, where Shakespeare first acted. The brewhouse could represent what became a dedicated ‘tap room’ aimed at theatre customers and may well have been a watering hole of the Bard himself. It – and a nearby bakehouse – were originally part of Holywell Priory, once one of the richest in England, which was dissolved in 1539. You can follow the dig’s progress here: www.mymuseumoflondon.org.uk/blogs/blog/category/excavations-at-shakespeare’s-theatre/

London’s Dickens Museum has unveiled the long-lost tombstone of a cartoonist who took his own life after he was believed to have been rejected by the famous author. Robert Seymour apparently took his own life after Charles Dickens was believed to have informed him that he would no longer be employed to illustrate The Pickwick Papers (there remains considerable debate over whether Dickens should be blamed for his death). The gravestone had been missing for a century but was reportedly discovered in the crypt of a London church by scholar Stephen Jarvis. It will now be displayed in the back garden of the museum which is housed at 48 Doughty Street in Dicken’s only surviving London home (he lived there between 1837 and 1839 while writing novels including The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist). The museum is preparing to celebrate the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth in 2012.  www.dickensmuseum.com

• Sir William and Sir Joseph Hooker – the father and son responsible for transforming Kew Gardens in the nineteenth century – have been honored with a blue plaque at their former home on Kew Green. The home where Princess Alexandra was to unveil the plaque became the official residence of the garden’s director when Sir William moved there in 1851. Sir William had been appointed director of the Botanic Gardens 10 years before and during his 24 year tenure not only greatly expanded them but also opened them to the public. His son, Sir Joseph, had travelled aboard the HMS Erebus as it explored the southern oceans between 1839-1843 before succeeding his father as director upon his death in 1865. www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/princess-alexandra-unveils-blue-plaque-for-former-directors-of-kew-gardens