The Globe Theatre wasn’t the only London venue associated with William Shakespeare during the Elizabethan era. Before moving to the Globe in 1599, the Bard’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was based at the Curtain, one of the city’s oldest purpose-built theaters. It likely hosted the first performance of Henry V, as well as an early staging of Romeo and Juliet.
Researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) discovered the ruins of the Curtain in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood in 2011. Now, the archaeological site is set to host the Museum of Shakespeare, an interactive experience opening next spring. The new museum will chronicle the life of the famous playwright and his troupe’s early years in London.
The museum will be located underground, integrated with the remains of the theater, which were excavated by MOLA in 2016. Digital projections, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and historic artifacts will transport visitors back in time to 1598, 21 years after the playhouse opened in 1577. Officials tell the Guardian’s Nadia Khomami that “A.I. technology will place guests in animated performances and scheduled workshops” on the historic stage.
The Curtain’s remains represent the best-preserved Shakespearean theater excavated by the MOLA team to date, senior archaeologist Heather Knight told the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy in 2016. Over the course of the excavation, archaeologists dug up scores of artifacts that offered clues about the theater’s day-to-day operations. Finds suggested audiences spanned social strata, from wealthy patrons sitting in the galleries (as evidenced by pricey glass beads) to “groundlings” who paid one penny to stand and watch the show.
“This was a playhouse for the masses, where people gathered in the afternoon for action-packed performances,” said Knight in a 2018 MOLA statement.
The Curtain’s foundations challenged an oft-cited view of Tudor theaters’ shape, as backed by the Bard’s own words. In the famous prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare wrote of the “wooden O”—a design that matched the circular Globe Theatre. But the Curtain had a rectangular shape, making it the earliest known theater in London with this layout, notes Kennedy for the Art Newspaper.
The reason, according to researchers, was less of an artistic choice than a practical one.
“It now seems clear that the playhouse was a conversion of an earlier tenement—essentially a block of flats—and was later converted back into a tenement again,” Julian Bowsher, an archaeologist with MOLA, told the Guardian in 2016.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed at the Curtain from 1597 to 1599, when they moved to the Globe. According to the History Press, the Curtain hosted its last stage performance around 1625, earning it the “longest history of use of all London’s Elizabethan playhouses.”
Per the statement, the 2.3-acre site on which the Museum of Shakespeare will stand is aptly named “The Stage.” It will include 412 apartments, office buildings, and shopping and dining options. MOLA, Historic England and a panel of Shakespearean scholars are collaborating with Bompas & Parr to develop the museum.