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Remains of One of the First Theaters to Perform Shakespeare’s Plays Will Open to the Public After 400 Years

Excavations at the site have also unearthed a large complex that was built around the theater

Archaeologists excavate the outside areas of the Theater. (Museum of London Archaeology )
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In 2008, archaeologists in London discovered the remains of a long-lost 16th-century playhouse known simply as “The Theatre,” where William Shakespeare appeared as an actor and staged his plays before moving on to the famed Globe. Now, as Max Eckersley reports for the Hackney Citizen, the Museum of London Archaeology is planning to make the theater accessible to the public for the first time in more than 400 years—and excavators have been making important discoveries while the project is underway.

A recent dig at the site revealed the remnants of a large complex that was constructed around the theater, the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) announced this week. In the 16th century, performances of Shakespearean plays were long—shows could last up to four hours—and the complex gave restless theater-goers a space to mill about and socialize.

Like the theater itself, the complex was built by James Burbage, the actor and pioneering stage entrepreneur; his theater was one of the first purpose-built playhouses in London. The theater was constructed on the site of the former Holywell Priory, an Augustinian nunnery, and MOLA says that the new excavation shows “how the area was remodeled by James Burbage, from buildings that belonged to the earlier Holywell Priory, to create an Elizabethan theatre complex.”

The complex was discovered during preparations for a new development called the Box Office, which will allow visitors to see the remains of the theater in-situ. The exhibition, which is due to open next year, will also include artifacts that were found in the area. When archaeologists first hit upon the site, located in the London district of Shoreditch, they discovered a trove of fascinating relics, including nutshells, money boxes that once held receipts, and a mug adorned with the image of a bearded gentleman—likely a wealthy theater patron, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy.

Built in 1576 on the “rowdy outskirts of London,” as Kennedy puts it, the theater was a polygonal, three-tiered structure with covered galleries surrounding a yard where, for a low price, audience members could stand and watch the entertainment. Shakespeare performed there with the troupe Lord Chamberlain’s men, and the theater was the second space in the city to present a Shakespeare play. (The Rose was the first.)

Legend has it that after Burbage died in 1597, conflicts with the property’s landlord prompted Burbage’s sons to sneak into the area under the cover of night, dismantle the theater, cart its timber across the Thames and use the supplies to build the Globe, which became the preeminent Tudor playhouse and the one most associated with William Shakespeare. Theater historian Julian Bowsher tells Kennedy the incident probably didn’t happen quite like that—it would have taken much longer than a single night to take the theater apart—but that timber from the theater was indeed likely recycled during construction of the Globe.

Historians had long known about "The Theatre," but the 2008 excavation marked the first time that any remains from the building were found. And when the MOLA exhibition opens next year, Londoners will once again be able to pay a visit to the theater, some 400 years after it staged its final play.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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