Raising the Curtain on William Shakespeare’s London playhouse

Raising the Curtain on William Shakespeare’s London playhouse

Archaeologists have recently uncovered remains of Shakespeare’s other 16th Century theater, the Curtain.

The Globe Theater in London opened in 1997. (Image via Wikipedia)

LONDON, May 30, 2016 – Timing is everything. As England marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, it is ironic that excavations for a new apartment tower in London have uncovered the remains of the 16th-century theater known as the Curtain, where some of his plays were first performed.

But the plot thickens with true dramatic flair thanks to a number of twists.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the Curtain was not round like most playhouses of the day. Rather, it was square. Adding to the intrigue is the reference in the prologue of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” which was first staged at the Curtain, where the structure is called “this wooden O.”

Other London theaters during Shakespeare’s time, such as the better known Globe and Rose, were circular in design.

Globe performance, just like Shakepeare's time (wikipedia)
Globe performance, just like Shakepeare’s time (Wikipedia)

Adding to the maze of curiosities surrounding Shakespearean and Elizabethan theater over the past four centuries is the story of an American actor who was responsible for constructing a replica of the Globe theater in London.

During a visit to English capital in 1949, Sam Wanamaker was astonished and dismayed to discover that only trace of the original theater honoring the memory of Shakespeare’s literary contributions was a grimy, deteriorating plaque on an abandoned brewery.

With passionate determination, Wanamaker created the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970 in an effort to raise money for the construction of a new playhouse. In 1997, the Globe reopened with a performance of none other than “Henry V.” Today, the Globe is the only thatch-roofed building in the city.

Sadly, Wanamaker died in 1993 and never saw his dream come to fruition.

Standing room only for King Lear (wikipedia)
Standing room only for King Lear (Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, the high cost of real estate today is inspiring new building projects throughout London, and the excavation process has accidentally oncovered a bit of a “golden age” of archaeology in the city. Other recent projects have uncovered skeletal remains of 14th century plague victims and Roman sandals.

Heather Knight, senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, claims the Curtain site “has probably the best preserved remains of any of the playhouses we’ve looked at.”

The recent excavations show that the Curtain was approximately a 100-foot by 72-foot rectangle that could accommodate about 1,000 people.

Though the Curtain was home to Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1597 to 1599, and one of the oldest playhouses in London, it is also one of the least known. The best known, of course, is the Globe as it was and now as it exists today.

As a tribute to Shakespeare’s literary contributions, Sam Wanamaker had a three-fold concept in mind for his Globe reconstruction. First, this new Globe would be an active playhouse where patrons could attend performances in much the same manner as they would have been staged during Shakespeare’s time.

Second, the new Globe is a school where actors can learn the techniques, nuances and historical styles of theater as it has evolved through the centuries.

And finally, the new Globe is a source of research for Shakespearean and Elizabethan studies.

The Globe as seen from above. The only thatched roof building in London (wikipedia)
The Globe as seen from above. It is the only thatched roof building in London. (Wikipedia)

For travelers to London, the Globe is also a living museum where children of all ages can gain a broader understanding of Shakespeare and his work through a variety of ingenious, interactive kiosks.

Thanks to contemporary progress, some of London’s past has been unearthed and discovered, thereby “raising the Curtain” on an exciting encore to life’s on-going historical drama.


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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