At Shakespeare’s Theatre In Shoreditch
On the eve of the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I recall my visit to the site of the Theatre in Shoreditch where his career as an actor and dramatist began
Over in Shoreditch, just a few minutes walk from Spitalfields, is the site of a seventeenth century playhouse called ‘The Theatre’ built by James Burbage in 1576, where William Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist began. In this, the first custom-built public theatre, Shakespeare played as an actor and his first plays were performed, notably Romeo & Juliet and an early version of Hamlet.
Stepping through a blank door in the wooden hoarding in New Inn Yard, I walked along a raised pathway to look down upon the archaeological dig and see where the earth has been painstakingly scraped back to reveal the foundations of the ancient playhouse.
Senior archaeologist Heather Knight indicated the section of curved stonework which comprised part of the inner wall of the theatre and next to it a section of the paving of the passage where, more than four hundred years ago, the audience walked through into the body of the theatre, once they had paid their penny admission. Beyond this paving, a beaten earth floor has been uncovered, sloping gently down in the direction of the stage.
This is where the audience stood to watch Shakespeare’s early plays for the first time.
For any writer, Shakespeare is a name that has a resonance above all others, and once Heather Knight explained what I was seeing, it took a while for the true meaning to sink in. My head was full with the cacophony of the dusty sunlit street and the discordance of heavy traffic and, superficially, the site itself was like any other archaeological dig I have visited. There was no poetry in it.
But then the words of Hamlet came to me, “To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause…” And my stomach began to churn because I knew I was standing on the other side of Shakespeare’s unfathomable dream. It was as if I could feel the tremor of the London earthquake of 1580 coursing through my body. The modern city grew diaphanous and street sounds faded away.
We know no more of what happens in the sleep of death than Shakespeare did. Yet we can say we do know the literal substance of the dreams evoked by these lines from Hamlet – the things that were to come in the space where Hamlet’s words were spoken by James Burbage’s son Richard, who was the first to play the role.
We know things unknown to the writer or the actor or the audience in that moment, and, in this sense it may be said that we ourselves (even the archaeologists) are all part of Shakespeare’s boundless dream within the sleep of his own death.
We know that, after a disagreement in 1598, The Theatre was covertly demolished by the theatre company while the freeholder Giles Allen was away for Christmas and the materials used to construct The Globe in Southwark the following spring. We know that a factory was built on the site in the seventeenth century, then a house in the eighteenth century, and a warehouse in the nineteenth century until it became a lumber yard in the twentieth century, before archaeologists came along with sonar devices in the twenty-first century to ascertain the position of the theatre – although the workers in the lumber yard and all the local people always knew the yard was on top of ‘Shakespeare’s Theatre.’
Yet it was never Shakespeare’s theatre in any real sense, it is unlikely the audience here were aware of any particular significance in the event when they heard his words, because he was an unknown quantity then. Plays were performed just once from cue scripts without any rehearsal or expectation of posterity.
Each actor had a roll of paper with their character’s lines, plus their cue lines – so they knew when to speak. The implications of this were twofold. Firstly, the actors had to listen attentively to each other so they did not miss their cues. Secondly, beyond a broad knowledge of the story, the actors might not know exactly what was going to happen in a scene. It placed the actor in the present tense of the dramatic moment, knowing no more of the outcome than their character did. The actor playing Romeo might take the poison without knowing that Juliet was going to wake up.
Shakespeare’s plays were conceived to play upon the spontaneous poetry of the elusive instant that – for both the actors and audience – occurred uniquely. This embrace of the ephemeral moment is both innate to the form of Shakespeare’s plays and it is their subject too – the fleeting brilliance of life. His works were delights that, as transient as butterflies on Summer days, existed without expectation of longevity.
The beautiful paradox is that, in recognition of their superlative quality, Shakespeare’s colleagues collated and printed them, so that his words could travel onwards through time and space to become the phenomenon we know today. And this modest piece of earth in Shoreditch is where it all began.
Releasing me from my idle speculation upon the dust, Heather Knight held up a concrete discovery in triumph. It was an earthenware ale beaker that she had found, with a lustrous green glaze, which fitted the hand perfectly – a drinking vessel that Shakespeare would recognise, of the style that would be used in the tavern scenes at The Boars’s Head in Henry IV Part One, first performed at The Theatre. Heather has never found a complete beaker before and because it was discovered at The Theatre and is contemporary with Shakespeare, it is a magic artifact.
It is something from Shakespeare’s world that he could have seen or touched. Although we can never know, we are permitted to dream.
Click on the image to enlarge Adam Dant’s Map of Shakespeare’s Shordiche
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