Archaeologists on site at the Curtain Theatre. (Photo: MOLA)

Post-excavation analysis of the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, which staged some of Shakespeare’s plays (see CA 316), has revealed new clues to how the Elizabethan playhouse was used.

Among the key discoveries revealed by MOLA archaeologists was that the theatre’s stage was the same length as a modern-day fencing piste – 14m from stage left to stage right, and 4.75m deep – making it perfect for performing elaborate fight scenes. This detail adds to the debate that playhouses north of the Thames housed more dramatic and lively performances than those south of the river – one example being Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which is known to have been performed at the Curtain. As the play is full of dynamic fights, this stage would have been well suited to performances of the play.

Glass beads from the 16th century, found in the outside spaces at the Curtain Theatre. (Image: MOLA)

The excavation also shed new light on the Curtain’s audience. While documentary evidence shows that the price of entry to the theatre was affordable, starting at one penny, the discovery of 359 small glass beads in one of the outside spaces of the theatre suggests that more affluent individuals also attended the playhouse, possibly in the higher galleries. Overall, the investigation indicates that the theatre probably attracted a diverse audience from across London’s social spectrum. Moreover, while the Curtain is already known to have been the largest and longest-standing early Elizabethan playhouse, MOLA’s recent work has helped to clarify the point, suggesting that the building may have had a capacity of around 1,400 people.

‘The true nature of this little-known playhouse is coming to light,’ said Heather Knight, lead archaeologist on the excavations. ‘A purpose-built theatre, it is becoming clear that this was a playhouse for the masses, where people gathered in the afternoon for action-packed performances. Interestingly, the research is also adding to the ongoing debate that the playhouses north and south of the river were quite different. Shoreditch has a unique character today and it seems it did in Shakespeare’s day too.’

The preserved remains of the theatre will be the focal point of a new development, The Stage, which will include a performance area and a park, as well as housing, dining, retail, and office spaces.

This article appeared in CA 337

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