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Shakespeare's theatre  1  2  3

1. Playhouses

Before the first public playhouses were built in London in the late 16th century, players performed in the yards and upper rooms of the capital’s many inns. By the early 1600s there were several playhouses just outside the City of London. They were of two types:

  • Open-air amphitheatres. These were usually polygonal. The stage projected into the central yard and may or may not have been covered. The audience stood around the stage in the yard, where places were cheapest, or stood or sat in the tiers of galleries that enclosed it. These playhouses relied on natural light.
  • Indoor halls. These were rectangular, with the stage along one of the short sides. The audience sat, either immediately in front of the stage where the seats were most expensive, or in galleries which ran around the other three sides of the room. These playhouses were lit by candles and torches.

The playhouses were brightly decorated inside. Their stages had two doors for entrances and exits, often flanking a larger central opening at the back which could be used for more ceremonial comings and goings. There was little or no scenery but hangings, for example painted cloths and curtains, were used on the stage. Properties, such as beds, thrones, or tombs, were needed for some plays.

Audiences were socially mixed, and women as well as men visited both the open-air and the indoor playhouses. Admission to the open-air amphitheatres cost one old penny, and they catered more for the citizenry. Admission to the indoor halls cost six old pennies, and they were frequented by the court and gentry.

The Swan and the Globe
The Swan and the Globe. J. C. Visscher, Londinum Florentissima Britanniae Urbs, 1616. British Library, Maps C.5.a.6, detail. Larger image


The Theatre was built in 1576 by James Burbage, father of the actor Richard Burbage. It was located in Shoreditch, north-east of the City of London and just outside the City’s jurisdiction. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries and a covered stage. From 1594, the Theatre became the playhouse of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. After the lease on the site expired in 1597, the Burbages dismantled the Theatre and in 1599 rebuilt it as the Globe.


The Curtain was built just south of the Theatre in 1577, and was similar in construction. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men seem to have used the Curtain for performances between the end of the lease on the Theatre in 1597 and the opening of the Globe in 1599. The Curtain was still being used for performances in the 1620s.


The Rose was built by Philip Henslowe in 1587, south of the River Thames on Bankside. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries but smaller than either the Swan or the Globe. Henslowe increased the size of the Rose in 1592 and may, at the same time, have had the stage covered. Its audience capacity was about 2,000. The Rose was demolished by 1606.


The Swan was built in 1595 on Bankside, and was intended as a competitor to Henslowe’s Rose. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries and a covered stage. It was the largest of London’s playhouses, and the only playhouse of the period for which a pictorial record of the interior survives. It was closed by government order in 1597, and apparently never regularly used afterwards.

Sketch of the interior of the Swan
Johannes de Witt copied by Aernout van Buchel, Sketch of the interior of the Swan, about 1596. Utrecht University Library. Larger image


The Globe was built in 1599, from the reused timbers of the Theatre. It was located on Bankside, near to the Rose. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries, a covered stage and a thatched roof. The Globe was owned and operated by a syndicate of the leading players among the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The first Globe was burnt down in 1613, when its thatch caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII (All is True). The second Globe was built on the foundations of the first, but given a tiled roof. It could accommodate an audience of 3,000. From 1609, the King’s Men used the Globe during the summer and their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars during the winter.


The Fortune was built by Philip Henslowe in 1600, to rival the Globe. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries, and a covered stage. The Admiral’s Men used the Fortune for many years. It burnt down in 1621, but was rebuilt. The Fortune survived until 1661, when it was demolished.


The Blackfriars indoor playhouse was established as early as 1576 for the children of the Chapel Royal. In 1596 the property was purchased by James Burbage, who began to convert it into an indoor hall playhouse for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Following local opposition, it was again leased to a company of boy players. This company disbanded in 1608, and Richard Burbage quickly brought together a syndicate of players to run the Blackfriars playhouse. From late 1609 the King’s Men took it over. They gave performances at the Blackfriars during the winter, and at the Globe during the summer.

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1. Playhouses
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