Culturally, the celebration the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was a real standout. From television to film, theatre to classic music - the breadth and variety of the events held in the famous bard’s honour speak to the magnitude of his influence.
History, however, continues to be made. Archaeologists from MOLA completed a three-month detailed excavation of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre. Known to have premiered Henry V, staged Romeo and Juliet and even been the venue for Shakespeare’s own theatrical performances in Ben Johnson’s plays, there was surprisingly little known about the theatre itself. However, that has all changed in the space of these three months.
One month into the detailed excavation in May, archaeologists announced some key findings. Firstly, the theatre wasn’t polygonal but rectangular. This certainly sent shockwaves amongst Shakespearean historians and archaeologists as it wasn’t expected. History was certainly being rewritten.
The artefacts that were initially found also generated global interest in what was known to be the least documented Elizabethan theatre. The team at MOLA found a bird whistle and that certainly raised the question whether this was a prop for a play performed at the theatre. Could it be the prop used for Romeo & Juliet which demanded the call of a lark? Other objects included an animal bone comb which could possibly have been used by an actor and a token.
Fast forward to November and the excavation ended. We all waited with baited breath, and the findings certainly didn’t disappoint. Archaeologists discovered that the Curtain Theatre’s stage was intentionally built and much longer than first thought containing evidence of an unusual passageway beneath the stage. This raised even more questions about whether the length of the stage affected the plays Shakespeare wrote and what other performances may have been performed.
And the artefacts also kept coming. The Curtain Theatre, one of earliest Elizabethan playhouses, was where people paid money to see performances and be entertained. This is known because fragments of ceramic money boxes were found, which would have been used to collect the entry fees from theatregoers and then been taken to an office to be smashed and the money counted. This office was known as the ‘box office’, which is the origin of the term we still use today.
Glass beads and pins, which may have come from actors’ costumes, were also unearthed along with drinking vessels and clay pipes, which are likely to have belonged to revelling theatregoers and actors.
So what’s next? Well this is the interesting part of the journey. Rather than covering the site up and building over it, the Curtain Theatre will be preserved in situ and become part of The Stage, a new mixed-use development putting Shoreditch on the global map. Who knew Shakespeare and property could go hand-in-hand but this is prime example the two can be star-crossed lovers.