Digging up the past for Shakespeare Week


In fair Shoreditch, where we lay our scene, archaeologists discovered the remains of one of the earliest Elizabethan playhouses, the Curtain Theatre.

In June 2012 the initial excavation was carried out by MOLA.

In 1993 Hackney Council placed a commemorative plaque on 18 Hewett Street, where they believed the theatre was once located.

The excavation, nearly twenty years on, proves that the theatre was only a stone’s throw away from the plaque.

Fast forwarding to 2016, MOLA are preparing to celebrate Shakespeare week in the run up to the start of their excavation later this year.

Digging up the past

FEASHAKESPEAREbrick wall thought to support inside timber frame of Curtain Theatre (c) MOLA
Excavating a brick wall thought to support the inside timber frame of the Curtain Theatre; Credit: MOLA

To celebrate 400 years of the Bard’s legacy, they are holding a series of events, lectures, and walking tours between Thursday 31 March to Wednesday 25 May.

The events will teach people more about the first theatre district and highlight the Shoreditch based theatre as a historically significant site.

Once the dig begins, there will also be displays of any artifacts they might discover.

Honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stanley Wells, says: “It was exciting to find physical remains as we have such little evidence. It was where Shakespeare’s company performed before the globe.

“In fact timbers from the theatre were used to build the globe when they moved in 1599.”

Despite only a small part of the theatre being revealed, there is evidence of well preserved remains of the “wooden O” stage.

He says that the image of the “wooden O” can be found in the historical play, Henry V: “Can this Cock-Pit hold within tis wooden O, the very Caskes that did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?”

It is believed that this theatre was the first to stage Henry V. It also staged plays such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream,  Henry V, and Romeo and Juliet.

Wells says the the well-known balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet was never intended to take place on a balcony; “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?”

It is believed that Romeo would have spotted Juliet at her window located in the second floor of the galleries.

David Divers, Project Manager at MOLA, said: “We’re really excited to be preparing for this important dig that we hope will reveal more about the Curtain Theatre; one of Shakespeare’s least documented theatres.

“The Curtain Theatre is one of Shakespeare’s least documented theatres; so there is huge potential for our excavation to reveal more about Elizabethan theatre, life in Shoreditch in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and perhaps even the Bard himself.”

Events in Shakespeare Week

FEAShakespeare Hackney Curtain Theatre plaque (c) MOLA
The plaque at Curtain Theatre, where Shakespeare once acted; Credit: MOLA

Hackney schools are also taking part in the the celebrations. In a poll taken by 1,700 primary schools pupils, Romeo and Juliet was number one as their must-see Shakespeare play.

The poll was conducted by First News and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as part of the Shakespeare Week celebrations this week.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the second favourite and Hamlet took third place.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: “Shakespeare Week provides a fantastic opportunity to make these great works accessible and exciting for our primary school children, providing them with an early introduction to a wide variety of texts before they come to formally embrace Shakespeare as part of the secondary curriculum.

“More than 400 years on I am thrilled to see this initiative bringing these works to life for a new generation of pupils and we will continue to do all we can to make sure every child is able to experience and enjoy Shakespeare for themselves.”

The Hackney Central Library has also confirmed two events taking place this weekend. On Friday 22 March the library is holding a Macbeth film night from 6pm.

The next day there will be a workshop called Othello and Friends where children will be encouraged to act out Shakespearean characters. More events will be confirmed later in the week.

“It’s our heritage, it’s our culture” says Janet Adegoke, who works at the library. “Children need to know about him, it’s for all walks of life.”

In a statement, Dr Elizabeth Dollimore from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust says:

“It is fantastic that so many children were able to choose the Shakespeare play that they would most like to watch, and I hope that in voting children explored some of the less well known plays by Shakespeare.

She praised schools on their abilities to keep children engaged with Shakespearean work and “bring Shakespeare’s legacy to life in children’s world,” over the last few years.

Keill Swift, First News’ managing editor adds: “The huge response from our readers demonstrates that, 400 years on, Shakespeare’s plays still resonate with today’s young people, who have some fantastic opportunities to celebrate this year’s extra-special Shakespeare Week.”

Featured image credit: tonynetone via flickr

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