British Museum blog

Digging deeper into Shakespeare

Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

For me, the Shakespeare; staging the world exhibition at the British Museum creates a wonderful journey through the worlds we associate with Shakespeare; the real and the fictional, the physical and the imaginary. Most journeys taken by Shakespeare’s contemporaries will have been the fictional and imaginary since few people at the time will have set foot outside England. Shakespeare – and others – certainly knew about, and exploited knowledge of, that outside world. Historical and archaeological evidence provides a wealth of such knowledge.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1644 view of Bankside showing the Globe and the bear baiting house, both of which have been partially excavated. In this picture, the labels were switched by the engraver. The Globe (1599) to the left whilst the baiting arena, originally the Hope playhouse (1613), is to the right.

London was a major port with international mercantile contacts. It was one of the largest cities in the world – and growing. Immigration – albeit mostly internal – made it a cosmopolitan city. It was the seat of royal power, national parliament and the country’s commercial and legal centre. The exhibition also introduces us to the great and the good, from the queen and the aristocratic patrons of the playhouses such as Leicester, Essex and Hunsdon to the playwrights and actors. By the 1570s there was a large and diverse ready-made audience with a thirst for leisure and entertainment which made London the first home of the professional theatre. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright Thomas Heywood was immensely proud of his adoptive city and very conscious of its theatrical pre-eminence. He compared it with ancient Rome, but stressed this international importance:

Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations, repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration: for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more then in London?

Foreign visitors indeed left accounts of the new fangled London playhouses – they were very different from those in contemporary Spain but a playhouse built in Gdansk in 1611 was itself based on the Fortune playhouse built in north London in 1600.

1989 excavation showing the Rose remains amongst
20th-century concrete foundations. The outline of the
first stage of 1587 can be seen on the left whilst that of
the rebuilt stage of 1592 – either side of the 2m scale –
can be seen to the right, just in front of the modern

As an archaeologist I have specialised in the ‘Shakespearean theatre’ for a number of years and we, at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), have now excavated parts of the Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Globe (1599) and the Hope of 1613. We have also excavated two of the Bankside bear gardens. The archaeological contribution to Shakespearean studies has now provided a vast and immensely useful body of information on these early theatres and thousands of artefacts that illustrate the working life of Shakespeare and his audiences. Details of all these sites, and others, have been gathered in my book Shakespeare’s London Theatreland, published by MOLA this year. I was thus delighted to be asked what objects we have unearthed that might illustrate aspects of everyday life in Shakespearean London. The spirit of cooperation we, and other institutions, have had with the British Museum this year has triumphed in this exhibition.

In theatrical terms, the ‘Shakespearean period’ covers the years between 1567 when the first playhouse was built (when Shakespeare was 3 years old) to 1642 when parliament closed them all (26 years after Shakespeare died). It is this period that saw the flowering of English drama and the unique playing spaces built in London that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for and acted in. Here, you could imagine yourself in the ‘vasty fields of France’, ‘the greatest part of Spain’, in ‘fair Verona’ or ‘with us in Venice’ and in more distant exotic worlds such as the ‘the furthest inch of Asia’ or even ‘America, the Indies?’

The archaeological finds on display in the British Museum’s exhibition are all from the Rose excavations of 1989 and represent the building itself (the baluster), what might be a prop (the fork, found in the stage area), and everyday items that might be lost by either actors or, more likely, audiences. Like the evidence for what playgoers ate and wore, many of these finds represented rich and exotic imports.

A luxury fork discovered on the site of the Rose playhouse

The objects from Stratford – shovel, watering can and ceramics – represent (Shakespeare’s) life in the country through similar everyday items. One of the striking pieces in the exhibition is a bear skull that was found on a building site near the modern Globe where the original bear baiting rings were situated. This cruel ‘sport’ was just another form of ‘entertainment’ to people at the time.

The range of material within the exhibition is wonderfully evocative of Shakespeare’s whole world(s) but a particular thrill for me was seeing, for the first time in the flesh, the Titus Andronicus drawing . Shakespeare’s play was first performed at the Rose on 23 January 1594 and the line at the front must represent the stage that we excavated there 23 years ago!

Julian Bowsher will be giving a lecture at the British Museum on Thursday 25 October on ‘Shakespeare and his theatres in London‘.
Find out more about Shakespeare events programme

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

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