Category Archives: Entertainment

Entertainment London Shakespeare Theatre

‘I’ll go to the Bull or Fortune, and there see a play for two pence’

Shoreditch from The Agas Map of London (1591)

The First Public London Theatres

The first purpose-built public playhouse in London was the Theatre, constructed under the watchful eye of James Burbage in 1576. Burbage, an actor by trade, was tired of touring and playing in makeshift venues and recognised the need for members of his profession to have a permanent theatre as close to London as possible. Locating a theatre outside the city limits ensured no interference from the city fathers, who made vigorous efforts to ban plays, believing them to corrupt youth, promote idleness, and spread disease. Burbage signed a twenty-one year lease on a site in Shoreditch, and his brother Robert, a carpenter, began construction on the Theatre. This new playhouse, a wooden, unroofed amphitheatre modelled on the popular bear-baiting arenas in London, was described as a ‘gorgeous Playing-place erected in the fieldes’.

By the early 1590s, the Theatre was a flourishing venue, and in 1594 it saw the staging of several early Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet. In 1597 however, the lease expired, and following a legal dispute with the landlord, Burbage and his players relocated to the Bank Side in Southwark and erected the Globe in 1598.The Globe wasn’t the first theatre in Southwark. The Rose, under the directorship of Philip Henslowe, had opened in 1587, and the Swan under Francis Langley had been showing plays from 1596. Like Burbage’s Theatre, these were all public playhouses, unlike the private theatres in the City and Inns of Court which charged high admission prices to a wealthy and select audience.

Wenceslas Hollar’s detail of The Globe (1647)

The Globe was described at the time of its construction as ‘a house newly built with a garden attached… in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others.’ Public playhouses were polygonal or round buildings, built on a timber frame, with a thatched or tile roof over the galleries. The yard, or standing area, was open to the sky, and reached via a series of entrances. The seated galleries, protected by the roof, were accessed via a series of staircases. Plays were performed daily at two in the afternoon, plague permitting, and were announced by a trumpet fanfare from the theatre’s roof, which also sported a flag which flew at high mast when a performance was underway. Several different plays a week were performed, never the same two in the same week, and printed handbills provided details of performances to passers-by. Thomas Platter, a German visitor to London in 1599, wrote an account of seeing a play at the Curtain:

Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried around the audience, so that what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

Johannes De Witt’s sketch of the Swan Theatre (1596)

The stage in most public playhouses extended out into the yard, which meant the audience surrounded the actors on three sides. The Lords’ Rooms, which flanked the stage, were the best seats in the house. Behind the stage was the tiring house where the actors changed costumes, and above the stage an open balcony which extended the performance space. Over both the stage and balcony was a canopied roof supported by pillars, protecting the players from the elements. Known as ‘the heavens’ this was often brightly decorated. The stage also had a trap door and mechanical devices for lowering props and players up and down.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, includes in his list of stage props: a tree of golden apples, the city of Rome, Hell’s mouth, a rainbow, lion and bear skins, coffins, tombs, and ‘a robe for to go invisible’. Costumes were prized possessions. A black velvet cloak belonging to Henslowe’s theatre, with embroidered sleeves of silver and gold, was listed with a value of £20.10s 6d, about a third of the cost of a house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Due to this vast expense, the aristocracy often donated costumes to the theatres.

Sound effects were simple but effective and included cannons, bells, and trumpets. A sheet of wobbling metal simulated thunder, and plays often called for mist, lightning, flaming torches, and in one case, fireworks. Because blood made such a frequent appearance on the stage, animal entrails were used for gore, and a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood, tucked under an actor’s armpit and squeezed at the opportune moment, reproduced the realistic effect of a stabbing.

Entry to the Globe’s yard, standing room only, cost a penny. For a more comfortable experience a visitor could pay an extra penny to sit in the galleries, and a further penny rented a cushion for the duration. Available refreshments included apples, oranges, pies, ale, wine, and even a pipe full of tobacco (three pence a pipe). Theatres on Bankside could accommodate up to 3,000 people per play, and audiences were comprised of every sector of society. Only Puritans abstained for fear of corruption. Bankside wasn’t the only area of London where public theatres flourished. There were playhouses in Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Lincolns Inn, and the City. There were several companies of players attached to the theatres; the Admiral’s Men played at the Rose, Paul’s Children at Pauls, Queen Anne’s players at the Red Bull, Lady Elizabeth’s at the Swan, and the King’s Revels Children at Whitefriars.

Map of London showing the theatres (1920)


In 1609, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, acquired a second theatre at Blackfriars. Little is known of this, the first indoor public playhouse. There is some speculation it was converted from the paved hall of an old priory. Its stage was much small than that of the Globe, and flash young things were permitted to sit on it during performances at a cost of 2 shillings. Admission to Blackfriars was more expensive than the Globe. Six pence paid for a seat in the galleries, and half a crown bought a private box. Lit by candles, and protected from the elements, Blackfriars became a lucrative investment for the King’s Men since they could stage plays all year round. In addition to the public and private theatres in London, plays were also performed at Court and at the Inns of Court. In 1612-13 the King’s Men performed five plays for James I in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.

Estimates suggest that between 1574 and 1642, the playhouses in London had regular audiences well in excess of 150,000 people, demonstrating Burbage’s simple decision to build a theatre in a field led to the birth of one of the most enduring forms of popular entertainment in Europe.

Bankside, prior to the construction of the Globe, from The Agas Map of London (1591)


Further reading: Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, CUP (1980); The Shakespeare Company 1594-1642, CUP (2004).
This post was originally published in The London Historians newsletter.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Conversation Entertainment Household

Good lord what dainty knacks you have

Following on from the blog post on John Florio, more conversations from the wonderful Frutes. I’ve chosen some of the most interesting and charming snippets.

First up, the weather:

A: What weather is it abroade?
S: It raines, it thunders, it snowes, it freeseth, it hailes and there is a great winde.
A: Goe to the windowe and looke better.
S: It is sharp, ill, close, darke, cruell, and stormie weather.
A: We will doe as they doe at Prato then.
S: And how doe they doe at Prato when it raines?
A: They let it raine, and keepe home.

Writing a letter:


S: Give me my deske, and some pen and ynke and paper.
L: I have no paper: neither is there any in the house.
S: Go buie some, here is monie.
L: How much shall I buye?
S: A quire: but let it be good, and that it doo not sinke.
L: It is verie dear of late.
S: Let it cost what it will, I must needes have some.

Chatting on the street:

G: Why do you stand barehedded? You do your self wrong.
E: Pardon me good sir, I doe it for my ease.
G: I pray you be covered, you are too ceremonious.
E: I am so well that me thinks I am in heaven.
G: If you love me, put on your hat.
E: I will doe it to obay you, not for any pleasure that I take in it.
G: What? Will you rather stand than sit?
E: I am very well. Good lord what dainty knacks you have here.
G: I have nothing but a few trifles.
E: What device is this, if a man may knowe?
G: It is a kinde of sweete water, very far fecht.
E: What do you doo with it, if it be lawful to know?
G: I use it to wash mine eyes and my face.
E: In truth it is very good, and verie sweete.
G: I praie you take a little that I have, for my sake.
E: Not for anie thing in the world.
G: I have some more, take it if you love me.


E: Fie, what an ill favoured woman I see passe through the streete.
G: Which, she that is clad in mourning apparell?
E: Yea sir, I thinke shee mourneth because shee is more foule than corruption it selfe.
G: Naie, you may say that she is more ill favored, more uglie, more loathsome, more foule and filthie than sinne and usurie it selfe.
E: Onelie the sight of her is able to make the whole Cleargie to gueld themselves.
G: I never sawe a finer remedie for love.
E: She would keepe the whole order of priestes chaste.

Making plans:

B: Oh, what a fine cleere night it is.
S: I will wager it will freeze before day.
B: I thinke so too because the skie is full of starres.
A: Will you be within to morrow morning?
B: I will endevour my selfe to be within.
A: I will come to you at seven of the clocke or there abouts.
B: You shall be welcome, and after dinner (God willing) wee will goe to some plaie, or to the Beare-baiting.
A: To some plaie if you will. I do not greatlie fansie the Bear-baiting, by reason of the filthie stinke that is there.
B: In trueth, that stinke is able to infect a man.
A: I perceive you begin to be sleepie, and therefore I bid you good night.
B: By the grace of God, I will lie a bed to morrow morning untill eight or nine of the clocke.

Going to bed:

M: Lay downe the bed, for I will goe sleepe.
L:  It is laid downe alreadie.
M: Dresse the bed, lift up that bolster.
L: It is too high alreadie.
M: Put another pillowe upon it.
L: I mervaile how you can lie with your head so high.
M: Lay one coverlet more upon it.
L: Which? That light or heavie one?
M: Which thou wilt, the quilt or the Irish rugge. Drawe the curtains, that the Moone shine not in his face, and lift up that boord-windowe.
L: Shall I help you off with your hose?
M: No, I am not so lazie yet.
L: Shall I untie your pointes?
M: Snuffe that candle, where are the snuffers?
L: I knowe not where they are. Oh here they be. I sawe them not.
M: Put on thy spectacles, forgetfull as thou art. Cast not that candle snuffe upon the ground.
L: Will you have the warming pan?
M: What to doo? It is not yet so colde.
L: Methinkes it is verie colde and sharpe weather.
M: A good fire in the chamber would doo no hurt.
L: I will with all diligence.
M: Oh what a good and soft bed this is.
L: Doo you want anie thing? Shall I put out the candle?
M: No truely, let the candle alone, for I will reade a Chapter.
L: What booke will you reade now you are a bed?
M: The Bible. I can not fall asleepe without reading.
L: They saye it is most wholsome to lye on the right.
M: What noyse is it I heare in that corner?
L: Belike they are either mice, ratts, or weasells.
M: Now I see I shall not sleepe all night.
L: Doubt you not, you shall sleepe well enough. Heere is a cat.
M: I will make them afraid with my snorting.
L: If you snort loud they will all runne away.
M: I cannot sleepe without something on my head.
L: Here is a night cap warme, cleane and neate.
M: I thank thee now goe a-Gods name.
L: I praie God I may sleepe well.
M: Amen, and God graunt I fall into no temptation.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Conversation Entertainment Games London Sport

Let us make a match at tennis

Browsing through John Florio’s English-Italian dictionary and phrasebook, I discovered this charming conversation between the fictional Thomas, John, and Henry. Florio gives these characters typical English exchanges, which he then translates into Italian to enable people to learn the language. Their conversation reveals fascinating everyday detail about late 16th and early 17th century life.

Thomas: Let us goe and plaie at tennis
Henry: One of us must staie out then
John: I will stay out, plaie you two
Thomas: We will cast lotts
John: No, let me be rather a looker on than a plaier
Henry: Go to, since you will have it so, let us two plaie
Thomas: What odds will you give me?
Henry: I will not plaie unless I plaie even hand
John: You may plaie even hand well enough
Thomas: I am content for a set or two
Henry: To what tennis court shall we goe?
Thomas: To charter house court
Henry: Trulie it is the fairest court about London
Thomas: But what shall master John doo in the mean while?
John: I will goe with you to see you plaie
Henry: You shall looke on and be our judge

At the court:

Thomas: What ho boy, bring hither some balles and some rackets
Boy: How manie are you my masters?
Henry: We are but two that will plaie
Boy: Will you plaie in set?
Thomas: Yea marrie, therefore give us good balles
Boy: Here are two dozen of faire and white balles
Thomas: Let us keepe the lawes of the court
John: That is, stake money under the line is it not so?
Thomas, Yea sir, you hit it right
Henry: Here is my monie, now stake you
Thomas: Whose lot is it to plaie?
Henry: Mine, for you are at the house
Thomas: Plaie then, and give me a faire balle

Thomas: A losse: I have fifteene
Henry: Fifteen for fifteene
Thomas: I am thirtie
Henry: Is that balle under or over?
John: Methinks it is under more than a handfull.
Henry: You have fortie then, goe to, plaie
Thomas: And I a dewes then.
Henry: I have the advantage
John: That was a verie faire stroake
Thomas: Everie man is against me.
Henry: I have wonne the first game.
Thomas: This is my woonted ill luck
Henry: I sweate, and am all in a water
Thomas: Let us give over plaie if you will
John: Who must paie for the balles?
Thomas I must, how manie dozens have we had?
Boy: Three dozen and a halfe
Thomas: Here is monie

Henry: Whether shall we goe now?
Thomas: Ile goe home to mine owne chamber
John: What to doo there?
Thomas: To rest a while, for I am wearie.
John: Then let us goe to my lodging.
Henry: It will be best since it is not farre hence.
Thomas: Let us goe apace then, for it is late.

I’ll post more entertaining and illuminating chit-chat from Thomas, Henry, and John soon.

More from Florio – Master Andrew, will it please you to eate an egg? and Will you wear any weapons to daye?

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Curiosities Education Entertainment

Fine feats in the water

These fragments come from a lovely 17th century guide to learning to swim. Illustrated throughout, the author provides all the instructions necessary for learning to swim like a fish in an English river.

There are fewe or none which have bestowed any paines in the explayning or publishing this Art of Swimming, it being so profitable a thing as it is, towards the preserving of mans life, when as he is at any time distressed in the greedie jawes of the swelling Sea.

The time which the temperature of this our climate affords as good to swimme in, is comprehended in foure monthes, May, June, July, and August.  In the place is two things especially to be respected, first, that the banks be not overgrowen with rank thicke grasse, where oft-times, do lie and lurke many stinging Serpents, and poisoned Toades: not full of thornes, bryers, stubbes, or thistles, which may offend the bare feete, but that the grasse be short, thinne, and greene, the banke beset with shadie trees, which may be a shelter from the winde, and a shadowe from the parching heate of the Sunne. Next that the water it selfe bee cleare, not troubled with any kinde of slimie filth, which is very infectious to the skinne, that the breadth, depth, and length therof be sufficiently knowne, that it be not muddie at the bottome, least by much treading the filth rising up from the bottome, thicken the water, and so make it unfitte for that purpose. Also that there be not in the bottome of the River any olde stakes or sharpe stones, which may greatly indanger the Swimmer, but that it be a cleare running water, not a standing corrupted poole, the bottome faire sande, where from the banks may easily be perceaved, whatsoever doth lie in the deepest place of the River.

For the manner of his going into the River, it must not be sweating, for that comming into the cold water it maketh a suddaine change in body, which is very dangerous, but rather by walking easily in some coole shade, or some such other moderate meanes, let him before he enter into the water bring his bodie into a reasonable temperature of heate and cold, and then, not as some which are more bold then wise, rudely leape into the water with their feete downwarde; or when he commeth at the side, fall in upon his right or left side. Or else leaping from the bank, and casting forth his leggs (but yet keeping of them close together) he may light upon his hips, and the hinder parts of his leggs, as you see in this picture:

When he hath perfectly learned to swim to and fro on his bellie, let him learne thus to turne upon his backe, by thrusting out his right hand as far as he can before him, and withall, turne over his left side, and still keepe out his right hand, untill he be turned upon his backe, for that it doth in turning so, support him from sinking, as in this example following:

And when he is thus layd upon his back, he must lie very straight, not bending or bowing with his bodie any way, save onely his legs, which he must easily pull out and in, as when he was on his belly, to put him forwards in the water, as thus:

There is an other kinde of turning when a man is swimming upon his belly, with his head one way, suddainly to turne himselfe, still being upon his belly, & bring about his head and all his body the other way: and for that it is to be done quickly (as oft times you may see the fishes within the water, when in the pleasant heate of Sommer they wantonly friske to and fro) it is commonly called the Koach turne, and that is done thus, if he will turne towards the right hand, hee must suddainely put the water from him with his left hand, and pull that water behinde towards him with his right hand, turning backe his head and his bodie as you see in this next figure:

There is also a turning which is called the bell turne, as when one swimming one his bellie shall suddainely pull in his feete, and in stead of striking with them as is afore sayd, he shall heaving backward with his foreparts, strike forward with his feete, which motion will turne him upon his backe: and because he may at his pleasure turne so upon his backe and belly as hee will, it is called the bell turne, resembling also a bell when it is ringing, as for example:

To swimme upon his side. This kinde of swimming, though it be more laborious, yet is it swifter then any of the rest, for that lying upon one side, striking with your feete as when you swimme on your bellie, but that the pulling in and thrusting out of his hand, which then did onely keepe him up, do now helpe to put him forward: for onely the lower hand supporteth his bodie, and the upper hand roweth, as in this example:

Some more illustrations:

To dive beneath the water:

To swim like a dogge:

To tread in the water:

To pare his toe nails in the water:

To carry anything drie over the water in his hands:

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

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