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For keeping two white bears

While reading Ian Donaldson’s splendid new biography of Ben Jonson, Ben Jonson: A Life (OUP, 2011), I was fascinated to note his reference to two potential white polar bears on Bankside supposedly brought back from the Arctic by Jonas Poole in 1609. Donaldson cites an article by Tessa Grant (1) in which Grant poses the view that these bears could perhaps have been used on the London stage. While reading the Calendar of State Papers last autumn, I came across a reference to Henslowe being awarded a license to keep two white bears, prompting further investigations (which also led to Simon Leake’s guest blog post on the little known sport of Horse-Baiting on Bankside). The CSPD contains the following entry:

Warrant to pay to Phil.Henslow and Ed.Allen, Musters of the Game at Paris Garden, 42I.10s and 12d per diem, in future for keeping two white bears and a young lion (2)

Ultimately intrigued by the idea of polar bears appearing on the Jacobean stage, I decided to investigate a little of the life of Jonas Poole. Poole (bap.1566-d.1612) was an English sea captain who volunteered to travel to the arctic circle and beyond in order to further English understanding of exploration and commercial whaling. On 10th April 1603, he set sail for Archangel in the Grace under the leadership of Stephen Bennet, the Grace having been refitted for the journey at the expense of Sir Thomas Cherry, governor of the Muscovy Company. The ship returned in September of the same year, and Poole subsequently travelled to the arctic five more times before 1609. In fact, so successful were Poole’s trips, that he sailed with the first American colonists to Jamestown in 1607. Between 1603 and 1612, Poole sailed to walrus and whaling grounds in the waters of the arctic every single year bar 1607. His accounts of his travels were given to Richard Hakluyt in 1610, and were subsequently published in 1625 by Samuel Purchas (3).

The following is an early 17th Century polar explorer’s description of an encounter with a polar bear:

There came a great bear towards our house, which made us all goe in, and wee levelled at her with our Muskets, and as shee came right before our door, we shot her into the breast, clean through the heart, the bullet passing through her body, and went out againe at her tail, and was as flatted as a Counter, the Beare feeling the blow, leapt backwards, and ran twentie or thirty foot from the house, and there lay down, wherewith wee leapt all out of the house, and ran to her, and found her still alive, and when she saw us, shee rear’d up her head, as if she would gladly have done us some mischief, but we trusted her not, for that we had thread their strength sufficiently before, and therefore we shot her twice into the body again, and therewith shee dyed. Then we rip’d up her belly, and taking out her guttes, drew her home to the House where we flayed her, and took at least one hundred pounds of fat out of her belly, which wee molt’d and burned in our Lampe. This Grease did us great good service, for by that meanes we still kept a Lampe burning all night long, which before wee could not doe, for want of Grease, and eery man had meanes to burned a Lampe in his Cabbin, for such necessaries as he had to doe. The Beares skin was nine foot long, and seven foot broad (4)

Hair-raising stuff. Poole himself speaks of numerous encounters with polar bears while on Cherry Island (Svalbard) in 1609. His account contains references to the killing of bears, foxes, seals, and other wildlife. In one entry, he describes seeing a mother bear with her cubs and yet is unable to kill the cubs because they are only ‘of a month old: they skipped about their dams neck, and played with one another very wantonly’ (5). On 30th May he and his party

slue 26. Seales, and espied three white Beares: wee went aboard for Shot and Powder, and coming to the Ice again, we should see a shee-Beare and two young ones: Master Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee was slyane, wee got the young ones, and brought them home into England, where they are still alive in Paris Garden (6).

It’s shocking to imagine explorers like Poole surviving in the hostile environment of the arctic without GPS, modern protective clothing, and access to a plane and medical supplies, but it’s simply astonishing that he should risk bringing two live polar bears, albeit cubs, back to England. Of course, exotic animals were par for the course at court and at the Tower, but nevertheless, Poole’s decision does seem to modern sensibilities either slightly fool-hardy or quite mad.

In 1611, Poole suffered a broken skull and collar bone on Cherry Island while handling his cargo of walrus ivory and whale fat. He was brought home by a rival whaler and recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to the arctic the following year. However, Poole’s career as a whaler was cut short in September 1612 when he was murdered in Wapping in August, having returned home from what became his final voyage. Poole was survived by his wife and two sons, and his grandson, Jonas, went on to have a successful naval career from 1652 to 1665 (7).

In an interesting addendum, Tessa Grant comments that the water poet John Taylor provides a list of the names of the bears at the Paris Garden (8). Taylor refers specifically to two white bears named Mad Bess and Will Tookey (9). Could they be the Jonas bears? A quick delve into the FAQ at Polar Bear International reveals that in the wild, polar bears live on average 15-18 years. However in captivity they may live well into their late thirties. If the Paris Garden bears are the Cherry Island bears brought back by Jonas, then in 1638 they would have been 29 years old. Grant suggest the Jonas bears retired from the stage in 1612 (9), but it is of course entirely possible they may have lived on as part of the spectacle at the bear gardens for many years to come. And most intriguingly, Simon Foreman records seeing The Winter’s Talein May 1611, just weeks after Henslowe and Allen were granted their warrant to keep ‘two white bears’. It’s a fanciful notion, but perhaps it was the Jonas bears that inspired Shakespeare to write his famous stage direction, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’

It is worth noting that there is a second scholarly article on the white bears; Barbara Ravelhofer, “Beasts of Recreation”: Henslowe’s White Bears, English Literary Renaissance, 32 (2002), 287-323
Unfortunately I have been unable to access the article due to the vagaries of the university server. I hope to read it soon, and perhaps update this post.

For more on bears on Bankside see Drunken Cocks and Bear-Baiting

1) Teresa Grant, Notes & Queries, 246 (2001), 311-13
2) CSPD, entry dated March 20th 1611
3) DNB, R C D Baldwin
4) cited in Samuel Purchas, His pilgrimes In fiue bookes (Vol 3), London (1625), 502
5) Ibid 560
6) Ibid 562
7) Baldwin
8) Grant, 312
9) John Taylor, Bull, beare, and horse, cut, curtaile, and longtaile. VVith tales, and tales of buls, clenches, and flashes. As also here and there a touch of our beare-garden-sport; with the second part of the merry conceits of wit and mirth. Together with the names of all the bulls and beares, London (1638),  E.v
10) Grant, 312

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Review Shakespeare

If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride

Measure For Measure – Review

The Rose theatre on Bankside is a simple construction which houses the archaeological remains of the first theatre built on Bankside (c.1586-7). Not the easiest of places then to stage a Shakespeare production. The Rose has no auditorium, just a smallish viewing platform constructed above the theatre’s foundations. This serves as the stage, with the audience sprinkled in chairs around its edges. Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s play about the hypocritical Angelo, placed in temporary charge of a corrupt Vienna by a Duke who wishes to observe society in disguise, is often regarded as a problematic play. However director Brice Stratford handles the challenge with ease.

This production is, by turn, laugh out loud funny, disturbing, thought-provoking, cynical, and even occasionally whimsical. Devoid of props, aside from chains used in the prison scenes, Stratford’s production relies entirely on compelling performances from the cast and on the audience’s imagination. In this it has much in common with original Elizabethan theatrical performance. Mistress Overdone, the play’s comic prostitute, is beautifully played by Elizabeth Bloom, who chats and flirts with the audience, and serves as a entertainingly cynical contemporary commentator on the action. Dan Van Garrett’s Angelo is thoroughly mesmerising; dark and violent, yet undoubtedly human. Thomas Vilorio’s delightful delivery and affable charm as the bungling humorous Lucio, who slanders the Duke and weaves in and out of the action, is a genuine highlight of the play. Brice Stratford takes on the role of Vincentio in a measured and very accomplished performance, and Suzanne Marie plays Isabella with an enthusiastic professionality which although occasionally feeling rather over-stretched, is nevertheless convincing. Jeremy Smith’s Clowne is witty and highly enjoyable, and Otis Waby’s condemned Claudio is moving and sympathetic. As an ensemble, the cast has an holistic integrity which makes for a seamless and cleverly authentic production. By teasing out the high comic elements of Measure For Measure, Brice Stratford exposes the darker moral undertones of the play, and this contrast is at times startling; the attempted rape scene for example, is handled particularly well.

If you’re not a fan of intimate theatre this production may perhaps prove a challenge, but if you want to experience intelligent, lively, and genuinely interactive theatrical performance in a haunting historical setting, then hie thee hither along to the Rose.

Runs until 4th December.
The Rose Bankside

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

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
Shakespeare Theatre

The fearful fire began above

On June 29th 1613 Shakespeare’s Globe theatre burned to the ground during a performance of Henry VIII or All Is True. Henry Wotton, writing to Edmund Bacon, described the event in a letter dated 2nd July. Several ballads were printed detailing the fire, one of which follows below.

‘The King’s players had a new play called All Is true, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the Knights or the Order with their Georges and garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.’

‘A sonnet upon the pitiful burning of the Globe playhouse in London’

Now sit thee down, Melpomene,
Wrapped in a sea-coal robe,
And tell the doleful tragedy
That late was played at Globe;
For no man that can sing and say
But was scared on St. Peter’s Day.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

All you that please to understand,
Come listen to my story,
To see Death with his raking brand
‘Mongst such an auditory;
Regarding neither Cardinal’s might,
Nor yet the rugged face of Henry the Eight.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

This fearful fire began above,
A wonder strange and true,
And to the stage-house did remove,
As round as tailor’s clew;
And burned down both beam and snag,
And did not spare the silken flag.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Out run the knights, out run the lords,
And there was great ado;
Some lost their hats and some their swords,
Then out run Burbage too;
The reprobates, though drunk on Monday,
Prayed for the fool and Henry Condye.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

The periwigs and drum-heads fry,
Like to a butter firkin;
A woeful burning did betide
To many a good buff jerkin.
Then with swollen eyes, like drunken Flemings,
Distressed stood old stuttering Hemings.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

No shower his rain did there down force
In all that sunshine weather,
To save that great renowned house;
Nor thou, O ale-house, neither.
Had it begun below, sans doubt,
Their wives for fear had pissed it out.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Be warned, you stage strutters all,
Lest you again be catched,
And such a burning do befall
As to them whose house was thatched;
Forbear your whoring, breeding biles,
And lay up that expense for tiles.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Go draw you a petition,
And do you not abhor it,
And get, with low submission,
A license to beg for it
In churches, sans churchwardens’ checks,
In Surrey and in Middlesex.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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