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Elizabethan Playhouses and Bear Baiting Arenas Given Protection

  • Remains of the first and last Elizabethan playhouses built in London have been protected as scheduled monuments
  • The Theatre in Hackney is believed to be the site of the first performances of both Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus'. Its archaeological remains are comparable to those of The Globe
  • The first play staged at The Hope in Bankside was Ben Jonson's 'Bartholomew Fair'
  • The sites of three bear-baiting pits have also been protected. Bankside in Southwark was the place for animal baiting in Elizabethan and Jacobean times
  • Five buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon have been relisted to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death

Two Elizabethan playhouses linked to William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, have today been protected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England. They will now be added to the National Heritage List for England. The Theatre and The Hope join the Rose and the Globe on Bankside, London as scheduled monuments. Purpose-built playhouses emerged during Queen Elizabeth I's reign as English drama flourished and theatre attendance by the general public increased dramatically. Very few theatres of this period are thought to survive as archaeological remains.

Illustration of The Theatre
Illustration of The Theatre by Judith Dobie © Historic England

Tracey Crouch, Heritage Minister, said: "As we celebrate Shakespeare's great works and global influence on the 400th anniversary of his death, it's important that we also protect and recognise the remains of the playhouses where his and many other fantastic British playwrights' works first came to life on stage. I'm delighted that so many sites associated with our nation's strong theatrical heritage will now be protected."

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: "The archaeological remains of the first and last Elizabethan playhouses to be built in London give us fleeting glimpses of a fascinating period in the history of theatre. They are where some of the world's greatest stories were first told and it is wonderful that they remain today, bearing witness to our fascinating past. Their cultural importance, particularly their connections with Shakespeare and Marlowe, means they deserve protection as part of England's precious historic fabric. It's fitting that we have also commemorated the life of Shakespeare by relisting key buildings and monuments associated with him in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 400th year since his death. These are key places in the life and legacy of the world's greatest playwright which deserve to be celebrated in this way."

The Theatre was built in 1576-7 and is the earliest known example of a polygonal playhouse in London.  Its archaeological remains are comparable to those of the Globe and have shed light on the building's construction. Its design was inspired by classical Roman theatres and shares characteristics with the Rose and the Globe. They were permanent, timber-framed structures with three tiers of galleries and an open yard into which extended a raised stage. They were built of wood on brick foundations, with thatch or tile roofing material.

James Burbage took out a lease on the site, which is now the junction of Curtain Road and New Inn Yard in East London, with the intention of building a new playhouse. The costs of constructing the playhouse were substantial and plays were put on before the building was complete. The Theatre was a popular venue and a number of playing companies were associated with it, including the Lord Chamberlain's Company that included William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' was probably first performed there in 1596 with Richard Burbage as the lead and the playhouse is thought to be where Marlowe's 'Faustus' was first performed in 1592.

Towards the end of the 21 year lease there were disputes about money and in late December 1598 Burbage's sons dismantled the Theatre and moved reusable parts south of the Thames to Bankside to part-construct their new theatrical venture, the Globe.

Woman crouched down holding a trowel on excavation site
MOLA excavations of the Hope playhouse and bear baiting arena © MOLA

The Hope – the last Elizabethan playhouse

In 1613 Philip Henslowe and two partners entered a contract to replace the Bear Gardens with a new building which would be a joint playhouse and bear baiting arena to be known as the Hope. The Hope was the last of the playhouses to be built, opening in approximately 1614.

Archaeological excavations revealed a polygonal building with ten sides, with an internal diameter of 16m and external diameter of 24m. The general construction is consistent with the excavated remains of The Globe Theatre and the specifications of the building contract for the Hope which still survives in the archive at Dulwich College.

The first play staged there was Ben Jonson's 'Bartholomew Fair', and within the play Jonson makes several references to the dual-purpose of the Hope such as likening the smell of the playhouse to that of the animals at Smithfield market.

The original intention was to hold animal baiting only on Sundays and Thursdays, with plays in between, however the animal baiting and other entertainment gradually eclipsed the playing. Tension increased between the actors and playhouse owners which finally led to the acting company leaving the Hope in 1617. By the 1620s the playhouse had reverted to its old name Bear Garden. Parliament ordered it to close in 1643, however it continued to operate until 1656 during the English Civil War when it was eventually dismantled.

Illustration of the Hope by Judith Dobie
Illustration of the Hope by Judith Dobie © Historic England

Bear baiting - a popular sport

Baiting of bears, bulls and horses by dogs was enormously popular sport for all levels of society in the 16th and 17th centuries, as documented by Samuel Pepys who describes his visits to the Davies Bear Garden in his diaries on at least four occasions from 1666 to 1669. The Bankside area of Southwark, London was the usual venue and five bear gardens were known to have been built there; by the 17th century the general area including the arenas, kennels and adjoining houses had become known as Bear Gardens, a street name which survives today on Bankside.

The arenas were circular with a central area where the bear was attached to a post. Around 1,000 spectators viewed from an upper stand and underneath the galleries at the ground floor.

It is very rare for animal baiting pits to survive. Archaeological investigations have discovered buried remains and foundations relating to three arenas and they have been protected and preserved beneath the buildings now on the sites.

Bear baiting arenas are closely associated with playhouses historically, not only through common owners but by sharing some physical characteristics. One of the earliest bear baiting arenas, known as Payne's standings, was replaced by a timber, galleried structure (Bear Gardens no. 3a) which is similar in form to The Theatre; The Hope is thought to be unique in its dual role as playhouse and bear baiting arena.

Exterior view of Holy Trinity Church with river Avon in foreground
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon © Historic England K991546

Commemorating Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

Five buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon have been relisted to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Their entries on the National Heritage List for England have been revised and updated to ensure that their important connection with Shakespeare is celebrated.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been Grade II* listed since 1971. When large-scale rethinking of the theatre of the site was proposed to the building, Historic England had detailed discussions with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The parts of the building identified as the most significant historically and architecturally were the foyer, the fountain court and the facades facing the Bancroft and the Avon. Radical reworking of the listed building retained these parts and allowed for the construction of an entirely new 1,000 seat theatre within the existing envelope. Historic England has now reassessed the building and determined that it should remain listed at Grade II* and the list entry has been amended to reflect the building as it now stands with its high quality redevelopment.

The Grade I listed 13th century Church of the Holy Trinity is where Shakespeare was baptised and buried and his association is clear in the fabric of the building as both an inscribed ledger stone and monument to him on the chancel wall survive.

The Shakespeare Monument was originally created for the façade of the Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall, London but when the building was demolished in 1868 it was moved to its present site in Great Gardens of New Place. It is listed at Grade II* as an early and important example of a monument to Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Memorial Fountain was gifted to the town by the American publisher George William Childs in dedication to Shakespeare and built from 1886-7. It is listed at Grade II* as an important example of a Victorian Public monument in an expressive Gothic style with high quality stone carvings.

The Grade II* listed Gower Monument now stands in Bancroft Gardens, having been moved from its original location next to the theatre that was largely destroyed by fire in 1926. It was created and donated to the town as a tribute to Shakespeare by Lord Gower. The bronze and stone sculptural monument of Shakespeare and key characters from his plays took 12 years to complete and is an important piece of Victorian public art, evidence by Oscar Wilde attending the opening ceremony in 1888.

Bronze and stone sculptural monument of Shakespeare and key characters from his plays
Gower Monument in Bancroft Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon
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