A short history of Shakespearean theatre in London

Exterior of the Globe Theatre in the sun

The chances are you’ll come across Shakespeare at least once during your visit to London.  You might even visit the Globe Theatre for a performance.  Here’s a primer on how Shakespearean theatre started in London.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and spent the greatest part of his working life in London – living and working north of the Thames (Shoreditch), in the City of London (Blackfriars) and south of the Thames (Bankside).

Early theatre in London

What was theatrical life like in London in the late 1500’s?  In short, it was underground and pretty scarce as performances were banned in the City of London, owing to the bawdy reputation of theatre.  Theatre could only take place outside the City boundaries; in places like Blackfriars, Shoreditch and across the river Thames in Southwark – all outside the jurisdiction of the City in London.

At Blackfriars, in 1576, a venue was set up in the former Blackfriars Dominican priory.  Whilst technically inside the City boundary, it had rights as a ‘liberty’ – i.e. to do whatever it wanted.  The playing company was called the ‘Children of the Chapel Royal’ – an all children company; thought to be pure; not open to corruption, bawdiness or other vices.

Shakespeare arrives in London

Shakespeare arrived in London in the mid 1590’s.  Already known as a playwright he struck up an association with father and son team; James and Richard Burbage.  James had built two theatres outside the City in Shoreditch; ‘The Theatre’ and ‘The Curtain’.  In 1594 a playing company was formed under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I; the ‘Lord Chamberlains Men’ – named after the Queen’s head of court entertainment.  Shakespeare wrote the plays, performed secondary roles and the company had exclusive rights to perform Shakespeare’s work.  Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth were all performed in Shoreditch.  All was good for a few years.

The Globe Theatre

However, towards the end of the 1500’s the Burbages fell out with site freeholder in Shoreditch.  Consequently, on 29 December 1598 the company dismantled ‘The Theatre’, ferried it across the Thames and reassembled it on Bankside, Southwark.  The home of Shakespearean theatre, the Globe Theatre was born!

The Globe remained on this site until 1642 when it closed – although it had a year out in 1613/4 due to it’s destruction caused by ‘pyrotechnics’ during a performance of Henry VIII.  The original site of the ‘The Globe’ is well marked in Park Street, Southwark – about 200 metres from its modern day representation.

Site of the former Globe Theatre Southwark
Site of the original Globe Theatre, Southwark

Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars

In 1603, the company was re-named ‘The King’s Men’ after King James I.  The Globe was operating nicely during the summer months and in 1608, the Burbages sought a location on the north bank for winter performances.  They took possession of the former Blackfriars Dominican priory (mentioned at the top of this article). The Blackfriars Playhouse remained here until 1655 (when it was shut down by the puritanical government; along with a ban on drinking and dancing!).

Blackfriars Playhouse stood in Playhouse Yard.  The theatre is now gone, but you can still visit the site of the same name – one of the most important in Shakespearean theatre – and English theatre history in general. It is near Blackfriars station.  ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘Cymbeline’ were written with the Blackfriars Playhouse in mind – and both plays were also performed at The Globe Theatre.

Staying at Blackfriars, don’t miss ‘Shakespeare’s Gatehouse’ which is near Playhouse Yard.  The gatehouse was next to the current day ‘The Cockpit pub’ (an historic pub well worth visiting for a pint).  The pub marks the approximate site of Shakespeare’s Gatehouse – the only property he is known to have owned in London.  The purchase deeds with an ‘authenticated’ signature by Shakespeare, are held at the Guildhall in the City.

For a taste of where Shakespearean theatre started in London, visit the original site of the Globe Theatre (Park Street), Southwark and Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars.


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