Friday, 13 March 2009

Shakespeare in the news: London’s First Playhouse and Lifetime Portrait of Shakespeare Discovered

by Kathryn Hadley

450 years after his time, Shakespeare has made the news twice this week…

Last summer, archaeologists discovered, on the site of a disused warehouse in Shoreditch, what were believed to be the remains of London’s first purpose-built playhouse, where Shakespeare wrote and performed and where Romeo and Juliet was premiered. At the beginning this week, following extensive investigation of the site, Museum of London Archaeology confirmed that the remains were indeed those of the playhouse known as The Theatre, built in 1576 by James Burbage. Shakespeare performed at The Theatre for four years, between 1594 and 1597, until the wooden structure of the theatre was dismantled and transported south of the river to become part of The Globe theatre, in 1597, following a disagreement between the Burbages and their landlord.

The excavated remains are believed to have formed the inner wall of the polygonal theatre. There was probably no outer wall and instead simply a series of brick piers supporting the upper floors. Archaeologists also discovered a sloping gravel surface, which may have been the yard in which the audience would have stood. It is believed that the stage stood at the bottom of the slope, just south of the current site, under what is now a housing development. A fragment of 16th-century pottery featuring the image of a man with a beard and ruff was also unearthed in the yard.

Following the confirmation of the discovery, the Tower Theatre Company, one of London’s leading non-professional theatre organisations, announced their plans to build a new 21st-century equivalent of the original theatre on the site of the excavations. An architect has already designed the building and it is hoped that the planning process will begin next month.

In the words of Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London:

‘This extraordinary find offers a tantalising glimpse into Shakespeare’s city,
and the proposed theatre development on this special site seems a fitting way to
harness the energy and spirit of a place that is so central to the story of
London and Londoners.’

As well as the discovery of the theatre where Shakespeare first performed his plays, experts may also have found the only authentic portrait of the playwright painted during his lifetime…

On Monday, Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust announced the discovery of a new portrait of William Shakespeare believed to have been painted in 1610, six years before his death, aged 46. The portrait has descended from the Cobbe family. It was inherited by the art restorer Alec Cobbe in the 1980s and was thereafter transferred to a trust.

There has been considerable controversy surrounding the authenticity of various representations of the playwright. Until now only two other portraits have been considered authentic representations of what Shakespeare may have looked like. The first is a brass engraving by Martin Droeshout published in the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in 1623. The other is a portrait bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is mentioned in the First Folio and must therefore have been in place in 1623. Both representations are, however, posthumous. Professor Wells believes that the newly discovered Cobbe portrait was the one that Droeshout, who was still a teenager at the time of Shakespeare’s death, used to work from approximately seven years later. The two representations bear a number of similarities: they are both cut at the waist and the playwright is dressed in a similar way, with sleeves and shoulder pads.

According to Professor Wells:

‘The identification of this portrait marks a major development in the history of
Shakespearian portraiture. Up to now, only two images have been widely accepted
as genuine likenesses of Shakespeare. Both are dull. This new portrait is a very
fine painting. The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done
from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in
little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and
commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the
basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.’

The portrait is due to go on display on April 23rd, the date of Shakespeare’s birthday, in an exhibition at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

For a more detailed article on the discovery of the portrait, visit the of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

For an insight into some of the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s identity, read our articles Who Was Shakespeare? and Mystery Identities
(pictures - Museum of London)

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