Beginning Before Shakespeare: First Post

Today we launched our website. Oddly scary stuff. We’re very excited to be rethinking the start of public theatre in Britain, and equally aware of the pitfalls of doing so. There will be people reading that last sentence and wanting to point out the wealth of publicly-available drama in Britain in the Roman and medieval periods, but our focus is on the playhouses that open in and around London in the second half of the sixteenth century. Those playhouses feel new in their architectural specificity, their sheer number, their investment in the problem of how you make money from a building primarily devoted to performance and how you entertain thousands of people with fictional or semi-fictional stories. Above all they feel new in their position in the class structure of their time: these buildings and the playing companies are run by working people trying to pull in other working people to come and see their shows. Whilst historians of this period get nervous of the term ‘working-class’, this seems a distinctively working-class movement at a time when most people had little access to the stories, ideas and characters the playhouses were committed to exploring.

So that’s what we’re up to for the next two years: exploring and celebrating the first thirty years of those playhouses, and trying to call attention to the wealth of forgotten plays that ought to get back on to the modern stage. Come play in the playhouses with us!

Andy Kesson

14 thoughts on “Beginning Before Shakespeare: First Post

  1. Hello Andy (and the rest of the team),
    this is such an exciting and necessary project. It’s good to see MoLA on board too; recent archaeological discoveries will be crucial. I take it that the Rose will be partners as well?
    Good luck dislodging the massive impediment to increased knowledge of theatre history that is bardolatry!
    In solidarity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Tracey! It will be great to assimilate recent archaeological discoveries. I think perhaps the Rose are chums rather than formal partners, but perhaps we should rethink the terms of our relationship!



  2. This sounds like such a fantastic project! I love the way you’re confronting issues of class – pedagogically, I want students to feel like they can take ownership of early modern drama, that this is and was for people like them, and more importantly that working class people mattered in the creation and dissemination of this kind of art. In short, yay. And I agree with Tracey – down with bardolatry!


  3. Thrilled to hear about those plays that need to get back on the modern stage. Early modern drama, especially the kind that happened before, after, and around Shakespeare, is, as the kids say, my jam.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is going to be fascinating – I look forward to how it develops.

    I wonder whether you will find the scholarship on the early modern public sphere useful. I ask because your interest in how the playhouses bring together groups of people and allow them access to ideas they may not otherwise have been able to obtain (orhos they give them access to these ideas in new forms) chimes with work on the public sphere. Some of this work has considered the playhouses as sites of public-making (Yachnin, and Doty) although as yet they’ve tended to focus on Shakespeare (and sometimes later dramatists, like Middleton). It seems to me the kinds of process they detail could be said to occur earlier too. Of course, it may be an unwelcome diversion – I know there are controversies about whether ‘public sphere’ is a viable term – but there’s no harm in asking, right?

    My other thought is about whether you think Paul’s and the first Blackfriars playhouses fit your description of ‘working class’? Critics have tended to assume they are elite venues but I’m intrigued by the possibility that this view might be challenged.

    Thanks again,



  5. Thanks for this, Eoin. Spot on with public sphere: and we’re also interested in asking why historians, especially of public debate, don’t take more note of the playhouses. I suspect that’s more about disciplinary divides and unhelpful differences in terminology than it is about the playhouses’ lack of importance in these matters.

    Indoor playhouses: hmmmm. There have been lots of assumptions here, and the idea that these playhouses aren’t really performing to the public at all hasn’t helped. I can’t promise we’ll find anything new, but we can at least challenges assumptions that have been made without evidence. At the very least, though, we can say that many members of the indoor playhouses’ audiences would have been identified by people above them as working people, and may have been proud of that self-identification too.



  6. Wonderful. And overdue. I’d hoped that 2016 might be used to celebrate the energy, creativity, and variety of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and bring some neglected talents (well, neglected outside English Lit studies) back into the public eye. But no such luck. Congratulations on your website; I’m looking forward to reading, and learning, more.


  7. Pingback: Putting the Shh into Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

  8. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

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