An Elizabethan Haunting: Antitheatricality and Playgoing

A haunted theatre these days is a perfect premise for a horror film. It is also, apparently, a backstage reality at a prominent West End venue, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane—perhaps because it is the oldest surviving and functioning theatre construction in England. There are, of course, old superstitions about the Scottish Play and worries that supernatural illusions might become supernatural realities. Such worries date back to the sixteenth century, with several spurious reports of an “extra devil” in early performances of Doctor Faustus; William Prynne, in 1633, tells us that the “visible apparition of the devil” appeared “on the stage at the Bel Savage playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days” (English Professional Theatre 215).


Frontispiece woodcut from Doctor Faustus (1616) showing Faustus and a devil (

This mention of the Bel Savage is a convenient starting point for a link between devilry and playgoing captured in the sixteenth-century term “haunting.” The Bel Savage is one of a number of London “inns” that doubled as playhouses and had a stage for the regular presentation of plays—probably from the mid 1570s onwards (the site, should anybody feel like a scenical ghost-hunt, was situated between Limeburner Lane and the Old Bailey).

“Haunting” had different associations for Elizabethans, often used in conjunction with “frequenting” to mean regularly visiting. Yet it contains implications of moral judgement, especially when invoked in antitheatrical invective. So, what does it mean to haunt a playhouse in the sixteenth century, and why does it matter?

So-called antitheatrical pamphlets and remarks are, in an ironic turn of fate, of the utmost importance to theatre history. There is limited evidence about the early playhouses and contemporary attitudes to them—most can be divided into either legal wrangling (thanks to this highly litigious era of English history) or comments containing, restricting, or condemning playhouses. A large amount of these are from antitheatrical polemics, which blasted the playhouses’s spiritual barrenness and, to the lamentation of churchmen, attractiveness. John Stockwood’s 1578 sermon, preached at St Paul’s cross, contrasted the “worde of eternall lyfe” with a “fylthie play,” noting (perhaps with some hyperbole, perhaps not) that the latter will draw a thousand and former scarcely a hundred.

Stockwood, like a number of his contemporaries, associates playgoing with plague. This is both a spiritual connection—that vices call a providential punishment on the heads of London—and a physical one, engendered by proximity with masses of other people. Such physical proximity is precisely the concern of the authorities in London, who understandably sought to reduce the threat and spread of plague and in so doing aimed to restrict gatherings at “places of playing” during plague-periods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Such negative references to playgoing often describe how individuals “haunt” playhouses. When Ben Jonson describes “haunting the Globes and Mermaids” in The Devil is an Ass (1616), he is drawing on decades of disapproval. John Northbrooke’s 1577 publication, titled A treatise wherein dicing, dauncing, vaine playes or enterluds with other idle pastimes . . . are reproved by the authoritie of the word of God…, asks whether any good can come of “beholding and haunting suche spectacles” and “What say you to those Players and Playes? Are they good and godly, meete to be vsed, haunted, and looked vppon which nowe are practised?” It will be no surprise to those who have read as far as, well, the title, that the answer is a resounding “no!”

Lady Anne Bacon writes to her son, Anthony (Francis’s brother), in 1594 to warn him that his new place of residence, Bishopsgate Street, is not the fittest place for a young man: “The Bull inn there, with continual interludes, had even infected the inhabitants there with corrupt and lewd dispositions” having “so near a place haunted with such pernicious and obscene plays and [a] theatre able to poison the very Godly” (English Professional Theatre 217). Again, haunting is coupled with a sense of both moral and physical infection—though it is the plays themselves, here, that are doing the haunting (possibly because it is a building that might function play-free?). Lady Bacon implies there may be something unorthodox about what occurs inside a “theatre” (theatre here appears to be used as a generic term rather than referring to the specific playhouse north of Bishopsgate). Indeed, a browse through John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (also known as the “Book of Martyrs”) suggests one might “haunt” by doing two principle things: attending taverns or taking part in Catholic ceremonies, sermons, or sacraments.

Most interestingly, in 1580, Nicholas Woodrofe, the Lord Mayor of London, wrote to Lord Burghley to complain of a number of issues out of his control, including the “hauntyng of playes out the liberties” (LMA, Remembrancia I, nos 40-1). This might in fact be a reference to “players” rather than “playes,” but it seems reasonable to assume that Woodrofe is frustrated by the performances themselves creeping into the jurisdiction of the City (rather than remaining in the liberties of Shoreditch or south in Newington, where the Lord Mayor does not have authority), echoing Anne Bacon’s phrasing. Plays themselves are dangerously capable of “frequenting” the city and, certainly, its innyards (and, by this date, indoor playhouses at St Paul’s and Blackfriars). In taking on spirited lives of their own, these haunting plays also suggest something about the movement of performances across the city, across playhouses and playing spaces, and possibly between the period’s seemingly fluid and unfixed “troupes” or companies.

Haunting also joins such activities to supernatural elements, suggesting that the fears of antitheatricalists are about the power of plays as well as their failure to edify the populace. George Gifford’s work on witchcraft and folklore notes, disturbingly, that “Satan haunteth all men continuallie” (A dialogue concerning witches and witchcraftes [1593], B4r) and continues to evoke haunting in line with supernatural elements, particularly fairies. This is famously echoed in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594) where the term is used as an abstract exclamation in response to Bottom’s “translation,” “O strange! we are haunted!” It also describes the fairy-frequented woods, when Oberon asks “What night rule now about this haunted grove?” The question might itself contain a metatheatrical reference to the space of the playhouse—a “haunted grove”—just as Hamlet’s address to “this distracted globe” draws attention to the later playhouse of that name. Robert Greene employs it earlier in our period throughout the supernatural spectacles of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c.1589, printed 1594): “I tell thee German magic haunts the grounds.”

Do some Elizabethans see playhouses as spaces for unearthly activities, as well as the all-too-earthly vices deemed to flourish in playhouse grounds? Watching the Original Pronunciation Faustus as a Read Not Dead in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last month, the rounded vowels and cadence of the Latin, as Faustus invokes devils, really stood out in the intimate, candlelit space as something rather spine-chilling. No doubt these moments afforded plenty of excitement and even elicited a little anxiety in early spectators, all perfect fuel for rumours of “haunted” performances.

Lastly, perhaps the term, in conjunction with other elements of antitheatrical comments and polemics, aligns playgoing with other nefarious or unsavoury activities, notably drinking, prostitution, and bear baiting. It is used often and in a disapproving manner to refer to brothel-going, and Thomas Brasbridge’s 1578 plague pamphlet regrets that those who have little money nonetheless “haunte the Beare gardens.”

As antitheatrical writing is crucial to the Before Shakespeare project, we will be spending some more time on this “genre.” Several antitheatricalists also wrote plays, suggesting that “anti-theatrical invective was a literary genre requiring only the adoption of a morally earnest persona by the writer. The popularity of the genre tells us more about the reading public than about its writers” (Glynne Wickham, English Professional Theatre 167).

“Haunting” is hardly the most common term in documents about these early playhouses, but it stands out to me as a curious word amid a range of fascinating documents. It links plays and playhouses with suspicion and superstition. It also puts such spaces into a geographical and moral context, aligning them with other urban activities and underlining the disapproval of certain sections of Elizabethan society to “playing.” It serves, too, as a reminder that these spaces were new and concerning to many who sought to keep the city, their children, or their souls safe—playhouses were abstract symbols as well as physical concerns. There was a spectre haunting London in the sixteenth century, and it is fortunate for us today that we possess such diverse responses to it as we seek to exorcise our own assumptions about Elizabethan playhouses.


8 thoughts on “An Elizabethan Haunting: Antitheatricality and Playgoing

  1. Great post. I hadn’t thought of today’s use of the word “haunt”, as in “one of my frequent haunts”, but certainly it has a slightly dodgy connotation.

    We recently had a pop-up Globe here in Auckland (NZ) and many of my friends haunted it. So I’m sharing this post.


  2. Like this:

    I did a guided tour, where they told us it was a tad more accurate in construction than the London Globe is. Recent discoveries, etc.

    There were handrails on the stairs, which I do not believe the Elizabethans would have thought of. Old farts with dodgy knees being fewer back then.

    It’s since been dismantled, but may pop up somewhere else in NZ. Sadly (OK, I’m a malcontent) it was billed as “Shakespeare’s Globe” (take that, other shareholders) and only showed plays by you-know-who.

    Plus there were teddy-bears, rather than gore, in Titus Andronicus. I say no more. Other than, How would you feel about teddy-bears in a Quentin Tarantino?


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