The Bard’s Lost London

The Globe Theatre makes a stunning focal point for Shakespeare’s work and
performance in London: But it’s not the only Shakespearean location in the capital…..

In my leisure hours, I’ve developed a passion for exploring the myriad layers of history that make up the city and there’s a fascinating legacy within the buildings, streets, churches and archaeological sites that tells of The Bard’s life. In this article I head off the beaten track in search of some decidedly different Shakespearean sites….

Down park street – the twisting Dickensian Labyrinth of cobbled streets and Victorian warehouses, not 300 yards from the current Globe Theatre – there stands a crumbling section of Georgian brewery wall. Embossed into the side is a pitted bronze plaque commemorating the building of the original Globe right on that spot…. Sure enough, it’s the very same sign that Sam Wanamaker stumbled upon in 1949 when looking for the Globe itself; of course he was expecting a complete theatre or at least some spectacular, proud monument to the same! Instead, this sign was all there was to reference the fact that one of the most influential writers in history had his own playhouse right on that location…. the rest of the tale is a fascinating history all it’s own: the impassioned fight over half a century to rebuild the Globe is as intriguing as a work by the Bard himself! But that is another story for another time…

Just behind the wall, we encounter a far newer development: Globe Court. A small square where 5% of the Globe foundation was excavated in 1989. Red flagstones mark the locations where actual fragments were recovered and you can mentally map them onto your own imaginings of the actual theatre by way of some handy diagrams on the display panels provided.

Alas, the weathering effects of the outside elements mean that even the small remnants of the Globe have been reburied until technology and funds enable them to be more visibly preserved in state. And of course there will always be unanswered questions (current Southwark seismologic conditions prevailing) as one-third of the original Globe footprint is buried under Southwark Bridge and the original Georgian brewery (now flats and offices). This edifice – indicative of the layer cake that is London’s history – is itself a protected site, being the first building in the UK to have concrete foundations.

Just across the road from this treasure trove is a truly momentous site, also excavated in 1989: The site of the very first theatre where a young, headstrong Will Shakespeare performed his very first plays (along with esteemed members of his fellow Elizabethan ‘brat-pack Christopher Marlowe and Phillip Henslowe). Titus Andronicus is believed to have debuted here, along with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.The entire foundation of this incredible discovery is preserved in the basement of an office block, supported by the world’s largest girder to prevent destructive vertical pillars being driven through the archaeology. Perhaps most satisfyingly this site is flourishing as a performance space once more; even presenting plays for the first time in the original location since 1605….

In Elizabethan times, the crowds lining up to see the Bard’s works soon became too massive for the relatively intimate Rose playhouse. Shakespeare therefore moved his enterprise to larger premises just North of the city wall: London’s first purpose built theatre known imaginatively as… the Theatre! Legend states that when the landlord realised just how lucrative a tenant Shakespeare was, he raised the rent dramatically. In a fit of pique Shakespeare had the Theatre dismantled and taken across the frozen Thames on December the 23rd 1598 to be re-erected as….. The original Globe!

However the foundations of the Theatre remained buried in what is now modern-day Shoreditch until unearthed in 2008. Also, in 2012, Museum of London Archaeology discovered remains of the Curtain Playhouse. Nearby the Fortune still lies entombed under London’s premier media-chic district.

Straying further from the pilgrimage routes, you may find yourself in the atmospheric Medieval heart of London: Clerkenwell, the great ‘City of Clocks’ itself where you will come across an 850 year-old church, The execution site of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Vladimir Lenin’s old house! Most eye-popping of all is a magnificent medieval gatehouse called St John’s Gate. This was once the entrance to a grand priory for the Knights Hospitalier – the Order of St John, formed in 1113 to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem. By the time of Shakespeare the knights had moved all operations to Malta and the remaining gatehouse (the only surviving remnant that hadn’t been blown up with gunpowder by Edward VI for newer building projects!) was gifted to Sir Edmund Tilney -the ‘Master of Revels’. This lofty position involved editing and censoring all public entertainments for potential treasonous or blasphemous content. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men would have rehearsed new works at St John’s Gate under Edmund Tilney’s long-suffering gaze….

Incidentally, Queen Victoria gifted the gatehouse back to the order of St John who still base their offices here today as the only heraldic order of chivalry still in operation: the St John’s Ambulance!

Other Shakes-centric locations in the district include the site of the Red Bull, converted into a theatre from an Inn. Finally, the whole area of Clerkenwell gets it’s name from the ‘clerks well’ itself – still visible through a window on Clerkenwell Green – a natural spring where Medieval parishes would gather to perform mystery plays (dramatised biblical stories); an early forerunner to the professional theatre of Shakespeare’s time!

To leave Clerkenwell now, we follow the old line of the lost river Fleet, completely covered over in the 19th century to form a storm-drain. Eventually we arrive at Fleet Street which becomes the equally famous thoroughfare known simply as Strand. Off this iconic street are the original headquarters on another order of chivalry – the legendary Knights Templar. By the time of Shakespeare, the Knights had been long since disbanded; the crowned heads of Europe were highly uncomfortable with a massive private army answerable only to the Pope and their labyrinth of chambers, chapels and grand halls were now home to a community of Lawyers, The Inns of Middle and Inner Temple. This spectacular enclave has been used as a film set for countless period pieces, and boasts the celebrated knight’s chapel Temple Church, most famously featured in ‘ The DaVinci Code’. An equally spectacular building is the Tudor-built ‘Middle Temple Hall’ with it’s carved screen, hammer-beam ceiling and intricate pained walls. It was (and still is) the main banquet hall for the Lawyers inhabiting Middle Temple and was a venue for Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men themselves, most notably the debut of Twelfth Night. Along with Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, this hall remains one of the very few original Shakespearean performance spaces still standing! Albeit one requiring major reconstruction after being bombed in World War II.

These remarkable sights really deserve a full-length article devoted to each of them! Indeed there are many more Shakespearean locations within London that I can hardly fit in… There’s Shakespeare’s parish church where his brother is buried – the gorgeous Southwark Cathedral: there’s Deptford where his great friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a brawl (or was it a conspiracy? Or a hoax?!): there’s the magnificent George coaching Inn where the Bard almost certainly imbibed healths ‘five fathoms deep’: not to mention the jaw-dropping Tower of London itself, almost 1,000 years old and home to the fearsome torture chambers where Shakespeare’s more outspoken contemporaries, including the ill-fated Thomas Kyd, found themselves interred.

Bizarre histories, strange characters and a heady mix of cultures crossing all classes and professions. To those who wonder how a humble glover’s son from Stratford managed to conjure up such intricate worlds need only look into the city that fed his enquiring mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *