Revealed: 'Wickedness and vice' where Shakespeare became a hit

Filthy lucre, booze and high drama – and that was behind the scenes. Archaeologists digging in East London have unearthed compelling new evidence of the seamier side of life at London's oldest playhouse.

Excavations at the site of The Theatre in Shoreditch, which hosted premieres of several Shakespeare plays and which pre-dates The Globe, is shedding new light on a theatre that was called a "school for all wickedness and vice".

Archaeologists, led Heather Knight of the Museum of London, have discovered not only traces of the original Shakespearean playhouse, built in 1576, but the remains of the ceramic money boxes where the earnings from each performance were temporarily kept before being emptied into a "common box".

The broken, ceramic money boxes, which had to be smashed to give up their contents, have been traced to the playhouse's accounts office. The earnings were the subject of dozens of lawsuits involving the actor and manager, James Burbage, and The Theatre's other co-owner, John Brayne.

Burbage, originally a carpenter, had first become an actor and then a businessman and investor. Despite, or perhaps because of, his crooked, violent and ruthless ways, he made a modest fortune and died a relatively rich man.

Brayne, probably originally a grocer, initially provided most of the finance for The Theatre but he ended up being deprived of his share in the venture by Burbage and was finally reduced to bankruptcy, eventually dying penniless. The saga had all the ingredients of a Shakespearian drama.

The Theatre had a troubled reputation in its day. A year after it was founded, authorities in London referred to it as "a school for all wickedness and vice" and in 1580, the Lord Mayor sent his sheriff to the playhouse to interrogate the actors and investigate a riot there.

Other playhouses were regarded by London authorities as "an offence to the godly" and a "hindrance to the Gospel". The playhouses were well known for "unchaste matters, lascivious devices and other lewd and ungodly practices". Theatre-goers were seen as "the worst sort" of "evil and disordered people" who skipped work "to mis-spend their time".

Excavations at New Inn Yard, Shoreditch, are building up that picture. Archaeologists have unearthed scores of fragments of mid- to late 16th century wine and ale flagons and mugs – found in what was probably the playhouse's bar area. Disorderly behaviour, doubtless often partly fuelled by alcohol – was one of the reasons the authorities disliked the establishment.

Drunkenness was increasingly seen as an evil and England's first anti-binge drinking laws were brought in during the Elizabethan period.

But playhouses couldn't exist without plays and The Theatre appears to have been the venue for the premier of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and for early performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Love's Labour's Lost.

"It was certainly one of the most important places in the history of English drama," said Julian Bowsher, the Museum of London's leading expert on Elizabethan theatre. Archaeologists have succeeded in unearthing remains of the playhouse's inner wall, a probable fragment of the outer wall and much of the compacted gravel courtyard where the audience stood.

But nothing remains of the timber superstructure of the building because, in 1598, Burbage's sons, Cuthbert and Richard, dismantled it and spirited it away, without the landlord's approval, to create The Globe, on the other side of the Thames.

Now, for the first time in more than 400 years, actors are about to tread the boards at the original Shakespeare theatre. London's Tower Theatre Company is to build a new playhouse on the site, which will allow a view of the preserved remains of the place Shakespeare used to call home.

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