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Friday, December 28, 2012

Shakespeare and the Great Theatre Heist

Did Shakespeare steal The Theatre on 28 December 1598?

Shakespeare and his fellow Lord Chamberlain's Men had to stop playing at The Theatre in Shoreditch at the end of 1596.

The 21-year lease was up.

The Theatre (with the flag on the left) in Shoreditch

James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage (the actor who created the roles of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, etc.) had leased the site from Giles Allen.

Burbage then built The Theatre -- the first successful permanent playhouse ever built in England.

Over the years, The Theatre was home to some of the greatest actors, writers and plays.

A Midsummer Night's Dream may have been first played at The Theatre

Shakespeare arguably got his start on its stage, and it might be where Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice (to name a few) and perhaps even an early version of Hamlet were all played for the very first time in history.

In 1596, the lease was up and Giles Allen meant to re-possess the land -- and take possession of The Theatre too!

A view of The Theatre from the Yard

Shakespeare and his fellow Lord Chamberlain's Men had to move down the street to The Curtain theatre, while the matter was disputed.

Sadly, James Burbage died in early 1597. I cannot help but think that the dispute over The Theatre, his life's work, helped speed him to an early grave.

The lease was transferred to his sons, Richard and Cuthbert.

1597 and 1598 must have been very strange years. Shakespeare and his fellow actors would have walked by the shuttered Theatre as they travelled to The Curtain on a daily basis.

It is not hard to imagine the frustration they felt at having to lose their home, and the bitterness and anger at having lost something of a father figure in James Burbage.

By the end of 1598, they must have had enough. They took their revenge.

On the night of 28 December, while Giles Allen was away from London for the Christmas holiday, the Burbage brothers and some of the players went to The Theatre and stole it.

They dismantled the entire structure piece by piece, board by board, and nail by nail!

Shakespeare, who by this time was one of eight sharers in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, would have a tremendous interest in having this job done, and done right.

While there is no proof that he was there that night, I find it hard to believe that he would miss the opportunity to steal The Theatre!

Shakespeare had been, after all, an apprentice to his glove-maker father, and his hands were not unfamiliar with hard labor.

I like to think that he picked up some tools and pried The Theatre apart along with the hired carpenters.

Every last piece of The Theatre was carried away and stored in a warehouse near Bridewell until Spring 1599, at which point it was ferried across the Thames to Southwark.

So, by 29 December 1598 The Theatre was no more. *

But by the summer of 1599, what was left of The Theatre was re-built -- piece by piece, board by board, nail by nail -- into a larger theatre that would become The Globe!

We don't know what Giles Allen's reaction was when he got back from his Christmas holiday to see The Theatre gone and his plot of land empty.

I like to think that he went to the nearest tavern and drowned his sorrows.


David B. Schajer

* Correction: I have been kindly informed by Heather Knight, Senior Archeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology that the dismantling would have taken longer than one night. Thanks Heather!

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The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare

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