Life (of the theatrical sort) before Shakespeare

6th May 2016

Just over a couple of years ago Illuminations worked with the Shakespearean London Theatres research project (ShaLT) to produce a clutch of performance videos and interviews about early modern theatre. One of these, which is embedded below, is concerned the playwright John Lyly, who wrote a clutch of brilliant comedies in the 1580s and early 1590s just before the first stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. Dr Andy Kesson, author of John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, is one of those interviewed in the film, and he is now leading his own research project, Before Shakespeare, about the beginnings of London’s commercial theatre between 1565 and 1595. And with timing that could be considered foolhardy or a bold statement of intent, given how it has been all-but impossible recently to ignore Will, Before Shakespeare has just launched its website and blog.

Before Shakespeare is addressed to the question of how it was that public playhouses first opened in London just after the middle of the 16th century. As the Before Shakespeare website asks, ‘Were these playhouses the first purpose-built, regular spaces for performance in Europe since the Roman Empire, and what might this mean?’ The project aims to bring together original scholarly work on this topic with performance explorations in workshops with Shakespeare’s Globe and the group The Dolphin’s Back.

As Andy Kesson writes in the project’s first post on its blog:

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.

Online already is a lengthy list of plays of the period (The Jig of Averted Adultery, anyone?), a detailed bibliography and a rich and rather fascinating timeline of the first theatres. There is much to discover here and we look forward to seeing the project tackle this over the coming months. But as Andy Kesson explains – aware of his modestly polemical tone – one of the reasons why this subject has not been explored before now as rigorously as it might have been is the ‘problem’ of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare has come to stand for – and stand in front of – the playhouses, which is a shame since they were always more important than him, both culturally and historically. He has effaced that which made him possible. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often celebrate things which are characteristics of the drama of his time, mistaking them as distinctively his. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook aspects of his work which are weirdly repetitious, conservative or retrograde. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook the more challenging creative decisions taken by his contemporaries. Shakespeare wrote at a time when some playwrights filled their work with female characters, or wrote about contemporary London life, or celebrated working people, or repeatedly risked imprisonment in order to encourage audiences to think about democracy or free speech or aristocratic abuses. You wouldn’t necessarily know any of that simply from reading or performing Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare offers us an impoverished view of the London playhouses, and we should surely want to challenge that situation.

You can keep up to date with Before Shakespeare by following @B4Shakes, and I don’t doubt that performance explorations of Lyly’s plays will be featuring there before long. So to give you a sense of the joys of the theatre of the 1580s, here is the ShaLT film, directed by James Wallace of The Dolphin’s Back, of part of Act III, Scene 4 of John Lyly’s Sapho and Phao.


  1. […] online a list of plays from the period, a timeline and a bibliography, so much to explore. This blog, from the Illuminations team, highlights the plays by John Lyly, and includes links to several performance videos and interviews […]

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