Verily, forsooth – Shakespeare enters the digital world, stage left

If you liked the Hollywood movie Shakespeare in Love, you might want to find out more about theatres and society in London in those days. A colleague at the University of Southampton is behind an exciting online project that makes a wealth of documentary evidence freely available for the first time, thanks to an international research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

John McGavin, Professor of English, has directed research to find and transcribe historical texts relating to eight early theatres north of the Thames, which operated outside the capital’s city walls.  The online database ‘Early Modern London Theatres’ (EMLoT) has been created as part of this research project, in collaboration with John Bradley and Michele Pasin of King’s College London, and shows which early documents went on to shape our modern understanding of these theatres.

The process of creating the EMLoT site, which was largely funded by a £370,000 AHRC grant, has brought many tales of London theatre life to light.  Among these are examples of dangers for performers, such as the kidnapping of child performers and rioting at theatres.

Records show in 1575 that a chorister of St Pauls was ‘stolen’, presumably by a rival group, prompting the Privy Council to call for action against the suspects.

In another example in 1631, the King’s Revels company at Salisbury Court demanded the return of its boy actor, who had been put into service by the King’s Men group at Blackfriars Theatre.

The database contains a number of references to violence at the Cockpit or Phoenix theatre in Drury Lane, during riots by apprentices in London on the 4 March 1617.  Several people were killed before apprentices entered the theatre, defaced it, cut up performers clothes, and burned books.  The following day a letter was sent from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor asking for an inquiry to be set up to ‘examine and punish’ the offenders.

John says: “Our website gives a fascinating insight into many aspects of 16th and 17th century theatre life and its place in society.  The site is very flexible, allowing the user to pull together documents which are interlinked by common themes or events to help with their investigations.  It shows how we got our information about the early theatres, from whom and when.”

The website contains a Tutorial by Christie Carson of Royal Holloway University of London on the riots and educational material suitable for senior secondary and university students. This was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Praise is also due to Dr Jessica Freeman from the University of Southampton, has spent three years locating and transcribing the early records of the period, while Tanya Hagen and Chris Hicklin from Records of Early English Drama in Toronto (REED) have covered the period from 1642 to the present.


sotonDH project website