How we know what we know about Early Modern London Theatres

Most of what we know about the theatres which developed before, during and shortly after the life of Shakespeare has been passed down to us through a complex process of filtration. Over the centuries documents written at the time have been selected, copied, adapted, and interpreted, and that process has shaped our modern understanding. What we do with this received information will in turn determine how future generations view our theatrical past. This website prevents cultural naïvety by revealing the filtration process at work. It includes only those historical occurrences relating to the theatres that got written about before 1642 in documents which subsequently got recopied by others after 1642.

The first phase of the project takes in the eight theatres north of the Thames in a part of London which was then outside the city walls in Middlesex. The next phase will take in the South Bank. You can search the documents and their later transcriptions using a range of simple or advanced techniques, and check up on subjects from bear-baiting to kidnapping, plague to performance licenses. The website includes all relevant events, venues, acting troupes, primary and secondary sources. There is also a powerful, illustrated Tutorial on how documents have shaped, and sometimes obscured, the cultural history of an early theatrical event: the Shrove Tuesday riots of 1617.

This international collaborative project involved staff from the University of Southampton, Kings College London, Royal Holloway, and the University of Toronto. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


  • John McGavin