Archaeologists Find Early Shakespeare Theater Was Rectangular

May 21, 2016
Originally published on May 21, 2016 7:33 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Archaeologists who've been excavating the site of a 16th-century theater where William Shakespeare staged early plays have made a remarkable discovery. The Curtain Theatre that has long believed to have been round like the Globe was actually rectangular. This has surprised Shakespeare scholars and archaeologists alike. Heather Knight, the archaeologist who's directed the dig, joins us now from Shoreditch where the theater's located. Thanks very much for being with us, Ms. Knight.

HEATHER KNIGHT: Hello.

SIMON: What did you say? There must be some mistake here.

KNIGHT: Well, the thing with the Curtain - it's one of London's earlier playing spaces. And it really isn't mentioned in the historical record. So for a long time, the shape was speculated about, you know, and it was assumed to be polygonal but mainly due to the prologue, I think, in "Henry V."

SIMON: And why was it the shape it is - rectangular? Can you tell?

KNIGHT: It actually makes use of an existing building at the front of the site.

SIMON: Yeah.

KNIGHT: And it makes use of a garden wall at the back of the site. And so what they've done, they've just filled in the space between the existing building and the garden wall with two long galleries. So performers, at that point, would be quite familiar, I think, with rectangular buildings because the in-yards - the traditional places where they played - were square or rectangular.

SIMON: And you found some Shakespearean special effects, too, I gather.

KNIGHT: We may have found some (laughter) Shakespearian special effects. And we found a very small ceramic vessel. And it looks a bit like an egg cup. And that's because the top of it's missing, and it would've been a bird whistle. So you fill it with water, and it would have had a spout inside that you blow down. And it makes the bird songs.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

KNIGHT: So when we think of plays like "Romeo And Juliet," quite often they mention - well, in particular "Romeo And Juliet" - it mentions nightingales and particularly larks. And indeed would make the sound of a lark. So found - in any other context you could just say, oh, it's a (unintelligible). But found in this context, there's a possibility that it was used, as you say, as a special effect during performance.

SIMON: Oh, my word. What else have you found that'd we'd enjoy hearing about?

KNIGHT: We're just starting to find things that may have been used by actors or the audience - things like clay pipes or hair combs and the old coin.

SIMON: What will become of the Curtain when you're done?

KNIGHT: The plans for the redevelopment of the site include a purpose-build visitor space. And that's to be built around the remains so they can be on permanent display. So we hope it'll be more than sort of just a shrine to the Bard, but become a living space, a space for performance as well as a space where people feel connected to the plays and playwrights of the past, bringing seers back to Shoreditch.

SIMON: Heather Knight, senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, thanks so much for being with us. And good digging to you.

KNIGHT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.