James Burbage Builds The Theatre Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Historians generally agree that The Theatre was the first public playhouse in London built for theatrical performances. It presented William Shakespeare’s plays and gave great impetus to professional actors, including those performing with England’s well-known acting companies, the King’s Men especially.

Summary of Event

In early sixteenth century England, medieval religious plays were performed less frequently and secular professional theater began to take shape. The ultimate glory and heritage of this new professional theater would be the work of William Shakespeare. As great a writer as Shakespeare was, however, he may well have been lost to history were it not for the success of the acting company called the King’s Men King’s Men[Kings Men] , which had the talent and the physical facilities to present Shakespeare’s work successfully. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s renown was greatly enhanced because the first public theater building in England provided the company a place to work. This building, The Theatre, was built in 1576 by James Burbage. Theatre, The (London playhouse) Burbage, James Burbage, Richard Henslowe, Philip Kemp, William Marlowe, Christopher Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Marlowe, Christopher Kyd, Thomas Henslowe, Philip Alleyn, Edward Burbage, Richard Kemp, William Burbage, James

Except for entertainers and clowns maintained by the king and the more powerful nobles, there were few professional actors in England during the Middle Ages, and the existing dramatic literature was devoted to religious subjects. During the early sixteenth century, there emerged a growing number of individuals who sought to earn their living as professional actors. Some of them were hired by the king to perform short works known as interludes. In addition to the interludes, there appeared a body of secular plays produced at English universities. The universities encouraged these plays as a means of learning history, the classics, and the English language. Important student playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), known as the University Wits University Wits , began to compose a powerful body of secular drama.

Actors and theatrical producers who were not players of the king’s interludes sought out likely public spaces in which to present the works of the University Wits. Among such spaces were the entry yards of the various London inns as well as certain sports arenas, not unlike modern football stadiums, where bull and bear baiting took place. In the center of the arenas and in the inn yards, the actors would erect a stage surrounded by an audience. There is evidence that a performance hall of some type, called The Red Lion, had been erected for professional productions by 1567, but neither of these places gave the emerging acting companies absolute control over scheduling, physical layout, or, most important, audience entrance fees.

The lack of an actual theater building did not, however, retard the growth of professional acting. Companies of professionals organized and were sufficiently successful to be recognized and licensed as corporate entities by Parliament in 1572. This licensing act required that the companies exist only under the patronage of a court noble. Chief among these professional theatrical troupes were the Lord Howard-sponsored group and the company sponsored by the earl of Leicester; both companies were locked in stern competition for control of the theater market. On the surface, it appeared that the Howard’s Men Howard’s Men[Howards Men] , headed by the producer Philip Henslowe and the actor Edward Alleyn (1556-1626), had the upper hand because it had the plays of such University Wits as Christopher Marlowe. Leicester’s Men Leicester’s Men[Leicesters Men] , however, had as members the great actor Richard Burbage and the comedian William Kemp.

Leicester’s Men also had the services of Richard Burbage’s father, James, who, although not a major acting talent, was a part-time builder and was willing to risk his fortune in the construction of a permanent theater for the company. To avoid control by London’s government, James Burbage elected to place his new building in Shoreditch, a suburb just northeast of London proper. To make clear the building’s function, Burbage called it, simply, The Theatre.

The artistic and financial impact of James Burbage’s innovative structure was immediate and profound. Indeed, so good was the income from The Theatre that Burbage was able to build, within a year, a second playhouse in Shoreditch, called The Curtain Curtain, The (London-area playhouse) . So dominant had James Burbage’s operations become that, from time to time, he rented out The Curtain for use by his chief competitors, the Lord Howard’s Men.

The exact physical configuration of The Theatre is not known, but since the company also performed at The Curtain, as did other troupes, there must have been some similarities between all Elizabethan playhouses. Some evidence is extant, including the ground plan of the Rose Theatre Rose Theatre , which was uncovered in excavations in 1989, the 1596 sketch by Dutch student Johannes de Witt of the Swan Theatre Swan Theatre , various stage directions, and written allusions to the theater’s physical structure in the plays. From this evidence, one can see that the playhouses either were round, polygonal, or square, and were laid out so that the audience surrounded, on three or even four sides, the raised stage or playing area.

The Theatre was three stories in height. The ground floor comprised a large arena in which a sizable stage was placed, surrounded on three sides by a standing audience, known as groundlings, who paid the lowest admission price. The second floor comprised a balcony in which a seated audience of ladies and gentlemen surrounded groundlings and the stage. Balcony seats were much more expensive. Other very expensive seats, or stools, were provided on the stage or playing area itself. A third floor featured a small peaked house for the musicians.

The success of professional theater in general and the two leading companies in particular is evident in a further development. In 1593-1594, a great plague ravished London, forcing the closure of all theaters and performance areas. When the actors could again perform, two companies were considered superior: the company of Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, which was under the new patronage of the powerful Lord Admiral, and the Burbage family’s company, with the great actor Richard Burbage and other actors and playwrights such as William Kemp and William Shakespeare. This group was under the patronage of the highest noble in the land, the Lord Chamberlain, and was still performing in The Theatre. Lord Chamberlain’s Men[Lord Chamberlains Men] In 1599, however, James Burbage’s lease on the ground on which The Theatre stood expired, and because of complicated legal issues, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tore down The Theatre and floated the salvaged materials across the Thames River to a section of London known as Bankside, where the company built the most famous Elizabethan playhouse of all time out of the remains of The Theatre: the Globe Theatre Globe Theatre .

Not to be outdone, the Lord Admiral’s Men Lord Admiral’s Men[Lord Admirals Men] also built a theater in Bankside, called the Fortune Theatre Fortune Theatre . After several decades of competition, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was most successful. In 1603, it was renamed the King’s Men by King James I and was often invited to perform at his court. The recompense there was extremely high, and the publicity furthered attendance at The Globe.


Although there is some evidence that a playhouse of some sort may have existed prior to The Theatre, most scholars agree that The Theatre was the first public playhouse in England built exclusively for professional theater. Once The Theatre was in operation, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men gained the upper hand in competition with the Lord Admiral’s Men for royal favor.

Moreover, the financial and artistic base provided by The Theatre allowed for the performance of such important Shakespearean plays as The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet. It was, for instance, from one of the two upper stories in The Theatre that Juliet’s famous balcony scene was staged.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, Herbert, ed. The First Public Playhouse: The Theatre in Shoreditch, 1576-1598. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. Collection of essays on various issues concerning the building and use of The Theatre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar, and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002. The fundamental general reference work in theater history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hildy, Franklin J., ed. New Issues in the Reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Theatre. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. A collection of essays by experts on the general design of Elizabethan theaters.

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Dec., 1598-May, 1599: The Globe Theatre Is Built

Categories: History