History

Shakespeare Sound Effect Tool Found

The 16th-century devise was likely a ceramic bird whistle that was used as a sound effect device during the Bard's plays.

Archaeologists digging at the site of the Curtain Theater, a 16th-century playhouse where some of Shakespeare's plays were staged, have unearthed a fragment of a ceramic bird whistle that was possibly used as a sound effect device.

"Bird whistles were children's toys, but in this context may have been used for sound effects in theatrical performances," the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) wrote in a statement.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet there are several references to bird song, such as "That birds would sing and think it were not night."

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Found in 2011 behind a pub in Shoreditch, east London, the remains of the Curtain have revealed other intriguing findings.

According to MOLA archaeologists, the playhouse, which opened in 1577, was rectangular - not round or polygonal like most Elizabethan theaters.

They found wall remains up to five feet high, revealing the venue measured some 72 feet by 100 feet and could hold about 1,000 people.

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"Our archaeologists have been able to identify the courtyard, where theatregoers stood, and the inner walls, which held the galleries where wealthier audience members would have sat," MOLA said.

Built some 200 yards south of The Theater, London's first playhouse which had opened a year before, The Curtain was believed to have staged the premier of Shakespeare's Henry V.

However, in the opening verses of the play, the playhouse is described as "this wooden O."

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This leaves scholars with two hypothesis: either Henry V was first staged at the Globe or it may still have premiered at the Curtain in 1599, but without the prologue.

MOLA archaeologists will continue to excavate the site for another month.

The Curtain's foundations will then remain on permanent display alongside the unearthed finds as part of a visitor center at the heart of a major redevelopment called The Stage, which will include shops, restaurants and more than 400 homes.

The tiny 16th-century bird whistle.

Oct. 11, 2012

-- Recent excavations at five of nine London playhouses built between 1567 and 1642 are revealing what the theater-going experience was like for William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) first audiences. Many appear to have enjoyed blood-spewing animal fights, messy finger foods, and goblets full of alcoholic beverages. The stage goings on, however, would have dazzled onlookers with shimmering costumes, mood lighting and the prolific playwright’s memorable words. The original Shakespearean playhouse experience is described in the latest issue of British Archaeology. Archaeologists Julian Bowsher of the Museum of London Archaeology and British Archaeology editor Mike Pitts bring such moments to vivid life. Many of the artifacts seen here, along with others, are also part of the British Museum exhibit, "Shakespeare: Staging the World," which runs until November 25. "Bowsher, who has been excavating theater sites in London and thinking archaeologically about Shakespeare for over 20 years, as well as talking to actors, historians and architects, appears a uniquely informed guide to a surprisingly well-documented phenomenon, though one in which the bard himself makes rare entries," Pitts told Discovery News.

The Swan, erected in 1595, and the Globe (1599) theaters were built during Shakespeare's lifetime. The Globe, at Bankside, is more closely associated with the famous playwright. According to Bowsher, "his most famous plays were performed here, and he was a shareholder in the building." Excavations show that the theater was completely rebuilt in 1613 after a major fire.

These moneyboxes were dug up at the sites for the Theater (1576) and the Rose (1587) playhouses. Pitts explained that payments were collected in them. "The pots were smashed in the box office after each performance," he added.

Multiple goblets were unearthed from the playhouse locations, including this rare complete one from the Theater. It was likely filled with wine or beer, guzzled either by an actor or an audience member. Colorful dishware was just as popular then as it is today, as evidenced by the goblet’s still-bright green glaze.

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Fruit seeds and nutshells were found in the Rose theater. The Globe and the Theater excavations also yielded food remains. Pitts shared, "At the Rose, the floor of the second theater on the site was thick with hazelnut shells. It was originally thought this was waste from audiences snacking, but archaeologists later realized the shells were part of the floor." He added, "The yard had been laid with a conglomerate of hazelnut shells from waste from a nearby soap factory, for a durable, more level floor than the old sloping one." But audiences did snack-- frequently -- and on some rather messy fare. Pitts said archaeologists have found remains for "shellfish -- the great bulk of it oyster shells, but also cockle, mussel, periwinkles and whelk. There were piece of edible crab below the galleries at the Rose, and a turtle carapace from the Rose must be part of an exotic meal eaten at table." He continued, "Apples are mentioned in contemporary accounts, but commoner finds were seeds from grape, fig, elder, plum and blackberry/raspberry, as well as peach, cherry and pear. There were many squash seeds at the Rose, which must represent food from the new world. Walnut and hazel shells common too."

Tremendous time and effort went into crafting the actors' costumes, based on the findings. These costume beads dug up at the Rose must have been painstakingly hand-sewed one by one onto a garment. Leather shoes were also found at the Rose, along with tubular metal lace ends. A monogrammed brass-tipped iron fork was additionally unearthed at the Rose, suggesting that the bard and his followers appreciated fine tableware.

Less refined was a fondness for animal blood sports. This skull from a European brown bear was discovered in a building in the vicinity of the Shakespearean theaters. Bowsher shared that two animal-baiting arenas, also called "bear gardens," likely would have been visited by the playwright's audiences. One, built in 1662 at Bankside, "was the largest arena or playhouse in Elizabethan and Stuart London." "Animal baiting normally occurred in separate arenas from theaters, similar in form to the theaters; the Hope hosted both animal baiting and drama on a removable stage," Pitts said. He continued, "The same audiences that saw Shakespeare's plays watched the animal baiting, though even then there were protests about the cruelty. Bulls and bears were tied up and baited by trained dogs. Occasionally the animals brook free and caused havoc. Other animals, such as apes or horses, made the odd appearance."

An archaeologist excavates the Hope's inner wall. This theater, built in 1613, "was capable of hosting both drama on a removable stage, and animal baiting in the central yard," Bowsher said, supporting Pitts' earlier statement. "In the end, the acting companies got fed up with it all, and the building was left to more bloodthirsty 'performances.'"

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The negative view of animal blood sports has only increased over the years. Shakespearean theaters have often become ever more refined and elegant. The first Shakespeare Memorial Theater complex, pictured in the 1890's, was erected at Stratford-upon-Avon, widely regarded as the playwright's place of birth and death. Controversy has swirled over the years, however, regarding the identity of the bard. Could Shakespeare have been a woman or a lesser royal? Researchers have posed such questions in recent decades, but other authorities have shot down most such theories.

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The present Royal Shakespeare Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon suggests a mixture of old and new. Gone are the animal skulls and shells tossed on the floor. But visitors still enjoy food and drink in the buildings warm brick and wood-dressed rooftop restaurant. Nevertheless, the mood is more controlled and subdued than what it must have been in theaters during the playwright's lifetime. Pitts said, "I imagine that Shakespeare's audiences then had more in common with some of his characters than they do today!"

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