The lesser known of Shakespeare's theaters
was the more prestigious in his own time. The Blackfriars Theatre was the name of
two separate theatres located in the City of London on the site of a
dissolved 13th-century Dominican monastery.
The original Dominican monastery had been established between the River
Thames and Ludgate Hill in 1275. The estates of the priory came to be
commonly known as "Blackfriars" due to the black vestments of the Dominican
monks. The friars had gained permission from the London City authorities to
have the whole of the Blackfriars precinct be a "liberty", outside City
jurisdiction, though within the City walls. Blackfriars enjoyed this status
until 1608. In addition to its function as a monastery, the site also served
as a meeting place for many Parliaments, as well as for the Privy Council.
Blackfriars was the location of many momentous events, such as the
repudiation of Catherine of Aragón by Henry VIII, and the
voting of the Parliament to charge Cardinal Wolsey with treason.
The Blackfriars was also a popular place for the gentry—many noble
residences were built on the grounds, including those of the French
ambassador, and of Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham. It was also a resort of sorts,
where the nobility went to play tennis and to while away time in the many
In 1596 in an effort to play to a more sophisticated clientele and have an
all weather, nighttime theater, Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's
Men bought part of the old Blackfriars. The space was purchased by then
company heard James Burbage father of famed actor Richard Burbage, for £600
from the estate of Cawarden, late Master of Revels. This set of rooms,
cellars, and yards was near the Pipe office, next to the house of Sir George
Cary. Burbage spent an enormous sum to convert these rooms into a private
indoor playhouse and The Merchant of Venice is believed to have been the
first play intended for the opening of this new playhouse. However, the residents of Blackfriars got an injunction against the
theatre being used by an adult troupe. Several prominent people, even
the company's own patrons signed a petition to stop the use of the theater that
they felt would bring an air of ill repute to their exclusive area. These
same people often attended the company's shows, however did not want it in their
backyard. Burbage had to lease the playhouse
to children's companies—around 1597, the Chapel Children are found in
residence. For the next decade the company maintained possession
hoping to one day use their theater.
period drawing of Shakespeare's Blackfriars theater.
In 1608, the children's companies fell out
of fashion and the now King's Men were able to use the theater. Burbage, along with actors from his company, formed a company of
housekeepers, or owners, and began to use the playhouse. The King's Men, as
the Chamberlain's Men were now known, played at the Blackfriars during the
winters. Later works by Shakespeare, as well as works by Beaumont and
performed there. One of the more interesting plays every staged in the
space was Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Some scenes such as the denunciation
of Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife took place in the very room where
they preformed. In one of the more moving speeches in the play, Catherine
eloquently defends herself against her husbands accusations and her right to
In 1619, Blackfriars residents again tried to close the theatre, citing it
as a public playhouse, but the Privy Council intervened and confirmed its
use. The King's men performed there without interruption until the closing
of the theatres with the English Civil War in 1642. The Blackfriars
playhouse fell into disrepair, and was demolished on the 6th of August,
1655. The site is still commemorated by Playhouse Yard, close to
Apothecaries' Hall. While today the site is only remembered with a
plaque and a Metro stop, the theater has been faithfully restored in Virginia.
Located in Staunton, VA, the theater is home to the
Shenandoah Shakespeare Festival.
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