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Blackfriars Theatre

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 gardens.

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.


Above, a 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 Fletcher, were 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 remain queen.
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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