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Shakespeare Archaeological Dig of Curtain Theatre Unearths a Surprise

By Philip Trapp on May 23, 2016 01:00 AM EDT

An ongoing excavation of the Curtain Theatre -- an Elizabethan playhouse where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed -- has revealed an orthogonal surprise. The archaeological dig shows the theatre was not quite the "wooden O" its famous description from Henry V had proclaimed.

The recent dig found that the theatre was rectangular, as opposed to the round shape anticipated by historians. Other Shakespearian playhouses of the early 17th century, like the Swan or the Globe, evidenced a circular formation -- not to mention the expectation reinforced by the aforementioned prologue from Henry V.

The remnants of the Curtain were uncovered in 2011 beneath a development site in Shoreditch, just north of London. Part of a team from the Museum of London Archaeology, Julian Bowsher weighed in on the classical significance of the find:

"There is going to have to be a certain amount of revision of the chapter on The Curtain in my book," Bowsher said. "It now seems clear that the playhouse was a conversion of an earlier tenement -- essentially a block of flats -- and was later converted back into a tenement again."

The rectangular bounds of the venue, as described by the archeologists, were about 100 feet by 72 feet. The original theater could reportedly occupy about 1,000 people. Among other accoutrements, diggers also unearthed portions of the playhouse's gravel courtyard (where viewers with "cheap tickets" would stand) and eroded sections of an outer wall.

In an Associated Press report, archeologist Heather Knight spoke of the important historical understanding that these types of excavations can afford:

"This will give us real insight into these early playing spaces," Knight said. "It will help us understand the type of building that playwrights were writing for as well as performing in." [...] "It will also help us understand what type of audience was attending performances in these buildings. And also it'll fill in those gaps that are missing from the historical record."

The excavation continues through June -- tourists can even arrange a viewing of the dig in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this year. A new apartment tower will eventually be built at the site.

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TagsShakespeare, William Shakespeare