Claes Visscher, Panorama of London. Amsterdam, 1616. Reproduced by kind permission of Peter Harrington, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Works on Paper.
Sketch of the Swan

This is a section from Visscher’s famous illustration of London in the early seventeenth century, showing the view from the South Bank. Two playhouses are visible in the foreground, The Swan (far left) and The Globe (central). In between them is ‘The Bear Garden’: originally a bear-baiting arena, it was rebuilt as The Hope playhouse by Philip Henslowe in 1613-14; from then on, it hosted plays and bear-baitings on alternate days. Public, outdoor playhouses, like bear pits and brothels, were viewed with suspicion and subject to strict controls within the City of London; so they clustered on the South Bank or further to the north, outside the City authority’s control. The geographical proximity of such activities invited shared knowledges: when Gloucester in King Lear says ‘I am tied to th’ stake, and I must stand the course’ (3.7.67), the force of the analogy comes from the spatial and imaginative immediacy of bear-baiting to the early modern playhouse.

Click on The Swan for more information

Aernout van Buchel, after Johannes de Witt, Sketch of the Swan Theatre. London, c. 1596. © Utrecht, University Library, Ms 842. I.

This sketch – the only surviving pictorial record of the interior of a London playhouse from the sixteenth century – shows a play in performance at the Swan, identifiable by the flag flying over the building. Playhouses flew their flags on days when performances were held, to let people know that a play was on.

The architecture of the public playhouse presented three different levels: the main stage, with the heavens above and hell below. The underside of the roof over the stage was painted to represent the sky, while a trap door led symbolically down below the earth. The audience were also separated by social status, or at least ticket price. The cheapest tickets were in the arena; these members of the audience were sometimes referred to as the ‘under-standers’, because they stood in the yard below the level of the stage, leading to plenty of jokes about their lack of understanding in an intellectual sense. But the theatre also questioned its own social geography and the business of tragic pleasure by mocking the privileged knowledge associated with the ‘Gods’, or the affluent viewers who could sit in the highest gallery. In Shakespeare’s (and, possibly, George Peele’s) Titus Andronicus, when Lavinia reveals by writing in the sand that she has been raped, muted, and mutilated in the dark woods, Marcus exclaims, ‘O, why should nature build so foul a den, / Unless the gods delight in tragedies?’ (4.1.60-1).