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Elizabethan Theatres

The Swan was a theatre in Southwark, London, England, built between 1594 and 1596, during the first half of William Shakespeare's career. It was the fourth in the series of large public playhouses of London, after James Burbage's The Theatre (1576) and Curtain (1577), and Philip Henslowe's Rose (1587-8).

The Swan was located on the west end of the Bankside district of Southwark, across the River Thames from the City of London. It was at the northeast corner of the Paris Garden estate that Francis Langley had purchased in May 1589, east of the manor house, and 150 yards south of the Paris Garden stairs at the river's edge. Langley had the theatre built almost certainy in 1595-6. When it was new, the Swan was the most visually impressive of the existing London theatres. Johannes De Witt, a Dutchman who visited London around 1596, left a description of the Swan in his Observationes Londiniensis. Translated from the Latin, his description identifies the Swan as the "finest and biggest of the London theatres," with a capacity for 3000 spectators. It was built of flint concrete, and its wooden supporting columns were so cleverly painted that "they would deceive the most acute observer into thinking that they were marble," giving the Swan a "Roman" appearance. (De Witt also drew a sketch of the theatre. The original is lost, but a copy by Arendt van Buchell survives, and is the only sketch of an Elizabethan playhouse known to exist. If the Lord Chamberlain's Men acted at the Swan in the summer of 1596—which is possible, though far from certain—they would be the actors shown in the Swan sketch.) When Henslowe built the new Hope Theatre in 1613, he had his carpenter copy the Swan, rather than his own original theatre the Rose, which must have appeared dated and out of style in comparison.

In 1597 the Swan housed the acting company Pembroke's Men, who staged the infamous play The Isle of Dogs, by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, the content of which gave offense for unknown reasons. Jonson was imprisoned, along with Gabriel Spenser (an actor) in the play, and others. Langley, already in trouble with the Privy Council over matters unrelated to theater, may have exacerbated his danger by allowing his company to stage the play after a royal order that all playing stop and all theaters be demolished. This order may have been directed at Langley alone; the other companies, the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Admiral's Men, had been authorized to return to the stage by October.

Because both court and city were interested in limiting the number of acting troupes in London, and because there was, consequently, a glut of large open-roof venues in the city, the Swan was only intermittently home to drama. Along with The Isle of Dogs, the most famous play to premiere there was Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, performed by the newly-merged Lady Elizabeth's Men and Children of the Queen's Revels (the troupe that had been associated with the Blackfriars Theatre before 1608) in 1613. The theater offered other popular entertainments, such as swashbuckling competitions and bear-baiting, and by 1632 it had been pulled down.


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