1st Edition

What is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520–1620

By Callan Davies Copyright 2023
    230 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    230 Pages 11 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book offers an accessible introduction to England’s sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century playing industry and a fresh account of the architecture, multiple uses, communities, crowds, and proprietors of playhouses.

    It builds on recent scholarship and new documentary and archaeological discoveries to answer the questions: what did playhouses do, what did they look like, and how did they function? The book will accordingly introduce readers to a rich and exciting spectrum of "play" and playhouses, not only in London but also around England. The detailed but wide-ranging case studies examined here go beyond staged drama to explore early modern sport, gambling, music, drinking, and animal baiting; they recover the crucial influence of female playhouse owners and managers; and they recognise rich provincial performance cultures as well as the burgeoning of London’s theatre industry.

    This book will have wide appeal with readers across Shakespeare, early modern performance studies, theatre history, and social history.

    Note on Texts and Spelling

    List of Illustrations


    Introduction: The “Playhouse” Canon

    Chapter 1: Archetypes

    Chapter 2: Multipurpose Spaces

    Chapter 3: Crowd Capacities

    Chapter 4: Community Hubs

    Chapter 5: Businesses

    Coda: Archives and Afterlives



    Callan Davies researches the cultural, literary, and theatrical history of early modern England. He has taught at universities across the UK and at Shakespeare's Globe, and he is part of the project teams Before Shakespeare and Middling Culture. His work includes studies of Elizabethan playhouses, rhetoric, practice-as-research and a monograph with Routledge, Strangeness in Jacobean Drama.

    ''We thought we knew the answer to Davies’ title question, but it turns out that playhouses were much more various, multiple, and collaborative venues than traditionally allowed. Based on new archival work and a refreshing critical intelligence, Davies’ exciting and readable book is a theatre-history gamechanger.'' Emma Smith, Hertford College, Oxford

    ''In What is a Playhouse? England at Play, 15201620, Callan Davies brilliantly explores and expands our understanding of what an early modern playhouse was in London and beyond, resulting in a book which is a much-needed addition to the field of theatre study.'' Heather Knight MCIfA, FSA, archaeologist who led the excavations of Curtain, Theatre and Boar’s Head playhouses.

    ''What was a playhouse and how was it used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Davies’ detailed study capitalises on recent archaeological discoveries and offers new archival research to revisit and reassess what we think we know about early modern playing venues, a concept which was more elastic and varied than traditional narratives have conditioned us to believe. Rigorous yet engaging, What is a Playhouse? is a welcome corrective to Globe-centric conceptions of playing spaces, accentuating a plurality and diversity of venues that ‘housed’ play in all its forms.'' David McInnis, University of Melbourne

    ''Callan Davies' new book, What is a Playhouse? England at Play, 15201620, offers a fresh and stimulating perspective for anyone interested in the history of theatre and popular entertainment. His decentring of older London-centred narratives of a male-dominated theatre world opens up a more generous view of the multipurpose functions of playhouses and a well-researched view of the wide range of indoor and outdoor spaces used and supported by diverse participants -- men, women, children and animals -- in the Shakespearean era and earlier. An important reassessment of the pervasive influence and meaning of play in early modern England.'' Sally-Beth MacLean, Professor; Director of Research/General Editor, Records of Early English Drama (REED)

    ‘'Hamlet captures one way in which Renaissance theater, according to Callan Davies’s What is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520–1620, encompassed and necessitated other forms of expertise and relied on an audience’s ability to ‘read’ other play forms” (83). Davies substantially rethinks the early modern playhouse and offers a new critical vocabulary with which to describe its “family” of architectural features (2). He focuses on all the elements that early modern contemporaries could have identified as part of a playhouse rather than on what was not, such as the long contested “discovery space.” The book often aligns playhouse development with broader cultural trends, making these venues seem more a part of a shared mental furniture than I had previously appreciated. The book’s treatment of women is particularly admirable, as early English theater history has tended to be deeply entwined with figures like Philip Henslowe who can so easily serve as surrogates for characters in the play of English playhouse development. As findings from the last four decades of playhouse archaeological discoveries make their way into the study of early modern drama, this primer to early modern entertainment is positioned to only become more crucial over time.'' Elizabeth E. Tavares, Shakespeare Bulletin, Volume 40, Johns Hopkins University Press

    The book was listed as one of the books of the year 2023 in History Today 


    ''Moving from page to the stage, Callan Davies’ refreshing book What Is a Playhouse? England at Play 1520-1620 (Routledge) re-examines an economy of fun. If the First Folio put the plays firmly in the study, Davies examines them in the context of the entertainments of their time, including gambling, sport, drinking and bear-baiting.''