Tag Archives: James Burbage

Oxford, Vitruvius, and Burbage’s “round” Theatre

So far as I know, Shakespeare scholar Frances Yates (1899-1981) was the first to attempt an explanation for how a working class bloke like James Burbage came to know the classical Latin of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, since to her it seemed questionable that in constructing his big public theater in 1576, Burbage, all on his own, could have come up with something that matched so closely with ancient Roman theater designs from the first century BC.

Noting the similarities between Burbage’s round theaters (the Theatre in Norton Folgate and the Globe on Bankside), as depicted in 16th century illustrations, to the round designs


Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch


The Globe on Bankside

of ancient Greek and Roman theaters, Yates attempted to connect the apparent shape and scale of these buildings, so utterly unique for the time, with the precise measurements and designs prescribed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his work in classical Latin, de Architectura. This is not an easy task, since Vitruvius, so far as we know, was not translated into English, or at least published in print in English, until the late 18th century.

Roman theater

Round Roman theater illustrated in Vitruvius.

In 1969, Yates stated a thesis in opposition to the common opinion, which was that the designs of the theaters built by Burbage developed out of earlier English forms, either the temporary seasonal structures of the Middle Ages or the theater inns of Burbage’s youth. She points out that the round shape of Burbage’s theaters were nothing like either of these, but that, however anomalously, they do conform closely to principles of theater construction as outlined by the great Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio back in the first century B.C.

The shape of these theaters, six- or eight-sided on the outside and circular on the inside, suggest Burbage’s and his builder’s attempt to create the

Interior of an Elizabethan theater

Imagined interior of the Theatre

acoustical ideal described by Vitruvius, so that, due to their size and round shape, they would allow words spoken from the stage to reach every seat in the auditorium. Since Burbage’s round theaters were made of wood, which, as he notes, vibrates and resonates much like a lute or a violin, rising and expanding sound waves produced by the voices of actors and singers would have been heard clearly in all sections of the auditorium.

We can be as certain of this round shape as we can be of anything about the theater from that period due to a comment made by Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Thrale, whose husband purchased the land on which the Globe once stood, and, in which, she noted, “the curious remains of the the old Globe Playhouse, which though hexagonal in form without was round within” (qtr by Chambers TES 2.428).

Yates notes that these outdoor Elizabethan theaters, unlike the indoor procenium stages designed later by Inigo Jones, placed the accent on the actors and their playwrights, since there was next to no scenery with only the barest minimum of furniture or props.  This suggests that, apart from the costumes and body language, Shakespeare’s public audience necessarily relied more on what they heard than on what they could see.  Because there was nothing but language to conjure up a scene, Shakespeare had to do it with language: “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill . . .”  So it was extremely important to the actors, and their playwright, that the words be heard as clearly as possible by everyone in the audience.

Having studied in depth the great English Renaissance scholar and magus, John Dee, Yates was aware that versions of Vitruvius in both Latin and French were among the thousands of titles listed in a 1583 inventory of his library. That Dee was familiar with Vitruvius is clear from comments he made in his Preface to Henry Billingsly’s translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570, six years before Burbage built his Theatre.  Yates, bucking the establishment, felt pressed to connect Burbage and Dee:

This theatre initiated the theater-building movement of the English Renaissance and was the direct ancestor of Shakespeare’s theater, the immortal Globe. I believe that out of Dee’s popular Vitruvianism there was evolved a popular adaptation of the ancient theater, as described by Vitruvius, Alberti, and Barbaro, resulting in a new type of building of immense signifcance for it was to house the Shakespearean drama.” (Theatre of the World, 41).

It’s unlikely that knowledge of the mechanics of sound waves and how to magnify and contain them was common knowledge among 16th century carpenters like Burbage and his builder, Peter Street.  Yet to Yates, and to us, the apparent design of Burbage’s stage conforms so closely to the plans of the ancient sound engineer, that they must have been privy to his book, despite the fact that it would not be fully available in English until the 18th century. Most signficantly, she suggests in an aside, that it’s possible that these round theaters may have been the first of their kind in all of Europe (41); possibly also the last.

Since it’s unlikely that Burbage could read Latin, and since there would be no complete English translation, none published anyway, until the late 18th century, for Burbage to have benefited by Dee’s knowledge of Vitruvius he would have to have known him personally. To connect them, Yates must needs attribute to Burbage (and his fellow artisans) character traits that don’t match with what else we know about the rugged actor/entrepreneur, traits that seem less like those of a student of ancient architecture and more like those of gangster Bugsy Siegal when he set out to build the first gambling casino in the deserts of Las Vegas.

Enter the Earl of Oxford

Yates was forced to turn to Dee because she knew nothing of Oxford’s involvement in the creation of the London Stage, his connection to Smith’s library, or his interest in music and musical instruments. She didn’t know (or didn’t care to know; Looney’s book was published 50 years before hers) that Burbage’s innovative new Theatre was begun within weeks of Oxford’s return from a year in Italy, that it was built on land recently controlled by his boyhood companion, the Earl of Rutland, that Oxford would soon be living in Shoreditch himself during which time he (briefly) held the lease to the other new commercial stage built that same year, the little rehearsal stage at Blackfriars.

Yates was also seemingly unaware that Oxford had been raised by the great Latin scholar, Sir Thomas Smith, who, fascinated by Italian architecture, built himself a house in 1558 based on Vitruvian concepts.  Four years after Oxford’s departure from his household, Smith’s library was listed as containing four versions of de Architectura, one in Latin, one in French, one in Italian, and one in


Imagined interior of the Globe.

Spanish, in at least two of which were complicated drawings showing the exact proportions of a stage built to create maximum sound amplification.

While it’s evident that John Dee regarded Oxford as a patron (Ward 50), and that Smith must also have known Dee very well––both at Cambridge at the same time; both astrologer/astronomer/mathematicians; both living near each other on the shores of the Thames in the 1550s––there’s no need to involve Dee or his library in the planning of Burbage’s theaters. The simplest and most direct line for the development of the Elizabethan commercial stage begins with Oxford’s time in Italy, where he could easily have observed the temporary stages built by the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in his home base of Vicenza, a stone’s throw from his birthplace, Padua, both within the Veneto (the neighborhood surrounding Venice) where Oxford was based throughout 1575, and where most of his Italian plays take place.

These temporary outdoor stages were forunners of the permanent indoor stage Palladio would design, the Teatro Olimpico, built five years later (1580-85) on a design based on one by Vitruvius. Known as the first permanent indoor stage in Europe, it is still the main tourist attraction in Vicenza.

The Theater after Oxford

Developments followed fast and furious during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. From 1576, when the first outdoor public commercial theater was built by Burbage in a northern suburb of London, by the late ’80s there were at least eight, also located in various London suburbs.  Of these, only those built by Peter Street were based on the Vitruvian model. With the Jacobean era, influenced by England’s first professional architect Inigo Jones, indoor theaters developed into the theaters we know today, with the action taking place in elaborate sets that were separated from the audience by a proscenium arch.

As Yates comments: “No one has quite explained where the proscenium arch came from, but it is certainly not in Vitruvius. . .” (124). Inigo Jones, England’s first genuine architect and promoter of the designs of the Italian Renaissance architect, Palladio, may have adapted the procenium arch from the famed “Palladian window,” with its straight sides, often decorated by a bas relief column, topped with an arched lintel.  Of Jones’s theater design, Yate’s concludes: “It ended by suffocating and destroying the wonderful actor’s theater described by Vitruvius” (124). This was, after all, the Little Ice Age, and for most of the year, playgoing would have been a lot more comfortable indoors.

She notes that Elizabethan England was a ‘backwater” so far as the new, i.e. Renaissance, architecture, based on Palladio’s translation of Vitruvio was concerned. She notes that the English literary Renaissance was not matched by an architectural Renaissance (nor one of painting or sculpture as in Italy).  She did not know about Hill Hall, where Smith’s knowledge of Vitruvius is evident in its design and in his library inventory, but surely it was known to Oxford, whose arrival back from Italy in 1576 doubtless set the in motion the creation of Burbage’s Theatre, built, so Yates affirms, on Vitruvian principles.

Yates argues that Dee’s work influenced not the nobility or wealthy merchants, but the “middle-to-artisan class, the new race of eager mathematicians and technologiest whom he did so much to encourage by his work and example.” Not to quibble, these men were worthy in many ways, but again, like Charles Nicholl with his bluster about poets being ripe for spy work, she’s making hay where there is no grass. This “middle-to-artisan” class was backed in almost every instance by the money and, yes, the education and creativity, of patrons of the very class that she, like so many historians of the Stage, attempts to negate.  Why can’t she see this?  Because, as we keep pointing out, the patrons did not want to be seen. Why not?  For the very reasons that Dee had his laboratory smashed.  Prejudice and fear, fostered by the Swiss (Calvinist) Reformation, which held that both Science and Art were tools of the Devil.

According to Yates, though Dee writes in English, not the Latin of Continental scholars, on purpose that he can explain Vitruvius to the handicraftsmen she would promote to brilliance, Yates herself, so well read in the documents of the period, is forced to admit:

Yet there is an aristocratic side; there are mysterious noblemen behind him. There is a secret or courtly sphere for his activities as well as the popular side. He is both extremely exoteric and practical, and at the same time esoteric among some vaguely defined inner circle.

So well read in the documents of the period, realizing that there are elements to her story that lie beyond her immediate understanding, she adds:

It is this type of situation which makes the Elizabethan Renaissance so peculiar, as compared with Renaissances in other countries, where there is neither this new social situation with rising new classes who participate in the Renaissance, nor this mystery about patrons and inner groups of cognoscenti.  I do not think that it is sufficiently realized how very peculiar the Elizabethan Renaissance was, both socially and intellectually” (18-19).

More on this:

Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

Born as the crest of two waves, the German Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, crashed into each other, the great poet and playwright blended these two often incompatible energies into the culture that has been England’s ever since.  Under the constraints of the Reformation, the passions that went into painting, sculpture, and architecture in the Southern European Renaissance, in England went into language: a bare stage, good costumes, superb actors, and the great human stories we know as Shakespeare, stories whose sources are to be found in the libraries where the Earl of Oxford spent his childhood.

Oxford’s development and survival as an artist was largely due to his patrons, surely among the best a writer ever had.  He sank low at times, but not so low that he ever had to quit writing, at least, not for long.  One of the most important research projects remaining to be done is on these patrons.  Burghley, Sussex, Walsingham, Hunsdon, Charles Howard, Southampton, the Pembroke brothers, are the leading figures, but there were others as well who contributed to his survival in various ways.  Even when they were disgusted with him, as Hunsdon must have been when the bum took up with his mistress, they kept him afloat because they knew his value.  For the great ministers of that time who had the dreams and aspirations of both Italian and Reformation humanism alive within, he was the great instrument of their policy, though this would be fully realized only when he was gone, as so well expressed by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory Ode in the First Folio.

Historically Oxford’s role in Early Modern theater is as a patron, a role that tends to get lost in the argument over his role as a writer, but his involvement as patron of the arts and sciences went a good deal deeper than what shows on the historical surface.  He patronized musicians and composers as well as other writers, and was praised by them as one of themselves.  When looking for a model for Oxford within our own times, the composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, an entertainment genius of the same all-encompassing nature, only, shall we say, considerably less fearful of recognition.

One question that hasn’t been dealt with yet, so far as I know, has to do with the company maintained by Oxford’s father.  Were they, perchance, the one we know as Leicester’s Men in the 1560s?  When Earl John died in 1562, Elizabeth gave Leicester control of the Oxford estates.   Though there’s no sign of it (so far) in the record, that could mean that he inherited what had been the sixteenth Earl’s acting company?  Unlike our world today, the arts community was very small.  Leicester’s Men were a handful of Court actors, some the same men who later became the core of the company that called themselves Hunsdon’s Men and operated out of Burbage’s Theater, just up the street from Fisher’s Folly.  Were some of these the same men who, decades earlier, had performed John Bale’s King Johan in Ipswich in 1561, just prior to the Queen’s entertainment at Hedingham Castle?  It’s worth considering.