The Swan Theatre

One of the best-known representations of a theatre in Shakespeare's time is a drawing in the library of Utrecht University. Fol. 131v-132v of MS 842, a notebook compiled by Arendt van Buchell (1565-1641), contains a drawing bearing the inscription, Ex obseruationibus Londinensibus Iohannis De Witt. The drawing, in brownish ink, shows the inside of a theatre, the Swan, with a number of explanatory inscriptions. Although this is obviously a mere copy of a lost original by Johannes de Witt, the drawing is generally regarded as one of the best pieces of evidence we have as far as the interior of a theatre in Shakespeare's time is concerned. As it is also one of the most palpable links between the Netherlands and the Shakespearean theatre world, the drawing features on the cover of every issue of Folio, courtesy of the General Library of Utrecht University.




Amphiteatra Londinij sunt IV visendae pulcritudinis quae a diuersis intersignijs diuersa nomina sortiuntur; in ijs varia quotidie scaena populo exhibetur. Horum duo excellentiora vltra Tamisim ad meridiem sita sunt, a suspensis signis Rosa et Cygnus nominata. Alia duo extra vrbem ad septentrionem sunt, via qua itur per Episcopalem portam vulgariter Biscopgat nuncupatam. Est et quintum sed dispari et structura, bestiarum concertationi destinatum, in quo multi vrsi, Tauri, et stupendae magnitudinis canes, discretis caueis et septis aluntur, qui ad pugnam adseruantur, iucundissimum hominibus spectaculum praebentes. Theatrorum autem omnium prestantissimum est et amplissimum id cuius intersignum est cygnus (vulgo te theater off te cijn) quippe quod tres mille homines in sedilibus admittat, constructum ex coaceruato lapide pyrritide (quorum ingens in Brittannia copia est) ligneis suffultum columnis quae ob illitum marmoreum colorem, nasutissimos quoque fallere posse[n]t. Cuius quidem forma[m] quod Romani operis vmbram videatur exprimere supra adpinxi.

[Latin text based on the transscription in "A Note on the Swan Theatre Drawing," Shakespeare Survey 1 (1948): 23-24.]



There are four amphitheatres in London so beautiful that they are worth a visit, which are given different names from their different signs. In these theatres, a different play is offered to the public every day. The two more excellent of these are situated on the other side of the Thames, towards the South, and they are called the Rose and the Swan from their signboards. There are two other theatres outside the city towards the North, on the road that leads through the Episcopal Gate called Bishopsgate in the vernacular. There is also a fifth, but of a different structure, intended for fights of animals, in which many bears, bulls, and dogs of stupendous size are held in different cages and behind fences, which are kept for the fight to provide a most pleasant spectacle to the people. The most outstanding of all the theatres, however, and the largest, is that whose sign is the swan (in the vernacular, the theatre of the swan), as it seats 3000 people. It is built out of flint stones stacked on top of each other (of which there is great store in Britain), supported by wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can deceive even the most acute observers. As its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work, I have made a drawing of it above.

For a more elaborate discussion of this drawing (and of Eric Sams' theories based on it), see Johan Gerritsen's article entitled "The Swan Theatre Drawing - A Review," which originally appeared in Folio 2.2 (1995).

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