Guess what? Shakespeare didn’t start the theater scene in England.

The World
The Swan Theatre in London, one of the a generation of playhouses that appeared in the 16th century

Today, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a major tourist attraction in London, visited by millions of people each year.

It's a replica of the 17th-century space where William Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. But that theater was only one of many open at the time. And Shakespeare was only one of many playwrights.

A new project is aiming to rediscover some of the forgotten masterpieces and lost theaters that laid the groundwork for the Bard of Avon’s work. It is called Before Shakespeare — and it aims to uncover the 16th-century boom in drama and theater in London that took place in the decades before he began writing.

According to Andy Kesson of the University of Roehampton, that explosion in creativity can be measured by the sudden appearance of multiple theaters across the capital.

“At that time, the only main forms of public entertainment would have been executions or sermons,” he says. “And then we get our first playhouse in the 1560s. By the close of the 1570s — the next decade — we see about 10 playhouses opening. Visiting Europeans coming to London write home in astonishment to describe what they are seeing.”

The creation of new theaters and a new theatergoing audience, in turn, drove a need for new material to be performed. And thus, a demand for virtuoso playwrights like Shakespeare.  

But according to Kesson, the subject matter of pre-Shakespearean plays is also surprisingly subversive, particularly with regard to gender: “We see plays which are more ready to center themselves around female protagonists. And that is something that we don’t see Shakespeare doing,” he says.

Kesson says the first five surviving plays from this era are all named after female characters. In contrast, Shakespeare never named a play solely after a female character. Even in the titles for "Romeo and Juliet" and "Anthony and Cleopatra," the woman’s name comes second. “These [earlier playwrights] all manage this because they are so interested by and intrigued by female identity.”

The Before Shakespeare project is planning to perform dramas from the era across London and will be holding a conference in the city this summer. 

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