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The Swan

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History of the Swan Theatre

Francis Langley, a London goldsmith who lived from 1548 to 1602, was what we would now call an entrepreneur. William Ingram, Langley’s biographer, explains that Langley acquired the Paris Gardens manor in 1589 from its indebted former owner (Brazen Age 71–72). The Swan was not his only business venture on the land. By 1595, Langley had built thirteen tenements, nine of which were tenanted (109–10). He continued to develop the manor’s demesne lands after 1595, building new tenements for thirteen more families near the playhouse around 1598 (Neere the Play Howse, 62–63).
According to Ingram, the foundations of the Swan theatre were probably laid by November 1594, when John Spencer, the Lord Mayor, wrote a letter to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and Lord High Treasurer) in protest (Brazen Age 108; Chambers 2:412). Late 1594 was a challenging time to begin building a new theatre. There had been plague in the city from mid-1592 until mid-1594. Henslowe’s Rose had been open only on seventy of the 600 playing days during the period (Brazen Age 104–05). Ingram supposes that Langley observed the busy re-opening of the Rose in June 1594, and was thus inspired to build a competing playhouse. If indeed it was begun in November of 1594, the Swan was probably finished in spring of 1595 (Chambers 2:412). It was certainly completed by 1596, when the Prince of Anhalt observed four spielhäuser (playhouses) in London (2:412). Ingram believes the playhouse probably cost Langley about £1000 to build, a significant investment (Brazen Age 111).
It is unclear whether the Swan was used for any plays in 1595—playing was suspended that summer, possibly around the same time as the Swan was finished (Brazen Age 114). The suspension was brief, however, as Henslowe’s new season began in August (Rutter 39). Ingram speculates that since Henslowe’s profits were slightly lower than normal in 1595, it is possible that competitors had begun playing at the Swan, but there is no concrete evidence that it was used at all in the 1595–96 season (Brazen Age 114). Ingram also speculates that perhaps Francis Henslowe (the nephew of Philip Henslowe), who joined a new company in the summer of 1595, might have played at the Swan, but the evidence is scant (116–19). It is more definitely known, however, that there was a company playing in the Swan by 1596, which is generally accepted as the year in which Johannes de Witt visited London and sketched the Swan (Chambers 2:412).
The Swan was located in St. Saviour’s Parish, at the western end of the Bankside, in the Liberty and Manor of Paris Gardens. Ingram speculates that Francis Langley might have seen, from Paris Gardens Manor, the Rose’s customers arriving at Paris Garden stairs, and enjoying refreshments at the nearby Falcon Inn before walking to the theatre (Brazen Age 106). Perhaps Langley decided to build the Swan near these landmarks in order to divert the Rose’s crowds, because the location was otherwise an awkward one—near the mill pond, and only a short distance, about a hundred yards, or ninety-two meters, from the manor itself (106–07). The neighbourhood was mostly residential: the theatre was not far from numerous, recently developed tenements on the manor lands, the manor house itself, and its attached meadows and pastures (Neere the Play Howse, 58). The Swan was near enough to the Rose to be a source of serious competition, and not far from bull-baiting sites and the Bear Gardens.
The Swan’s lifetime was not uneventful. In 1597, a performance of The Isle of Dogs that was probably at the Swan may have led to a Council order to stop all plays near London (Chambers 2:412). Gabriel Spencer, Robert Shaa, and Ben Jonson, who were all part of the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, then playing in the Swan, were arrested in August 1597 in connection with the performance of The Isle of Dogs. Reports about the play are unclear; its authors and performers must have considered it safe to write and perform, but apparently the government disagreed. (Brazen Age 179). It is generally accepted that a 28 July performance at the Swan led to the injunction against plays on the same date. Unfortunately, the play is lost, so it is impossible to know how seditious it really was. The three arrested players were released on 3 October 1597. Performances began again at the Rose on 11 October (Brazen Age 185–86; Rutter 58).
By that date, several of the players who had formerly been at the Swan had transferred their loyalty to the Rose. Since the entire Pembroke company had been bonded to Langley to play nowhere but at the Swan for a year, this move led to an exchange of legal volleys between Langley and the departed players when the latter filed for protection against Langley’s attempts to obtain financial compensation for his loss. Part of the players’ defence was their objection that the Swan lacked a licence (Brazen Age 186–90). It is unclear why Langley was unable to acquire a licence in the fall of 1597, but if indeed The Isle of Dogs was the cause of the summer injunction, perhaps the two facts are related.
Those of the Earl of Pembroke’s Men who had not moved to the Rose continued to play at the Swan, licensed or not, in the fall of 1597. Part of Langley’s lawsuit asserted that the departed players might have played if it had pleased them in the defendant’s house, as other of their fellows have done (PRO Req.2/266/23; qtd. in Ingram, Brazen Age 189). In February 1597/8, the Privy Council sent letters to the Justices of Middlesex and Surrey, and to the Master of Revels, drawing attention to the fact that only two playing companies were licensed (the Lord Admiral’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), but that a third company—presumably the Earl of Pembroke’s men at the Swan—was playing (Brazen Age 205–06). The letter suggested that said third company may be suppressed and none suffered hereafter to play but those two formerly named (Acts of the Privy Council 1597–98 327; qtd. in Brazen Age 206). Whether or not playing at the Swan actually ceased is unknown. While it is generally accepted that it did, Ingram argues that the churchwardens’ requests for tithes from playhouse owners, continuing at least until July of 1598, imply that the Swan was still in use (Brazen Age 207–10). In any case, at some time around 1598 or perhaps 1599, plays were no longer being performed at the Swan.
In 1600, Langley’s debts led him to sell Paris Gardens to Hugh Browker (250). Browker was a religious man, and from 1600 until his death in 1608, there is absolutely no evidence of plays at the Swan (287). The theatre was, however, used for other entertainments. According to Chambers, the Council sanctioned it for feats of activity by Peter Bromvill in 1600, and fencers performed in it in 1602 (2:413). The Swan’s most active period lay ahead of it, from 1611 to about 1615, when it was probably managed by Henslowe and occupied by the Lady Elizabeth’s men (2:413). On a manor map of 1627, the Swan is marked as Old Playhouse (2:414), and in Nicholas Goodman’s Holland’s Leaguer, published in 1632, it is described as beeing in times past, as famous as any of the other [Amphytheators], was now fallen to decay, and like a dying Swanne, hanging downe her head, seemed to sing her owne dierge (Goodman F2v). It is shown on maps drawn in 1616 by Claes Van Visscher and 1638 by Matthäus Merian, but is absent from a 1647 map by Wenceslaus Hollar (Chambers 2:414). Overall, the Swan was used for public performances for less than a decade, and the building did not survive to see its fiftieth anniversary. 1

De Witt’s Sketch of the Swan

Johannes De Witt, a Dutch scholar, sketched the Swan theatre on a visit to London in about 1596, because of its resemblance to a Roman amphitheatre. His close friend, Arend Van Buchell, later copied the sketch into a commonplace book, which was discovered in the University of Utrecht library in 1880 (Gurr, Shakespearean Stage 122). This copy of De Witt’s sketch forms the inevitable basis of any comprehensive account of the main structural features of a [Shakespearean] playhouse (Chambers 2:527). Of course, as a copy, the version we have now is second-hand evidence. Since its discovery, critics have criticized, lauded, and measured this sketch. It has gained the status of a dubious authority on Elizabethan theatres. Since the early twentieth century, though, viewpoints have changed drastically, and the sketch’s relevance to Elizabethan theatre architecture in general has been disputed.
The sketch depicts a roughly elliptical area. The walls of the theatre are drawn in at the far end, with three levels of galleries—the first labelled orchestra (audience space reserved for the honoured spectators), the second sedilia (seats), and the third porticus (covered gallery). The roof on the right-hand side is labelled tectum (roof). A set of stairs is on each side of the stage at ground level, and the left-hand one is labelled ingressus. In the centre of the sketch is the stage, and behind it the tiring house structure, which has a turret above the level of the third gallery. A flag with a swan on it flies from a flagpole on the right-hand side of the turret, and from its base a trumpeter (or, perhaps, a flag bearer, as suggested by C. Walter Hodges) is leaning out a door (Hodges 33). The front of the tiring house, labelled mimorum ades (dressing room), has two double doors and a small gallery above them. Elaborately clothed people are depicted in this gallery, though all other galleries in the sketch contain empty benches. At the top of the tiring house, above the gallery, a roof appears to project over some portion of the stage, and this roof is supported by two large pillars. Front and centre on the stage are a bench and three actors posed around it. The stage projects about halfway into the ellipse, and is labelled proscaenium (flat open stage). The empty half of the ellipse is labelled planities sive arena (the yard where the audience stood) (van Buchell).
In The Dutch Humanist Origins of the De Witt Drawing of the Swan Theatre, John B. Gleason argues that, in order to interpret the Swan sketch, it is essential to know something about the men who produced it. Both De Witt and van Buchell were keen classicists and antiquarians, and their interest in the Swan was partly because of its similarity to Roman amphitheatres. The scholars’ interest in all things Roman may have influenced the Swan sketch—they were thinking of it in terms of Roman amphitheatres. The labels on the sketch, and the description of it, are written in Latin. Gleason notes that both men were skilled artists; De Witt drew things on his travels throughout his life, including some that are considered to be quite skilfully delineated (qtd. in Gleason 329). Engravers of the time considered his drawings no mean catch (qtd. 329). De Witt also considered himself an expert assessor of paintings. Evidently, art was an important subject of study to him. Van Buchell shared this interest—a book-length volume of his writings on art was compiled in 1928 (330). Gleason had the opportunity to view several drawings by van Buchell, and considered them to show a skill far beyond that of most persons (330).
It is important to know not only the artists’ level of skill, but also the style in which they worked. Gleason explains that, in Renaissance prints, the convention of simultaneous representation was commonly used (332). The goal is not to produce a snapshot of any particular moment in time, but rather a sort of abbreviation of the normal goings-on at a location (332). With this in mind, it becomes less important to speculate, as some scholars have, about exactly what the actors are doing, or why the trumpeter and actors are simultaneously present. A.M. Nagler in 1952 and George Reynolds in 1967, for example, posited that the actors on the stage are participating in a rehearsal. Chambers, in 1923, considered the simultaneous presence of the trumpeter and actors a mistake. That no audience is drawn does not necessarily mean that no audience was present. Such details are unimportant—De Witt would have collapsed events into the sketch that might have happened at any time during his visit to the Swan, in order to present a picture of what happened there in general. Gleason concludes that, when considered as a simultaneous representation, the De Witt sketch is considerably more reliable than some scholars have previously assumed (338).
Critics have written frequently about the Swan sketch since its discovery. In general, critics in the first half of the twentieth century are negative about the quality and reliability of the sketch. According to D.F. Rowan, three critics in the first decade of the twentieth century (V.E. Albright, W.J. Lawrence, and William Archer) dismissed the sketch as hearsay evidence or a drawing of a unique theatre (qtd. in Rowan 39). Rowan finds the most convincing statement of this position in John Cranford Adams’s 1942 The Globe Playhouse, in which he dismisses the sketch as evidence that must always be approached with reservations, for it abounds in so many contradictions, omissions, and obvious errors that no reliance can be placed on any detail unless that detail is sustained by evidence from other sources (qtd. in Rowan 39). As late as 1958, A.M. Nagler wondered What was going on in the theatre while the wretched draftsman, who lacked an eye for perspective or proportion, was doing his sketch? (Nagler 10). Such early dismissals of De Witt came without qualification and sometimes without justification. In spite of this general consensus of inutility, T.S. Graves in 1912 and J. Le Gay Brereton in 1916 took (slightly) more positive views of the sketch. Certainly, the sketch is imperfect, but the overwhelmingly dismissive approach taken to it in the earlier half of the century was still more vehement than is warranted.
After about 1960, critics began to be more forgiving of De Witt and van Buchell. A.J. Gurr in 1960, Richard Hosley in 1964 and 1967, George F. Reynolds in 1967, and D.F. Rowan in 1967 all approach the sketch as a useful source. These mid-century articles tend to focus on particular aspects of the Swan sketch, whether there are pillars or hangings under the stage, whether the scene depicted is a rehearsal, and so on. Perhaps beginning with D.F. Rowan in 1967, such focus begins to be abandoned in favour of sweeping metacritical articles, surveying—and sometimes disproving—past impressions of the sketch. The Gleason article explored above is one such, and Johan Gerritsen has produced at least one metacritical article (not seen by author).
Recent criticism on the Swan sketch generally either follows the mid-century trend of examining very specific features, or ventures into the metacritical. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that there is any consensus about the accuracy of the Swan sketch, for dialogue is ongoing. 2

Structure of the Swan

Unfortunately, our only source of information about the structure of the Swan comes from a single sketch of questionable reliability. There is no critical consensus about whether Arend van Buchell’s sketch of the Swan, copied from a sketch by Johannes De Witt, is an accurate representation of the theatre. Given this fact, and given that the sketch itself is an interpretation (or, rather, an interpretation of an interpretation), it is impossible to come to a reliable conclusion about what the Swan looked like.
The problematic nature of our one source has not stopped critics from hypothesizing about the Swan’s structure. Most critics do not provide detailed information about how they have come to conclusions (or, rather, made guesses) about the Swan’s structure, so we may assume that these guesses are based on simple examination of the sketch. Some critics, however, have used measurements of the sketch and mathematics to arrive at what may be more concrete conclusions about the structure of the Swan (if we assume the sketch is correct). Of these articles, one by Robert Hosley in particular attempts to clearly explain how conclusions about the Swan’s structure are generated, both to ensure that the sketch is clearly understood (by measuring it, rather than simply looking at it), and also to take into account its possible limitations.
Hosley concludes that the Swan was a twenty-four sided polygon (Stage Superstructures 131). He supports De Witt’s estimation that the Swan had a capacity of around 3,000 audience members (Elizabethan Theatres 10–11). Hosley, who has created a scale reconstruction of the Swan, takes the sketch mostly at face value, with the exception of the apparent projection of the tiring house. Having calculated the effects of such projection on the audience’s ability to see the stage, he concludes that the tiring house must not have projected significantly, though the sketch implies that it does (Stage Superstructures 156).
It is overly simplistic either to rely completely on or to dismiss the Swan sketch based on visual assessment of it alone, and it would also be overly simplistic to assume that it is useful as a model for all Elizabethan theatres. One critic, Scott McMillin, attempted to determine whether the plays staged at the Rose could also have been staged at the Swan. McMillin found that a very concentrated one third of the Rose plays contained stage directions using a raised structure more complex than the gallery at the Swan, and using a discovery space or third door (163). The other two thirds of the Rose plays used no such spaces, and could have been staged at the Swan.
McMillin concludes that either a temporary structure, perhaps a sort of pavilion, could have been erected at either theatre, or the Rose had permanent structures not present at the Swan (163). The archaeological evidence available for the Rose does not offer any conclusion, except that the Rose’s stage was indeed different from that suggested by the Swan sketch (165–66). Thus, both textual and physical evidence suggest that the Swan sketch is not typical of Elizabethan theatres in general, and therefore cannot be used in thinking about the structure of other theatres, like the Rose. 3

Repertoire and Companies

Because the Swan was used for plays for less than a decade in total, its repertoire, even were it known, would be small, and the number of companies who played there would be few. No sources comparable to Henslowe’s diary of the Rose’s quotidian activities survive from the business operations of the Swan. These and other factors make it impossible to assign more than one play or more than two companies to the Swan with any degree of certainty.
William Ingram makes an argument that one of the first companies to play in the Swan was likely the Lord Hunsdon’s Men (Shakespeare’s company, at this point under the patronage of George Carey, Lord Hunsdon) in 1596 (Brazen Age 142; see also 115–20 on the possible formation in 1595 of a undocumented company that may have included Francis Henslowe, Philip Henslowe’s nephew). This contention is based on evidence that Shakespeare and Francis Langley (the Swan’s owner) were acquainted, on that company’s need of a space at that time (they were about to lose the lease on the Theatre and James Burbage had disastrously tied up all his capital in the ill-fated Blackfriars renovation), on our knowledge from De Witt that the Swan was occupied during the 1596 season (assuming that De Witt’s visit to London was in 1596), and on evidence that Henslowe’s profits were significantly lower than normal that year (142–48). While Ingram’s speculations are compelling, there is, finally, no incontrovertible evidence that Shakespeare’s company played at the Swan.
Evidence from lawsuits between Francis Langley and several players places the Earl of Pembroke’s Men at the Swan from February 1597 until July of the same year, and suggests that some (not all) of the company continued to play there into the fall (153). One play has been strongly linked to this period: The Isle of Dogs, by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. The play may have played a part in the prohibition of plays near London in late July of 1597, but no absolute proof presents itself either that the play was the cause of the prohibition, or that the play was definitely played at the Swan (Brazen Age 176–84).
Lady Elizabeth’s company, according to Andrew Gurr, spent most of 1611 and 1612 travelling. From 1611 until perhaps 1614, the group was bonded to Henslowe, probably for use of his props and plays (Shakespearian Playing Companies 398). It is probably during this time that the company staged A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which was later published with the subtitle A Pleasant conceited Comedy never before printed. As it hath beene often acted at the Swan on the Banke-side, by the Lady Elizabeth her Servants (Middleton A1r). This subtitle proves the presence of both the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and Chaste Maid at the Swan.
We have proof positive that the Earl of Pembroke’s Men and the Lady Elizabeth’s Men played at the Swan, and that A Chaste Maid in Cheapside was staged there. It is probable that The Isle of Dogs was too. This meagre list is surely not long enough. There must have been other plays, and there has been speculation about which ones they were. D.F. Rowan makes passing reference to the plays of one Robert Daborne, now lost, which might have been played at the Swan (45). A reference in Thomas Dekker’s Satiromastix to Jonson playing Zulziman at the Swan has been interpreted as proof that Soliman and Perseda (a play that, if it ever existed, might have been written by Thomas Kyd) was played there. However, the reference could also be to a character in The Isle of Dogs, so this rather tenuous claim cannot be taken as proof (Rowan 45).
The Swan’s career was generally unsettled. No company stayed for a full year before the sale of the playhouse in 1600, and it was not tenanted regularly again until 1611. The playhouse changed hands in the meantime, and the entertainment that did take place there was unpredictable. In 1602, Richard Venner announced and advertised a performance of England’s Joy to be acted at the Swan, but the whole thing was a sham. Venner planned to collect the money at the door and then escape by river (Holland 193). The Swan canon is as elusive as England’s Joy, if, that is, the theatre could be said to have a canon in the first place. The playhouse was host to plays for less than a decade, and during that time was played in by only two companies that we can identify with certainty. It had no constant manager, as the Rose did, to keep detailed and lasting records. It is hardly surprising that no more certain record of the Swan plays exists. 4

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside at the Swan

Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside remains the only play that was certainly played at the Swan. The 1630 printing bears the subtitle A Pleasant conceited Comedy never before printed. As it hath beene often acted at the Swan on the Banke-side, by the Lady Elizabeth her Servants (Middleton A1r). If more of the Swan’s repertoire were available, ventures like Scott McMillin’s study of the Rose repertoire or Mary Bly’s study of the Whitefriars repertoire would be possible. Unfortunately, with only one play, it is impossible to say whether the printed stage directions are for the space, or simply visual guides for the reader of the play. McMillin divided the Rose plays into those with and those without uses of raised and enclosed spaces; following this method, Chaste Maid falls into the latter category. The play uses no raised spaces, and makes only one use of an enclosed space, when at the very beginning a shop [... is] discovered (1.1.0 s.d.).
There has been much speculation about this discovery and how it was staged in a theatre that seems, from the evidence of the De Witt sketch, to have had no discovery space. Richard Hosley suggests that either of the doors on the Swan stage could have been opened to discover a shop, while A.M. Nagler believes that a temporary pavilion would have been used at all theatres of the time. Some early critics note that, as this discovery is at the very beginning of the play, if the whole stage were curtained, drawing back said curtains could discover a shop that would stay on the main part of the stage throughout the play. Andrew Gurr has supported the idea of some kind of hanging (Shakespearean Stage 138). The only other point in the play at which an enclosed space could be required, the bed scene, neatly avoids the idea of the discovery space—the bed is thrust out, not discovered (3.2.0 s.d.). Either of the Swan’s stage doors could have been used in this scene, if they were wide enough for a bed (and there is no evidence as to the size of the stage property bed). D.F. Rowan goes so far as to state that Chaste Maid is tailored to the playing conditions pictured in the sketch (43).
Perhaps the most telling thing about Chaste Maid in terms of the Swan is the play’s simplicity. Based on the De Witt sketch, the Swan theatre appears to have been relatively simple. There is no discovery space, and no space for complicated raised scenes, though simple scenes could have been staged in the gallery above the stage (McMillin 161). Chaste Maid requires none of these features. The discovery of the shop could have been arranged without a typical discovery space, the bed scene could be played on the main stage, and there are no raised scenes at all. The simplicity of Chaste Maid does not necessarily provide proof that the Swan’s stage was as simple as the sketch implies, but it does not suggest any more complexity than the sketch. The play is well suited to what we think the Swan looked like. 5
For information about the Swan, a modern map marking the site where the it once stood, and a walking tour that will take you to the site, visit the Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT) article on the Swan.


  1. See Corrigan and Wallace.
  2. See Gerristen and Limon.
  3. See Limon.
  4. See Wallace.
  5. See Gurr and Rhodes.


Last modification: 2017-03-15 17:14:07 -0400 (Wed, 15 Mar 2017) (mholmes)
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MLA citation:

Knox, Alyssa. “The Swan.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 19 February 2018. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/SWAN1.htm>.

Chicago citation:

Knox, Alyssa. n.d. “The Swan.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed February 19, 2018. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/SWAN1.htm.

APA citation:

Knox A. (n.d.). The Swan. In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved February 19, 2018, from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/SWAN1.htm

TEI citation:

<bibl> <author><persName><surname>Knox</surname>, <forename>Alyssa</forename></persName></author> (<date>n.d.</date>). <title level="a">The Swan</title>. In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2018-02-19">February 19, 2018</date>, from <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/SWAN1.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/SWAN1.htm</ref> </bibl>