Oysters and Crabs, the Popcorn of Shakespearean Theatergoers

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Museum of London Archaeology

Tudor theatergoers snacked on seafood while enjoying plays by Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, according to new evidence unearthed at two theaters in London.

The research, whose details are published by the Museum of London Archaeology in a book called “The Rose and the Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, Southwark,” began in 1988 and focused on two 16th-century famous playhouses: The Globe, home to many of Shakespeare’s plays, and The Rose, where many of Christopher Marlowe’s plays were first performed.

Julian Bowsher, the Museum of London archaeologist who excavated the sites, told Discovery News about his findings.

“For the first time in 400 years we know exactly what these playhouses looked like, how big they were, how they developed over the years, what the stages were like. Most importantly, we have found evidence for ‘life’ inside,” Bowsher said.

Bowsher and colleague Pat Miller found that Tudor theaters had a lively atmosphere, with audiences moving around, indulging in pipe-smoking and snacking on an exotic array of food.

“Food remains and seeds indicate that the preferred snacks were oysters, crabs, mussels, periwinkles and cockles. Walnuts, hazelnuts, plums, cherries, peaches, dried raisins and figs were also popular,” he said.

The distribution of food remains over the site suggested that there was a class divide in the consumption of snacks. Bowsher explained that remains found underneath the gallery seating suggested that the wealthier classes munched on crabs and sturgeon, as well as imported treats like peaches and dried figs. Meanwhile, oyster shells were found scattered all over the yard area, where commoners stood.

“At that time, oysters were indeed the staple diet of the poor,” Bowsher said.

The archaeologists also found evidence that those standing in the yard pressed in front of the stage, rather like a modern audience at a rock concert.

“The audiences also indulged in pipe-smoking. We found quite a few pipes and tobacco seeds. Tobacco, which had only been introduced to Europe from America 30 years earlier, was cultivated along the banks of the Thames,” he explained.

Bowsher and Miller also found several pieces of cloth, mainly from the stage area, and dress accessories underneath the galleries, where there was the most expensive seating. Actors at this time generally wore costumes of rich materials and the scientists found finely-woven pieces of cloth in the stage area, as well as quality drinking glasses, possibly of Italian origin.

“This can either mean that the actors were having a party after the play, or that the glasses were props in acting scenes of drinking and eating. We know that Shakespeare’s plays contain a lot of banquet scenes,” Bowsher said.

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