Shakespeare at the Red Lion (2005, 2015)

The stage directions of The Contention[1] provide some information as to the design and construction of the facility in which it was played. That is, if one is willing to suspend disbelief and assume that the text was performed as received. 


The opening stage directions, and many like them throughout the play, offer only the routine wisdom that there were doors to the platform right and left.[2] These will be ignored. But another class of directions arouses some interest. In one example, Elinor, in the conjuring scene, says

And I will stand vpon this Tower here,
And he[a]re the spirit what it saies to you…

followed by the direction “She goes vp to the Tower.”[3] This suggests a second level accessible by onstage stairs.[4] In another example, “Enter the Lord Skayles vpon the Tower walles walking. Enter three or foure Citizens below,”[5] suggesting that the upper level, which must have had a railing, was accessible from backstage as well as onstage. Both examples mention a tower.

A third class of directions indicates a rear stage with curtains. “Then the Curtaines being drawn, Duke Humphrey is discouered in his bed, and two men lying on his brest and smothering him in his bed.”[6] In another instance, “Warwicke drawes the curtaines and showes Duke Humphrey in his bed ”[7] Finally, we find “Enter King and Salsbury, and then the Curtaines be drawne, and the Cardinall is discouered in his bed, rauing and staring as if he were madde ”[8] In none of these examples, however, is there any indication of where this inner stage, if in fact it was an inner stage, was located.

Q1 Titus Andronicus opens with business reminiscent of Elinor’s assent to the tower. “Enter the Tribunes and Senatours aloft: And then enter Saturninus and his followers at one dore, and Bassianus and his followers [at the other door?], with Drums and Trumpets.” A little later, “They go up into the Senate House.”[9] Likewise, in F Titus, we have “Flourish. Enter the Tribunes and Senators aloft.”[10] “Enter Marcus Andronicus aloft with the Crowne.”[11] “They go vp into the Senat house.”[12] “A long flourish till they come down.”[13] “Enter aloft the Emperor with Tamora and her two sonnes, and Aaron the Moore.”[14]

I had occasionally pondered these stage directions over a period of thirty years. What is this tower? Where are characters going up and down? Walls?  What can you conclude from this information? Nothing much. Just save it to the hard drive between the ears.



Fortunately, Shakespearean research never ceases. Janet Loengard discovered, translated, and printed a piece of litigation between John Brayne, owner of the Red Lion,[15] and the carpenter John Reynolds. While I admire her exhaustive research, I cannot agree with her conclusion that the Red Lion, not the Theatre, was London’s first playhouse. As it happens, none of the construction details mentioned in the 1567 litigation preclude a stage at the open end of an inn yard. Chambers claims that the Red Lion was an inn.[16] The evidence provided by Brayne supports this claim.

From Brayne’s complaint we learn several facts about the construction of the Red Lion playing space, and from them it is possible to arrive at a ground plan.

1) Brayne says that Reynolds’ obligation is to “buylde and sett upp…wythyn [within] the Courte or yarde lying on the south syde of the Garden belonginge to the messuage or farme house called and knowen by the name of the Sygne of the Redd Lyon…one skaffolde or stage about which courte there are galloryes nowe buildynge…”[17] There can be no other meaning than what the document says—the stage is to be built within the courtyard of the Red Lion. You cannot have a courtyard without an edifice to define it. The edifice was an inn.

White Hart Inn

Beyond the open-ended courtyard, facing south, is a garden, and the construction is to be executed between this garden and the courtyard of the inn. Ms. Loengard apparently believes that the galleries which were rising were all the galleries, hence her conviction that the Red Lion was a playhouse on the order of the Theatre or Globe. But that is not the case. The galleries being constructed were additions to the inn. If the Red Lion were rectangular or square in design, like other inns, the ground plan would look like this.

 Conjectural ground plan of the Red Lion

This ground plan does not conform to any scale, for none is possible without the inn’s dimensions. It is simply a spatial arrangement based on the language of the complaint. Three advantages of such an arrangement are immediately obvious.

First, the added galleries completely close the open end of the courtyard, forcing all to enter from the street. It is now possible to control admission to the yard. J. Q. Adams paints an interesting and amusing picture of inn yard theatres where there was no control. The players’ plight is obvious in the dialogue of Mankind.[18]

Second, the new galleries provided an opportunity that the balconies of the inn did not offer. They would contain Lords’ Rooms, which would warrant a high admission fee. You always want to make the most of your investment. Brayne knew what he was doing.

Third, the space behind the Lords’ Rooms would supplement the backstage area—no small convenience to the players.

2) The stage, the complaint continues, shall be “in height from the grounde fyve foote of assyse and shalbe in lengthe Northe and South forty [word deliberately blanked out] foote of assyse and in bredthe East and West thyrty foot of assyse.”[19] Nothing mysterious here, the stage is to be five feet high, thirty feet wide and forty feet deep.

3) Brayne did not want the entire scaffold “boarded over”. He wants “a certayne space or voyde parte of the same stage left unborded in such convenyent place of the same stage as the said John Braynes shall think convenyent.”[20] The reason why Brayne is not more specific is that he had in his head plans for a structure that was unprecedented, which he was designing in place as it was being built. He was likely in close consultation with players, perhaps even his brother-in-law and future partner in the Theatre, James Burbage. Leicester’s men, led by Burbage, possibly opened the new facility.

4) In the “unboarded” part of the stage Brayne wants a “turrett of Tymber and boords which shall conteyne and be in heyghte from the grounde sett upon plates thirtie foot of assyse…”[21] In the uncovered part of the stage he wants what is essentially a tall rectangular box. The corner posts of this box (the ‘tymber”) are to be set on plates (footings) on the ground and rise thirty feet. Since the stage is five feet high, the top of the box will be 25 feet above the stage.

5) Brayne also wants “a convenyent flower [floor] of Tymber and boords within the same turrett seaven foote under the toppe…”[22] This is plain enough. And if there is a floor seven feet from the top, it is certain that this level was intended to be a playing area. The interesting thing is that, if this floor is seven feet from the top, it is 18 feet from the platform. In other words, there is no middle story to this “turrett,” which would serve as tiring-house, as well as a permanent setting.

Unfortunately, there are not enough details in the complaint to provide a front elevation for a working theatre.


While recently perusing F. E. Halliday’s Shakespeare in His Age, my attention was riveted by his conjectural sketch of the Theatre. While I have a number of issues with this sketch, I will not debate them since they are not germane to the present discussion. There is one feature of the sketch, however, a staircase center stage, that provides a link between the stage directions in Shakespeare’s early plays and the Red Lion construction plans.

Halliday depicts a three-story stage-house. The central staircase leads from the platform to a balcony with a railing on the second level. The staircase necessarily precludes anything except doors at the platform level. Halliday’s authority for the staircase is the English Wagner Book of 1594: “They might distinctly perceive a goodly stage to be reared…Therein was the high throne wherein the king should sit, and that proudly placed with two and twenty degrees to the top…”[23]

I interpret two and twenty degrees as twenty-two steps. But Halliday thinks that his authority’s description is “inflated,” which is why his sketch shows the staircase leading to the second story, which would require half as many steps (today the standard is 13 steps per story[24]). In any case, I began contemplating the 18-foot differential between the platform and upper story of the Red Lion. Eighteen feet equals 216 inches. Sure enough, 216 inches divided by 22 equals 22 steps at 9.82 inches per step. The standard step is nine to ten inches in height. The fraction suggests an allowance for slight construction errors of 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch here and there.

It thus becomes clear that the staircase at the Red Lion spanned the distance from the platform to the upper floor. That explains why Brayne did not require a middle story. The staircase, at the same time, precluded a curtained rear stage on the platform. And that is why an upper floor was required. It was the area in which discovery scenes would be played.

Front elevation of the Red Lion stage-house

To contemporary eyes this design may seem a bit strange. But to the Tudor audience, the finished product probably looked spectacular. Remember, we are not so far removed from, perhaps still in, the days of the trestle stage with a curtained booth at the back. More importantly, this stage-house design accords with both Brayne’s plans and published stage directions.

Brayne called his stage-house a “turret.” Playwrights referred to it as a “tower” in both stage directions and dialogue. The staircase explains why and how characters go up and down. The curtained rear stage might represent a throne-room, Senate House, bedroom, or any other necessary interior. Since there is much wall space, it is easy to see why we find many references to the “Walles.” Entering on the walls means entering the upper level from backstage.

There are other indications of the high staircase. Walter Hodges notes directions in Dekker’s Old Fortunatus. “Fortune takes her Chair, the Kings lying at her feet, she treading on them as she goes up…She comes down.” And Richard III, IV, ii:
Give me thy hand. [Here he ascendeth the throne]
Thus high, by thy advice
And thy assistance is King Richard seated…[25]

Halliday adds the following from Julius Caesar, III, ii:

                   Enter Brutus and goes into the Pulpit.
                   Citizen. Let him go up into the publike chaire,
Wee’l heare him: Noble Antony, go vp.[26]

Most telling of all is a line in Middleton’s The Family of Love, I, iii: “Believe it, we saw Sampson bear the town-gates on his neck from the lower to the upper stage, with that life and admirable accord, that it shall never be equalled, unless the whole new livery of porters set [to] their shoulders.”[27] The audience would not have been able to view this feat had Sampson not traversed the high staircase.

In Two Gentlemen (4.4), Julia is one moment at the foot of Silvia’s tower and the next in her chamber. Without an intervening scene, the only explanation of how this would be possible is that she simply walked up the central staircase.

The Titus direction, “A long flourish till they come down” (a prompter’s note), reflects the impact of the high staircase on staging. A descent of 22 steps would require a lengthy flourish indeed. At the same time, some spectacle would be provided, especially if a number of characters moved up and down the stairs in a procession. Such diversions were necessary in the static early drama exemplified by Gorboduc, Gismonde of Salerne, Misfortunes of Arthur, and Locrine. These plays are little more than strings of lengthy set-speeches.[28]


The counterparts of The Contention stage directions in the Folio text suggest that 2 Henry VI was performed in a different venue, a much simpler one, having neither a “tower” mounted by a staircase, nor an inner stage. In the conjuring scene Elinor appears “aloft,” revealing a second level, one which was accessible from backstage. That this second level had a balcony is shown by the direction, “Enter King, Queen, and Somerset on the Tarras [terrace = balcony].”[29] But there is no suggestion of onstage stairs.

       Unknown inn yard stage-house

The murder of Duke Humphrey was not shown. Instead, the murderers ran across the stage and made their report to Suffolk. When it came time for Henry to view the corpse, a bed was “put forth,”[30] a clumsy expedient. At the appropriate moment, Henry simply turned and saw the body. In the amusing scene of the false miracle, Simpcox is brought in sitting in a chair borne by two men. Surely these scenes would have been discovered had the theatre possessed a curtained inner stage.

Truth be told, however, the Cardinal’s death scene was negotiated as in The Contention. Here lies a crux. A theatre cannot have a curtained inner stage in some scenes, and lack such a stage in others. The inference must be that the text has undergone recasting, but some staging details, because of hasty composition, were not brought up to date. The recasting was carried out some time prior to a second set of performances, with the knowledge they would be held in a different venue. This suggests that theatres were contracted well in advance, likely on a seasonal basis.


What are we to make of all this? First is the matter of inn yard theatres about which far more is unknown than known. But now that we have a handle on the Red Lion, some generalizations can be made with a degree of confidence.

The Red Lion was not the first inn operating a theatre. The Boar’s Head presented a “lewd” play, A Sackful of News, in 1557. The Bell existed in 1560 (in that year the mistress was carted as a bawd and whore), though is not known to have presented plays before 1576. Next was the Red Lion in 1567. The Bull appeared in 1575. The Bel Savage existed prior to 1579. In that year the Cross Keys comes to light.[31]  These inns were all building stages of one type or another. It is difficult to imagine that some or all did not undergo modifications as design ideas progressed. The inns were in competition. The players would choose the best-equipped venue available.

Stage directions suggest that stage-house design was in a state of flux. If the beginnings were in the curtained booth, which few, if any, would disagree with, the first permanent stage-house must have represented the same thing in wood. Before long, the players would come to demand a second level.

Relative to the second level, there is a very difficult problem posed by the direction in 1 Henry VI, “The French leape ore the walles in their shirts.”[32] At first glance, this may seem no problem at all, except for the fact that a jump to the platform from the second level poses the threat of serious injury.

On the other hand, some actors undoubtedly had acrobatic skills. If 1 Henry VI was played at the inn with the simple stage-house, it would have been possible to catapult the railing and, gripping the balusters while sliding down, drop to the platform safely. That would also solve the same problem in Romeo and Juliet—Romeo leaps over a wall. But Romeo seems to have been played at the Red Lion, or a theatre just like it, at some point during the history of the text. In Q1 Juliet says to the friar:

Oh bid me leape (rather than marrie Paris)

From off the battlements of yonder tower (IV, 1, 78)

The actor of Juliet, standing on the platform, would point back to the tower. In Q2 Juliet says:

Oh bid me leape, rather than marrie Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower

This theatre had no tower.

Looking at the front elevation of the Red Lion, it is easy to divine the next step in the evolution of the stage-house. There was much wasted interior space—about nine vertical feet. Elizabethans disdained waste. In an example close to our hearts, old, unused printed sheets were used in the binding of new books. The first improvement on Brayne’s high staircase was to cut it in half and install another floor in the “tower,” thereby creating a middle story. That would allow for another, perhaps smaller, inner stage and/or windows. Brayne may have done such a renovation himself. Alternatively, another inn owner may have spotted an opportunity for that innovation.

There was a final step in the evolution of the stage-house. There could be a third inner stage, at the rear of the platform, if the staircase was done away with entirely. The question is, did the Brayne-Burbage team incorporate this scheme into the design of the Theatre, or had it already existed at another inn yard? Given our present knowledge, it is impossible to know. But the time span from the first wooden inn yard stage-house to the Theatre was less than 20 years, perhaps much less.

One thing is certain. The entire evolution of the stage-house was based on the parameters of Brayne’s tall, rectangular box. But Brayne could only go so far given the limitations of his inn yard. It was Burbage who gave birth to the idea of a free-standing playhouse, one which married Brayne’s inn yard theatre with the circular plans of the Bull Ring and Bear Garden. And the reason was simple: you can collect more pennies, as well as give more people a better view, in a venue based on a circle. The Theatre also occasioned the solution to an ancient nagging problem: rain. Burbage and Brayne were likely the first to put a roof suspended by posts over the platform.

That the stage-house evolved gradually is not a new idea. John Cranford Adams propounded it in 1942. In one set of drawings he compares the Globe and the Theatre at the platform level, the latter looking much like my ground plan of the Red Lion.[33] In another set, he compares the Theatre, Rose and Globe at the second level.[34] From his study of stage directions, Adams believed that inner stages not only existed, which some doubt, but were used more and more during the course of a performance as time progressed. Irwin Smith arrived at the same conclusion regarding the Blackfriars based on a study of 133 plays.[35] Many of these plays were performed at both houses. My demonstration, that the inner stage was part of the basic fabric of the stage-house, corroborates the views of Adams and Smith.[36] Which leaves us to wonder about the thinking behind the design of the recently reconstructed Globe.

It is difficult to imagine that the Red Lion stage, built in 1567, was a viable venue around 1590 when Shakespeare began writing plays. The Queen’s company had priority of place until its breakup in 1588 and surely used the Theatre for summer seasons. Where did they play in winter? In October of 1594 Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, now patron of Shakespeare’s company, was negotiating on its behalf for the 1594-95 winter season at the Cross Keys. Had the company played there before the theatres were closed on account of plague? It had surely taken up the Theatre upon the demise of the Queen’s. If the Chamberlain’s men played at the Cross Keys, the stage had the same, or nearly the same, design as the Red Lion. For 1, 2, 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Romeo, Titus, Julius Caesar, and Two Gentlemen were all played on a stage with a central staircase.

The discovery of the design of the Red Lion is only a beginning. I believe more can be learned about inn yard theatres through the study of stage directions in early texts and experimentation with designs.[37] If we know that a play, such as The Famous Victories of Henry V (1588), was performed at a certain inn, in this case the Bull, we might learn something about the design of that venue. But I will leave these things to a successor with less on his plate. And, who knows, more documentation may come to light.

[1] The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, widely believed to be a perversion of 2 Henry VI.

[2] Q1 Love’s Labor’s Lost, Q1 Much Ado, Q1 1 Henry IV, and other texts, are practically devoid of stage directions, not even mentioning doors, possibly the result of deletions for presentation in a hall.

[3] Michael Allen & Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto (1981), 51.

[4] C. Walter Hodges wrestled with this point in The Globe Restored, 62, but could come to no conclusion.

[5] Allen & Muir, 67.

[6] Op. cit., 60.

[7] Op. cit., 61.

[8] Op. cit., 64.

[9] Op. cit., 4-5.

[10] Charlton Hinman, The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare (1968), 647, line 1.

[11] Ibid., line 25.

[12] Ibid., line 75.

[13] Op. cit., 649, line 264.

[14] Ibid., lines 333-4.

[15] He would later own the George inn, Whitechapel. There were two other George inns, one in Shoreditch.

[16] E. K. Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, ii, 380.

[17] Janet Loengard, “An Elizabethan Lawsuit: John Brayne, his Carpenter, And the Building of the Red Lion Theatre,” Shakespeare Quarterly (1983), 34, 309.

[18] Joseph Quincy Adams, Shakespearean Playhouses (1917), 1-5.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] F. E. Halliday, Shakespeare In His Age (1956), 74. Quoted three years earlier by Walter Hodges.

[24] Triskaidekaphobia sufferers take heed.

[25] Hodges, 62.

[26] Halliday, 74.

[27] Shakespeare Allusion Book, I, ed. Munro (1909), 141, from Middleton’s Works, ed. Dyce (1840), II, 125.

[28] Wolfgang Clemen examines the set-speech, its origins and influence on Shakespeare in his masterful English Tragedy before Shakespeare.

[29] Hinman, 496, lines 2848-50.

[30] Op. cit., 488, line 1849.

[31] Chambers, op. cit,, ii, 379-444.

[32] Hinman, 455, line 720.

[33] John Cranford Adams, The Globe Playhouse (1942), 172.

[34] Op. cit., 254.

[35] Irwin Smith, Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse (1964).

[36] It is surprising, however, that Adams did not know, or at least does not mention, the work of G. Topham Forrest. He seems to know everything else. In 1921, the London County Council published a pamphlet, The Site of the Globe Playhouse, Southwark, containing a conjectural design by its architect, Forrest. In 1924, Council employee W. W. Braines expanded the pamphlet into an excellent book with the same title, which proved, among other things, that the Globe sat on the south side of Maiden Lane. The north/south location was long a contentious topic. Forrest had come to the conclusion that the Globe was 16-sided, the same conclusion independently reached years later by Walter Hodges in Shakespeare’s Second Globe. Adams, as everyone knows, conceived the Globe as octagonal. Familiarity with Forrest might have changed his mind.

[37] Dessen and Thomson’s Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642, and Rendle’s Inns of Old Southwark might prove helpful.