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Rediscovering the Renaissance

Most people head to the conference room to conduct business, but for actors and playwrights in Renaissance England, they headed to the bar.


It has long been suspected that William Shakespeare and the playing companies he worked for did not confine their business of casting, buying plays, and more to the playhouse, but it has not been entirely clear where they would make those decisions. Dr. Elizabeth Tavares is working to uncover that.


“We often think of theatre in terms of the director and the playwright, but so much theatre-making is really collaborative. Especially in Shakespeare’s time, because there were no directors,” Tavares said. “We’re always looking for how different members of playing companies or actors made decisions together.”


An assistant professor in the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at The University of Alabama, Tavares researches playing companies, the theatre industry, and Renaissance economics, and she recently made a discovery that gives some insight into the collaboration of actors. In writing her upcoming book The Repertory System before Shakespeare: Playing the Stock Market, which looks at how actors worked before Shakespeare came on the market, she noticed several references to a tavern called the Sun in both poems and financial documents.


Tavares pinpointed its location on the Map of Early Modern London, a digitized map from the 1500s on which scholars from all over the world work to identify buildings. Located not far from London Bridge on New Fish Street, a sign hanging from the building on the map with the zodiac symbol for the sun is what piqued Tavares’ attention, and records from the church next door of an unpaid bill at the tavern only confirmed that location.


At the Sun Tavern, actors would eat, drink and discuss if they should buy certain plays. Playwrights, such as the famous Ben Jonson, would even throw parties there, as described in Robert Herrick’s “An ode to him.”


“Shall we thy Guests / Meet at those Lyrick Feasts, / Made at the Sun,” the poem says.

Other guests of the Sun Tavern included Philip Henslowe and the Admiral’s Men, who were considered Shakespeare’s most immediate competitors. Many plays mention the tavern, as well.


“There are several references in plays from his period that make jokes about this place,” Tavares said. “They talk about going to the Sun to get dry, or sober, and there’s some irony about going to a bar named the Sun. Because you’re never going to a bar to get sober, right?”


This is not the first tavern that has both been identified and tied to actors doing business there; Tavares is excited to research more like it, particularly non-traditional performance spaces like innyards.


“We’re just trying to figure out what some other places are in the city where actors are making financial or other kinds of art-making decisions,” Tavares said. “We want to know where the art is happening.”


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