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A History of The Original Rose Theatre

When Henslowe built The Rose Theatre in 1587, he created a space where competing entertainers mingled and mixed. The result was a very unique offering, not repeated by any other Elizabethan playhouse. After all, The Rose was the only playhouse where rival playwrights, Shakespeare and Marlowe both staged plays; not to mention competitors Greene, Kyd, Chapman, Fletcher and Ben Jonson. It was the only theatre to simultaneously house rival companies like The Admiral’s Men, The Lord Strange’s Men, The Queen’s Men and The Worcester’s Men. The Rose was a theatre where – at first – you could even enjoy rival entertainments: bear-baiting, cock-fighting or theatre. The Rose even housed a duel between rival dramatists Ben Jonson and Gabriel Spenser; luckily Jonson survived because he went on to help publish Shakespeare’s plays. Only at court or at The Rose did the Elizabethan audience member have as many choices for entertainment crowded into one place. It was in this vibrant, varied and sometimes vicious environment that William Shakespeare came to prominence as a writer.

In business, location is everything and the land that Henslowe leased to build The Rose was ideally situated. It was located on the Southbank, a short boat ride from the City of London. It was easy to get to for visitors from the city; but it was far enough out to be subject to slightly looser licensing laws. These laws and the more affordable venues meant that the Southbank was already known for entertainment: it was filled with brothels, gaming dens and bull and bear baiting arenas. In addition the area itself was densely populated by people who sought more affordable housing than was available in the city. The location was perfect and Henslowe shrewdly spied an incredible business opportunity.

Henslowe and his partner, John Chalmley, hired the carpenter, John Griggs, to build the theatre in 1587. The building went up within a year and by 1598 it was known around London simply as “The Playhouse;” probably because there were no other theatres in the area. There is a strong possibility that the theatre was also used for animal-baiting during the first year. After all, the amphitheatre was originally built without a stage and the first gallery was seven feet up, high enough so that angry bears couldn’t reach. Then again, this would not explain how the theatre so quickly came to be called “The Playhouse” and it is equally possible that Griggs simply worked from a building design more familiar to him: that of the animal-baiting arena. In fact, not much at all is known about the first five years of “The Playhouse;” it is even possible that Henslowe rented it out to a theatre company and took a well-deserved break.

In 1592, Henslowe began to keep a record of accounts, which he called “Henslowe’s Diary.” This still survives today and provides us with the best account there is of Elizabethan Theatre practices. The diary also reveals how deeply original Henslowe was as a theatre manager in those early days at The Rose. Most managers like Richard Burbage, his son James Burbage or the collective of actors that ran The Worcester’s Men simply dealt with the venues and the plays that their own company used. Not so with Henslowe: even though he managed The Admiral’s Men and built The Rose for this company, he cleverly rented out his playhouse to various different companies. He even rented out his own company’s plays, bartered and swapped play scripts with other companies and made loans to the theatre companies producing at The Rose. As a result, Henslowe made a lot of money and The Rose became a melding pot for competing actors, writers, musicians and playwrights. The power this gave Henslowe also meant that his theatre was one of the only two licensed to perform in 1594, further encouraging rival companies to comingle under Henslowe’s leadership. Only at The Rose could we see The Admiral’s Men performing Shakespeare; or Shakespeare himself acting in The Lord Strange’s production of a Jonson play!

(The building that Henslowe oversaw was also eccentric and original compared to other Elizabethan playhouses. In some ways, the design was typical: The Rose was a fourteen sided polygon made of timber, lather and plaster; the audience could stand in a front pit or sit in the galleries around the edge. The Rose was smaller than The Globe and The Swan, but this simply supports the theory that it was based on earlier bull-baiting arenas. In other ways, however the theatre was truly unique. For one thing, excavations reveal that the stage was shaped like a lozenge, not the more typical thrust shape; this meant that at no point did the actors have their backs to audience members in the pit. The standing-pit itself was raked downwards towards the front of the stage: this was a great idea to help those at the back of the pit to see the play, but it did become problematic whenever rainwater cause a muddy stink at the front of the pit. We think that the stage was also positioned slightly off centre from the audience: this allowed for a central back door entrance, without the central support pillar getting in the way of the actors’ entrance. (The Globe would solve this problem by having two support pillars off to the side of the stage.) Finally, The Rose was also known for its unique ability to house large scenes on the two different levels of the stage: plays like Titus Andronicus made good use of this. )

Henslowe’s brilliance and The Rose’s structural advantages may also have led to the downfall of the playhouse. Perhaps because of the theatre’s unique ability to house crowd-scenes on both levels of the stage, the theatre became known for its grand Histories like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar. These fell out of favor compared to the more light-hearted comedies and more succinct tragedies on offer at The Swan and at The Globe. Henslowe’s power must also have been a motivating factor for companies to found these two rival theatres. Although Henslowe rented out the space to various different companies, he favored his own company The Admiral’s Men. After the plague died down in 1594, The Admiral’s Men took up a more permanent residence at The Rose, prompting Pembrooke’s Men to found The Swan in 1595 and The Queen’s Men to found The Globe in 1599. Henslowe was a ruthless business-man and as soon as The Globe opened on The Southbank, he and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn made arrangements to lease The Fortune, a theatre further north away from the competition. The Fortune was one of the only theatres licensed by The Privy Council in 1600, ensuring Henslowe and Alleyn’s continued success, but perhaps condemning The Rose to failure.

In 1602, the slightly impoverished, slightly worse-for-wear group The Worcester’s Men took up occupation at The Rose. They performed for one more inglorious season before abandoning the theatre to demolition in 1605. In their company was a man called William Kempe, a drunkard and somewhat of a national favorite, Kempe had departed abruptly from Shakespeare’s Company the year before. It is thought that he arrived at The Rose with a smuggled, stolen, cobbled-together copy of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Certainly, he borrowed money from Henslowe to make a “payer of gyente hosse” or trousers in that same year, suggesting that he may have been reviving – or stealing – the Queen’s Men’s beloved Falstaff.


1552 – Record of a small residence and two rose gardens called “The Little Rose”.

1585 – Businessman Philip Henslowe and Chef John Chalmley lease The Little Rose.

1587 – Philip Henslowe and John Chalmley sign an eight-year agreement to run a theatre.
Carpenter John Griggs begins building the theatre, known as “The Playhouse”.

1591 – The Admiral’s Men split from Burbage’s company and arrive at The Playhouse.

1592 - Actor, Edward Alleyn marries Philip Henslowe’s daughter Henslowe begins to keep “Henslowe’s Diary” in a small account book Henslowe spends £105 enlarging the theatre into a “flat oval” or “bulging tulip”.
The Lord Strange’s Men arrive at The Playhouse and perform through the year.
Shakespeare’s Henry VI is performed at The Rose by The Admiral’s Men.

1593 - 11,000 people die from the plague, The Playhouse closes for much of the year

1594 – The Playhouse reopens after the plague: Marlowe, Greene and Kyd have died.
The Playhouse and The Fortune are the only playhouses licensed to perform.
The Chamberlain’s Men perform Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at The Playhouse.
The Admiral’s Men return and perform at The Playhouse for the next seven years.

1595 – The Swan Theatre is opened nearby.
“The Playhouse” is renamed “The Rose”.

1599 – The Globe opens on The Southbank.
Henslowe, spying the competition takes out a lease for The Fortune.

1600 – Henslowe moves The Admiral’s Men up to The Fortune.
The Privy Council only licenses The Fortune and The Globe to perform.

1602 – The Worcester’s Men revive performances at The Rose.
Shakespeare’s old clown, William Kempe, joins them; possibly with a stolen copy of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.



Shakespeare's original Globe