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Treading the Bard: Shakespearian Shoes Go on Display
Hilary Davidson, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts with Shoes.

LONDON.- The Museum of London Docklands is putting a theatrical foot forward this week with a small display of Shakespearian shoes. From an Elizabethan slip-on uncovered at the site of the Rose Theatre, to a slender silk and leather shoe worn by Sir Henry Irving, the charismatic actor who inspired Bram Stoker’s "Dracula", the footwear on show steps through centuries of Shakespearian players and plays.

The earliest shoe was preserved in the damp mud of Southwark and is still decorated with pinked zig-zagged patterning – an embellishment common enough that in The Taming of the Shrew it is remarked upon when a servant’s “pumps were all unpink’d i’ the heel.” The pressures on actors at the time are highlighted by the hole at the toe end - deliberately cut to accommodate a painful bunion.

The later shoes were worn by a triumvirate of actors; each considered the greatest thespian of their day. Edmund Kean’s tasselled boots accompanied fiery performances as Richard III in England and America in the early 19th century. Samuel Phelps’ bright red silk boots costumed Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, his final stage performance, in 1878. And Sir Henry Irving’s exquisitely decorative Elizabethan-styled shoes were worn as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1882.

Hilary Davidson with shoesThe footwear goes on display as the definitive book on the bankside playhouses that were a home to Shakespeare on the south of the Thames is published. The Rose and The Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare's Bankside, Southwark, brings together Museum of London Archaeology’s unmatched expertise on the Elizabethan playhouse sites following historic excavations by Museum archaeologists in the 1980s.

Hilary Davidson, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts, said: “Treading the boards is fundamental to an actor’s craft in any century. Something of the actor’s physicality and movement stays in the leather long after the curtain has fallen. These shoes allow us to connect with the performances of some of the brightest stars in London’s long theatrical history and their part in shaping Shakespeare’s living legacy.”

Museum of London Archaeology has also announced that it will return to the site of Shakespeare’s first playhouse The Theatre, in Shoreditch, where Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Remains of the playhouse were confirmed last year, and the Museum’s archaeologists will be back looking for further evidence of the Theatre in Spring 2010, ahead of plans by the Tower Theatre Company to build a new theatre on the site.

The display of Shakespearian shoes runs from 3 December 2009.

The Museum of London | Shakespearian shoes | Hilary Davidson |

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