Adversaria by Aernout van Buchell

Shakespeare and the Swan

Afbeelding van Swan theatre uit de Adversaria van Buchelius uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

It is the only contemporary drawing of a theatre from the time that Elizabeth was queen of England (1553-1603): the illustration of Swan Theatre. And it is to be found in a manuscript by Arnoldus Buchelius from Utrecht. How did this unique drawing became part of this manuscript? And does it tell us something about Shakespeare’s plays performed in this period?


The drawing of Swan Theatre can be found on one of the leaves of Buchelius’ Adversaria. Aernout van Buchell (1565-1641) was a well-to-do Utrecht amateur historian. Many of his manuscripts have survived, for instance his Diarium about his travels in France, Germany and Italy. In his Adversaria (‘Notes’) he wrote about various matters, and he also included a piece which he called Londinensia in the table of contents, to be found on fol. 131v up to fol. 132v.

Johannes de Witt

At the top of the first page Buchelius noted down that it concerns a representation of the observations made in London by Johannes de Witt. This Johannes de Witt was born in Utrecht around the year 1566 and was a fellow student of Buchelius in Douai. The two became friends and also exchanged letters. De Witt was in London in 1596 and wrote about this visit. Buchelius copied these data in his notebook (for a full transcription see Hulshof & Breuning 1939, 100-114). The original text by de Witt has been lost. The description of Swan Theatre is in translation as follows:

There are four amphitheatres in London of notable beauty, which from their diverse signs bear diverse names. In each of them a different play is daily exhibited to the populace. The two more magnificent of these are situated to the southward beyond the Thames, and from the signs suspended before them are called the Rose and the Swan. The two others are outside the city towards the north on the highway which issues through the Episcopal Gate, called in the vernacular Bishopgate. There is also a fifth voted to the baiting of beasts, where are maintained in separate cages and enclosures many bears and dogs of stupendous size, which are kept for fighting, furnishing thereby a most delightful spectacle to men. Of all the theatres, however, the largest and the most magnificent is that one of which the sign is a swan, called in the vernacular the SwanTheatre; for it accommodates in its seats three thousand persons, and it is built of a mass of flint stones (of which there is a prodigious supply in Britain), and supported by wooden columns painted in such excellent imitation of marble that it is able to deceive even the most cunning. Since its form resembles that of a Roman work, I have made a sketch of it above. (Adams 1920, 167).

The drawing

Afbeelding van Theatre the Swan op de kaart Panorama of London door Claes Jansz. Visscher uit 1616

Next to De Witt’s words Buchelius also draws the theatre on one of the leaves, undoubtedly after the original by Johannes de Witt. The drawing represents Swan Theatre (fol. 132r), in Southwark at the south side where now Blackfriars Bridge is located, on the corner of Upper Ground and the A201. In 1589 Francis Langley bought this parcel and built a theatre there which was completed in 1595. A source from 1632 describes the deterioration of the theatre and nowadays it no longer exists. With the exception of the drawing in Buchelius’ manuscript there are no other illustrations of the interior, or of any other English theatre from that period. That makes the drawing unique in its kind.


In his article ‘The Swan theatre drawing – a review’ Johan Gerritsen addresses the problem of the picture’s reliability. Based on other manuscripts there is a suspicion that Buchelius not only copied de Witt’s drawing, but also enlarged it, and that he was not very adept in drawing perspective. In addition, according to Gerritsen, Buchelius seems to suggest that he added the Latin captions in the illustration himself, to wit porticussaediliaorchestraingressusmimorum aedesprocaenium en planities sive arena. Gerritsen bases his suggestion on the Latin Cuius quidem forma quod Romani operis umbram videatur supra adpinxi (‘Since its form resembles that of a Roman work, I have made a sketch of it above’).

However, if this information was in a letter to Buchelius, it may explain why this sentence is included, since de Witt knew of course that his friend was interested in Roman buildings. Or it may reflect that Buchelius himself found it necessary to reproduce the drawing in his Adversaria. De Witt could have added the terms for Buchelius’ instruction, or Buchelius himself after his own research. This matter calls for further research. Does de Witt or Buchelius add information to his drawings more often? Is a term such as mimorum aedes for the actors’ house common in the Roman sources which Buchelius would have consulted then? May we expect Buchelius to have had any knowledge of theatres and acting at all?

The scene on the stage

All these questions are important because Gerritsen wonders if Buchelius, besides the terms, could have added more, such as the scene played out on the stage. In the drawing we see a woman on a bench and a man who approaches from the right. There is also a standing figure behind the bench. Scholars interpret the depicted scene in various ways, for example, they are two women near the bench (queen and a lady-in-waiting) and a courier speeding towards them. This does not necessarily have to originate from one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Scene uit de 2e Akte van "Twelfth night", schilderij door Johann Heinrich Ramberg (bron: wikimedia commons)
Scene from the 2nd Act of "Twelfth night", painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (source: wikimedia commons)

Or could it be a scene from the prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V? It has also been suggested that it could be a scene from Twelfth Night (What you will). A more recent view tells us that it is a scene from Hamlet in which Hamlet meets the spirit of his father (cf. Freriks 1995). An edition of the play is known which also has a woman on a bench in that particular scene. Some even go so far as to say that de Witt visited a performance of the play in which Shakespeare himself played the role of the spirit. Also this question is important, because there are directors of Shakespeare’s plays who want the stage to be as sober as possible, for the simple reason that the drawing of the Swan Theatre suggests that the stage from the Shakespearean era looked like that.

More about the manuscript

On fol. 2r en 2v Buchelius wrote a table of contents of the manuscript. He cites from the Annals of Egmond , includes several poems and letters, and an epitaph of Evert Vorstius. Well-known names that appear in the manuscript are Justus Lipsius, Dirk Canter and Petrus Scriverius. A detailed overview of the contents can be found in the description of the manuscript in the catalogue. In this table of contents we also find traces of Cornelis Booth. The numbers of the folios halfway through to fol. 2r were corrected by his hand. This shows that in addition to the first folio also folios 102 up to 110 are missing. These are kept in the Utrecht Archives. This is also mentioned on fol. 101r in a 19th-century hand. According to the table of contents these are: ‘Diplomata vici veteris’ and ‘Carmina Johanni Aurati’, charters and poems by Johannes Auratus (Jean Dorat, 1508-1588).