The Rose was an Elizabethan theatre. It was the fourth of the public theatres to be built, after The Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577), and the theatre at Newington Butts (c. 1580?) — and the first of several playhouses to be situated in Bankside, Southwark, in a liberty outside the jurisdiction of the City of London's civic authorities.
The Rose was built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe and by a grocer named John Cholmley. The theatre was built on a messuage called the "Little Rose," which Henslowe had leased from the parish of St. Mildred in 1585. It contained substantial rose gardens and two buildings; Cholmley used one as a storehouse, while Henslowe appears to have leased the other as a brothel. The building was of timber, with a lath and plaster exterior and thatch roof. It was polygonal in shape, about 21 meters in diameter. City records indicate that it was in use by late 1587; however, it is not mentioned in Henslowe's accounts between its construction and 1592, and it is possible that he leased it to an acting company with which he was not otherwise concerned.
In 1592 Edward Alleyn was acting with a combination of personnel from Lord Strange's Men and the Admiral's Men; this group moved into the Rose in February of 1592. Henslowe enlarged the theatre for the new troupe, moving the stage further back (six feet six inches, or two meters) to make room for perhaps 500 extra spectators. The original Rose was smaller than other theatres, only about two-thirds the size of the original Theatre built eleven years earlier, and its stage was also unusually small; the enlargement addressed both matters. Henslowe paid all the costs himself, indicating that Cholmley was no longer involved — either deceased or bought out. The work was done by the builder John Grigg. The renovation gave the theatre, formerly a regular polygon (with perhaps 14 sides), a distorted egg shape, a "bulging tulip" or "distorted ovoid" floor plan.
The 1592–4 period was difficult for the acting companies of London; a severe outbreak of bubonic plague meant that the London theatres were closed almost continuously from June 1592 to May 1594. The companies were forced to tour to survive, and some, like Pembroke's Men, fell on hard times. By the summer of 1594 the plague had abated, and the companies re-organized themselves, principally into the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the Admiral's Men. The latter troupe, still led by Alleyn, resumed residence at the Rose.
The Rose appears to have differed from other theatres of the era in its ability to stage large scenes on two levels. It is thought that all Elizabethan theatres had a limited capability to stage scenes "aloft," on an upper level at the back of the stage — as with Juliet on her balcony in Romeo and Juliet, II.ii. A minority of Elizabethan plays, however, call for larger assemblies of actors on the higher second level — as with the Roman Senators looking down upon Titus in the opening scene of Titus Andronicus. An unusual concentration of plays with the latter sort of staging requirement can be associated with the Rose, indicating that the Rose had an enhanced capacity for this particularity of stagecraft.
The Rose was home to the Admiral's Men for several years. When the Lord Chamberlain's Men built the Globe Theatre on the Bankside in 1599, however, the Rose was put into a difficult position. Prompted by complaints from city officials, the Privy Council decreed in June 1600 that only two theatres would be allowed for stage plays: the Globe in Bankside, and the Fortune Theatre in Middlesex — specifically, Shoreditch. Henslowe and Alleyn had already built the Fortune, apparently to fill the vacuum created when the Chamberlain's Men left Shoreditch. The Rose was used briefly by Worcester's Men in 1602 and 1603; when the lease ran out on The Rose in 1605 it was abandoned. The playhouse may have been pulled down as early as 1606.
In 1989, the remains of the Rose were threatened with destruction by building development. A campaign to save the site was launched by several well-known theatrical figures, including Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier. It was eventually decided to build over the top of the theatre's remains, leaving them conserved beneath.
The handling of the Rose Theatre by government, archaeologists and the developer provided impetus for the legitimisation of archaeology in the development process and led the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher to introduce PPG 16 in an attempt to manage archaeology in the face of development threat.
The foundations of the Rose are covered in a few inches of water to keep the ground from developing major cracks, but it is used for performances with actors performing around the perimeter of the site. When the Museum of London carried out the excavation work, the staff found many objects which are now stored in the museum itself. (Portions of the theatre's foundations were deeply littered with hazelnut shells — apparently, hazelnuts were the popcorn of English Renaissance drama.)
In 1999, the site was re-opened to the public, underneath the controversial new development. Work continues to excavate this historic site further and to secure its future.
The Rose Theatre was prominently featured in the film Shakespeare in Love.