Shakespeare’s Theatre


The Theatres:

  • In Shakespeare’s day there were two main kinds of theatres: public and private.Private theatres were usually roofed and smaller than public ones. Public theatres usually had a large courtyard area and could hold a couple of thousand people.  Shakespeare wrote mostly for public theatres.  Because public theatres had no roofs, performances were held only in the afternoon using natural light.  The Theatre, the Rose, the Swan, the Curtain, the Fortune and the Globe were the most famous public theatres. Shakespeare bought shares in the Globe in 1599.  (The Globe, the playhouse with which Shakespeare is most often associated, was built in 1598-9 with materials taken from The Theatre.)  In 1609, Shakespeare became a part owner of a private theatre, called Blackfriars Theatre.  Blackfriars Theatre had a roof and artificial lighting (candlelight), which meant that performances could take place at night, in bad weather and throughout the winter.  Private theatres attracted a greater number of wealthier, upper class patrons who could afford the dearer admission prices.
  • Public theatres came in different shapes and designs. Some of the buildings were round, others square or many-sided. Other features, however, were similar.Public theatres generally had boxes and galleries around their walls.  These were for the wealthy theatre patrons to sit in and watch the play, whilst poorer patrons (groundlings) stood in the pit (courtyard). The stage projected into the pit and there was no curtain.  On both sides of the stage were doors for actors to enter and exit by.  In the main stage there was also a trapdoor for entrances by ghosts and the like.  Behind the main stage there was a gallery that functioned as an upper stage area for castle battlements, balcony scenes or other scenes requiring a lofty position.
  • Public theatres were outside the city walls as they were considered by the City of London authorities to be unwholesome places that attracted crime and rowdy behaviour. The situation and status of theatre was helped somewhat when it began to receive royal patronage.
  • The audiences who attended public theatres came from a wide range of classes, from nobles to ordinary working folk.Women, as well as men, attended these theatres.

Theatre Companies:

Acting as a professional activity became established mainly during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Previously, acting had been an amateur activity associated with trade-guilds and the presentation of religious plays (the mystery cycles). 

An acting company typically consisted of up to a dozen sharers with ten or more extras.  Sharers were permanent members of an actor’s company who had a share in the company’s expenses and profits.  Usually each company had its own important dramatist and some well-known actors who specialised in tragic or comic roles.  Some of the important theatre companies during Shakespeare’s time were the Queen’s Men, Lord Strange’s Men, the Lord Admiral’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Children of Blackfriars.  By 1594 Shakespeare had become a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which had grown mainly out of Lord Strange’s Men and which later became the King’s Men after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.  As well as being sharers, some theatre company members were also housekeepers.  A housekeeper had a share in the actual ownership of the theatre.  Shakespeare, for example, was a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and a housekeeper in the Globe and Blackfriars theatres.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Shakespeare seems to have written for his theatre company exclusively (although the name of the company changed a number of times). This meant that Shakespeare was able to tailor his plays for specific actors in the company.  It also meant that he was able to write for specific theatre spaces (i.e. the Globe or Blackfriars).  This, in turn, helped Shakespeare to structure his work, as he knew, in a concrete, practical way, how his writing would be realised on stage.

Theatrical Conventions:

*  It was considered immoral for women to perform on stage in Elizabethan times and therefore female roles were played by men.  Some male actors specialised in these roles. Often young men or boys would play young female roles.

*  Scenery was not used in Elizabethan plays.  The setting of a scene was suggested through the dialogue, or through the use of a prop.  This meant that scenes could move quickly from place to place as no scenery changes were required.

*  Costumes were often elaborate and colourful, and helped to make up visually for the lack of scenery.  Costumes for most characters consisted of contemporary Elizabethan or Jacobean styles.  Some attempt however, was made to have accuracy in style for characters who were considered to be more exotic, for example, Greek and Roman characters and unusual characters from other lands.

*  Sword play was often an important element in Elizabethan plays and added to the spectacle and excitement.

*  Sound effects were often employed to add to the atmosphere of the drama.  Common sound effects included drum rolls, trumpet blasts, flourishes and explosions.


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