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Playhouses



London’s open air playhouses were the earliest purpose-built spaces for English drama. As audiences, people from all walks of life came together, however fleetingly. By its nature, drama is ephemeral. The vast majority of plays are lost, but those surviving in manuscript and print provide important information about the theater. The texts reveal the give and take between the audience and performers. They also reflect Shakespeare’s career, as player and playwright. Royal proclamations, business papers, and even the location of playhouses beyond the city limits shed light on the complex and shifting interests of city, court, theater professionals, and their London audiences.




James I. A Proclamation. London, 1603
 

Jonson. Works. London, 1616
 

Shakespeare. Pericles. London, 1609
 


Middleton. A game at chæsse. London, 1625
 

Jonson. The new inne. London, 1631
 

England and Wales. Parliament. Order suppressing public playhouses. London, 1647
 


Aristocratic patronage shielded actors against the legal actions that might otherwise be taken against them as “masterless men.” Because Shakespeare and his company could say they served the Lord Chamberlain — and then the king himself — they had some protection from laws against “rogues, vagabonds, idle and dissolute persons.” And lucky for them that they did — this proclamation by James I’s Privy Council provided a new solution for the social problem of dealing with homeless, poor, and itinerant people: send them away to foreign countries including “the New-Found Land and the East and West Indies.”

 

As a member of the King’s Men, Shakespeare acted as well as wrote for the Globe Theater. The ghost of Hamlet is one of the roles people like to imagine he played. This oral tradition is given credence by the fact that Shakespeare is listed among the players in the posthumously published folio of his plays. We can also find a trace of that acting career in the cast list of Ben Jonson’s first comedy, Every Man in his Humor. Shakespeare is listed as first among the principal comedians.

 

One of the plays Shakespeare wrote for the Globe was Pericles. Although not as well-known today as many of his other plays, Pericles was a popular play of its time, if measured by its multiple early editions. With frequent scene changes, from Antioch, to Tarsus, to Ephesus, and on to shipboard, Pericles took full advantage of the Globe’s bare stage. The title page uses both Shakespeare and the Globe on Bankside as selling points, showing the marketability of Shakespeare’s name. Pericles was probably not entirely by Shakespeare, however, and (for reasons not fully understood), it was not included in the First Folio.

 

Other playwrights active during this period were Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson  Middleton's A Game at Chess was a flashpoint of political controversy. In 1625, after the proposed “Spanish Match” between Prince Charles and the Spanish Infanta failed, the play stoked anti-Spanish prejudice with a high concept production that featured a stage floor painted to resemble a chess board and characters dressed in white or black. The Black Knight was unmistakably a parody of the Spanish ambassador to England, the Condé de Gondomar. Tens of thousands of Londoners might have seen the play before it was stopped after an unprecedented nine consecutive days. But not all plays were as well-recieved by the audience. Title pages are one of the most important sources of evidence we have about the performance history of the drama, though we cannot always take their claims at face value. Sometimes, a title page can hint at a playwright’s dissatisfaction with the reception of a play. In presenting his text “as it was never acted, but most negligently play’d,” Ben Jonson appeals to the solitary reader as more likely to attend to the text than be distracted by theatrical business.

 

The great flourishing of London’s public playhouses was brief. These forms of entertainment always had their detractors. City government worried about crowd control. Moralists condemned the pretense at the heart of acting — the pretense of being someone else — not to mention the bawdiness and innuendo for which the drama was known. The monarchy objected to the display of “affairs of state” for all to discuss and judge. In the 1640s, a series of parliamentary acts began to close down these London gathering places.

 



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