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• Inside the Theaters

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Inside the Theaters



The public theaters of Shakespeare's time were open-air playhouses. Some were polygonal or roughly circular; the Fortune was square. They were said to hold two or three thousand spectators, who must have squeezed together tightly. Some paid extra to sit or stand in upper-level, roofed galleries all the way around the theater, surrounding an open space.

In this central space were the stage, perhaps the tiring house (dressing rooms), and the yard, a roofless area for spectators who paid less and were exposed to the weather. There they stood on a floor, made either of mortar or a softer surface of ash mixed with hazelnut shells. The stage itself was covered by a roof. A copy of a sketch of the Swan depicts its stage as a large rectangular platform thrusting into the yard. Excavation of the Rose has revealed a much shallower design. Stages in other playhouses may have differed from either one.

After about 1608, Shakespeare's plays were also staged indoors at a private theater in Blackfriars, constructed by James Burbage in a hall of a former Dominican priory or monastic house. The stage, lit by candles, was built across the narrow end of the hall, with boxes flanking it.

There was seating room, but no standing, in the rest of the hall; this limited attendance to less than a thousand, a fraction of the Globe audience. Admission was correspondingly more expensive. The boxes flanking the stage at Blackfriars were five times the price of the Globe's best seats. Spectators who particularly wished to display themselves paid even more to sit on stools on the stage.

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Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare editions, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2005 Folger Shakespeare Library
 
Wits. Part 1. London, 1662



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