|The stages of Shakespeare's time were not separated from the audience by a curtain that could be dropped between scenes and acts. Playwrights signaled in other ways that one scene had ended and the next had begun. The customary way was to have everyone onstage exit at the end of one scene and to have one or more other characters enter for the next. Occasionally, when characters remained onstage in two consecutive scenes, dialogue or stage action could indicate a change of time or location. Playhouses did not use movable scenery to set the scene, but the stage was not always completely bare. Stage properties included tombs, thrones, beds, rocks, and the like.
The actors also worked at other levels than the stage. They might emerge from below through a trapdoor, for example, or retire behind nearby hangings. When an actor appeared "above," he probably climbed the stairs to the gallery at the back of the stage and temporarily shared it with the spectators. Ropes and winches also allowed actors to descend from, and reascend to, the "heavens" over the stage.
Perhaps the greatest difference in dramatic performance was that the roles of women were played by boys; there were no women in the acting companies, only in the audience. It had not always been so. Records indicate women were sometimes on the English stage two hundred years earlier. Women returned to the public stage several decades later, with the reopening of the theaters in 1660 at the restoration of Charles II. Especially in the early 1600s, children's companies exclusively of boy actors competed intensely with the companies of adult actors like the one to which Shakespeare belonged and for which he wrote. In the long run, however, the adult actors prevailed.
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Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare editions, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2005 Folger Shakespeare Library
William Alabaster. Roxana tragaedia. London, 1632
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