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Shakespeare’s Theater: From the Folger Shakespeare Editions

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

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The actors of Shakespeare’s time are known to have performed plays in a great variety of locations. They played at court (that is, in the great halls of such royal residences as Whitehall, Hampton Court, and Greenwich); they played in halls at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and at the Inns of Court (the residences in London of the legal societies); and they also played in the private houses of great lords and civic officials. Sometimes acting companies went on tour from London into the provinces, often (but not only) when outbreaks of bubonic plague in the capital forced the closing of theaters to reduce the possibility of contagion in crowded audiences. In the provinces the actors usually staged their plays in churches (until around 1600), in guildhalls, or in the great houses of individual patrons. While surviving records show only a handful of occasions when actors played at inns while on tour, London inns were important playing places up until the 1590s.

The building of theaters in London had begun only shortly before Shakespeare wrote his first plays in the 1590s. These theaters were of two kinds: outdoor or public playhouses that could accommodate large numbers of playgoers, and indoor or private theaters for much smaller audiences. What is usually regarded as the first London outdoor public playhouse was called simply the Theatre. James Burbage—the father of Richard Burbage, who was perhaps the most famous actor in Shakespeare’s company—built it in 1576 in an area north of the city of London called Shoreditch. Among the more famous of the other public playhouses that capitalized on the new fashion were the Curtain and the Fortune (both also built north of the city), the Rose, the Swan, the Globe, and the Hope (all located on the Bankside, a region just across the Thames south of the city of London). All these playhouses had to be built outside the jurisdiction of the city of London because many civic officials were hostile to the performance of drama and repeatedly petitioned the royal council to abolish it.

A stylized representation of the Globe theater.
From Claes Jansz Visscher, Londinum florentissima Britanniae urbs . . . [c. 1625].

The theaters erected on the Bankside (a region under the authority of the Church of England, whose head was the monarch) shared the neighborhood with houses of prostitution and with the Paris Garden, where the blood sports of bearbaiting and bullbaiting were carried on. There may have been no clear distinction between playhouses and buildings for such sports, for we know that the Hope was used for both plays and baiting and that Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose and, later, partner in the ownership of the Fortune, was also a partner in a monopoly on baiting. All these forms of entertainment were easily accessible to Londoners by boat across the Thames or over London Bridge.

Evidently Shakespeare’s company prospered on the Bankside. They moved there in 1599. Threatened by difficulties in renewing the lease on the land where their first theater (the Theatre) had been built, Shakespeare’s company took advantage of the Christmas holiday in 1598 to dismantle the Theatre and transport its timbers across the Thames to the Bankside, where, in 1599, these timbers were used in the building of the Globe. The weather in late December 1598 is recorded as having been especially harsh. It was so cold that the Thames was “nigh [nearly] frozen,” and there was heavy snow. Perhaps the weather aided Shakespeare’s company in eluding their landlord, the snow hiding their activity and the freezing of the Thames allowing them to slide the timbers across to the Bankside without paying tolls for repeated trips over London Bridge. Attractive as this narrative is, it remains just as likely that the heavy snow hampered transport of the timbers in wagons through the London streets to the river. It also must be remembered that the Thames was, according to report, only “nigh frozen,” and therefore did not necessarily provide solid footing. Whatever the precise circumstances of this fascinating event in English theater history, Shakespeare’s company was able to begin playing at their new Globe theater on the Bankside in 1599. After this theater burned down in 1613 during the staging of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (its thatch roof was set alight by cannon fire called for in performance), Shakespeare’s company immediately rebuilt on the same location. The second Globe seems to have been a grander structure than its predecessor. It remained in use until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, when Parliament officially closed the theaters. Soon thereafter it was pulled down.

The public theaters of Shakespeare’s time were very different buildings from our theaters today. First of all, they were open-air playhouses. As recent excavations of the Rose and the Globe confirm, some were polygonal or roughly circular in shape; the Fortune, however, was square. The most recent estimates of their size put the diameter of these buildings at 72 feet (the Rose) to 100 feet (the Globe), but we know that they held vast audiences of two or three thousand, who must have been squeezed together quite tightly. Some of these spectators paid extra to sit or stand in the two or three levels of roofed galleries that extended, on the upper levels, all the way around the theater and surrounded an open space. In this space were the stage and, perhaps, the tiring house (what we would call dressing rooms), as well as the so-called yard. In the yard stood the spectators who chose to pay less, the ones whom Hamlet contemptuously called “groundlings.” For a roof they had only the sky, and so they were exposed to all kinds of weather. They stood on a floor that was sometimes made of mortar and sometimes of ash mixed with the shells of hazelnuts, which, it has recently been discovered, were standard flooring material in the period.

Unlike the yard, the stage itself was covered by a roof. Its ceiling, called “the heavens,” is thought to have been elaborately painted to depict the sun, moon, stars, and planets. The exact size of the stage remains hard to determine. We have a single sketch of part of the interior of the Swan. A Dutchman named Johannes de Witt visited this theater around 1596 and sent a sketch of it back to his friend, Arend van Buchel. Because van Buchel found de Witt’s letter and sketch of interest, he copied both into a book. It is van Buchel’s copy, adapted, it seems, to the shape and size of the page in his book, that survives. In this sketch, the stage appears to be a large rectangular platform that thrusts far out into the yard, perhaps even as far as the center of the circle formed by the surrounding galleries. This drawing, combined with the specifications for the size of the stage in the building contract for the Fortune, has led scholars to conjecture that the stage on which Shakespeare’s plays were performed must have measured approximately 43 feet in width and 27 feet in depth, a vast acting area. But the digging up of a large part of the Rose by late-twentieth-century archaeologists has provided evidence of a quite different stage design. The Rose stage was a platform tapered at the corners and much shallower than what seems to be depicted in the van Buchel sketch. Indeed, its measurements seem to be about 37.5 feet across at its widest point and only 15.5 feet deep. Because the surviving indications of stage size and design differ from each other so much, it is possible that the stages in other theaters, like the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Globe (the outdoor playhouses where we know that Shakespeare’s plays were performed), were different from those at both the Swan and the Rose.

After about 1608 Shakespeare’s plays were staged not only at the Globe but also at an indoor or private playhouse in Blackfriars. This theater had been constructed in 1596 by James Burbage in an upper hall of a former Dominican priory or monastic house. Although Henry VIII had dissolved all English monasteries in the 1530s (shortly after he had founded the Church of England), the area remained under church, rather than hostile civic, control. The hall that Burbage had purchased and renovated was a large one in which Parliament had once met. In the private theater that he constructed, the stage, lit by candles, was built across the narrow end of the hall, with boxes flanking it. The rest of the hall offered seating room only. Because there was no provision for standing room, the largest audience it could hold was less than a thousand, or about a quarter of what the Globe could accommodate. Admission to Blackfriars was correspondingly more expensive. Instead of a penny to stand in the yard at the Globe, it cost a minimum of sixpence to get into Blackfriars. The best seats at the Globe (in the Lords’ Room in the gallery above and behind the stage) cost sixpence; but the boxes flanking the stage at Blackfriars were half a crown, or five times sixpence. Some spectators who were particularly interested in displaying themselves paid even more to sit on stools on the Blackfriars stage.

Whether in the outdoor or indoor playhouses, the stages of Shakespeare’s time were different from ours. They were not separated from the audience by the dropping of a curtain between acts and scenes. Therefore the playwrights of the time had to find other ways of signaling to the audience that one scene (to be imagined as occurring in one location at a given time) had ended and the next (to be imagined at perhaps a different location at a later time) had begun. The customary way used by Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries was to have everyone on stage exit at the end of one scene and have one or more different characters enter to begin the next. In a few cases, where characters remain onstage from one scene to another, the dialogue or stage action makes the change of location clear, and the characters are generally to be imagined as having moved from one place to another. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and his friends remain onstage in Act 1 from scene 4 to scene 5, but they are represented as having moved between scenes from the street that leads to Capulet’s house into Capulet’s house itself. The new location is signaled in part by the appearance onstage of Capulet’s servingmen carrying table napkins, something they would not take into the streets. Playwrights had to be quite resourceful in the use of hand properties, like the napkin, or in the use of dialogue to specify where the action was taking place in their plays because, in contrast to most of today’s theaters, the playhouses of Shakespeare’s time did not fill the stage with scenery to make the setting precise. A consequence of this difference was that the playwrights of Shakespeare’s time did not have to specify exactly where the action of their plays was set when they did not choose to do so, and much of the action of their plays is tied to no specific place.

Usually Shakespeare’s stage is referred to as a “bare stage,” to distinguish it from the stages of the last two or three centuries with their elaborate sets. But the stage in Shakespeare’s time was not completely bare. Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, lists in his inventory of stage properties a rock, three tombs, and two mossy banks. Stage directions in plays of the time also call for such things as thrones (or “states”), banquets (presumably tables with plaster replicas of food on them), and beds and tombs to be pushed onto the stage. Thus the stage often held more than the actors.

The actors did not limit their performing to the stage alone. Occasionally they went beneath the stage, as the Ghost appears to do in the first act of Hamlet. From there they could emerge onto the stage through a trapdoor. They could retire behind the hangings across the back of the stage, as, for example, the actor playing Polonius does when he hides behind the arras. Sometimes the hangings could be drawn back during a performance to “discover” one or more actors behind them. When performance required that an actor appear “above,” as when Juliet is imagined to stand at the window of her chamber in the famous and misnamed “balcony scene,” then the actor probably climbed the stairs to the gallery over the back of the stage and temporarily shared it with some of the spectators. The stage was also provided with ropes and winches so that actors could descend from, and reascend to, the “heavens.”

Perhaps the greatest difference between dramatic performances in Shakespeare’s time and ours was that in Shakespeare’s England the roles of women were played by boys. (Some of these boys grew up to take male roles in their maturity.) There were no women in the acting companies. It was not so in Europe, and had not always been so in the history of the English stage. There are records of women on English stages in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, two hundred years before Shakespeare’s plays were performed. After the accession of James I in 1603, the queen of England and her ladies took part in entertainments at court called masques, and with the reopening of the theaters in 1660 at the restoration of Charles II, women again took their place on the public stage.

The chief competitors of such acting companies as the one to which Shakespeare belonged and for which he wrote were companies of exclusively boy actors. The competition was most intense in the early 1600s. There were then two principal children’s companies: the Children of Paul’s (the choirboys from St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose private playhouse was near the cathedral); and the Children of the Chapel Royal (the choirboys from the monarch’s private chapel, who performed at the Blackfriars theater built by Burbage in 1596). In Hamlet Shakespeare writes of “an aerie [nest] of children, little eyases [hawks], that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion and . . . berattle the common stages [attack the public theaters].” In the long run, the adult actors prevailed. The Children of Paul’s dissolved around 1606. By about 1608 the Children of the Chapel Royal had been forced to stop playing at the Blackfriars theater, which was then taken over by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s own troupe.

Acting companies and theaters of Shakespeare’s time seem to have been organized in various ways. For example, with the building of the Globe, Shakespeare’s company apparently managed itself, with the principal actors, Shakespeare among them, having the status of “sharers” and the right to a share in the takings, as well as the responsibility for a part of the expenses. Five of the sharers, including Shakespeare, owned the Globe. As actor, as sharer in an acting company and in ownership of theaters, and as playwright, Shakespeare was about as involved in the theatrical industry as one could imagine. Although Shakespeare and his fellows prospered, their status under the law was conditional upon the protection of powerful patrons. “Common players”—those who did not have patrons or masters—were classed in the language of the law with “vagabonds and sturdy beggars.” So the actors had to secure for themselves the official rank of servants of patrons. Among the patrons under whose protection Shakespeare’s company worked were the lord chamberlain and, after the accession of King James in 1603, the king himself.

In the early 1990s we began to learn a great deal more about the theaters in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries performed—or, at least, began to open up new questions about them. At that time about 70 percent of the Rose had been excavated, as had about 10 percent of the second Globe, the one built in 1614. Excavation was halted at that point, but London has come to value the sites of its early playhouses, and takes what opportunities it can to explore them more deeply, both on the Bankside and in Shoreditch. Information about the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London is therefore a constantly changing resource.

Further Reading

Bentley, G. E. The Profession of Player in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Bentley readably sets forth a wealth of evidence about performance in Shakespeare’s time, with special attention to the relations between player and company, and the business of casting, managing, and touring.

Berry, Herbert. Shakespeare’s Playhouses. New York: AMS Press, 1987.

Berry’s six essays collected here discuss (with illustrations) varying aspects of the four playhouses in which Shakespeare had a financial stake: the Theatre in Shoreditch, the Blackfriars, and the first and second Globe.

Berry, Herbert, William Ingram, and Glynne Wickham, eds. English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wickham presents the government documents designed to control professional players, their plays, and playing places. Ingram handles the professional actors, giving as representative a life of the actor Augustine Phillips, and discussing, among other topics, patrons, acting companies, costumes, props, play-books, provincial playing, and child actors. Berry treats the twenty-three different London playhouses from 1560 to 1660 for which there are records, including four inns.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Cook’s work argues, on the basis of sociological, economic, and documentary evidence, that Shakespeare’s audience—and the audience for English Renaissance drama generally—consisted mainly of the “privileged.”

Dutton, Richard, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dutton divides his study of the theatrical industry of Shakespeare’s time into the following sections: “Theatre Companies,” “London Playhouses,” “Other Playing Spaces,” “Social Practices,” and “Evidence of Theatrical Practices.” Each of these sections is further subdivided, with subdivisions assigned to individual experts. W. R. Streitberger treats the “Adult Playing Companies to 1583”; Sally-Beth MacLean those from 1583 to 1593; Roslyn L. Knutson, 1593–1603; Tom Rutter, 1603–1613; James J. Marino, 1613–1625; and Martin Butler, the “Adult and Boy Playing Companies 1625–1642.” Michael Shapiro is responsible for the “Early (Pre-1590) Boy Companies and Their Acting Venues,” while Mary Bly writes of “The Boy Companies 1599–1613.” David Kathman handles “Inn-Yard Playhouses”; Gabriel Egan, “The Theatre in Shoreditch 1576–1599”; Andrew Gurr, “Why the Globe Is Famous”; Ralph Alan Cohen, “The Most Convenient Place: The Second Blackfriars Theater and Its Appeal”; Mark Bayer, “The Red Bull Playhouse”; and Frances Teague, “The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses.” Turning to “Other Playing Spaces,” Suzanne Westfall describes how “ ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’: Household Entertainments”; Alan H. Nelson, “The Universities and the Inns of Court”; Peter Greenfield, “Touring”; John H. Astington, “Court Theatre”; and Anne Lancashire, “London Street Theater.” For “Social Practices,” Alan Somerset writes of “Not Just Sir Oliver Owlet: From Patrons to ‘Patronage’ of Early Modern Theatre,” Dutton himself of “The Court, the Master of the Revels, and the Players,” S. P. Cerasano of “Theater Entrepreneurs and Theatrical Economics,” Ian W. Archer of “The City of London and the Theatre,” David Kathman of “Players, Livery Companies, and Apprentices,” Kathleen E. McLuskie of “Materiality and the Market: The Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Challenge of Theatre History,” Heather Hirschfield of “ ‘For the author’s credit’: Issues of Authorship in English Renaissance Drama,” and Natasha Korda of “Women in the Theater.” On “Theatrical Practices,” Jacalyn Royce discusses “Early Modern Naturalistic Acting: The Role of the Globe in the Development of Personation”; Tiffany Stern, “Actors’ Parts”; Alan Dessen, “Stage Directions and the Theater Historian”; R. B. Graves, “Lighting”; Lucy Munro, “Music and Sound”; Dutton himself, “Properties”; Thomas Postlewait, “Eyewitnesses to History: Visual Evidence for Theater in Early Modern England”; and Eva Griffith, “Christopher Beeston: His Property and Properties.”

Greg, W. W. Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.

Greg itemizes and briefly describes almost all the play manuscripts that survive from the period 1590 to around 1660, including, among other things, players’ parts. His second volume offers facsimiles of selected manuscripts.

Harbage, Alfred. Shakespeare’s Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.

Harbage investigates the fragmentary surviving evidence to interpret the size, composition, and behavior of Shakespeare’s audience.

Keenan, Siobhan. Acting Companies and Their Plays in Shakespeare’s London. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014.

Keenan “explores how the needs, practices, resources and pressures on acting companies and playwrights informed not only the performance and publication of contemporary dramas but playwrights’ writing practices.” Each chapter focuses on one important factor that influenced Renaissance playwrights and players. The initial focus is on how “the nature and composition of the acting companies” influenced the playwrights who wrote for them. Then, using “the Diary of theatre manager Philip Henslowe and manuscript playbooks showing signs of theatrical use,” Keenan examines the relations between acting companies and playwrights. Other influences include “the physical design and facilities of London’s outdoor and indoor theatrical spaces” and the diverse audiences for plays, including royal and noble patrons.

Shapiro, Michael. Children of the Revels: The Boy Companies of Shakespeare’s Time and Their Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Shapiro chronicles the history of the amateur and quasi-professional child companies that flourished in London at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the beginning of James’s.