Elizabethan London across the Thames (center);
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (top insert); and the
audience in the current reproduction of the Globe
When Shakespeare arrived in London, there was only one
playhouse. Called simply the Theatre, it was built to host
troupes of actors that previously had roamed the countryside,
performing in the courtyards of inns or in the great halls of
Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was
among the groups performing there, so it must have been the
first theater Shakespeare acted in.
Other theaters in the area were the Curtain, the Rose and the
Swan. They were round, square, or many-sided.
The Theatre was a polygonal, three-story timber structure
open to the elements. Where a modern stage has a flat
playing surface reaching back from the audience behind a
proscenium arch, the stage of early theaters projected into the
audience. The groundlings, or common people, stood around
the stage for the length of the play, while the more noble
playgoers sat in three tiers of galleries around the walls.
There were no sets. Shakespeare gave his audience verbal
clues to where the action was taking place and depended on
their imagination to turn blank space into a woods or a beach.
It was a little like listening to the radio or reading a book
before TV became common. I still feel disappointed when a
movie falls short of a favorite book.
The only major visual expense was for costumes, although,
wherever the play was set, those tended to be Elizabethan
English, complete with "hats and farthingales and ruffs and
rapiers," according to Margaret Webster's Shakespeare
Thus the modern practice of staging Shakespeare's plays in
various periods of history has good precedence.
By 1598, the Theatre had fallen into disrepair, and the Lord
Chamberlain's Men--after a prolonged argument with the
landlord--tore down the building and transported it to the site
of the new Globe theater, where the wood was used in its
Shakespeare, a "sharer" or stockholder in the company, was
among them, and was among those sued for the act. He and
his fellow actors were found not guilty because of the
provisions of their contract with the landlord.
The Globe was the site of the production of some of
Shakespeare's greatest plays.
A reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe was opened in
London in 1997, thanks to the efforts of the late Sam
Wanamaker, who also led in constructing an indoor
playhouse of the same period.
When I was in England, that sort of attachment to history was
one of the things that attracted me most.
Shakespeare wrote for the almost limitlessly flexible
Elizabethan theater. He wrote for a troupe of actors he knew
well because he had acted with them for years. And he wrote
for a broad audience that spanned uneducated commoners
and sophisticated nobility. It was an audience that knew how
to listen actively and imaginatively and that responded
immediately, so that a play was less a performance than a
conversation. It was a situation that brought out the best in an
already gifted writer.
No women appeared onstage in the Globe. It was unseemly.
Women's roles were performed by boy actors. There are
notes calling for sound effects--trumpets, drums and storms--
in Shakespeare's plays, so what they lacked in visual effects,
it made up in sound.
The plays were written in iambic pentameter (five beats per
line with the accent on the second of two syllables), often
rhyming at the end of scenes. It's about as near natural
speech pattern as poetry can get. When I was studying
Shakespeare in college, I went around from time to time,
thinking in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare also included a
songs in his plays, particularly the comedies.
In addition to comedies (problem plays, often with strong
women disguised as men and confused identities, that work
out well in the end), Shakespeare wrote historic plays (several
designed to uphold Elizabeth's claim to the throne), and
tragedies (plays of moral issues, often ending with much of the
cast killed off).