Bringing the World of William Shakespeare to the Young People of the World since 1996

 

Looking for a glowstick and a £4 tub of ice cream? In Shakespeare's London, you'd have been extremely lucky even to find a seat...

Traveling theatre

In the country, theatre was more of a traveling experience. Held either in great halls, in the Inns of Court or Palaces, or on makeshift stages in the yards of inns.

The theatre companies were based on the Commedia del'arte troupes of Europe - what, today, we would call 'Street Theatre'. The theatre companies toured round the country stopping and playing wherever they were welcome or could make some money, new friends and gain influence. It was a tough life and one where the reputation of actors as drunks, gamesters, whores and thieves was made.

A permanent home

It was James Burbage, a master carpenter and sometime member of Leicester's Men (a theatre troupe), who first spotted that there was enough business in London to justify a permanent, purpose built theatre, which, straightforwardly he called, The Theatre.

By having a secure and immovable stage, a more interesting and creative `set design` could now be employed for the new productions being written specifically for the stage. Flying angels could be 'flown' in and above the stage. Using 'trap doors', devils could appear mysteriously on stage. More solid machines were made to help with the 'illusion' the playwrights were writing in their plays. Different height levels could also now be applied for theatre use (balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet).

Not-so-high society

Attending the theatre was very much a social experience and shows could sometimes last as long as five hours. People from all walks of life came to watch the entertainments. Theatre was not just for the rich and powerful.

The theatres were not the comfortable and stylish buildings we expect today. It was a ring of galleries (the richer and more elegant people would sit on benches under cover) around a central yard open to the elements (the cheaper space, which didn't have seats and the audience were expected to stand). In the yard stood a large stage.

Make yourself comfortable

Food and drink were sold and brought into the theatre and people would eat all the way throughout the production. Fruits such as apples, pears and nuts were sold as well as wine and ale.

There were no toilets, so people would relieve themselves were they stood. Raw sewage flowed in open sewers to the River Thames nearby.

Chaotic entertainment

As well as the main show (play) at the theatre, other diverse acts, like dancing, singing and bear or bull baiting were also on offer.

Depending on what was showing, sometimes the audience would shout things out to the actors - what, today, we would call 'heckling'. The actors had to be able to deal with all sorts of distractions: heckling, drunks and fights - not to mention the weather (storms and heat).

The audience also liked to play cards before, during and after the performances. Some audiences were very unruly, naughty and noisy compared to how we expect them to behave today.

A man's world

There were no women actors allowed on stage by law. All female roles were played by young men.

London's burning

Fires were a hazard and a real threat (theatres were built of wood). The Elizabethan audiences were renowned for constantly smoking tobacco in clay pipes.

Under quarantine

When the plague came, all theatres were closed for the protection and health of the citizens of London.

Theatre in London

People in London died faster than new babies were born, so the population depended on people like Shakespeare travelling from their native towns and villages to London to make a new life for themselves. The city was huge, smelly, lively and unhealthy. Each hot summer the plague came. With many people packed into such small spaces as the theatres, the threat of disease being passed to and fro in the audience was always present.

Crime and public disorder were major problems and the theatres proved great opportunities for cut-purses, fighting and other small crime to take place.

Because of all the problems with bringing a large number of people together and keeping them under control (remember that some of these new plays dealt with sensitive issues like revolution, social injustice and anti royal themes), there was no TV, radio, CDs or computers for people to entertain themselves with. So theatrical entertainment was also a very useful educational and thought provoking experience.

Friends in high places

The City fathers saw the assembly of an audience as a threat to public order, public health and saw the plays as immoral. The plays were described as corrupting the young, as distracting apprentices and servants from their duty and as a health risk.

However, the theatre had friends in high places. Professional companies were kept in London to be ready to entertain the great, the high and mighty (royalty), when they were called upon. While they waited, they were permitted to rehearse. The public performances to which ordinary people flocked were rehearsals for royal entertainment.

As Queen Elizabeth put it when conferring legal protection on one company in 1574, they were 'as well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our (i.e. the Queen's) solace and pleasure...' The Court was loathed to have its entertainment wrecked by Puritans or City fathers or anyone else. It tended to resist the City's attempts to destroy the theatre.

There's no business like show business

So, theatre in Shakespeare's time was interestingly placed, socially, legally and geographically.


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