Shakespeare's Theater

Introduction to Hamlet

Types of Theaters

Outdoor Public Theaters, such as The Globe were very cheap and could hold around 3,000 people. It cost a penny to stand as a "groundling," with no roof for protection. Mortar and hazelnut shells were on the ground to make it more comfortable. There were two or three levels of roofed galleries that you could pay more to sit under.

Indoor Private Theaters, such as Blackfriar's, which Shakespeare's plays were later performed at, held less than 1,000 people and the cheapest admittance was 6 pence. Everyone was sitting and those interested in flaunting their wealth could pay even more to sit on the stage.

Plays were also performed in the great halls of royal residences, universities, private homes of dignitaries, and occasionally Inns. When the plague closed the theaters, plays were performed in churches or guildhalls.

The Globe

Shakespeare's company began playing at the first Globe theater, a public theater in Bankside (of the Thames River) in 1599. Before that Shakespeare's company had performed at the first public outdoor theater in London (called the Theater) on the Northside, but moved to the Globe theater. This theater later burned down in 1613 during Shakespeare's Henry VIII when a canon used as a prop in the play, caught the roof on fire. The second Globe was immediately rebuilt by Shakespeare's company in the same spot. In 1642, when Parliament closed all of the theaters, it was deconstructed.
Other public theaters located on the Bankside at the time include the Rose, the Swan, and the Hope. These playhouses had to be built outside of the jurisdiction of London, because many civic officials were hostile to the performance of drama, but theatergoers from London could get across the Thames to the Bankside easily. The Bankside was also home to other controversial forms of entertainment such as prostitution, and the sports of bullbaiting and bearbaiting.

Physical Structure of Theaters of Shakespeare's Time

  • Some theaters were polygonal or circular (the Globe), others were square
  • Size estimates range from 72 to 100 feet, but they held audiences of two or three thousand
  • The Globe had a square stage that protruded from a house that held "tiring rooms," or dressing rooms and wardrobe storage.
  • The yards of outdoor theaters were uncovered, but the stage was covered by a ceiling called "the heavens"


Set: Shakespeare's stage is usually referred to as a "bare stage," because it did not have elaborate sets as in other time periods, but props such as rocks, thrones, banquet tables, beds, and tombs were often used.

Scene Changes: Changes were signaled by props or dialogue, as there were no curtains and no stage-hands to move sets. Either actors would walk on and off of the stage, or certain props would dictate the setting, such as napkins would be used out of the street, but inside in a dining hall.

Entrances and Exits: There was a trapdoor at the bottom of the stage, for actors to emerge from, commonly as a ghost from the afterlife, hangings across the back of the stage that could be drawn back to "discover" actors hidden behind them, and ropes that could be used when actors needed to descend from or ascend to the heavens.


Female characters were played by males, often young boys, as there were no women in the acting companies.

Children actors were the main source of competition for adult acting companies like Shakespeare's. They came from one of two prestigious youth companies: the Children of Paul's and the Children of the Chapel Royal. Both, however, had dissolved by 1608.

Acting Companies and Theaters of Shakespeare's Time

Owners of theaters sometimes leased the theaters to companies of actors. These owners would then act as managers for these companies, paying for playwrights and other expenditures using money the actors would pay them.

Shakespeare's company managed itself with principle actors also acting as "sharers", sharing in the money made, and the responsibility of paying the expenses.

Patrons were needed support acting companies. Without them, actors were classified as "common players", who were legally viewed as vagabonds, or beggars.

Shakespeare's Role in Theater

"As actor, as sharer in an acting company, and in ownership of theaters, and as a playwright, Shakespeare was about as involved in the theatrical industry as one could imagine" (Mowat xli).