Shakespeare's Theater

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Shakespeare: A Theatrical Revolutionary

William Shakespeare was responsible for evolution of a lot in the realm of theater. One place where the ideas of his time still remain (somewhat) is the theater.

The Evolution Of...

The Theater (Building)

London only saw the building of theaters shortly before Shakespeare finished his first plays in the 1590s. Built in 1576 by James Burbage and known simply as The Theatre, it is generally thought to be London's first outdoor public playhouse. Then followed other public playhouses: the Curtain and the Fortune, which were more famous than the others and built north of London, the Rose, the Swan, the Globe, and the Hope, all located on the Bankside, south of London. All these playhouses were built outside of the jurisdiction of London because civil authorities were hostile towards drama performances and repeatedly petitioned to abolish it.


The Theatre was later dismantled over Christmas holiday in 1599 and moved across the frozen Thames river to be used beginning pieces of the Globe on the Bankside.

The Globe

After the first Globe burned down in 1613 during the staging of Henry VIII, it was rebuilt on the same land. The second Globe appeared to have been a grander structure than its predecessor and it remained in use until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642 when Parliament closed it down.

Shape and Venues

The theaters were either outdoor, public playhouses that accommodated large numbers of playgoers or indoor, private theaters for small audiences.

The outdoor playhouses were polygonal or roughly circular (with some exceptions) and because they were open-air, the audiences endured all types of weather.

Ceiling and the Floor

While the audience only had the sky as the roof, the stage itself was covered by a ceiling called "heavens," which were elaborately painted to depict the sun, moon, stars, and planets. The floor of the audience were sometimes made of mortar and sometimes of ash mixed with the hazelnut shells.

The Stage

Before Shakespeare’s time, stages consisted of ornate sets to depict the scenery of the play. Shakespeare, however, wrote plays for what was called a “bare stage.” Though it did not have an elaborate set, this type of performance did make use of various props. There was also no curtain to indicate scene changes so Shakespeare had to write in a way that would notify his audience when a scene had begun and ended. Often, all of the actors from one scene would simply exit the stage and the new actors would enter and begin the next scene. Often, scenes would take place off the stage. Sometimes characters would stand beneath the stage as if they were in the underworld. Other times, actors would be suspended above the stage, like Juliet’s balcony scene. The stage was covered by a roof, even in open-air theaters, and the dimensions varied from theater to theater. For example, the Fortune was a 43 feet by 37 feet rectangle, but the rose was tapered so that it was 37.5 feet at its widest point and 15.5 feet deep.

The Actor

Shakespeare maintained what playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristotle had developed over time: a stage complete with multiple actors. Shakespeare, however, did not have a "Chorus" for his works. As in the performances of the Greek works, Shakespeare had only male actors. Men and boys played both male as well as female roles. Acting was now being considered a profession and thus women were barred from participating. Women would not have a consistent presence on-stage until the Glorious Revolution of the 1660s, when the theaters were reopened after the 20 year ban on theater and Charles II was restored to the throne.

Vocabulary: "Common players" are actors who have no patrons or masters.

The Audience

While civilians may have been able immerse themselves in the intense, Shakespearean story being acted out on-stage, they could not escape distinctions between class (and consequently wealth and intelligence level), even in the theater. The wealthier and "more intelligent" civilians sat in the balcony and higher levels of seating. The poorer and "less intelligent" citizens gathered in the standing room in front of the stage, subsequently earning themselves the name of "groundlings."

Works Cited

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