At the playhouse: watching Shakespeare's plays in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare’s writing career coincided with 
a renaissance in English drama – a period when 
a performance at one of London’s new playhouses was the hottest of tickets. Andrew Dickson recreates the experience of watching one of Shakespeare’s plays at the turn of the 17th century.

This article appears in BBC History Magazine's 'The World of Shakespeare' bookazine, on sale from 23 April 2016

A 19th-century illustration recreates an Elizabethan theatre. (Alamy)
A 19th-century illustration recreates an Elizabethan theatre. (Alamy)
In September 1599 Thomas Platter, 
a doctor from Basel in Switzerland, was in London on a sightseeing tour. Like countless visitors before and since, he was determined to see this world-famous capital city in all its splendour. He visited a cock-fighting venue, and witnessed a “fierce and angry fight between the cocks”, listening politely as the owner explained how it was normal to feed the birds brandy. 
 
He then visited the house of a collector who had spent time in the Indies, one Mr Cope, who “led us into an apartment stuffed with queer foreign objects in every corner”, including “an African charm made of teeth”. (Platter diligently listed every item he saw.) Later, he went to a number of taverns and recorded with astonishment how in London women not only drank in public but “count[ed] it a great honour to be taken there”. 
 
But Platter had one real passion: plays. After lunch on 21 September, his diary records, he and his friends stepped into a waterboat and crossed to the southern bank of the Thames, where “in the house with the thatched roof, [we] witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first emperor Julius Caesar”. The cast comprised 15 people, Platter wrote, and “when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully”.
 
The theatre with the thatched roof was not just any theatre: its name was the Globe, and it had only recently opened for business. Nor was the play about Julius Caesar just any play. Its author was William Shakespeare.
 

A 1948 illustration shows a performance of Richard III at the Globe. (Bridgeman)

 

Renaissance men

At the time Thomas Platter visited the Elizabethan equivalent of Theatreland, the genre we would recognise as Renaissance drama had been around for an astoundingly short time – perhaps 20 years, a shorter period than we have now had access to the World Wide Web. Despite its medieval origins, secular playwriting was an essentially modern form, honed in the 1570s and 1580s by overeducated and ambitious young writers such as John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Christopher Marlowe, university graduates all, who ended up in London writing for the popular stage. It was a bustling, chaotic and ferociously rivalrous environment, with theatre managers competing for the brightest talent, and a public hungry for everything from Italianate comedies to blood-soaked tragedies. 
 
Though the question of how Shakespeare came to London is one of the biggest mysteries of his career – it’s possible he joined a touring troupe as an actor, then graduated to freelance work editing and freshening old scripts – by the late 1580s he, too, seems to have been in the shark tank of the public theatre, fighting to keep his head above water.
The business he joined was not by any means straightforward. Censorship by the Master of the Revels was strict and enforceable by law; the conservative city fathers took 
a consistently dim view of plays, backed by any number of puritanical, theatre-detesting preachers. And the shadow of bubonic plague, which swept through London with grim regularity, was omnipresent. Public gatherings were believed to promote infection, and every time plague deaths surged, the authorities scrambled to clamp down on the theatres.
 
Despite these unforgiving conditions, theatre not only survived but thrived, becoming a hugely popular pastime in London during the 1590s. A businessman named John Brayne is credited with erecting 
the city’s first purpose-built playhouse in 1567, the Red Lion in Whitechapel, but it’s not known how long this survived. 
 
Brayne’s business partner, James Burbage – a joiner by trade – would later build a much more enduring structure, the Theatre, which opened in Shoreditch in 1576, joined a year later by the Curtain. When the 
entrepreneurial Philip Henslowe opened the Rose playhouse across the river in 
Southwark a decade later, these ‘liberties’ outside city jurisdiction competed with each other for the title of London’s premier entertainment quarter, tempting punters 
with a simmering stew of brothels, inns, 
fish ponds, flophouses and bear-baiting gardens – and, of course, drama.

 

Dramatic duel

After the plague outbreak of 1592–93, when the closure of London’s theatres was ordered, the north-south competition hardened into 
a contest between two leading troupes. Edward Alleyn’s company, the Admiral’s Men, was based at the Rose, while the usual base of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, founded in 1594 and led by James Burbage’s actor son Richard, was the Theatre in Shoreditch. The two companies played at a furious pace: during one season the Admiral’s Men acted for 49 straight weeks, six days a week, staging nearly 40 plays – equivalent to Shakespeare’s lifetime output – of which around half were new. In 1593, Alleyn’s company suffered a mortal blow when the playwright with which they were most closely associated, Christopher Marlowe, was stabbed to death in Deptford. For a time it looked as if the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who had latterly been working with Marlowe’s exact contemporary, Shakespeare, had 
the upper hand.
 
But when the latter company’s landlord started to make noises about not renewing their lease in 1597, it looked as if it might be the end for Shakespeare’s troupe. The dispute rumbled on for nearly two years, until – in a coup de théâtre that rivalled anything the company had put on stage – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided to up sticks and leave. In late December 1598, a dozen or so armed men gathered in the snow and watched as a team of builders began to dismantle the Theatre. Salvaging as many of the timbers as they could, they carried them across the Thames to Bankside, where the Burbages had quietly found a site around the corner from the Rose. This new theatre – in fact not new at all, and constructed on the cheap – they christened the Globe. Nine months later, Thomas Platter would take his seat for Julius Caesar.
 

David Scott's 1840 painting imagines Queen Elizabeth watching a play at the Globe. In fact, the queen didn't attend public theatres but enjoyed private performances of Shakespeare's plays. (V&A)
 

The theatre experience

What would the drama-loving Platter have experienced when he walked into the theatre on that September afternoon? 
 
The theatre’s doughnut-like shape will be familiar to anyone who has stood inside a replica such as the reconstructed Globe in London: a circular yard open to the sky and surrounded on all sides by tiers of seats, with a broad-thrust stage jutting out into the centre. Though essentially based on the innyards where English drama was first performed, by the time of Shakespeare the Elizabethan amphitheatres had evolved into machines designed to awe and inspire spectators. 
 
The stage itself will have been backed by 
a flat frons scenae (stage wall), most likely with three doors – two smaller ones to the left and right for exits and entrances, and a larger door in the centre opening onto a ‘discovery space’ into which a bed or other large prop could be placed. Behind this lay the ‘tiring house’ (from ‘attiring’), a warren of rooms in which actors could change and where costumes were probably stored. 
 
Above the stage was a canopy, colloquially known as the ‘heavens’, richly painted and supported by two huge pillars. This originally protected the cast and their expensive costumes from the rain, but also allowed actors to be ‘flown in’ by being winched down on a chair. Players could also appear in the ‘aloft’ space directly above the central doors – the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s most famous use of this resource – or descend into the ‘hell’ beneath the stage.
 
Audiences paid at the box office, named for the pottery boxes in which the takings were kept, fragments of which have been recovered by archaeologists. For a penny you could be 
a ‘groundling’ and hustle on foot in the yard; tickets for so-called Lord’s Rooms upstairs were considerably more expensive. As many 
as 3,000 people crammed in for shows at the outdoor amphitheatres, coming from all social classes, with apprentices and servants rubbing shoulders – at least on the way in – with middle-class citizens and gentry. 
 
Spectators are likely to have been predominantly male, particularly among the groundlings, though prostitutes seem to have been numerous, as were cutpurses. Food and drink were on offer – apples and oranges, hazelnuts and gingerbread – as were copious quantities of ale. It’s perhaps unsurprising that so many of Shakespeare’s plays depict riots; the audience itself, boisterous and restive, was an inescapable part of the Elizabethan dramatic spectacle.

 

Full of sound and fury

Jacobethans talked of going to ‘hear’ 
rather than see a play: the theatre was 
a noisy environment onstage as well as off. Cannonballs were rolled around a drum to create thunder effects; guns or firecrackers announced a battle. Bursts of music – blaring trumpets to herald an entrance, or soft string music for a mystical transformation – helped punctuate the action. If the description in Romeo and Juliet of the “two hours’ traffic 
of our stage” is remotely accurate, the pace will have been fluid and almost unbelievably 
fast by modern standards, with one group of characters entering from one side of the stage even as another departed.
 
Jacobethan drama was pre-eminently 
a theatre of the imagination. Scenery was essentially non-existent, and props such as candles, letters and books were minimal and generic. One moment the action could be in ancient Rome, or contemporary France; the next, it could be Britain – the only thing required was for someone to say so. Between the end of Act 3 and the beginning of Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale, the action rockets forward no fewer than 16 years (an actor playing Time helpfully comes on stage to inform us).
 
Though stage directions in Shakespeare are famously minimal, clues as to how things might have been done are scattered liberally through the texts. In Macbeth, Banquo comments that “their candles are all out,” indicating a late-evening setting, after which Macbeth enters, accompanied by a servant carrying a torch (probably made of rush). At the beginning of Hamlet, the sentries exclaim “’tis bitter cold” and make sure to point out the time (“’tis now struck twelve”) to remind the audience – perhaps on a bright summer afternoon – that in the world of the play it is the dead of night, deep in a Danish winter.
 
The sheer pace of repertory meant that actors will have had to scramble to memorise new material and remember old scripts, 
probably with scant rehearsal time. Then there was the nature of the roles they played: women were not permitted to appear on the public stage, so companies were all male, with teenage apprentices playing young women and men performing those of older female characters. We have little way of knowing how convincing this cross-dressing was but, given the demands of parts such as Cleopatra, or Viola in Twelfth Night, young players must have been talented enough to make audiences sigh and swoon. The skill set of even a regular company player – sword fighting 
or singing one minute, then the “marvellous and graceful” dancing 
so admired by Thomas Platter to close the show – must likewise 
have been impressive.
 
Crucially, a playwright such as Shakespeare, working in close collaboration with colleagues, would have tailored his writing to fit. Some of his roles were custom-made for the skinny, plain-
spoken actor John Sinklo, while the great dancer and physical comedian William Kempe seems to have played Falstaff and the hapless constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare’s most intimate collaborator was his great lead actor Richard Burbage, who created the roles of Hamlet and Lear as well as what one tribute calls the “grievèd Moor”, Othello. 
 
Even so, doubling was taken for granted, particularly in minor roles: Romeo and Juliet contains around 40 parts, written for a cast of 16 at most. We can only guess at what things must have looked like backstage in 1595, when the company was trying to get its collective head around this new play. Still less can it be imagined what things smelled like. Given that Elizabethan actors might well have used real animal blood for special effects – the early tragedy Titus Andronicus is infamously gory, with one character having her tongue cut out and her hands cut off – the stink in the summer months must have been unholy. 
 
 

A 1696 drawing of the Swan theatre by Johannes de Witt. (Getty)
 

Finding the right site

One little-known irony about Shakespeare’s most renowned theatre, the Globe – apart from the ignominious story of its 
construction – is that the company didn’t especially want to be there. Long before falling out with their landlord, the Chamberlain’s Men had been angling to get hold of a space in the upmarket district of Blackfriars, just north of the Thames. The plan was to turn it into an indoor playhouse – more comfortable in the winter, and aimed at a more exclusive clientele (and with correspondingly higher ticket prices). In the event, the plan backfired when wealthy residents of Blackfriars protested the “great inconveniences” of having a troupe of common players in their midst. The Burbages were forced to rent out the space to a troupe of child actors.
 
When the boys’ company ran into trouble in 1608 – one of their plays made the mistake of offending the French ambassador – the Burbages saw their opportunity. By now safely working under the patronage of James VI and I, and with regular performances at Whitehall, they successfully manoeuvred to take over the Blackfriars, retaining their Bankside space for summer seasons.
 
Though his plays continued to be performed at the Globe – as well as at court and on tour – the effect on Shakespeare’s writing was immediate. Spine-tinglingly intimate, the Blackfriars offered theatrical resources that he could previously only have dreamed of: banks of candelabras, allowing adjustable lighting; 
a resident company of singers and musicians; the possibility of magical special effects. 
 
The Tempest (c1611), for example, opens 
in a violent storm (the stage directions read “Enter Mariners wet”) and overflows with instrumental and sung music. Cymbeline, written around the same time, requires the god Jupiter to “descend in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle”, then somehow throw a thunderbolt. Candles illuminating the dark space might well have been magical enough: one of Shakespeare’s most challenging theatrical coups, the moment at which a statue comes to life 
at the end of The Winter’s Tale (“’Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more…”), may have been absolutely convincing in the flickering, glimmering light.
 

Singed ambitions

Eventually, Shakespeare and his companions had cause to rue the hurried and money-
saving way in which they’d built the Globe. On 29 June 1613, a piece of burning material from a prop cannon fired during Act 1 of his late co-written play All is True (better known today as Henry VIII) landed on the thatched roof; within minutes, fanned by a strong wind, the whole structure was ablaze. According to an eyewitness, “[the flames] kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds”. 
 
No one died; one man was saved when someone thought to throw ale on his breeches. But for Shakespeare it seems to have been the end. While the King’s Men rushed to rebuild, spending the lavish sum of £1,500 on commissioning a new Globe (this time with a fireproof tiled roof), the playwright sold his shares in the company and seems to have begun to spend more time in Stratford, retaining a modest pied-à-terre next to the Blackfriars. One of his final plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen, also co-written, may already have been complete; within the year, his career as a professional playwright was decisively over. 
 
Two years after that, in April 1616, Shakespeare would be dead. He left the theatre world that had brought him so much – and which he transformed beyond all recognition – as quietly and mysteriously 
as he entered it.  
 

Notable playhouses

 
The Curtain (1577–1625)
The pioneering playhouse that spanned two monarchs’ reigns
 
Perhaps the third purpose-built playhouse raised in London, the Curtain was erected in 1577 just steps away from the Burbage-run Theatre, and helped to make insalubrious, overcrowded Shoreditch the haunt of London’s early theatregoers. Smaller than the Globe, the Curtain nonetheless staged the world-spanning dramas of Marlowe as well as Thomas Kyd’s bloodthirsty The Spanish Tragedy, and later may have hosted performances of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, while the Burbage family was waiting for the Globe to be finished. Unlike nearly every other Elizabethan playhouse, the Curtain 
was still apparently going strong as 
late as 1625, into the era of Charles I.
 
The Swan (1595–1628)
Revealing the anatomy of an Elizabethan London playhouse
 
Opened in 1595 by businessman Francis Langley, the Swan was built to compete with Philip Henslowe’s Rose, the regular home of the Admiral’s Men, a few streets away in Southwark. While other theatres appear in topographical sketches of London, the Swan is unique in that we 
have an image of its interior – 
a sketch by the Dutch scholar Johannes de Witt, made 
a year after its opening, 
a copy of which survives today. Depicting a broad stage covered by a canopy and surrounded by a wide ‘arena’ where the groundlings stood, and tiered galleries for seating, it indicates the key features of an Elizabethan playhouse. As such, it is incalculably precious.
 
The Blackfriars (1596–1642)
An intimate indoor venue for more discerning theatre-lovers
 
Mention Shakespeare, and most of us think immediately of the Globe and other similar outdoor playhouses. But the playwright and his company were well used to performing under cover – inside the old Banqueting House at Whitehall, at legal inns, and in any number of different venues on tour. As early as 
1596 the Burbage family was anxious to secure a ‘private’ indoor venue in the wealthy Blackfriars neighbourhood, more exclusive and comfortably appointed than the public theatres (not to mention more flexible dramatically), 
but were blocked by irate residents. 
The company finally moved into the Blackfriars in 1608, and it became Shakespeare’s regular winter space – the intimate candlelit theatre for which most of his late plays were written.
 
 
Andrew Dickson is a writer, broadcaster and critic, honorary fellow in the English department of Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Bodley Head, 2015).
 
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