English 431B: Advanced Shakespeare

A survey of the works from the second half of William Shakespeare's career

The Elizabethan-Jacobean Theater

The Shakespearean Theater

Middle Ages: During the late Middle Ages dramatic performances were typically held at religious feasts.

Guilds: Were a group of actors were common working-class men, also known today as unions.

Mystery Plays: Served as a precursor to the works that would emerge in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. They were based on biblical stories. Walk of life/trade = mystery.

From the 1400’s to the 1500’s new plays began to be written and performed.

Morality Plays: These were not based on dramatized biblical sermons. Characters rather personified morals (or lack there of) often in an exaggerated context. There were Greek/Roman/Biblical and English historical influences. Examples include life, death mankind, temptation and deceit to tell a story/parable/warning. Everyman, a renowned Morality Play, was written around 1500. These plays were no longer performed by the ordinary working-class, but rather a set of professional, traveling actors.

Moral Interludes: Combination of serious and comedic. Shakespeare benefited from themes, conventions, character types of those before him.

“If Shakespeare stands tall it’s because he’s standing on the shoulders of those before him,” said Frederick Kiefer, English professor at the University of Arizona.

Troupe: Four adult male actors and at least one boy to play female roles

Senior Actor: This/these actor(s) possessed such a talent that Shakespeare wrote roles in his plays based on their talents.

Apprentice Actors: Young boys who started out playing the female roles could graduate as they matured to play male roles and perhaps eventually become a Senior Actor in the company.

Moral Interlude: serious or comedy, didactic basis, reached a wider audience

The Vice: A stock character of the Morality Play often represented by a Wooden Dagger

Restoration/ Renaissance Era: After 1660 women were allowed to take the stage. Permanent theaters were built. In the past performances were typically in a market square on a stage raised five (5) feet off the ground to ensure a good Line of Sight for everyone in the audience. There was a curtain so actors could change to play a different role.

Booth Stage: A stage with a curtain

There were no permanent theaters from the time England was a Roman colony.

Red Lion Theater: The first permanent theater was built in 1567. John Brayne was responsible for its construction. It was built out of wood and featured a raised stage. Scaffolding allowed some to sit. It was not a commercial success. The theater was involved in lawsuits in London.

The Theater: In 1576, The Theater was built and went on to become an enormous success. James Burbage and John Brayne were partners in the venture. It was three (3) stories tall, one hundred (100) feet in diameter, thirty-three (33) feet high and a max capacity is about three thousand (3,000), it was an open-air theater with no roof.  Plays were held in the middle of the day to utilize the natural lighting. The theater was multisided, polygonal, twenty (20) side, but it looked round because it was plastered. The lease for the land was for 20 years. It was built on land not owned – but rented, round in appearance (multisided), made of Oak wood beams (strongest material of the time). Buildings that are 500 years old are still standing because their foundations are made of Oak. Giles Alleyn owned the land and started a legal dispute between himself and the partners Burbage and Brayne over payment for the land use. One claim: Brayne wasn’t getting enough money from Burbage. Burbage eventually won after Brayne’s death. Alleyn and Burbage then couldn’t come to a lease agreement and ownership reverted back to Alleyn. Alleyn however, ultimately took back his land and effectively shut down the theater. The theater was outside the city walls and would have been in a disreputable area in hopes that the authorities wouldn’t shut down productions. The renewal for the lease fell through. Burbage, an acclaimed actor in his own right, along with a business partner Cuthbert, tried to negotiate with Alleyn, but to no avail. The theater went dark in 1597. His two sons did not inherit the theater. Richard Burbage and Cuthbert (a savvy business man) were a powerful duo.

The Theater Went Dark: This is the time the theater was closed. The troupe of actors who performed here moved to The Curtain Theater after it was built in 1577.

1548: The Theater was still empty

Burbage’s brothers hired Peter Street to dismantle the theater during the Christmas season (Dec. 25 – Jan. 6), move the pieces via wagon and barge, and reassemble the pieces on the other side of the Thames River (the South Bank).

Censorship: Manuscripts had to be approved before they were performed. The advantage of censorship laws meant that plays were not about the topical subjects of the day, but rather playwrights wrote about things that transcended place and time.

Lord Chamberlain’s Men: Shakespeare’s company of actors (1594). The troupe helped reconstruct the theater, which became The Globe Theater (1599). The Rose Theater was nearby. In 1988 remnants of The Rose Theater was discovered, but an office building was built over it. The Rose was a smaller theater than The Globe. Shortly afterward, The Globe was discovered, but could not be completely excavated because it was on an site that had already been declared a historic site. There was also a major roadway running through the remains. The limited excavation confirmed that it was twenty (20) sided and not rounded. There was also a confirmation of where Orrell drew the picture of the theater. The Globe was about the same size and dimensions. “It was so good it couldn’t be bettered,” Kiefer  said.

In 1613 during a performance of King Henry VIII a cannon was shot off with a blank, but the embers from a cloth wadding drifted up to the roof and set the thatched roof aflame. The fire was put out with a pitcher of beer, according to Kiefer. No one was harmed, but a man’s pants were burned clean off.

Thatched Roofing: Thatched roofing is made from vegetable parts and is highly flammable. Thaching is still popular today. It is aesthetically pleasing and cheap. It is made of reeds, about 10 inches to 1 foot thick. Over time it decays, but is effective at keeping the elements of weather at bay. Thaching was infested with rats, bugs and other animals that would gnaw away at the structure and were also trying to keep warm.

1614: The Globe was reopened. There were no thatched roofing for the rebuilt theater. The maximum capacity was about 3,000 including standing and sitting prior to 1614. Now The Globe can hold about 750 patrons. It remains an open-air theater. Thatching has since been reapplied to the theater. It was the only exception made after the 1600-era fires. There is a fire suppression system that will quickly put out any potential fire.

1614 – 1642: Puritans shut down the theater.

Interregnum: A period when normal government is suspended, esp. between successive reigns or regimes. Theater remained dark during this period.

In 1644 a group of Puritans tore The Globe Theater down. American Sam Wanamaker helped to rebuild the new Globe. He was the organizational genius and driving force behind the restoration. The theater opened again in 1998. It was made with the guidance of academics from Europe and America to be as accurate to the original (facsimile).

The building of permanent theaters did not take off until the 16th century. For playwrights it was a great shift because it meant a ready market for long runs of productions, which did not exist prior. There were as many as six (6) different plays performed each week. Playwrights sold their plays to actors for about 5-6 pounds sterling (which at the time was a good amount). Actors also benefitted from permanent theaters. Actors had to travel before, especially during outbreaks of the plague shut down temporary stages. Actors had to begin honing their craft and started rehearsing daily. The audiences became more sophisticated as they increasingly became literate and were more frequent play-goers, of which they drew their knowledge and critiques from.

About 700 plays from this time period survived. This is only a fraction of those actually performed. About 600-650 copies were made of the surviving plays.

Swan Theater: A large, round, out-door theater builtin in 1595. A man from Holland named, Johannes de Witt drew the theater and Arend van Buchell made a copy of the drawing. It is said to be similar to the dimensions of The Globe at the time and the only surviving pictographic representation of a theater during the time period.

Plane or Arena: theater yard where people who paid one pence (penny) stood to watch the play. A seat cost two pence and was typically more for those who went to the play to be seen as much as they did to see the play.

  • There are about 12 pence in a shilling, 20 shillings in a pound.
  • Almost everyone could afford to be a standee

Groundlings/Standee: Those who stood in the front row in front of the stage. They paid less to see the show because they had to stand. The stage is raised off the ground five (5) feet.

Proscynium: Front of stage

Memorum Edes/Tiring House: Room of the actors, where they would change costumes (attire/tire)

A small roof jutted over the stage to protect the actors from the elements in what is an otherwise open-air theater.

Ingresses: Entrances to seated galleries, there were three (3).

Orchestra: Area for seated customers who paid to be closer to the stage.

Sedilia: Area for seated audience members.

Porticus: Passageway

The theater was plastered on all sides so that it would appear round. A flag went up to signal theatergoers that a play was about to start.

Tectum: Roof (tile as opposed to tatching).

In the floor of the stage there was a trap door for a burial vault, prison cells and spirits of the underworld. There was also a trap door in the ceiling of the super structure that allowed descent of the deities (gods). Stage sets became important in the 18th centuries and beyond. There were no stage sets prior. Descriptive language was used in place of elaborate background designs. There was also continuous action with no pauses, unlike in modern theater productions. The Globe was 27 ½ feet deep and 43 feet wide, 100 feet in diameter.

There were about seven (7) or eight (8) senior actors who made decisions, the rest were hired hands for walk-on roles, ticket takers, floor sweepers and the like. Boys were on the lowest tier. Long Leat houses the only drawing of a Shakespearean performance – Titus Andronicus.

The Burbage brothers owned a fifty (50%) percent stake of the theater. They took in five (5) partners who each had a ten (10%) percent stake. Shakespeare was one of those partners. These partners were the charter members of the King’s Men. Most playwrights died broke because there were no royalties, just a one-time, flat price for the sale of plays.

Shakespeare on the other hand had three sources of income:

1) Chief playwright for the King’s Men writing about two plays per year for 20 years

2) Charter member or “Sharer” of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, owning a ten (10%) percent stake

3) Also a part-owner of The Globe

He was a writer, owner and actor. It was rare, but Shakespeare retired a wealthy man.

Wenzel Hollar drew a picture of The Globe and landscape. John Orrell figured out where Hollar was when he drew a picture in Southwark Cathedral. Shakespeare’s brother Edmund buried there.

1607: Queen Elizabeth died. King James of Scotland was chosen by Elizabeth to be the heir to the throne. He became the first English king of Scottish descent and reigned until 1625.

James I, King of England: Took over Shakespeare’s company and renamed them The King’s Men.

Puritans: Closed the theaters in England in 1642.

Stratford-upon-Avon is an agricultural base, not urban area.

Stages were made out of local materials before there were permanent theaters. Planks of wood were placed on sawhorses five (5) feet off the ground. There was a curtain across the back quarter of stage to change clothes.  Each actor had to play multiple roles.

The first was built by Romans in Londinium (London). Orange, France in Southern part of the county is the site of the best preserved theater of ancient times.

1567 – the first theater


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