Performing Shakespeare in the 17th century

London set design for History plays - ink and watercolour by William Capon., 1808 © RSC Collection

Performances in Elizabethan theatres were so entertaining because the actors and the audience always interacted. Shakespeare's company had to compete against the noise of the crowd who shouted, hurled oranges and tried to join in with their performance on the stage.

The writers of the Elizabethan era worked in a very different way than playwrights today. Instead of producing a play independently, they were first required to present a company with their idea for a plot. The leading actors and managers would then decide whether they liked it or not, and offer a down payment for its completion.

This close relationship between the writer and the performers meant that writers created their characters with certain actors in mind. For example, knowing that Richard Burbage was the Chamberlain's leading man, and that he had a good memory for long scripts, Shakespeare created the parts of Richard III and Hamlet for him. And as the actor grew older, Shakespeare made his characters more mature. There was a large gap between the young Desdemona and the ageing Othello.

When Shakespeare finished a play it was not distributed to the actors in books. Instead, each player received his own 'role', which was a long sheet of parchment with his lines written on. This meant that he would not see who else was going to be on the stage until they actually rehearsed the scene. This would seem very strange today - reading a play for the first time, actors were unable to flick through the pages to see who entered when, and what happened next.

Rehearsals were used to sort out the details not specified in the script. Entrances, exits, costumes, and songs were all expected to be filled in by the actors. There was an area behind the stage called the tiring house which was used for changing costume during the play. The actors prided themselves on the accessories they wore, and the company even bought clothes from Lords and Knights, to wear on the stage. In 1599 a Swiss visitor called Thomas Platter saw the Lord Chamberlain's production of Julius Caesar and reported that 'the actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed'.

The Globe
This production of Julius Caesar, performed on 21 September 1599 may have been the first production shown at the Globe (which had been constructed earlier that year). Constructed out of timber from their previous playhouse 'The Theatre', it could house up to 3000 spectators and was the most magnificent venue London had ever seen.

The stage was covered in straw and measured approximately 43ft in width by 27ft in depth, with the audience standing on all three sides. The wall at the back of the stage had a door on both sides for entrances and exits, and a central opening that was normally covered with hangings. Above the stage there was a trapdoor and a windlass for lowering performers down to the stage and, on the stage itself, there was a trapdoor for surprise appearances!

A reconstruction of the Globe stands on London's South Bank. For more information, visit the Shakespeare's Globe website.

(Image above shows an ink and watercolour painting by William Capon of a generic London set design for History plays, 1808 © RSC Collection)

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