When Shakespeare arrived in 16th Century London he found a great centre for entertainment.

As well as theatre for all classes, there was sports such as bull and bear-baiting, gambling, dancing and fairs.

Detail from Visscher's View of London, 1616.
© Image from Library of Congress (out of copyright work). – Image Licensing

The city culture would have been alive with painters, actors and writers. The theatre was becoming an institution popular with all social classes. 

Theatre audiences

Playgoing was part of the city's daily life and all levels of society shared the experiences of the theatre.

Aristocrats were familiar with the dramas of the day from acting parts at school, seeing plays at Court and, later, becoming patrons of the stage. Apprentices and merchants also enjoyed the theatre and often took an afternoon off work to go and see a play.

New playhouses and companies of actors

Consequently, when Shakespeare began working in London around 1588 the market was good for new companies and, between 1567 and 1622, nine new outdoor playhouses were built.

Boy companies competed against the adult companies and were actually able to earn more money than their more experienced rivals were. They evolved from a tradition of grammar school performance and choirboy practice and were particularly popular at Court. The three main boy companies were The Children of St. Paul's, The Chapel Children, and The Children of the King's Revels, and they made their biggest impact during the reign of James I.

Shakespeare was part of The Lord Chamberlain's Men. Later called the King's Men, they first worked in The Theatre and then in the Globe. Performing to a potential audience of 3,000 people, they required an interesting and varied stock of repertoire.

Each day the company presented a different play, rehearsing it in the morning before performing it in the afternoon. The quick change in repertoire meant that theatre was produced in a very different way to today.

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