Theatre in the age of Shakespeare Essay
Theatre in the age of Shakespeare
Theatre was a very different business in the 16th and 17th century. London, the home of The Globe theatre was possibly the central hub of theatre in England at the time. The Lord Mayors hated plays because they took apprentices and workmen away from their jobs. Plays had to be performed in the daytime in the open-air theatres since there was no electrical lighting, or technical effects of any nature. Because of this they were labelled as “ungodly” and profane.
Infact, the mayors of London tried to have plays banned! luckily for us, they were protected by the privy council on the grounds that the Queen enjoyed the entertainment at Christmas. The Lord chamberlain set up 2 new companies in 1594, one of which Shakespeare joined as an actor. In time this company became the richest of companies and ran continuously for forty eight years. A theatre would be host to three or more companies each afternoon as long as epidemics of the bubonic plague did not cause a ban on public assemblies in London,. The outbreak of civil war in 1642 caused all theatres to be closed.
Alternatives to going to the theatre were few and far between, but animal baiting was of popular interest. Bulls and bears were baited in “gladiator” style arenas (not dissimilar to theatres), and crowds would pay to see this. Not surprisingly when the theatre did become a viable alternative, thousands of people paid their way in to see plays every day.
Despite this, the landlord of shakespeare’s theatre company refused to renew the lease on the open air theatre in which he had enjoyed much success. Instead of choosing to build a new one, James Burbage (the company director) fitted out a small theatre in a hall in Blackfriars just below St Pauls. This had the significant effect of moving actors indoors, which still remains the same today. Unfortunately, the residents of that area refused to welcome a new theatre complaining of the noise and crowds, therefore after 2 years of fruitless searching for a suitable location, it was decided that a plot of land would be leased across the river in Southwark, which was not even fifty yards from their arch rivals “The Rose”. A master carpenter was hired and ordered to transport and rescue what he could of the old theatre in order to build the first ever “Globe”. Sketches and prints of the interior and exterior of the Globe survive today.
For fourteen years, Shakespeare’s company prospered in “the house with the thatched roof” until disaster struck in 1613. While performing Henry VII, a piece of wadding from a stage cannon lodged in the rood, smouldering until the thatch burst into flamed and eventually burning The Globe to the ground. As many as three thousand audience members vacated the building safely from two exits.
The second globe was much more lavish than the first and had a tiled roof which was more difficult to burn! Due to money problems, a deal was forged with other players, Shakespeare being one of four syndicates. They were sold shares in the building which ensured its economic safety in the future. It was here that Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays. The popularity and educational aspect of Shakespeare’s plays leads to their frequent performance in schools and colleges all over the world.
The physical shape of the playhouse dictates what could be performed there. The Elizabethan play tended to be simple, plain and direct. An Elizabethan actor is not acting to himself or to another actor as in modern drama, but he acts to the audience to secure their maximum participation in the shaping of the play.
An Elizabethan playhouse had the following typical elements:-
1. The shape was round or polygonal. This shape allowed the mediaeval spirit of Theatre in the round” to be sustained. It also implied a shared democratic feeling within the audience
2. The outside diameter was generally quite small, suggesting an intimacy between actors and audience.
3. There was usually three galleries on different levels built around the arena for those prepared to pay more than those standing in “The pit”. Areas were selected near the stage and sometimes gentlemen even paid to sit on the stage. This kind of allowance meant that a playhouse had a capacity of between 3000 and 5000
4. The acting platform or stage was about five feet high and approx 43 feet wide. Usually a “Thrust” stage in shape – i.e. open to the audience on three sides.
The theatres audience were diverse in cultural backgrounds. The theatre was for the rich who would enjoy the rich colourful experience daily and would make up the bulk of the typical 5000 strong audience. They had the money to buy fruit which was either eaten if the play was good or thrown if it were bad. The cheapest standing place at the Globe cost one-fifth a labourers’ daily wage so for the poorer classes the theatre was a rare treat. However, less privileged audience members. Apprentices, shopkeepers, labourers and students were free between 2 and 5 o’clock.
One must remember that at entertainment came from few sources, and with no modern technology, people had to create their own entertainment. Acting and the theatre did this well but also made the audiences think. The existence of these plays, to carry the audience through space and time suggests that Shakespeare needed and expected neither intervals, nor any music beyond a few bars when a character entered. It is unlikely that he received any more than he needed or wanted. When a change of scene or time mattered had to be conveyed to the audience, the actors simply told them in their first few lines. Not every Elizabethan play achieved the seamless unity of Shakespeare’s work, nor did Shakespeare, but essentially one must keep perspective that this is the birth of modern theatre in England, as we know it. Despite Shakespeare’s death, the age of Shakespeare lives on today.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 11 July 2017
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