What was the atmosphere inside an Elizabethan theatre?

            A London theatre was not as disciplined as a theatre of the modern times. The groundlings, those poor people who paid one penny to watch the play, made up the majority of the audience. These groundlings were composed of tanners, butchers, iron-workers, millers, seamen from the ships docked in the Thames, glovers, servants, shopkeepers, wigmakers, bakers, and countless other tradesmen and their families. They would keep standing throughout the play. If anyone wanted to sit, they had to pay an extra penny. If a person wanted to sit comfortably on a cushion, then he would have to pay an additional penny again.

            One penny in Elizabethan times, it should be remembered, was the wage of an entire day! There were other galleries where one, if you paid more money, could sit more comfortably, and save himself from the jostling of the crowd below.

            The atmosphere inside the theatre would be deafening. The groundings were more boisterous and uproarious than any modern day audience.

            After all, their purpose of watching, the play was to relieve the tension and tedium of the entire day. They would shout, jostle about, be angry at each other, and get into brawls and even pickpocket the one in front. Loud and hot-tempered, they would, in all probability, refuse to calm down when the play started. It was often in the midst of such an undisciplined crowd that Shakespeare performed his plays.

Picture Credit : Google


Who performed the lead roles in Shakespeare’s plays?

            Like the superstars in movies today, there were heroes who had cut out larger than life images in Shakespeare’s time. Richard Burbage, an English stage performer, was the most famous actor during the late I 6th century. Burbage was not only an actor, but also a theatre owner, entrepreneur, and painter.

            By the age of twenty, Richard Burbage achieved success as a performer. He played the major Shakespearean characters, including Othello, Hamlet, Lear, and Richard Ill. Richard Ill was the most popular of his roles with the Elizabethan public. The performance of the character of Richard III gave Burbage a superstar image. He had also performed in the plays of leading playwrights of the time such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Webster.

            The only image of Richard Burbage available to us today is often considered a self-portrait. He is also credited with painting a portrait of Shakespeare. When Burbage died, it was a huge event. People believed that Burbage was the true sound of Shakespeare’s lines. Writers of the Elizabethan period wrote eulogies about him. All of London fell into a great gloom at the great actor’s departure. There was so much grief that, it is said, the official mourning for Queen Anne was overshadowed by Burbage’s death.

Picture Credit : Google


What happened to the Globe Theatre?

            During Shakespeare’s time, the Globe was the leading theatre in all of England. The name ‘Globe’ derives not only from its circular shape, but also because the owners had a cosmic vision of the world. The motto of the theatre was ‘because all the world is a playground’. The theatre was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613.

            Shakespeare’s historical play, Henry VIII, was being staged then. Theatrical cannons, which were set up as a surprise for the audience, exploded during the play. While the cannon ball was meant to harmlessly fly over the stage, nobody gave much attention to the smoke and fire it had ignited at the top of the theatre. The cannons misfired and set the entire theatre on fire. The wooden beams and thatch of the theatre caught fire immediately. Suddenly, people started running out of the building, leaving behind their cloaks. One or two people sustained minor injuries. Although no one was reported to have lost life, the conflagration marked the end of the leading theatre of England. The fire was so fierce that it consumed a house next to the theatre too.

            However, the theatre was rebuilt the very next year. It went on to perform for some more decades until it was closed down, along with many others, in 1642 by the Puritans. Puritans were the English Protestants who were rigorous practitioners of their faith and believed all kinds of celebrations and revelries were immoral. In 1644 or 1655, the theatre was pulled down and dismantled.

            Centuries later, the theatre was reconstructed in 1997. Today, it is known as Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre performs plays regularly even today.

Picture Credit : Google


How did the Globe Theatre look like?

            Since there are hardly any documents from the 16th century suggesting the dimension of the theatre, it is difficult to say conclusively what exactly the theatre looked like. However, over the last couple of centuries, there has been extensive research on the shape and size of the theatre and we know something about it today. The Globe was an open-air amphitheatre around 30 metres in diameter in a polygon shape with twenty sides. Around 3,000 spectators could be accommodated in the theatre.

            The theatre had three storeys. Much like our modern movie theatres, the ticket charges differed according to where one preferred to sit. The commoners who could not afford to pay more than a penny had to stand on the ground at the base of the stage. This area was known as the ‘pit’. The people who paid a penny to watch the play were known as ‘groundlings’. Groundling, in fact, is the name of a kind of a small fish with a gaping mouth. All that the actor at the centre of the stage looking down to the ‘pit’ could see was the ocean of faces of men that looked like a swarm of open-mouthed groundlings!

            The theatre had a backstage area or tiring-house, which contained the dressing rooms, the prop room, the musician’s gallery and connecting passage-ways. There were an inner stage, a central balcony stage and a central music gallery within it. The shape and structure of the theatre determined some of the important features of Shakespeare’s plays too.

Picture Credit : Google


Where Shakespeare’s were plays staged?

           The Lord Chamberlain’s Company was the leading drama company in London during the final years of the 16th century. The company was founded during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1594. As was the custom then, any enterprise of great magnitude such as a theatre needed a powerful patron and this company’s patron was Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain of Royal Court. Lord Chamberlain is the most senior member of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom. Henry Carey was in charge of the court entertainment then. The company changed its name a couple of times; first to the Lord Hunsdon’s Men when Henry Carey succeeded him and then to the king’s Men, when the king James ascended the throne and became the company’ patron.

            In 1599, the company built a theatre called the Globe Theatre. They had already another theatre in place, called ‘the Theatre’. However, due to certain disagreements between the players and the owner of the land on which the theatre stood, the group built the Globe Theatre, on the bank of the Thames River. The Globe Theatre, in fact, was built with the wooden planks of old theatre. It was bigger and better than the one it replaced.

            There is a general disagreement over the inaugural play in the Globe Theatre. Some say it was Shakespeare’s Henry V; some others, Julius Caesar or Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour. The theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1613 and was rebuilt in the next year.

Picture Credit : Google