Theatre in Shakespeare’s Time

A Brief History of Shakespeare's Theatre

By Kalina Ko, Literary Intern

The iconic donkey-headed Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis part of a group of amateur actors, commonly referred to as “the mechanicals.” In Shakespeare’s time, it was fairly uncommon for a group of non-professional actors to come together to put on a classical production, as in Pyramus and Thisbe. Yet, the play-within-a-play does offer clues as to what theatre might have looked like then.

The Audience:

Fascinatingly, Elizabethan theatre catered to a very wide variety of audiences. Anyone from the illiterate lower class to the Queen herself saw Shakespeare’s plays. Typically the lower classes viewed the plays at public theatre houses while the royalty would watch private performances in the comfort of their own halls.

In a public theatre (such as Shakespeare’s Globe), the cheapest seats were actually closest to the stage! The “groundlings” stood on the floor in front of the stage. They would often bring food and eat and socialize right in front of the actors. For a little more money, an audience member could get a seat or even a cushion on that seat. The most expensive seats were higher up away from the groundlings.

The Play:

Because of the large volume of audience members at each play, the length of the run for each show was fairly short. Thus, playwrights produced shows prolifically. They were less interested in creating original material and instead often rewrote old storylines. For example, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is actually based on an ancient Roman play by Platus. Blood and gore was also often included as it was a good mechanism to retain audience attention.

The Actors:

In Shakespeare’s England, only boys and men were allowed to be actors. Any “woman” roles were played by young boys whose voices had not yet dropped from puberty. Typically a young boy would join a company as an apprentice and thus begin training as an actor. The size of the company depended on how wealthy it was. Wealthy companies typically had between 8-12 senior members who each held a share of the company, 3-4 boys or apprentices, and then some stage hands, musicians, and perhaps a few hired actors.

FUN FACT: In Shakespeare’s time, audience members paid for the show by putting money in a box. That location became known as the “box office.”

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