William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Theater

At the Globe, the theater Shakespeare’s company built in 1599, the stage was open to the sky, unless covered by a cloth canopy. The stage thrust out into the middle of the “pit” or “yard,” where people who had paid one penny for admission stood around three sides of the stage. Vendors selling food and alcohol walked around the audience throughout the performance. Beyond the stage and the pit was an area called the gallery, which contained covered benches. These seats were expensive and reserved for wealthier patrons. “The heavens” was a painted ceiling supported by two columns which covered the stage. A trap door in the heavens enabled cast members to create special effects such as dropping flower petals onto the stage during a wedding scene, or even to lower actors on ropes or wires for “flying” entrances. Sound effects such as thunder or musical cues could also be created in the heavens.

Plays were performed in daylight, usually in the afternoon. When a scene took place at night, the actors brought flaming torches onstage to signal to the audience that it was supposed to be dark. Musical accompaniment was provided by musicians on a balcony behind the stage. This balcony was also used when a play required an upstairs location, like Juliet’s bedroom in Romeo and Juliet . Costumes were elaborate and expensive, often the cast-offs of high-ranking noblemen. Elizabethan audiences appreciated a spectacle. During a production of Henry VIII in 1613 a cannon was fired, which became a matter of public record because a stray spark from the cannon burned the Globe to the ground. The theatre was rebuilt within a year. Towards the end of Shakespeare’s writing career, in 1608, his company began to use an indoor theater for winter performances. The Blackfriars Theater was arranged like a modern theater, with rows of seating in front of the stage. Admission prices were higher than at the Globe, so the Blackfriars probably attracted a wealthier audience.

In Hamlet , Hamlet calls the audience members who could only afford standing tickets “groundlings.” He says they only understand “dumb-shows and noise.” Groundlings probably bore little resemblance to the attentive, well-behaved audiences we associate with theater today. Audience members standing in the pit were close enough to touch the actors. The actors spoke directly to them, and the groundlings talked back, cheering for heroic characters and booing villains. If the audience didn’t like the play, they heckled and even threw things at the actors. Theater was not an elite art-form but a popular entertainment, enjoyed by all levels of society. In his plays, Shakespeare mirrors the diversity of the audience by drawing on language, specialist knowledge, and ideas from every level of society. The groundlings probably didn’t understand the Latin, Greek, and philosophical references in the plays, but even the tragedies contain physical humor, sexual wordplay, and slang the groundlings would have appreciated. For example, Henry IV, Part 1 uses the terminology of law and diplomacy, but it also includes the slang of innkeepers, soldiers and prostitutes.