The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare

by Laurie E. Rozakis
The famous playwrite won't be a mystery with this guide that explains the meanings behind his sonnets and plays and the history of his life in easy terms. Supplemented with a character list.


The famous playwrite won't be a mystery with this guide that explains the meanings behind his sonnets and plays and the history of his life in easy terms. Supplemented with a character list.

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Alpha Books
Publication date:
Complete Idiot's Guide Series
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7.34(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.87(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare - CH 3 - All the World's a Stage: Shakespeare's Theater

[Figures are not included in this sample chapter]

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare

- 3 -

All the World's a Stage: Shakespeare's Theater

In This Chapter

  • The first permanent theater

  • Renaissance actors' really bad press

  • The Globe Theater

  • The repertory system

  • The new Globe

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women are merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts...

--As You Like It

English drama came of age during the reign of Elizabeth I, developing into a sophisticatedand very popular art form. In this chapter, you'll learn all about the Elizabethantheater and Shakespeare's role in it.

You'll learn all about the first permanent theater, built by carpenter-turned-actorJames Burbage. Then you'll get the inside skinny on actors and the theater duringShakespeare's day--how were they really regarded? Next comes a discussionof Shakespeare's Globe Theater, including a survey of the Elizabethan repertory system.The chapter concludes with a section on the exciting new Globe Theater.

Stage #1: The First "Permanent" Theater

When I was at home, I was in a better place, but travelers must be content.

--As You Like It

Before Elizabethan players had a permanent home, they gave performances any placethey could erect a stage and gather a crowd. As a result, they staged public showsin village halls, inn yards, and bear-baiting arenas. They put on private shows inthe great halls of noblemen's houses or in one of the Queen's palaces.

At this time, the stage was simply a platform of boards resting on trestles orbarrels with a curtained booth in the back where the actors could change their costumesand wait for their cue. There weren't many props or much scenery, and the limitedcast meant that everyone played at least two roles--and often many more.

In 1576, when Shakespeare was 12 years old, a carpenter-turned-actor named JamesBurbage built England's first "real" theater. With an admirable nod towardsimplicity, it was called simply The Theater. There are no existing sketches or descriptionsof The Theater. Scholars believe that the stage was a rectangular platform, probably25 by 45 feet. Instead of resting on barrels, it was supported on sturdy posts andextended well out into the yard. At the back of the stage was a wall with a few doorsfor entrances and exists. There was even a real dressing room!

We're not really sure of this description because there's only one contemporarypicture of any Elizabethan stage at all. It is a sketch made from memory by a Dutchtraveler named Johannes de Witt, who visited London in 1596. In addition to makingnotes about the plays he saw, de Witt m ade a sketch of the interior of the Swan Theater.His notes, translated from Latin, include the following description:

Of all the theaters, however, the largest and most magnificent is that one ofwhich the sign is a swan, called in the vernacular the Swan Theater; for it accommodatesin its seats three thousand persons, and is built of a mass of flint stones (of whichthere is a prodigious supply in London), and supported by wooden columns paintedin such excellent imitation of marble that it is able to deceive even the most cunning.

The Chamberlain's Men, the troupe to which Shakespeare belonged, performed publiclyprimarily at The Theater. From 1594 to 1599, the Chamberlain's Men had become themost popular acting company in London. It appears that Shakespeare did a great dealof acting as well as playwriting during this time.


The dressing room was called the tiring-house. The word "tiring" came from the word "attire."

Dens of Sin

In part, it took so long for a permanent theater to be built because of the anomalousplace actors occupied in London society. On one hand, actors were frowned upon bythe titled and well-to-do folk as rogues and scoundrels. On the other hand, actorswere wildly popular with the common people, who clamored to see them perform. Althoughconsidered no better than vagabonds, the actors were nonetheless called on frequentlyto perform at court. More on that later.

Actors and other public performers were also subjected to official control. Topractice their trade, they first had to find a "master," that is, a spons orwith a peerage. Shakespeare's company, for example, was sponsored in the years 1596to 1603 by George Carey, Baron Hunsdon, who became Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain.Thus the acting company was known as "the Lord Chamberlain's Men." (After1603, King James adopted the company as his own, and they thus became "the King'sMen.")

Local government officials weren't the only ones who objected to the actors andthe theater. The Puritan clergy viewed plays as sinful, a perilous diversion fromprayer. They claimed that theater stimulated "whorish lust" (and you thoughtrock 'n' roll and television were responsible for the downfall of western civilization).One Puritan leader, Philip Stubbes, went so far as to claim that all acting troupeswere "secret conclaves" of sodomy.

In his anti-theatrical tract The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Stubbes wrote:

You say there are good Examples to be learned in [plays]. Truly, so there are: if you will learn falsehood; if you will learn cozenage; if you will learn to deceive; if you will learn to play the hypocrite, to cog, lie, and falsify; if you will learn to jest, laugh, and leer, to grin, to nod, and mow; if you will learn to play the vice, to swear, tear, and blaspheme both Heaven and Earth; if you will learn to become a bawd, unclean, and to devirginate maids, to deflower honest wives; if you will learn to murder, flay, kill, pick, steal, rob, and row; if you will learn to rebel against princes, to commit treasons, to consume treasures, to practice idleness, to sing and talk of bawdy love and venery; if you will learn to deride, scoff, mock, and flout, to fl atter and smooth; if you will learn to play the whoremaster, the glutton, drunkard, or incestuous person; if you will learn to become proud, haughty, and arrogant; and, finally, if you will learn to contemn God and all his laws, to care neither for heaven nor hell, and to commit all kind of sin and mischief, you need to go to no other school, for all these good examples may you see painted before your eyes in interludes and plays.

And you thought TV, rock 'n' roll, and comic books corrupted youth. They can'thold a candle to the deadly effects of the theater.

Star Quality

"Drama," as we accept the term, originated in ancient Greece around the sixth century B.C. as a pagan festival. Famous playwrights/poets included Aeschylus (524?-456 B.C.), Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), Euripides (480-406 B.C.), and Aristophanes (450?-385 B.C.).

Truth or Dare

Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time; after your death you would better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.


Nonetheless, the London Theater was the only place where the common man couldhear direct and honest comments on life. That's what Shakespeare meant when he saidthat players are the "abstract and brief chronicles of the time."

Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson was in trouble at least four times for takingliberties on stage. Shakespeare himself flirted with arrest. When Ess ex's followerswere plotting their rebellion in February, 1601, they bribed Shakespeare's companyto play Richard II as part of their propaganda, for the play showed how aSovereign, who was surrounded by favorites, was overthrown and deposed by one whomhe had wronged. Shakespeare must have done some nail-biting over that decision!

Will Power

In the Middle Ages, drama was largely based on religion; there was little emphasis on everyday life and war. The so-called "Miracle" and "Mystery" plays of the Middle Ages were based on Catholic doctrine. The "Morality" plays, also religious, describe the "proper" life for a devoted Christian. The characters were named after abstract concepts such as "Death," "Kindness," "Strength," and "Judgment." The human figures represent "Everyman."

One Hand Washes the Other

You may be wondering at this point why the government didn't simply shut downthe theaters and save everyone a lot of trouble. The answer? The monarch and hercourtiers found the public theaters useful. Drama's ability to make action look realcould serve the government's interests as much as anyone else's. Many Elizabethanplays celebrated pious and patriotic values; the Crown may have regarded the favoras cheaply purchased, if the price was only a little titillation.

Besides, both Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, were connoisseursof the theater, and they would hardly have deprived themselves of crack performersby allowing the theaters to be closed. And while acting companies were paid handsomelyfor their courtly appearances, they had largely to support themselves. So playingto the public both kept them in practice and kept them in business. And if the Queenor any of her cohorts ever objected to what they saw, we don't know about it.

Not in My Back Yard!

But theatrical freedom was not to last. In 1594, bowing to Puritan pressure, theLondon aldermen banned all playhouses within the city limits. The Lord Mayor of Londonasked the Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council to tear down all the theaters, for theywere "places of meeting for all vagrant persons and masterless men that hangabout the City, thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners [cheaters], cony-catchingpersons [con men], practicers of treason, and other such like." And you thoughttheir only crime was selling over-priced candy and soda.

Sweets to the Sweet

In 1642, anti-theatrical Puritan parliamentarians, having overthrown King Charles I, got their way when they successfully shut down all the theaters for 20 years.

Theatrical impresarios ended up locating their playhouses beyond the reach ofthe aldermen, setting up shop in seedy nearby suburbs ("liberties"), sideby side with ale houses, bordellos, and bear-baiting arenas. Nine different theaterswere located in a suburban area called "Southwark."


Southwark is pronounced Sutherk.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way: The Globe Theater

Meanwhile, three years later , Burbage and his landlords failed to see eye-to-eye,and The Theater was forced to seek a new home. Burbage bought the old Blackfriarsmonastery but the neighbors did a "not in my backyard" number and the projectground to a halt.

Burbage died soon after, an event the landlord seized as the perfect chance todismantle The Theater. One step ahead of the law, Burbage's sons dismantled The Theaterthemselves and hauled the pieces across the Thames River to a site in Southwark.It took them six months to rebuild The Theater, and when they did, they renamed it"The Globe." It opened in 1599.


Thames has a silent H and a few other peculiar English twists. As a result, it's pronounced Temz. Located in south England, the Thames flows east through London to the North Sea, a bit over 200 miles.

By 1600, London had more theaters than any other European capital. Its theatersincludes The Rose, The Swan, The Red Bull, and The Globe.

"This Wooden O"

Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?

--Henry V

Scholars disagree about what The Globe actually looked like since there are nosurviving drawings or any detailed written descriptions. Since Shakespeare refersto The Globe as "this wooden O," it appears it was round or octagonal.Like the bear-baiting arenas, it was open to the sky.

The building had to be small enough to ensure that the actors could be heard,but large enough to accommodate at least 2,500 to 3,000 people. Talk about a packedhouse!

From surviving bills of sale, we know that The Globe was small--the external dimensionswere only 80 feet by 80 feet. The interior measured 55 feet by 55 feet.

As the engraving shows, there were three tiers to the stage, corresponding toEarth, heaven, and hell. A canopy, representing the heavens, extended across thestage to the back wall. The canopy was painted gold with starry spangles in the shapeof the zodiac. Villains fell through a trapdoor, called the "hell mouth,"into the pits of damnation. The dressing rooms were located behind the stage.

Here's what The Globe Theater probably looked like from the outside.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

The theater in Shakespeare's day acted on the repertory system. The company kepta considerable range of plays available and played a different one each afternoon.

How busy were the actors? We get a glimpse of their hectic schedule from thisquote from Quince in Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream: "But,masters, here are your parts. And I am to entreat you, request you, and desire youto con [learn] them by tomorrow night; and meet me in the palace wood a mile fromthe town, by moonlight, There will we rehearse." Actors learned their partsin about a week; a leading man might have to memorize 800 lines a day.

The average life of a new play was about 10 performances, but popular plays were,of course, performed more often. Continuous runs were unknown.

Several of the Globe's actors became nationally famous. Richard Burbage, for example,became widely admired for his ability to express emoti on realistically. Shakespeareprobably wrote some of his great tragic heroes--including Hamlet, King Lear, andOthello--with Burbage in mind. Will Kemp was the company's best-loved comedian.

The repertory system also gave Shakespeare another advantage, besides continuouswork in a precarious career: constant "types." Shakespeare often made useof the peculiar character traits of his actors. These traits reappear when they provedto be popular. The "tall man with the hatchet face" appears in a varietyof guises, including the Shadow in Henry IV, Part II; Sir Andrew Aguecheekin Twelfth Night; and Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor, amongothers.

As you've already learned, Shakespeare's acting company was "the Chamberlain'sMen," later renamed "the King's Men." The leading acting company inLondon, they seem to have been very close-knit and many of the members stayed friendsfor life. When Shakespeare died--more than 20 years after the company was formed--heleft memorial rings to his fellow actors. Seven months later, one of them, RichardBurbage, named his newborn son William. Most important of all, seven years later,Shakespeare's fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell printed Shakespeare'sFirst Folio, giving the world its first look at printed copies of Shakespeare'splays.

Will Power

The Globe was owned by a syndicate, a fact that gave it unique power and flexibility among the London playhouses. Shakespeare's share was 10 percent of the total profits. It's not possible to determine exactly how much Shakespeare earned, but it was somewhere near  63;200 to £250 per year, a very substantial sum by Elizabethan standards.

"Play out the play" --Henry IV, Part I

This engraving shows The Globe Theater as reconstructed by Shakespearean scholar John Cranford Adams.

From Page to Stage: Theater in Shakespeare's Day

Today, the New York theater district is as squeaky-clean as Mickey Mouse. (Maybethat's because Disney owns a chunk of the theater action, but that's another story.)Only a few years ago, however, Times Square was seedy and run-down. Shakespeare wouldhave felt right at home in the old Times Square, for The Globe was surrounded bybrothels, pubs, and taverns. Pimps and prostitutes plied their trade outside thebox office; thieves and swindlers did an equally booming business.

In addition to some urban renewal, there were many significant differences betweenShakespeare's theater and our own. For example, during Shakespeare's day, performanceswere given every day but Sunday. (Today, many New York theaters are open on Sundaybut closed on Monday.) Since there were no lights, matinees were the name of thegame. Shows ran from 2:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon.


In theater, blocking refers to breaking up the scenes of a play into small chunks in order to work out the details of where the actors should stand, how they should communicate, and so forth. Mise en scene is the play's setting; spine is the play's main idea or point.

Further, there were no intermissions, so the action was continuous. People didn'tsit s till for the entire three hours, however. They were a lively (read "rambunctious"and "rowdy") bunch. The atmosphere at an Elizabethan play was like theatmosphere at a modern baseball game--when the home team is losing.

Neither were there any curtains or sets, although the Elizabethans loved elaboratestage effects, such as the trapdoors mentioned earlier. Lack of scenery was compensatedby abundant noise. The texts of the plays of the time are filled with directionsfor various trumpet sounds. Battle scenes were especially noisy. No king ever enteredor left the stage without a trumpet flourish.

Star Quality

Other famous Elizabethan playwrights include Robert Greene, John Lyly, and a whole pack of Thomases: Thomas Kyd, Thomas Preston, Thomas Sackville, and Thomas Norton.

Pressing the Flesh

Here are some more differences you could expect if I could take you back to Shakespeare'sday to take in a matinee or two:

  • Bowing to the pressure of the Puritans, theater advertising was forbidden. Theater owners got around the ban by raising a flag and blasting a trumpet as 2:00 approached. The color of the flag indicated the day's feature: White stood for comedy; black for tragedy; and red for history.

  • Ticket prices depended on the location of the seat--or lack thereof. Patrons could sit on cushions with the movers and shakers or stand cheek-by-jowl with the hoi poloi in the back. The real power brokers sat on the stage itself.

  • Enterprising capitalists hawked beer, water, oranges, gingerbread, apples, and nuts. It was considered acceptable to heave any and all of the above at the actors if their performance didn't make the grade.

  • There were no rest rooms. Think about all that beer.

  • Scenery and props were minimal, but costumes were extravagant affairs of gold, lace, silk, and jewels. Often, they were the hand-me-downs from wealthy patrons of the arts. Actors also wore makeup, another nail in their coffins, according to the spoilsport Puritans.

  • Shakespeare and his fellow actors and playwrights were keenly aware of stagecraft, as this quote shows:

And if the boy have not a woman's gift To rain a shower of commanded tears, An onion will do well for such a shift.

--The Taming of the Shrew

  • There were no producers or directors; the actors had total control of the production.

  • Then we have the issue of the actors...


As people entered The Globe Theater, they would drop their admission into a box. From this practice came our term box office.

What a Drag: Transvestite Theater and Boy Actors

Since women were forbidden to act in public in England, female roles were assumedby pre-adolescent lads. (Now you know the main reason why there's so little hanky-pankytouchy-feely in Shakespeare's plays.) With his usual ingenuity, Shakespeare transformedthe gender restriction into an advantage by evoking passion through language.

But what's a boffo play without a little nooky? Walki ng that fine line betweenclass and trash, Shakespeare peppered his plays with bawdy puns and sexual allusions.More on this in Chapter 5, "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare."

The boy actors lived with the adult actors and received intensive training indancing, music, elocution, weaponry, and memorization. There were far fewer boysthan men in the company, which may have been one reason why there were so few femaleroles. (Or maybe it was the other way around--since Shakespeare didn't have the actorsto play the roles, he didn't write female roles.)

The practice of boy actors ended in 1660, when females were allowed on the Londonstage. Some old-timers were incensed: How could any woman play Juliet as well asa boy had?

Global Meltdown

The Globe met its demise in 1613 when a canon was fired as part of a performanceof King Henry VIII and the flaming wadding landed on the theater's thatchedroof. Fortunately, everyone escaped unharmed; unfortunately, The Globe burned tothe ground. (One man's pants were set afire, but the flames were doused with beer.)The Globe was immediately rebuilt and continued in operation until it was closedin 1642.

Shakespeare's Globe was pulled down two years later, when all the theaters closed.Forgotten, the land became the site of a brewery until 1984, when the brewery waspulled down and the land became a parking lot. The Globe's form and layout becamean enigma. Only a few relevant documents existed and none of these provided a completeand accurate picture of its design.

In 1989, archaeologists found remains of The Globe. They believe they unearthedboth the original Globe and the rebuilt version. They also found a few intere stingartifacts, including a scabbard, a sword, shoes, a bear's skull--and a human skull.

Today, 200 yards from its original site, after almost 400 years, Shakespeare'sGlobe has been opened to the public again; it was officially inaugurated on June12, 1997. Ironically, the force behind the project was an American actor, Sam Wanamaker.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air; And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

--The Tempest

Near the end of his life, Shakespeare, in this magnificent passage, identifiedthe role of the theater and imagination with the dreamlike nature of life itself.

Star Quality

The Royal Shakespeare Company, headquartered in Stratford-upon-Avon, is the foremost Shakespearean theater group in the world. Unlike many other international theater companies, the RSC operates on a repertoire system under which actors take on several roles in a range of plays. The RSC has three different theaters in Stratford. The largest, the world famous Royal Shakespeare Theatre, built in 1932, was recently completely refurbished. The Swan Theatre is a galleried playhouse, while The Other Place provides a modern and intimate theater experience.

The Least You Need to Know

  • In 1576, James Burbage built England's first permanent theater.

  • Although wildly popular with the common folks, actors were considered rogues and scoundrels by those in power.

  • Shakespeare's Globe Theater opened in 1599. His acting company, the Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), was London's premier acting troupe.

  • The theater in Shakespeare's day acted on the repertory system.

  • Destroyed by fire in 1613, The Globe was immediately rebuilt. It closed in 1642, and this time wasn't rebuilt until 1997.

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