Elizabethan theater: Shakespeare and The Globe

Hey. This is Mr. Sato and I’m going to talk about Elizabethan Theatre. When people talk about Elizabethan Theatre, what they’re usually talking about is William Shakespeare and
the theatre of his time. It’s called Elizabethan because Queen Elizabeth the 1st was the English monarch during the first part of Shakespeare’s career. His plays were first performed
between 1589 and 1613. London was separated by the River Thames from an area called Southwark. To American readers these words look like THAMES AND SOUTH-WARK, but that isn’t how they are pronounced. There was a bridge over the Thames but it
was crowded, slow, and dangerous, so if you could afford it, you paid a boatman to carry you across instead. Southwark wasn’t included in the legal boundaries of the City of London, so London’s laws didn’t apply there. So, naturally, people went there to do things
they weren’t allowed to do in London. It was what we’d now call
the bad part of town. This painting by William Hogarth depicts Southwark about 100 years later, but it gives you an idea. There were taverns where people got drunk on beer and ale, there was gambling, prostitution, pickpockets
and other criminals, as well as a lot of animal cruelty that most people today would find barbaric, like cockfighting (which is where you get two roosters to fight each other to the death and you’d bet on one or the other to win) and also bear-baiting. Bear-baiting was when a captured bear, sometimes with its teeth pulled, was chained to a post and set upon
by vicious dogs. The bear couldn’t fight back very well, and
people cheered on the dogs as they attacked and eventually killed it. It was cruel, and I imagine that Shakespeare hated it. He referred to it more than once in his plays in ways that were sympathetic to the bear. Theatre was another thing that was illegal
in London. It wasn’t the high class art form
we consider it today. It was considered common and crude, compared with poetry recitations, which the nobility preferred. So, London theatres were closed in 1596 by the Church of England, under the influence of the Puritans who considered theatre– and practically everything else that wasn’t praising God explicitly– immoral. But there was also the fear of bubonic plague; large gatherings of people in close proximity could spread the disease. So as a result, putting on plays was literally against the law in London during much of this period. Shakespeare had to dismantle his
theatre board-by-board and rebuild it in Southwark. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe. It was a round building (Shakespeare called it the “wooden O”). Like a stadium, it was open-air in the middle, with a thatched roof around. One thing they didn’t have was artificial
lighting, so all productions took place in the afternoon. The inside of the theatre probably looked
similar to this 1596 drawing of the Swan Theatre, which was
another theatre in Southwark. Inside, there was an elevated stage,
balcony above (really the gallery over the back of the stage, where audience members could be seated). It had a cannon that could be fired for battle scenes (no cannonball, obviously, just the gunpowder). There were what are called “flies,” the area
above the stage where a rope and pulley could be set up so an actor could be hoisted up
into the air so it looked like he was flying (as they would have done in The Tempest). There was at least one trapdoor in the floor of the stage so that an actor could jump down into it and disappear,
or come out of it. In Hamlet, Hamlet would have jumped into Ophelia’s grave, right? So that would be the trapdoor. There were no painted sets behind them — they just had tapestries back there, but Shakespeare employed something called “scene-painting” instead. That was where he would write it into his
script where a character like Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet would say, “Oh look over there in the East, where the sun is rising and there are streaks of yellow and red in
the sky” or whatever. And that’s how you knew it was taking place at dawn. Or a character might come up to another and say, “Stranger, where am I?” And they would say, “Why, don’t you know? You’re in Illyria.” And that’s how you knew you were in Illyria. So that’s what they would do instead of having elaborate painted sets like they would have later in theater history. There were a few set pieces like in Romeo
& Juliet, there was the tomb. In Macbeth there would have been the banquet table, and so on. The pillars holding up the gallery/balcony
could double as trees in a forest, like the Forest Arden in As You Like It. And because there were battle scenes and duels, they would have had armor, blunted swords, stage blood, music,
and sound effects. So these plays weren’t just words on a page, they were living, breathing theatre. Now to advertise these shows, they raised a colored flag to tell people across the river what kind of play was being performed: a white flag meant they were putting on a comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A red flag meant a history play,
like Henry V. A black flag meant they were putting on a
tragedy, like Romeo & Juliet or Othello. Upper and middle-class audience members paid two pence for a seat, but they could pay up to sixpence
for the best seats; poorer people paid just ,
penny to stand in front of the stage, exposed to weather. These poorer audience members were called groundlings. Vendors would walk around selling oranges, roasted hazelnuts, beer and cider the way people
today might buy hot dogs, peanuts and soda at a baseball game. And the groundlings in particular would enjoy cheering when the hero entered, and booing the bad guy, occasionally throwing things at actors. The groundlings could get a little restless
at times, so lucky for us, Shakespeare always broke up
long stretches of talking with things like a swordfight,
a comical buffoon, or a few dirty jokes. This next fact freaks out a lot of my students when they first hear it, but female roles were played,
by adolescent boys wearing platform shoes and wigs and long dresses, and I’m guessing a lot of makeup to make them
look like women. Remember that theatre was considered crude and common, totally inappropriate for the supposedly “more delicate sensibilities” of women. In fact, middle or upper class women who merely attended these plays actually sometimes wore masks, so they wouldn’t be recognized. So women were definitely not allowed to be onstage, being looked at by crowds of strange men. That was explicitly against the law. But despite what you may see in movie versions of these plays, I don’t think there was a lot of kissing in these plays during that time. Read the plays: the love scenes are all
verbal, oratorical. Today, William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Once beginning readers get used to the 400-year-old language, they often discover that his plays are a really very beautiful– but also exciting, funny, suspenseful, and overall, a lot of fun. So, enjoy.


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