Globe Theatre: Performance during Shakespeare’s time


STEPHEN GREENBLATT: We’re standing in front of Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern reconstruction near the site of Shakespeare’s own Globe Theater, built in 1599. And this reconstruction is the best way, really, of getting a sense of what Shakespeare’s actual theatrical practice of his own time would have been like. It’s an open air theater in the around. It accommodated up to about 3,000 spectators crowded in, most of them standing in front of the stage. There was a trestle stage that thrust out into the crowd. The crowd surrounded it. And then there were galleries. So you paid a penny to get into this theater. The money was put in a box. That’s why we have the term box office. And then if you had the money and you had another penny, you could get out of the sun or out of the rain at least as often and pay to be in one of the gallery places where there was at least a little roof over your head. If you had another penny, you could get a chair with a cushion. And if you had a lot of money, sixpence– at the time, that’s a substantial amount of money– you could get one of the seats behind the stage or possibly even on the stage, that were terrible from the point of view of seeing the play, but were great in terms of having people see the beautiful clothes that you are wearing, which evidently was an important part of the experience of the theater in Shakespeare’s time. The theater had no artificial lighting. And it had no sets of the kind with which we’re familiar. It had a chair that could be brought on and off the stage or a bed that could be brought on and off the stage, but basically nothing like the sets that to which we’re accustomed, as it had no curtain also, no illusion. There’s a platform. And on the platform, there are the actors, who must have developed very powerful voices, as well as powerful memories, because they could speak their plays out and be heard by 2,000 or 3,000 people in the round space. The theater was not without some sense of something other than simply the flat stage, because it had two columns that held up a kind of canopy over the playing space. The canopy over the playing space was important for one thing because the single most valuable property that the players owned were costumes. These theaters paid much more for a good costume than they paid for a play. The costumes were valuable in themselves. And they were valuable symbolically, because especially in a stage without sets, the costumes carried huge symbolic meaning if you wore the cloak of a nobleman, if you wore the regalia, at least that could conjure up, the idea of a king, or for that matter if you wore a beautiful dress. And there were beautiful dresses worn. They were worn by an entirely male company. That means that all of the great, and minor for that matter, female parts– Desdemona, Ophelia, Cleopatra, the like– were played by boys. They were talented actors, usually between the ages of 12 and 20. And they were evidently very gifted at conveying, especially in their beautiful costumes, the life, the manners, the impression of women. In fact, Englishman who traveled abroad in the late 16th and early 17th century and went to places like Venice where they could see actual women on stage remarked that it was amazing how good the women were there at performing the women’s parts, almost as good as the boy actors in London. Evidently, the boy actors were very, very good indeed. And the company had a big stake financially in the costumes that they own. Hence, the great pillars that rose up out of the platform stage also provided protection by holding a canopy over the actors so they wouldn’t have to stand out in the rain. But also there was another symbolic association with that canopy, which was often painted with stars and conveyed the idea of the heavens above the heads of the actors. Just as there was the heavens symbolically above the stage held up by those columns, so too there was a hell below the stage. That hell was the space under the trestle stage, not visible to the crowd surrounding the stage, but accessible through a trap door that could be opened on the stage. And we know that it was used on lots of different occasions in the theater, Shakespeare’s plays and in others, most notably in Hamlet. You will remember that Hamlet hears the ghost moving like a mole under the stage. And he himself moves around listening for the ghost. And the ghost indeed cries out from below the stage, swear, swear. You hear the voice rising up from below the stage. Or an Act V of Hamlet when the dead Ophelia is interred underground, they must have used that space. They must have opened the trap door and lowered her there. And indeed, when Laertes leaps into the grave in mourning and Hamlet jumps after him to wrestle with Laertes to try to prove who’s the most filled with grief, they must have used that space. In addition, there was a curtain that could be drawn in that space between the two curtains. And directly behind those two columns, there was a curtain space. And that was called a discovery space. Often things could be revealed in that space. You could draw the curtain and reveal something. Someone could emerge from that space. You could produce certain powerful effects there. And behind that space, in turn, was something known as the tiring house, a place where they would keep the costumes and indeed in which the actors could go and quickly change costumes. Changes of costume are often quite important in this theater because it marks, as it does for us now, significant changes in the lives and fates of the actors, of the characters in the play. You might remember that Hamlet’s ghost appears in Act I in full armor with his bevor up, that is to say his face mask up. And then when he returns to the closet scene to the queen’s bedroom, he appears in his nightgown. And that marks an important change, profound change in the ghost relation to the action and the ghost relation to the characters and indeed perhaps in the fate of the ghost himself. So in addition to that, there was yet another space that the actors could use, which were the gallery spaces behind the stage up above that could be used, for example, as balcony or as the ramparts of a castle and other places in which you could have an actor appear. And you could also have musicians appear there and, for example, trumpeters or drummers who are marking significant moments in the play. So that even though it’s, by our standards, an extremely simple play space with nothing in the way of very, very, very little– let’s not say not nothing– but very little in the way of equipment to produce certain illusory effects. Nonetheless, there were lots of possibilities that the playing companies had, including even on unusual occasions, probably some devices to enable descents, for example, from up above on to the stage. But much, much less than we have. And the powerful sense of entering into an illusion depended as Shakespeare himself famously says at the beginning of Henry V on using the imagination of the audience, of encouraging the audience to enter into the fantasy and, of course, through Shakespeare’s special gift of language to conjure up whole worlds that are not present before their eyes. But we should remember that in this theater when Romeo, for example, in one of the most famous scenes Shakespeare ever wrote is at night under Juliet’s window, or in Hamlet when the ghost appears at midnight on the battlements, you would be standing in the afternoon in full sun or perhaps with the rain coming down on a London afternoon and conjuring up that world in your imagination.

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