Theater in Shakespeare’s Time

In Shakespeare’s time, the professional theater was a booming business and a popular entertainment for people of all backgrounds, from royalty to illiterate apprentices. Shakespeare wrote plays for a specific company, known first as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later as the King’s Men. While they performed in the courts of Elizabeth I and James I, as well as in churches and guildhalls in the countryside, they most frequently performed in their own theaters. From 1599 onward, that theater was the Globe. An outdoor theater, the Globe stood approximately 36 feet high and had a diameter of about 84 feet. The inside of the structure contained three tiers of galleries that surrounded an uncovered yard roughly 56 feet in diameter. Actors performed on a stage space that thrust into the yard area and had three sides where audience members could stand to watch the action. There was a roof over the stage but no curtain, and while there were occasional props or furniture, there was no scenery. Audience members could pay a penny to stand in the yard (these people were known as groundlings); if they chose and could afford to sit in one of the side galleries, they had to pay extra. Plays were probably performed without an intermission as we know it, though they may have included a short musical interlude or a dance. The audience was far more casual and unruly than we would expect, often milling about, talking with each other and commenting on the action as the play was being performed.

It was illegal for women to appear on stage, so Elizabethan and Jacobean acting companies did not include women, and female roles were played by boys or young men. The actors in the company wore contemporary Renaissance clothing, no matter in what country or period the play took place—indeed, actors often wore their own clothes. Although Shakespeare frequently gives his plays different settings, the way his characters speak and act is most similar to the way English people in the 16th and 17th centuries would have spoken and acted. So for his audience, they were, in every sense, contemporary plays.

(Reprinted from McCarter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Audience Resource Guide)