Elizabethan Theater

For some reason I thought that I would be able to do a full update plus movie despite the fact that I spent the weekend moving and am leaving on vacation tomorrow.  Whoops!  As it stands, I am going to dish out some info about Elizabethan theater, and maybe a little bit about Shakespeare.  I plan on watching Shakespeare in Love while on vacation, and then posting when I return.  Hopefully on Monday.  Following that, I will have a guest article about the movie Ray!

When discussing Shakespeare, I always want to start with the authorship question.  Even people who know nothing about the man will know enough to say, “Did he really write his plays?”  This is a question I wanted to delve into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t really fit with the tone of the film, which more covers the silly romantic comedy aspect of his life.  I’ll leave that discussion for October when the movie Anonymous rears its head.  Filmed by Roland Emmerich, the same man who gave us the historical gems The Patriot and 10,000 BC, the movie will likely be some kind of hot mess.  My friend Anthony Funari and I will be live tweeting from the theater and likely making everyone angry.  (For the interested, Dr. Funari runs his own quite excellent blog Renaissance Matters and has posted a couple times about Shakespeare.)

So!  Barring authorship, what is there to talk about?  Let’s look a little bit at the play scene at the time and how theater worked.  (Alternatively, theatre, but I’m not too picky.  There are like a hundred names to spell Shakespeare.)  Why is this important?  Whatever the impression you may have received from a teacher in the past, Shakespeare did not write in a vacuum.  We view his works as genius today, but that is partly our doing.  His work is not some shining perfect monument to literature.  There are multiple copies of multiple plays, and each version of the same play will differ for some reason (added scenes, deleted scenes).  Shakespeare was part of an acting troupe and he wrote for the actors that he knew – particularly Richard Burbage.  Furthermore, several of his works are now widely considered to be the result of cooperative writing – such as Two Gentleman of Verona.  Did any of you get the impression that Shakespeare wrote everything on his own?  Even the plays he didn’t co-author are taken from older plots and stories.

I’m trying to diminish Shakespeare’s works.  I personally love picking them apart and looking at the significance of certain lines and actions.  What I really want to emphasize, though, is that this man wasn’t some magical being.  He’s a product of his time in a lot of ways.  When you look at him from that viewpoint, does it really seem so miraculous that someone who had a decent education and good writing chops happened to pen the most famous plays of all time?  Hard work and circumstance.

He can't be an unquestionable genius, or else he would have grown back his hair with the power of sonnets.

What follows is a semi-complete crash course of Elizabethan theater:

– The theater was wildly popular in Elizabethan society.  Without movies or television or football, theater was one of the modes of popular entertainment, and for the “common” person it was relatively affordable.  The working class people would show up and pay their penny to stand in front of the stage – which is how they adopted the name “groundlings” – while wealthier people would pay for seats, and the truly wealthy earned the equivalent of box seats.  That’s why plays of the time will contain the pretty poetic language, and then delve right into the bawdy puns.

Standing places were also called penny seats, because they cost a penny - a day's work for an average laborer. How rich would you be if you time traveled back to the 16th century?

– Despite its popularity, theater was not considered a “high class” form of entertainment.  Kind of like gladiator fights in ancient Rome, theater provided entertainment, but not culture.  It didn’t help that the theater district existed outside the city limits, and were often amidst prostitution, bear baiting, and gambling.  This was one of the reasons Puritans abhorred theater and thought it corrupted people.  You have to admit, they had a little bit of a point.  Prostitutes would sometimes enter shows and get clients in the playhouse.

– The theater set-up was not like today.  The stage jutted out and theaters were circular so that the audience could see from multiple angles – hence, today’s concept of presenting Shakespeare “in the round”, which some people consider more authentic.  There was also no disconnect of the stage, space, and then an audience.  Groundlings would stands at the edge of the stages, sometimes resting their arms or food on it.  Performances also took place during the day, which allowed the natural lighting of the sun.  Indoor theaters would be developed in later years (read: early 1600s, toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign), but largely it would be an open air venue.

This is the reconstructed Globe theater. You can tell because the people look generally washed.

– Audiences were not silent and complacent.  If you lived in Elizabethan England, nobody would care if your cell phone went off.  People held conversations, and ate, and yelled at the actors to their hearts content.  This gives further reason for “common denominator” jokes, to grab people’s attention so they shut up.  Part of the reason a lot of people think Shakespeare is boring today is because productions try to cover up all the raunchy, fun bits, and make it all regal.

– Really, the Puritans hated theater, and did what they could to get rid of it.  They succeeded during Oliver Cromwell’s years, but when Charles II took over the throne with the return of the monarchy, he brought Restoration with him.  Before Restoration theater, women were not allowed to act on the English stage, which meant female roles were played by boys.  Some of the older women might be played by men, but most would be covered by boys who had not yet hit puberty.  Considering some of the amazing roles women had, those must have been some talented boy actors.  The audience of these plays would have full knowledge that a boy was playing the role, and Shakespeare had fun alluding to the double role these boys played.  Of course, the Puritans didn’t like this solution much better than putting women on stage, because it meant that audiences watched two boys falling in love.  Oh, the homoeroticism!

The Brits still love a man in a dress.

– Each play had to be reviewed by the Master of Revels.  He would cut out parts of your play that he deemed too radical.  Due to the popularity of the theater and the kinds of people who went and saw plays, authority figures worried it could cause civil unrest.  Shakespeare, who wrote about a deposed king in Richard II toed the line with this.

– The world had to deal with severe bouts of plague in the 13th-17th centuries.  When the plague swept through England and began to kill off huge numbers of people in the cities, authorities would close down theaters, as they were viewed as places were the disease could spread.  From a modern viewpoint, this was actually pretty prudent of them.  Troupes would be forced to tour in more sparsely populated areas.

– Finally, due to the way society viewed plays, you could not act unless sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Otherwise, you were dirty vagabonds.  Shakespeare’s troupe started as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and when James I became king, he was lucky enough to become the King’s Men.  Which meant the man earned personal props from the king.  (It probably helped that he wrote a play set in Scotland for a king originally from Scotland.  And that the same play contained witches, which were sort of an obsession for the king.)  I should add that the king or queen would not be caught dead going to see a play at the Globe.  The acting troupe would pack up and go to court and perform there.

It would be like writing Barack Obama a play starring strong black characters who supported universal health care.

Hope that helps set the stage for the upcoming review!  Alas, due to a lack of internet, I will probably not be able to provide live tweets.  But hopefully the review will make up for that.  I get a little nutty when it comes to Shakespeare.

2 responses to “Elizabethan Theater

  1. Great synopsis of the key facets of the Elizabethan stage. You really capture the experience of what it would have been like to actually attend an open air performance at the Globe. Interestingly, there were “high class” indoor theaters, such as The Black Friars, but those were pretty much occupied by the boys acting troupes. By the way, when I was touring the rebuilt Globe theater, I learned that the prositutes who worked the theater crowd were known as the Bishop’s Geese, because, I believe, they worked in near Bishop’s Gate.

  2. Your Obama tagline is a bit off though. It would be more like writing him a play with a charismatic black character who cuts Social Security benefits. He would eat that shit up.

    But your blog is still awesome.

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