To really understand Shakespeare, you need to see his plays live on stage and explore the theater experience during Shakespeare's lifetime . It’s a sad fact that today we normally study Shakespeare's plays out of a book, but it’s important to remember that the Bard wasn’t writing for today’s literary audience; he was writing for the masses, many of whom couldn’t read or write.
Exploring the theater experience during Shakespeare's lifetime gives you a fuller understanding of his plays.
The Theater Experience in Shakespeare's Lifetime:
The experience of visiting a theater and watching a play was very different in Shakespeare's time. You were not expected to be still and silent throughout the performance like you are today. Rather, it was the modern equivalent of going to see a popular band.
- The audience would eat, drink and talk throughout the performance
- Theaters were open air and used natural light
- Plays were performed in the afternoon in the daylight
- Women in Shakespeare never performed and the female characters were often played by boys
- Plays used very little scenery, instead using language to set the scene
The Changing Status of Theater:
Shakespeare saw the public’s attitude towards theater change during his lifetime. Theater was once considered to be a disreputable pastime and was frowned upon by the Puritan authorities, who were worried that it might distract people from their religious teachings. During the reign of Elizabeth I, theaters were banned within the city walls of London (even though the Queen enjoyed the theater and gave it her patronage).
Over time, theater became more popular and a thriving “entertainment” scene grew on Bankside, just outside the city walls. Bankside was considered to be a “den of iniquity” with its brothels, bear-baiting pits and theaters – good company for the world’s greatest and most popular playwright.
The Acting Profession:
Theater companies were extremely busy. They would perform around six different plays each week, which could only be rehearsed a couple of times beforehand. Also, there was no stage crew like we have today; every member of the company would have to help make costumes, props and scenery.
The Elizabethan acting profession worked on an apprentice system, making it very hierarchical. Even Shakespeare would have had to rise up through the ranks:
- Shareholders and general managers were in charge and profited the most from the company’s success.
- Actors were employed by the managers and became permanent members of the company.
- Boy apprentices were at the bottom of the hierarchy. Sometimes they were allowed in act in menial roles or play the female characters.