Shakespeare's playhouses

From the open-air Globe to the candlelit Blackfriars, Professor Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong explore early modern playhouses.

When we think of Shakespeare's plays, we may think of them occurring at the Globe Theatre – 'this wooden O', as Henry V’s Chorus puts it. We think of the materiality of the place: the nutshells trodden into the muddy reed-strewn yard, the cellar called 'Hell', the stage which thrust its actors out into the midst of the audience. While all of these elements were certainly part of the early modern theatre experience, that experience was older, more diverse, and stranger than the Globe.

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

The Globe Theatre in the foreground of Claes Visscher’s panorama of London, 1616.

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Foundations

Under an edict handed down in 1575, actors were forbidden to perform within London’s city limits. In response, theatres began to spring up just outside the city walls. The first of these was the brainchild of James Burbage, who had broad interests in theatre, entrepreneurship, and building. Associated with Leicester’s Men, Burbage took the lead in securing land, designing the layout, contracting a builder, and facilitating the construction of the 'Theatre'.

The Theatre, the first purpose-build playhouse in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire, constituted a major financial risk for Burbage, and for a while it appeared that his optimism would prove foolish. The Theatre demanded a certain amount of mobility – and determination – from its audiences. Bordered on one side by a 'great barn', on another by a ditch, and on a third by a horse pond, the Theatre no doubt stank on warm days. Standing room cost a penny, gallery space two pennies, and 'quiet standing' three. As open-air performances, the penny-audiences were at the mercy of the elements; rain, sleet, or sunshine beat down with equal fervor on the bare necks of those standing in the yard, unshielded by any sort of roof. Nonetheless, Burbage’s Theatre did well enough to survive. Soon, imitators emerged: first the Curtain, then a theatre in Newington Butts, then the Rose and the Swan and the Fortune. By 1600, there were half a dozen theatres on the outskirts of London, each of which could hold upwards of 3,000 spectators. Given that the city's population was then in the neighborhood of 100,000, on any Saturday afternoon during this Golden Age of London Theatre, an astonishing 20 per cent of Londoners were watching plays.

Van Buchel's copy of de Witt's drawing of the Swan playhouse

Van Buchel's copy of De Witt's drawing of The Swan

The interior of the Swan Theatre in 1596, copied by Aernout van Buchel from a sketch by Johannes de Witt.

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Copyright: © Utrecht, University Library, Ms 842. I

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

Thomas Dekker wittily describes ‘How a Gallant should behave himselfe in a Play-house’, 1609.

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The Golden Age

The Globe, best-known of the great open-air theatres, has a remarkable history. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged, had played for years at the Theatre, to the north in Shoreditch. The company owned the building but leased the land it stood on. When its lease expired, the landlord sought to appropriate the building as well as the land, and so the Chamberlain’s Men played temporarily at the Curtain. Then, on a frosty night in 1598, three days after Christmas, a carpenter and several men associated with the company secretly dismantled the Theatre and removed the timbers. In the spring, they ferried the timbers across the Thames and used them to build a larger theatre in Southwark: the Globe. The Globe opened in 1599 – probably featuring the new plays Henry V and Julius Caesar – and provided a leading dramatic venue for the next 14 years. In 1613, however, during a fateful performance of Henry VIII, a stage cannon ignited the thatched roof and the Globe burned to the ground ‘all in less than two hours’, according to a contemporary account, ‘the people having enough to do to save themselves’. Less than a year later, another Globe rose from the ashes of its predecessor and remained open until 1642.

Thanks to contemporary drawings of similar playhouses, we know roughly what the Globe looked like. It resembled the Theatre closely, in part because it had been constructed from the Theatre’s materials. Roughly 30 meters in diameter, it could accommodate an audience of 3,000. The stage protruded into the standing area, so players downstage were surrounded on three sides by the groundlings, who were presumably talking, belching, eating nuts, and sometimes engaging in discussions with the actors onstage. There was a trapdoor to a cellar beneath the stage; when ghostly, demonic, or otherwise dead characters appeared, they would emerge from the cellar, accompanied perhaps by smoke, noise, or other special effects. Through the trapdoor the Ghost of Hamlet’s father – a role that may have been played by Shakespeare himself – probably appeared in the play’s first performance, startling groundlings and seated patrons alike. From the cellar, he bellowed ‘Swear!’ resoundingly and repeatedly. Complementing the hell-space, the Globe had a heaven-space, a cloud-painted roof over the back of the stage. In Cymbeline, when Jupiter 'descends in Thunder and Lightning, sitting uppon an Eagle,' he may have been lowered from 'heaven'. Below the roof, a balcony held musicians and provided a space from which characters could survey the action below (perhaps the royal audience sat here during the play-within-the-play in Hamlet); very important members of the audience might be seated there as well. As far as we know, the Globe had a curtained alcove beneath the balcony, called the ‘discovery space’. Here, no doubt, Ferdinand and Miranda were discovered playing chess in The Tempest.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Horatio and Hamlet see the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4 by Henry Fuseli.

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The Great Blackfriars Experiment

While the Globe, the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, and other open-air venues certainly prospered, James Burbage was not satisfied. Mired in property disputes over the location of the Theatre, and perhaps disillusioned with the sordid alleys surrounding London’s first theatre district, Burbage envisioned a new sort of theatre experience, and, indeed, a new sort of theatre – luxurious, sophisticated, and warm. He set to work.

The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim

The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim

Blackfriars playgoers were frequently mocked for their vanity and love of luxury. Here, Nim is shown in new clothes bought especially to attract the attention of ladies in the Blackfriars audience.

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By opening night, Burbage had spent close to a thousand pounds acquiring and fitting out his Blackfriars theatre. Initially, the outlay was for naught. Thanks to agitation among the well-to-do prospective neighbors of the theatre, the Privy Council 'forbad the use of the said house [the monastery that Burbage had bought and refurbished] for plays'. This stymied the Blackfriars project for a while, and James Burbage died before the theatre could open. But his son, Richard, one of the stars of the Chamberlain’s Men, eventually evaded the Privy Council’s ban, and Blackfriars began hosting plays around 1600. A boys’ company performed in the space until 1608, when the King’s Men moved in. Despite staggeringly inept management, tempests of political controversy, fluctuating business, legal assaults, and traffic jams, Blackfriars survived. Eventually, it even attracted royalty to its audience. But the nationwide closing of the theatres in 1642 spelled its doom. The building remained empty, probably, until 1655, when it was demolished.

Petition to the Privy Council against using Blackfriars as a playhouse

Petition to the Privy Council against using Blackfriars as a playhouse

Copy of the petition against the Blackfriars Playhouse, which was signed by 31 residents of the Blackfriars precinct and submitted to the Privy Council in 1596.

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Copyright: © The National Archives

Only a few details about the Blackfriars playhouse itself survive. Situated in a fairly large room, with the industry-standard expensive galleries, the Blackfriars could hold a crowd, though not nearly as large a one as its open-air cousins. It appears that members of Blackfriars’ audiences felt comfortable sitting on the edge of the stage and talking back to the actors – the Shakespeare First Folio refers to them as the 'Magistrates of Wit'. Plays were performed by candlelight, not daylight. Instead of braving the elements, audiences could relax in shelter, a roof over their heads. Generally speaking, the plays performed in Blackfriars were wittier, more intellectual, than the popular fare performed in the larger theatres. After the play, patrons could climb into the coaches that had brought them to the wealthy district – a welcome change from walking across fields and through the City’s sodden, stinking alleys. As the first successful indoor playhouse, Blackfriars represented the future of theatre.

Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Sam Wanamaker playhouse – a new candlelit theatre next to Shakespeare’s Globe – is designed to replicate the indoor playhouses of the early 17th century.

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Copyright: © Pete Le May

Companies, Troupes, and Players

We associate playhouses with acting companies, but partnerships between personnel and space only came into being about 400 years ago. Throughout English theatre history, troupes of performers had mounted plays wherever they could – at court, in various temporary locations around London, in inn-yards, in the homes of nobles, and at universities. Performing for royalty elevated the profile of performers. Other locations were less prestigious and posed distinct challenges. Inn-yards were spacious, but their facilities varied widely. And while the 'university wits' appreciated finely turned witticisms or high-flown poetry, they disapproved of the concept of publicly available theatre.

Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I

Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth 1

‘The Children of the Royal Chapel’ formed a popular boys’ company which performed at the Second Blackfriars Theatre. Here, they are shown as part of the funeral procession for Elizabeth I in 1603.

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Although performance locations may have varied, the troupes that mounted plays maintained some internal consistency. In the Chamberlain's Men, for example, Richard Burbage regularly played leading men, and clown-roles fell to one member of the troupe: first to Will Kemp, renowned for his physical comedy, and later to Richard Armin, whose talents lay more in song and witticisms. Shakespeare was a member of this company, which held mostly exclusive rights to perform his plays. The Chamberlain's Men were initially in residence at the Theatre, and later at the Globe. In 1603, having secured King James’ patronage, the company became the King’s Men. In 1608, it made a seasonal move to Blackfriars in the winter months.

Will Kemp's Nine Days Wonder, 1600

Will Kemp's Nine Days Wonder, 1600

Will Kemp was a renowned comic actor who played many of Shakespeare’s clowns. This is the record of his morris dance from London to Norwich, after his departure from Shakespeare’s company.

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Copyright: © The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford

The Chamberlain's / King’s Men certainly enjoyed an unprecedented run of influence, financial security, and prestige, but this could not shelter them from the law. The authorities frequently shut down the theaters in an effort to contain outbreaks of plague. Actors in plays deemed 'seditious' could be imprisoned or fined, or both. Acting companies also faced opposition from the Puritans, who articulated their objections to the theatre in a flood of pamphlets, sermons, and calls for repentance. In the short term, these efforts led to little more than the occasional banning of a play or cancellation of a performance. However, eventually the Puritans achieved their aim.

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

Philip Stubbes rails against ‘stage plays and their wickedness’ in his Anatomie of Abuses, 1583.

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The Closing of the Theatres

By 1642, the disastrous reign of Charles I had stimulated the growth of Puritan influence, and in that year Parliament issued an edict banning the staging of plays, even outside London. The edict demanded '[t]hat, while these sad causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, and be forborn'. With these words, the early modern theatre industry effectively ended. The edict implied that the ban would be temporary, but a subsequent edict in 1648 categorically banned 'stage-plays and interludes', established penalties for players, and mandated the destruction of theatres. While the theatre industry would be revived shortly after the Restoration, it would never again approach the cultural saturation enjoyed by early modern theatre. What disease, political mistakes, and cultural elitism could not accomplish, the Puritans did. In closing the theatres, they terminated one of the richest periods of cultural creation in history.

  • Eric Rasmussen
  • Eric Rasmussen, Foundation Professor and Chair of English at the University of Nevada, is co-editor of the award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works andWilliam Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays

  • Ian DeJong
  • Ian DeJong is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada. His scholarship centers around the cultural construction of Shakespeare. His work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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