Michael J. Cummings © 2003
page has been revised and moved to
of the Original Globe (1599)
original Globe Theatre was a wood-framed building with plastered outside
walls joining at angles to form a circle or an oval. The interior resembled
that of a modern opera house, with three galleries protected from rain
and sunlight by a roof. Between 2,000 and 3,000 playgoers paid two or more
pennies to sit in these galleries, depositing them in a box.
The stage was raised four to six feet from ground level and had a roof
supported by pillars. In front of the stage was a roofless yard for up
to 1,000 "groundlings" or "stinklings," who paid a "gatherer" a penny to
stand through a performance under a hot sun or threatening clouds. Playgoers
could also sit on the stage if their wallets were fat enough to pay the
exorbitant price. It is unlikely that the uneducated groundlings who huddled
in the yard understood the difficult passages in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare
himself belittled them in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, calling them
(through lines spoken by Hamlet) incapable of comprehending anything more
than dumbshows. But because the groundlings liked the glamor and glitter
of a play, they regularly attended performances at the Globe. When bored,
they could buy food and drink from roving peddlers, exchange the news of
the day, and boo and hiss the actors.
was no curtain that opened or closed at the beginning or end of plays.
At the back of the stage, there was probably a wall with two or three doors
leading to the dressing rooms of the actors. These rooms collectively were
known as the "tiring house." To tire means to dress–that
is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring
house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege. Props and backdrops
were few. Sometimes a prop used for only one scene remained onstage for
other scenes because it was too heavy or too awkward to remove. Peter Street
was the carpenter/contractor hired to construct the Globe. The main rival
of the Globe in the first years of the 17th Century was the Fortune
Theatre, constructed in 1600 (also by Peter Street).
Shakespeare's time, males played all the characters, even Juliet, Cleopatra
and Ophelia. Actors playing gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural
characters could pop up from the underworld through a trap door on the
stage or descend to earth from heaven on a winch line from the ceiling.
Off the stage, the ripple of a sheet of metal could create thunder. Stagehands
set off fireworks to create omens, meteors, comets, or the wrath of the
Almighty. Instruments such as oboes and cornets sometimes provided music.
If an actor suffered a fencing wound, he simply slapped his hand against
the pouch (perhaps a pig's bladder) beneath his shirt to release ripe red
blood signaling his demise.
gallery had a thatched roof. (Thatch consists of straw or dried stalks
of plants such as reeds.) During a performance of Henry VIII on
June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down after booming canon fire announcing
the entrance of King Henry at Cardinal Wolsey's palace ignited the roof.
the second Globe had a non-flammable tile roof, it was torn down in 1644
after a fire of another sort, Puritan zeal, closed all theatres. Puritans
were strict Protestants who favored strait-laced living and opposed theatre
performances. After the Globe was razed, tenements replaced it. Between
September 2 and 5, 1666, the Great Fire of London–which destroyed more
than 13,000 dwellings and more than 80 churches–consumed the foundations
and whatever else was left of the Globe. Not a stick of wood from it was
left. Modern recreations of the first and second Globe theatres are based
on 17th Century descriptions and drawings. No one knows the exact dimensions
or appearance of the second Globe or its predecessor. Globe Theatre recreations
are based on educated guesses and on a surviving drawing of a rival theatre..
Wrong Side of the Thames
Globe was built west of London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames River
in an area known as Bankside. It was the seedy section of town, frequented
by prostitutes, pickpockets and other unsavory people. Not far from the
Globe were "bear gardens," where Londoners attended entertainments in which
a bear chained by the neck or a leg was attacked by dogs, including mastiffs.
The sport was known as bearbaiting. More than two decades before
the first Globe Theatre was built, Queen Elizabeth herself attended an
entertainment involving 13 bears. Bankside residents also enjoyed bullbaiting.
In this entertainment, a bull’s nose was primed with pepper to excite it.
Dogs were then loosed one at a time to bite the bull’s nose.
Burbage and his brother, Cuthbert, inherited a playhouse called "The Theatre"
from their father, James. The Theatre, which opened in 1576, stood in the
Shoreditch section of London. It resembled a miniature U.S. baseball park
in that it had a circular seating area surrounding an open area. Unlike
a baseball park, however, the open area had a stage. In front of the stage
was a yard in which playgoers unable to afford seating could stand.
the owner of the land on which The Theatre stood threatened to demolish
the building after the lease expired, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the
playhouse and reassembled it, timber by timber, on the south bank of the
Thames in a district where two other theatres, the Rose and the Swan, were
already competing for the coins of London playgoers. The reconstruction
was completed in 1599.
Burbage was an actor in a company called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, which
Shakespeare had joined in 1594. (The name of this company changed several
times. For more information
was the first actor in history to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear,
Romeo, Henry V and Richard III. Cuthbert Burbage did not act, although
he was interested in drama. The Lord Chamberlain's men was the most prestigious
acting company at the time. However, another company known as the Admiral's
Men (which featured the works of Christopher Marlowe, among others) also
enjoyed wide popularity and respect.
Burbage Brothers owned a 50 percent interest in the Globe. William Shakespeare
and four other investors–John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope
and Will Kempe–owned the remaining 50 percent in equal shares.
Shakespeare was, of course, the main dramatist. But other authors also
debuted plays there. They included Ben Jonson, Thomas
Dekker and the writing team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Fletcher
and Shakespeare teamed up to write The Two Noble Kinsmen.
actors at the Globe and other theatres were males, even those who played
Juliet and Cleopatra. It was forbidden for a woman to set foot on an Elizabethan
stage. This proscription against females meant that Romeo probably recited
his lines to a fuzzy-faced boy and that Antony may have whispered sweet
nothings to a gawky adolescent male. However, because of wigs, neck-to-toe
dresses and makeup artistry, it was easy for a young male to pass for a
female. After an actor reached early adulthood, he could begin playing
male parts. Shakespeare himself sometimes performed in his plays. It is
said that he enjoyed playing the Ghost in Hamlet. All actors had
to memorize their lines exactly; if they forgot their lines, they had to
improvise cleverly or watch or listen for cues from an offstage prompter.
skilled actors, such as Richard Burbage, earned more money–and received
more praise–than Shakespeare and other playwrights. Actors who played clowns
and jesters were celebrities, much as today's television and movie comedians.
The main actors who performed in the plays listed in Shakespeare's First
Folio were the following:
Kempt (Will Kempe)
acting company to which Shakespeare belonged established itself in 1590
as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, also called simply the Chamberlain's
Men. Shakespeare joined the company about 1594. After the company's
patron–Henry Carey, First Lord Hunsdon, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth–died
in 1596, Carey's son, George (Second Lord Hunsdon), assumed the patronage
of the company. It then adopted a new name, Hunsdon's Men.
However, the company reverted back to its old name, Lord Chamberlain's
Men, in 1597. It retained that name until the death of Queen Elizabeth
I in March 1603 and the accession of James I as King England. At that time,
James became the company's patron, and its name changed to the King's
and other Elizabethan actors had to perform their own stunts, such as falling
or tumbling. They also had to wield swords and daggers with convincing
skill. In addition, most actors had to know how to perform popular dances
of their era and earlier eras, depending on the time and place of the play.
Finally, actors had to have a voice of robust timbre. After all, there
were no microphones or megaphones in Shakespeare's day. Several thousand
noisy people–sometimes cheering, sometimes booing–had to hear every line.
Sets Equal Improved Writing
settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions
of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated
Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.
place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them
could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic
effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it
is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the
exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover,
encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience
in the production of a play, and this active participation was further
increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy,
soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as
they are in modern theatre.–Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines
of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (Page 8).
Effects, Music, and Dancing
performing a bloody play such as Titus Andronicus, actors in Shakespeare's
day filled vessels such as pigs' bladders with blood or a liquid resembling
blood and concealed them beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only
to pound a fist against a bladder to release the blood and die a gruesome
death. Stagehands in the wings simulated thunder by striking a sheet of
metal or pounding a drum. They also sometimes set off fireworks during
battle scenes and lit torches during night scenes. The imagination
of the audience was called upon to provide other special effects, as the
prologue to Henry V suggests.
of Shakespeare's plays often included vocal and instrumental music, especially
in plays performed on special occasions before royalty. Minor characters
usually sang the vocal selections. Instruments used included the trumpet,
the oboe–called an hautboy or hautbois (pronounced O bwa)–and
stringed devices such as the viol and the lute. The plays also included
dancing. In fact, Romeo and Juliet met at a masked dance. In A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, the fairy king, Oberon, dances with his queen, Titania,
after inviting her to “rock" with him, so to speak. Oberon says, “Sound,
music! Come, my queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon
these sleepers be." Shakespeare’s popular comedy As You Like It
ends with a dance. Other plays with dancing include Henry V and
Labour’s Lost. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, co-authored by Shakespeare
and John Fletcher, the Schoolmaster and the jailer’s daughter speak of
a dance called the “morris."
at the Globe and other London theatres generally wore clothing currently
in fashion. Thus, the characters in plays set centuries before the age
of Shakespeare dressed in Elizabethan or Jacobean apparel. For example,
the characters in King Lear and Cymbeline, both set in ancient
Britain, wore clothing popular at the time of Shakespeare. Presumably,
it would have been too costly and time-consuming to research and make costumes
of another era.
quality in the Globe Theatre was poor, and spoken lines did not carry unless
actors bellowed them viva voce. Consequently, actors had to recite
their lines with boom and thunder while helping to convey their meaning
with exaggerated gestures.
actors had to know all of their lines word for word. In a day when their
were no cue cards and no intermissions–and actors had to perform in many
plays each year instead of the one or two that occupy modern actors in
New York and London–such a task surely was Herculean for the major actors
playing Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. However, acting companies did post
a person offstage to prompt actors who forgot their lines.
an age when royals and nobles held full sway over commoners, the Globe
Theatre was a democratic institution, admitting anyone–whether a baron,
a beggar, a knight, a candlemaker, an earl, a shoemaker, or a strumpet–if
he or she had coin of the realm to drop in a box before entering. The viewers
of a play could be noisy and rowdy, and they could deliver an instant review
of an acting performance in the form or a rotten tomato colliding with
the forehead of an offending actor.
Study Guide in Book Form
a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback.
It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including
plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each
play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies
themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever
necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well
as other poems written by Shakespeare.
the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations
of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource
for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's
web site or from Amazon.com.
Globe had a Latin motto: Totus mundus agit histrionem. It was a
translation of one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: All the World's
a Stage. The line can also be translated as All the world plays
writers have erroneously attributed the derivation of the term box office
to the use of a money box at the Globe Theatre into which theatregoers
deposited coins to pay for seeing a play. In fact, the term box office
did not originate until several centuries later, when it was used to refer
to an office at which theatregoers could reserve an enclosed area of seating
(box) for viewing stage performances.
was none. But a flag flew over the theatre on play days to advertise performances.
If a tragedy was scheduled, the flag was black; if a comedy was scheduled,
the flag was white; if a history play was scheduled, the flag was red.
in or Near London Between 1576 and 1614
Boar's Head (Inn)
Red Bull (Inn)
Theatres: Courtyards, Royal Palaces, Private Residences
Some Londoners Opposed Theatres
Londoners opposed theatres on grounds that the crowds that they attracted
would spread plague, cause riots, and increase pickpocketing. In addition,
opponents believed theatre plays would lure young people and tradesmen
from gainful activity and tempt Sunday churchgoers to stray their paths
to the theatre door instead of the church door. .
any play could be staged in Shakespeare's time, it had to be approved by
the king's (or the queen's) censor, the master of revels. The censor scrutinized
each play at the expense of the production company. Plays considered morally
or politically offensive could be banned under pain of imprisonment. John
Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare
and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, Page 31)
discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging
of one of Shakespeare's plays:
At a time of unrest, when
the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and
armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's
company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed
and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled
to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this
might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was
taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political
issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious
ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in
ancient Rome or foreign countries.
Season and Time of Performances
the Globe had a roofless yard, it was a warm-weather theatre. In cold weather,
performances were held at the Blackfriars, a monastery converted to a theatre,
or at another location. Performances at the Globe began in mid-afternoon
after a trumpet sounded. Sunlight provided the lighting, although torches
were sometimes lit to suggest night scenes. There were no intermissions.
All performances had to end before nightfall so that playgoers could return
safely home. There were no performances during lent or during outbreaks
Directions and Related Terms
One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five
acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one
major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands may change
scenery, and the setting may shift to another locale.
Stage direction indicating the coming of a battle; a call to arms
Tapestry hung on the stage to conceal scenery until the right moment. In
an arras played a crucial role. Polonius hid behind one to eavesdrop on
a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. When Hamlet
saw the tapestry move, he stabbed at it, thinking King Claudius was behind
it, and killed Polonius.
Words an actor speaks to the audience which other actors on the stage cannot
hear. Sometimes the actor cups his mouth toward the audience or turns away
from the other actors. An aside serves to reveal a character's thoughts
or concerns to the audience without revealing them to other characters
in a play. Near the end of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude raises a cup of
wine to her lips during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. King
Claudius had poisoned the wine and intended it for Hamlet. In an aside,
Claudius–unwilling to warn Gertrude in an effort to preserve his innocence–says,
"It is the poison'd cup: it is too late."
In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, a single word on the bottom
of the right side of every page. This word was the first word appearing
on the next page.
The chorus was a single person who recited a prologue before Act I (and
sometimes a passage between acts) in Henry V, Henry VIII, Troilus and
Cressida, and Romeo and Juliet. Generally, the chorus informed the
audience of action offstage or outside the time frame of the play.
Personae: List of the characters in a play. Such a list is found at
the beginning of each Shakespeare play.
direction indicating the entrance onto the stage
of a character or characters.
Short address spoken by an actor at the end of a play that comments on
the meaning of the events in the play or looks ahead to expected events;
an afterword in any literary work.
direction indicating that a military attack is taking
place. The opening of Scene II in Act III of King John contains
such a stage direction.
direction indicating the departure of two or more
characters from the stage.
direction indicating the departure of a character
from the stage.
Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important
person. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage.
Copy: Play manuscript after it has been edited.
Papers: Original manuscript of a playwright which was later edited.
Roofed seating area of a theatre, such as the Globe, that resembled the
grandstand of a baseball park. The Globe had three galleries that could
accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 playgoers.
Stage direction indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys
(OH bwah), which are Elizabethan oboes
Preface or prelude to a play. The Taming of the Shrew contains an
induction that precedes the main plot.
of Revels: Government censor who examined all plays for offensive material
Introduction of a play. In Henry V, a chorus (one person) speaks
a prologue that encourages the audience members to use their imaginations
to create what an Elizabethan stage cannot: battlefields, clashing swords,
the might of warriors. Shakespeare writes, "Think when we talk of horses,
that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth."
or Prompt Copy: Edited version of a play in which an acting company
inserted stage directions.
Re-Enter: Stage direction
indicating the re-entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Scene: (1) Time and
place of the action in a play; (2) part of an act in a play that usually
takes place in one location.
Sennet: Trumpet flourish
to introduce the entrance of a character, such as King Lear (Act 1).
Soliloquy: Long passage
in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other
characters. Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" speech is an example.
Solus: Stage direction
indicating a character is alone on the stage.
Register: Book in which the English government required printers to
register the title of a play before the play was published. The full official
name of the Stationers' Register was the Hall Book of the Worshipful
Company of Stationers.
Tiring House: Dressing
rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To
tire means to dress–that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes,
the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under
Torches: Stage direction
indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Within: Stage direction
indicating that a person speaking or being spoken to is behind a door or
inside a room.
Opportunists attempting to
capitalize on the popularity of Shakespeare's plays sometimes printed "stolen"
versions of the plays. They obtained these versions by attending a play
and copying the lines.
in the Modern Era
the 19th Century, Shakespeare productions had become elaborate spectacles
featuring lavish sets and costumes and bombastic recitations of dialogue.
Such productions required more time to enact than the productions of Shakespeare's
time because of the frequent scenery changes and the inflated delivery
style of the actors. Consequently, theater companies often omitted or revised
important passages to keep the plays at a tolerable length. Thus, the heart
and soul of the plays, the verbal Shakespeare, became subservient to special
on DVD (or VHS)
in the early 20th Century, Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) restored
Shakespeare productions to their original simplicity in adaptations at
the Savoy Theatre in London. An actor and a play producer, Granville-Barker
was also a Shakespearean scholar who well knew that elaborate productions
had eviscerated the pith of Shakespeare's plays. At the Savoy between 1912
and 1914, he debuted productions of Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale,
and A Midsummer Night's Dream that emphasized spare sets and a recitation
style closer to that of everyday speech. Actors not only had to memorize
their lines; they also had to understand them and use intonations and gestures
that elucidated their meanings and brought them to life.
part of the credit for Granville-Barker's welcome changes belongs to William
Poel, a producer who operated the Elizabethan Stage Society between 1894
and 1905. Poel used an Elizabethan-style platform to present his productions
and directed his actors to speak in natural rhythms rather than in artificial
Granville-Barker acted in a 1903 Poel production, he never forgot the lessons
he learned. In 1904, Granville-Barker, still in his twenties, produced
his first Shakespeare play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for the
Court Theatre in Chelsea. Eight years later came the important Savoy productions.
Before performing them, he built a stage jutting into the seating area,
used scripts adhering closely to Shakespeare's folio texts, and ordered
the actors to speak like people having real conversations.
eventually took Shakespeare to America for a tour, returned to England
to serve in World War I, wrote a collection of highly regarded Prefaces
to Shakespeare, and moved to Paris with his wife, where he died on
August 31, 1946.
although Shakespeare continues to be performed in stage productions around
the world, most people become familiar with his works through film productions
such as those of Laurence Olivier, Franco Zeffirelli, and Kenneth Branaugh.
These productions often combine the best of both Shakespearean traditions,
including conversational recitation techniques and appealing visual and
sound effects in castles and on battlefields. The "wooden O" in the prologue
of Henry V—a reference to the oval-shaped Globe Theatre—has become
the world in the modern Shakespeare film, enabling producers to set the
scenes of the plays outdoors as well as indoors with all the trappings
of castle life, all the panoply of battle, and all the dark magic of three
witches on a heath.
to Granville-Barker, these films reflect life as we all act it—with fire
and feeling, punctuated by an occasional slur or stutter—on a stage that
is never farther away than a porch or stoop or field of clover.
and Cleopatra (1974)
Nunn, John Schoffield
Johnson, Janet Suzman
You Like It (2010)
Laskey, Naomi Frederick
You Like It (1937)
Ainley, Felix Aylmer
Comedy of Errors
Howard, Irene Worth
Bloom, Richard Johnson, Helen Mirren
Box: The Comedies
Box: The Histories
Box: The Tragedies
Olivier, Jean Simmons
Gibson, Glenn Close
||David Tennant, Patrick Stewart,
Gielgud, Bill Colleran
Burton, Hume Cronyn
Scott, Eric Simonson
Scott, Blair Brown
Branaugh, Derek Jacobi
Banks, Felix Aylmer
VI Part I
Benson, Trevor Peacock
VI Part II
VI Part III
Stride, Claire Bloom, Julian Glover
Pasco, Keith Michell
Brando, James Mason
Heston, Jason Robards
Cusack, Susan Engel
Mower, Ann Lynn
Olivier, Colin Blakely
Labour's Lost (2000)
Branagh, Alicia Silverstone
McKellen, Judy Dench