Mar 8, 2013
Ever wonder what it was like to see a Shakespeare play in the theater for which it was written? The Globe Theater, first built in 1599, burnt to the ground on June 29, 1613, when its thatched roof was ignited by a cannon fired during a performance of Henry VIII. It was rebuilt a year later, but closed in 1642 by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan and theater-hating Roundheads, who, two years later, tore it down and built tenement housing on the site.
The Globe was reconstructed in the 1990s, and a new theater company, dedicated to performing plays from Shakespeare’s day, opened the theater’s first season in 1997 with performances of Henry V and A Winter’s Tale.
The Shakespeare Theatre
It is 1599. The plague is fortunately becoming an unpleasant memory, and, as one of the slowly emerging middle class under Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth, life is not quite as hard as it used to be. What sort of things might you do for fun? If you aren’t in the mood to pass the time with card games, you might want to see the bear-baiting. Violent and bloody, with lively bets on who was going to be the victor, the dogs or the bear they are being set against; going to the bear pit was a popular way to pass the time, even for Her Majesty herself.
Despite the fact that London authorities refused to allow plays within the city, due to its ‘unsavory’ reputation, it was still a favorite leisure activity among all the classes living in the capital city, and many a person would travel across the Themes to Southwark in the afternoon to attend a play
The Rose and The Hope were two of the most well-established playhouses, but recently the Burbage brothers and their acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had opened a brand new theatre called The Globe, and that young playwright, William Shakespeare has written yet another play that promises to be full of the drama and excitement.
The theatre was usually a round, square or octagonal wooden structure, with an unroofed courtyard surrounded by three levels of roofed galleries containing seating, and could hold several thousand people. For a penny, you could elbow one’s way to a the open pit before the stage, though for an extra fee rich nobles could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the stage itself. By paying just a bit more, young gentlemen of appearance could even have their chairs put right up on the stage, as long as they didn’t mind risking the wrath of a groundling or two, who would think nothing of hurling objects at the gentlemen in an effort to get them off the stage. Even women attended plays, though often the prosperous woman would wear a mask to disguise her identity.
Plays relied heavily on the imagination of the audience, as there was very little props and scenery used. You were expected to pay close attention to the dialogue in order to understand what was going on, and the plays themselves were written full of poetic imagery, to help set the stage.
Going to the theatre was a fully interactive experience, and you may find yourself shouting out suggestions, encouragement or curses at the actors, depending on how well you liked the play. Rotten fruit that you didn’t hurl at the young gentleman blocking your view could also be used as a sharper form of critique of an actor’s performance, if you so desired.
Yes, an afternoon at the theatre is a pleasant diversion from the daily toils of life. After all, Lord Chamberlain’s men boasted some of the finest actors of the day, and that Will Kemp was one of the most amusing clowns on the stage. Their playwright, William Shakespeare, manages to create wonderful stories that offer all the drama and humor of life as you know it, and sometimes life as it should be. That’s worth a penny, isn’t it?