Elizabethan drama and iconic theatres
Alongside the plays staged by touring companies in inns, guildhalls and even churches were civic entertainments performed in the streets, often prompted by a royal visit. During their visits to towns and cities across the kingdom – known as royal entries – the monarch often stopped along the way to watch pageants and plays, and sometimes provided the starring role in entertainments.
While inn yards and guildhalls continued to be used during the 1560s and 1570s, the proliferation of purpose-built playhouses in London was to change the face of drama in the later Elizabethan period.
More a shrewd business enterprise than an appreciation of the arts, the first playhouse – the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567 – was the brainchild of a grocer who erected scaffolding in the grounds of a farmhouse. Soon other businessmen were following suit, and nine more dedicated playhouses appeared in the outskirts of London between 1575 and 1578. Their location in the seedier areas of the city, among bear baiting and brothels, conveniently placed them beyond the control of the city’s authorities.
Hamling concludes: “If we want to know where Elizabethan drama happened, it is clear that a range of different locations and spaces were used for performance, some of which can still be visited today.”
The Globe, London
Where Shakespeare’s theatre burned to the ground
Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, the reconstructed Globe theatre is one of London’s most famous landmarks and the venue most closely associated with Shakespeare’s plays. Like most permanent playhouses of the time, the Globe was a tall, open-roofed, roughly circular structure with a cover over part of the stage and a roof around the edge of the building to protect the galleries from the elements.
Plays invariably took place in the afternoon with actors performing on a raised stage and the audience standing in the space around the stage or seated in the galleries, according to class.
Shakespeare was one of four shareholders in the Globe and historians believe that two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written in 1599, the year in which the Globe opened. However, tragedy struck in 1613 when, during a performance of Henry VIII , wadding from a stage cannon ignited the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground. The building was rebuilt the following year, this time with a tiled roof. Shakespeare died in 1616 but his company of players, The King’s Men, remained at the Globe until 1642 when the English parliament issued an ordinance suppressing all stage plays in theatres, as civil war broke out across the country. No longer of use, the building was demolished in 1644 to make way for tenements. Work to rebuild the structure began in 1993 and the new Globe theatre, standing just a few metres from its original location, reopened to the public three and a half years later.
Visitors to the reconstructed Globe can enjoy an exhibition, as well as watch Shakespeare’s plays performed by modern-day touring companies. (S 020 7902 1400 www.shakespearesglobe.com)
The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace, London
Where players performed before royalty
Royal entertainment was not solely restricted to royal entries and open-air performances while on a progress around the country. Monarchs would often employ companies of players to entertain them at court – and the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace is a wonderful example of spaces used for such festivities. We know that Shakespeare’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream there before James VI and I on New Year’s Day 1604.
The hall was also used regularly as a theatre during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in 1572 a stage was erected against the screen, with an adjoining chamber serving as a dressing room for the players; the Great Watching Chamber was reportedly used for rehearsals. The Great Hall appears to have continued its role as a part-time theatre well after the establishment of permanent playhouses, and its final performance is recorded as taking place on 18 October 1731, although the stage was not finally cleared away until 1798.