Because the actors owned the company, new plays written for the company had to include parts for all the main actors to let them show their strengths. This is one of the reasons why you get funny bits even in the most serious tragedies. So in Macbeth we have the role of the Porter, whose drunken antics amuse the crowds, designed for the comic in the company.

It was quite usual for some parts to be ‘doubled up’ where one person would play two or more characters because they were not on stage at the same time. The plays would be structured to allow for this. Later in Shakespeare’s life he was able to afford more people on stage at once because his company was so successful. In Twelfth Night, for example, nearly every single character is on stage in the final scene, meaning that no doubling up was possible.

To be an actor in the Elizabethan age was to have the possibility of becoming rich and famous – actors frequently mixed with nobility and appeared at court. However, it was not unusual for actors and the theatre to be associated with scandal and the underworld. The Globe Theatre, for example, was built on the south bank of the Thames, just outside the city limits of the day because it was illegal to put on a play inside London.

Did you know?

  • Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright. We think that he played quite minor roles in his own plays – like the ghost in Hamlet.
  • When the plays were first published in 1623, the book included a list of the ‘principal actors’ in all the plays. Two of the most famous Shakespearean actors were William Kempe and Richard Burbage. Burbage ran the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.