Strict laws governed the theater in Shakespeare's time: plays could not deal with matters of religion or state. The mayor of a town had to give his permission for a play to be performed. A new play had to be licensed, for a fee of 7 shillings. If a play offended the Privy Council or the Queen, the official censor had the power to ban the play and arrest the players and the rest of the company for sedition; those convicted of sedition were often put to death.
Luckily, this didn't happen often, but it made writers and players careful. A great deal of what Shakespeare wrote was influenced by this law, as we will see in discussion of the individual plays.
Travelling theater companies occasionally used women as performers, but in the established theaters, all of the roles were played by men. Female characters were often played by teenage or pre-adolescent boys, but often they were played by adult male actors wearing masks.
click here to see a map of London during Shakespeare's time. On it are marked the major theaters.
click here to see an image of the Globe and the Bear Garden; it was drawn in 1616 by Claes van Visscher. Most experts agree that the Globe was round, however, not hexagonal.
The drawing you see below is a conjectural drawing, partly a cross-section, of an Elizabethan Playhouse, made by Walter Hodges in 1965; the Globe would have looked much like this. It was taken from a lecture by Hilda D. Spear at Cologne University in 1989.
The image below comes, again, from Hilda D. Spear's lecture, and is a conjectural reproduction of the Blackfriars Theater.
The first theater was built in Shoreditch, a section of London; this was The Theatre, built by James Burbage for his company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men--the troupe to which Shakespeare belonged.The company had 10 players, ten hirelings, various musicians, stagehands, and fee gatherers, and 5 boys in training. The average play lasted for three hours, and the company gave performances every afternoon except Sunday. Theaters were closed during Lent. Theaters were also closed during plague epidemics; the companies survived then by going on tour in the countryside with smaller companies.
In 1600, London had a population of 200-250,000. Of those, between 18,000 and 24,000 people went to see a play every week.
The Globe Theatre opened in 1599, probably with a performance of Julius Caesar. It was full to its capacity of 2000 people, and the play was a great success. The performance probably started at about 2 p.m.
Not all of Shakespeare's plays were performed in the Globe; it was built after he'd become a success. But in its construction, he was able to include some of the innovations he wanted to make in the performance of his plays.
In Hamlet, for example, the Ghost's appearance astonishes and frightens the characters. In order to make the Ghost's materialization more frightening to the audience, Shakespeare wanted him to appear in an unusual way. Remember that sophisticated special effects were unavailable to Shakespeare, and in any case, often won't work on stage. So instead of having the Ghost simply walk onstage, Shakespeare devised a trap door in the floor of the stage, with a platform under the stage which could be slowly lifted to the level of the stage. The actor playing the Ghost would stand on the platform, invisible to the audience. At the appropriate time, the trap door would be opened, and the platform would rise. Thus, to the audience, the Ghost would appear to be materializing through the floor of the stage. This device became known as "the Hamlet Trap."
If you went to the the Globe to see Hamlet performed in 1600 or 1601, you would go in the daytime, for a couple of reasons. First, there was no electricity in those days, so there would have been no safe or effective way of lighting the stage enough to do a performance at night. Torches and lanterns would have been too dangerous in a wooden structure whose floor was covered with straw; the city of London burned to the ground twice, and fire was an everpresent fear. There's a wonderful passage in Samuel Pepys' Diary, in which he describes his emotions as he watches a fire rage across the river from him in London, and draw closer and closer. Eventually, he has to pack a few possessions and leave his own home. (I won't tell you how it ends--get the book and read it for yourself.)
Another reason to go to the theatre in the daytime would be the fact that walking around at night, especially for women, was not safe. London had no police force then, and the nighttime streets belonged to the criminals and prostitutes. Even during the day, women never went anywhere unescorted, and at night, people stayed in, behind barred doors and windows; those who could afford it hired guards.
The Globe was situated on what was then a large tract of empty land; next to it was a bear-baiting pit, and prostitutes plied their trade outside. The theatre was located just across the river from London; technically, it was outside the city limits. This was important, because the censors in the city had a great deal of control over what was allowed and what was not allowed to be performed, and some city administrations were very restrictive. Being outside the city limits gave Shakespeare more artistic freedom--although he still had to stay on the good side of the King or Queen to avoid imprisonment.
When you arrived at the theatre, you would take your seat. There were three entrances to the theater: one for those standing in the Yard (also known as the Pit: the floor in front of the stage), who paid a penny for admission; one for those in the middle galleries, who paid two pence, and one for those in the upper tiers, who paid three pence. During the performance, food and drink were carried around and sold. If you were of the lower classes, uneducated and poor, you would have purchased the cheapest ticket for 1 penny and you would stand in the "pit." Those from the middle and upper classes purchased more expensive seats. The further away from the pit you could be, the better, because the pit was noisy, smelly, and often rowdy. The floor of the pit was covered with straw, because those who stood (or sat or fell down) in the pit were often drunk, and the straw was needed to soak up the bodily fluids they expelled.
When writing his plays, Shakespeare had to take into account two audiences: those in the gallery seats, and those in the pit. Those in the galleries would be somewhat educated, and interested in the ideas he was exploring. They would be able to appreciate subtle humor and character development. But those in the pit would need action, sex, and slapstick. So when you read Shakespeare's plays, you notice that, after each soliloquy or quiet scene, where the focus is on conversation, there will be a scene in which there is violence or comedy. Today, if you go to a Saturday matinee, the kids in the audience get restless if there's no action; they talk, and get up and walk around, and sometimes even throw things. They hoot if the hero kisses the heroine. This is a mild version of what the people in the pit were like. They were unable to appreciate the subtleties of Hamlet's soliloquy; they wanted a sword fight or a good, bloody murder. And if too much time went by without one, they'd amuse themselves by booing or jeering the people on stage, or throwing rotten fruit or eggs at the actors. Thus, keeping the pit happy was one of Shakespeare's (or any playwright's) major concerns. One of the things Shakespeare liked most about the Blackfriars Theatre was that it catered to a wealthier and more educated audience, and had no pit.
In addition, it was common for one actor to play several minor roles. Shakespeare had to take this into account, and make sure that he didn't have two characters on the stage who were being played by the same actor. And he had to make sure there was enough time for costume changes in between: he couldn't have an actor leave the stage dressed as a serving maid and return seconds later as a soldier.
More on Reading Shakespeare's Plays
When you are reading Shakespeare's plays, here are a few things you can look for.
The structure of almost all of Shakespeare's plays is similar:
- Exposition at the beginning of the play, usually a speech made by a character, or a dialogue between two or more characters, introduces the audience to the characters and situation. It also usually introduces the conflict and explains how the order of the play's world has been disrupted.
- Complication occurs when the actions of the characters disrupt the established social order. By the middle of the play, the situation is a complete mess.
- Resolution occurs when the sense of social order is restored. This happens by the end of the play. (The audience is often left with the impression, especially in the tragedies, of the precariousness of the whole idea of social order.)
The themes that arise in Shakespeare's plays are similar, too. The central conflict in every Shakespeare play is the tension between an idea of order and the reality of disorder in society. In order to present this conflict in human terms, Shakespeare explores the problems of characters caught in situations brought about by their own or other people's behavior.
This sounds pretty simple, and it is. It's just intended as a beginning point. This theme is addressed differently in each play, and the interesting thing is to see how the theme is brought to life and made distinctive in each play.
Okay, that's theoretical. Here are a few concrete things to look for.
1. Look for the broad pattern of the play:
- What are the actions that trigger complications?
- What are the ways in which characters deliberately or accidentally contribute to discord?
- In what ways does order yield to disorder?
- In what ways is order restored (i.e., how are the complications resolved)?
2. Look for the distinctive qualities of the plays:
- What makes it unique? Look at the details of the plot. Don't just do a plot summary; instead, try to figure out the significance of the details. (For example, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom is given the head of an ass: why an ass? Does that connect with any of the lines or jokes or ideas of the play?)
- Use the large controlling ideas to illuminate smaller portions of the text. For example, there is constant tension between order and disorder. Look for evidence that the characters feel there is something wrong with the disorder. What is their response to the disorder? What are their actions? Their words? How do the minor characters help illuminate this theme?
- Look at the language of the play: how are images of disorder set against images of order?
3. Look at the issues Shakespeare is exploring in his plays. This isn't so simple. Shakespeare doesn't provide a "moral" at the end of each play. Instead, he tries to explore the ways in which people act. Society is complex because humans are complex. We are a mass of contradictory needs and desires: we need order, and it is our nature to disrupt any kind of harmony. We need stability, and we need change. We need love, and we often choose to hate. Shakespeare asks questions, rather than providing answers. At the end of a play, the audience often comes away, not with a message, but with an increased awareness of the problems, choices, and difficulties people have to face.
Of course, most literature does this. So what makes Shakespeare different?
He writes better.
Every speech carries tremendous weight of meaning. The speeches are sometimes hard to take in on a first reading.This is partly because they are not there simply to advance the action; they are constantly raising all the larger questions implicit in the play about the relationship between a harmonious view of life and the messy reality of experience. Every play, therefore, raises fundamental questions about the nature and meaning of life.
This is what (beyond the language problem) makes Shakespeare's plays so demanding: they raise more issues than a reader can fully comprehend in one reading.
Shakespeare's choice to write in verse also helps to force our attention onto these larger issues. Poetry is highly ordered langage. Shakespeare ususally writes in blank verse (unrhymed lines of iambic pentamenter--each line contains 10 syllables). This helps to highlight the tension between order and disorder: time and again, characters talk, in ordered verse, about the disorder of experience.
When Shakespeare chooses to drop this rhythm and write in ordinary prose, this is also a signal. On occasion, a main character will use prose when he is swept up into the chaos surrounding him. In addition, low comic scenes (between clowns and beggars, for instance), which are very chaotic, are often written in prose. In the scenes with Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, note that Shakespeare heightens the audience's sense of the mismatch between beautiful, delicate Titania and the ass Bottom by writing her lines in blank verse and his in prose.
Shakespeare's comedies begin in trouble and end in peace. They often focus upon two young lovers, usually aristocratic, who encounter difficulties but are later united. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, especially, Shakespeare seems to be playing with the medieval idea that love has the power to conquer or transform.
The comedies often contrast an urban, troubled world with a more pastoral world, where characters undergo renewal and find what they are seeking, or are freed from a misapprehension or from a constricting viewpoint.
The comedies, although basically romantic, often satirize the characters. But we don't usually think less of the characters because of their flaws. In fact, the comedies specialize in making us laugh at the characters' (and our own) unruly passions and instincts. The comedies usually focus on the irrational character beneath the veneer--the truth behind the mask; thus, masks are common plot devices.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
To get a start on the themes in this play, read the introductions in your book. The essay by Catherine Belsey after the play is very helpful, too.
The historians tell us that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written and performed for a wedding. That much is pretty certain. It would have been a noble wedding, certainly. And Queen Elizabeth herself may have attended the wedding and play. But whose wedding it was no one knows for sure. In any case, the themes of love and marriage dominate the play.
This play is unlike most of Shakespeare's other plays in that he used no specific source material. The whole play came, not from an old play or an historical source, but from his imagination. For that reason, it is tempting to many critics to see this play as a reflection of Shakespeare's own attitudes. But, as with his other plays, there is no evidence that Shakespeare shared any of his characters' ideas or feelings, or if he did, which ones.
But the play does approach some of the issues with which Shakespeare dealt on a daily basis. Stanley Wells points out that "...there is a sense in which the entire play is about the power of the imagination..." (64). The lovers, and Bottom, all believe their night in the forest was a dream; and at the end of the play, Puck tells us that, if we didn't like the play, we should pretend it was a dream. The lovers--and even Titania--all imagine the objects of their affection to be perfect (whichever object that may be at the moment); that is surely a testament to the power of the imagination, especially in Titania's case. And after Theseus hears the lovers' account of their night in the woods, he dismisses it as a nightmare: "...in the night, imagining some fear, / how easy is a bush supposed a bear!" But Hippolyta argues that the power of the imagination is greater than that:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy. (V.i.24-7)
Then there is the play-within-the play, Pyramus and Thisbe. About this, Park Honan theorizes that, in Peter Quince, Shakespeare is indulging in a bit of self-directed satire: "Peter Quince is like Shakespeare in writing a drama and acting in it, in being versatile, assigning parts and dealing with actors, arranging rehearsals and making textual changes. Shakespeare burlesques himself as a Johannes Factotum whose efforts produce nonsense..." (216).
But although some of what Shakespeare wrote may have autobiographical elements, its main concern is love. Love is empowering and enriching. It is sublime. It is humiliating and denigrating. It is absurd. All of this, Shakespeare reminds us in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lysander and Hermia, followed by Demetrius and Helena, run away to a "wood near Athens." The word "wood," as Stanley Wells points out, is a place; it is also a state of mind: "wood" was another word for "crazy." Even Demetrius says he is "wood within this wood," and certainly in the play, as Bottom says, "reason and love keep little company together nowadays." Harold Bloom argues that the four lovers--Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena--are interchangable, as the plot shows, "...since all young people in love notoriously dwell in a common element" (Bloom 149)--that is, they dwell in a dream.
And, as we are reminded by Titania and Oberon, marriage does not guarantee perfect happiness. They have not been faithful to each other, and although they are reconciled at the end, this was accomplished by deception. The romanticism is also undercut by the fact that the revels are being hosted by Theseus and his intended bride, Hippolyta. Hippolyta was queen of the Amazons, who were conquered by Theseus. He abducted her and later married her. In return, the Amazons attacked Athens but were defeated again in a battle that took place in the city. Hippolyta seems happy enough in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but she is mostly silent; we hear no great declarations of love between the couple in whose honor all this is taking place.
Our attention is naturally drawn to the lovers, since theirs is the most obvious conflict. But a number of critics have argued that the true protagonist of the play is Bottom. Harold Bloom, particularly, believes that Bottom is the core of the play. He points out that Bottom is a weaver, and the word "bottom," among other things, means the center of the skein on which the weaver's wool is wound. He alone of the mortals sees and converses with the fairies, and thus bridges both of the worlds of the play. He is the star and moderator of the play-within-the-play, bridging the gap between the classes of mortals. "Bottom is universal enough...to weave a common dream for all of us, except insofar as we are Pucks rather than Bottoms...Every exigency finds Bottom round and ready; his response is always admirable. The Puck-induced metamorphosis is a mere externality: the inner Bottom is unfazed and immutable...Though he is...sometimes inaccurate at the circumference, he is always sound at the core" (150-51).
Puck is, according to Bloom, Bottom's antithesis. In this play, he is relatively harmless, a prankster. "The word puck or pook originally meant a demon out for mischief or a wicked man, and Robin Goodfellow was once a popular name for the Devil." But in this play, he is firmly under Oberon's (mostly) benign control--this is a comedy, remember. Bloom theorizes that "...Bottom and Puck are invariable components of the human" (152). Bottom and Puck, then, if you accept Bloom's theory, would embody the true conflict of the play.
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, click the button:
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare the Man, by A. L. Rowse
2. Shakespeare's Life and Art, by Peter Alexander.
3. A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh
4. Everyday Life in Renaissance England from 1485-1649, by Kathy Lynn Emerson
5. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, by S. Schoenbaum
6. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
7. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
8. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
9. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
Click on the picture at the top of the page to find out more about it.