In 2013, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)
Most people’s only experience with Shakespeare is their freshman English classes, awkwardly professing their love to each other during Romeo and Juliet. Some would be very surprised that the stuffy theater atmosphere where they think Shakespeare belongs was very, very different back in the day…
No girls allowed
Women simply did not go on the stage in Shakespeare’s time – it was socially unacceptable. Instead, to play women’s parts, theater companies employed adolescent boys, since their voices were higher and they did not yet have beards. There is some indication that the young men who were hired as “boy actors” had a sort of apprentice status, and often continued to act into adulthood.
Actors were considered low class
Despite the popularity of the theater, actors in Elizabethan England were looked upon with scorn. Puritan leaders looked on them as coarse people and on theaters of dens of sin. Many actors were of a bohemian class. In addition, leaders worried that actors and playwrights were using their shows to spread subversion and unrest through the public. To appease the Puritan population, the building of playhouses was banned within London’s city limits, forcing the theaters to build just outside of town.
Some of the makeup was poisonous
There were a few kinds of makeup used in Elizabethan theater, but things could turn grim when making someone look pale. White makeup could have been made with powdered bone and poppy oil, but the most common type was made by mixing white lead and vinegar.
Some may recognize one of those ingredients as very poisonous. By the time it became popular, some authors warned against this white face paint, saying that it made the skin “grey and shrivelled.” As one might expect, skin problems were common.
The crowd might get involved
Seating in the Globe theater was set up on a rising pay scale – the cheapest seats were for the “groundlings:” the poor viewers who had to stand under the open sky near the stage to watch. Etiquette for the groundlings was not very strict. They freely expressed their approval or distaste for what was happening on stage through jeers, catcalls or throwing food.
There were special effects
The theater business was very competitive, so the company at the Globe theater used several different special effects to excite and bring in audiences. The simplest were trapdoors. The floor of the stage and ceiling of the stage were both equipped with trapdoors, through which props and actors could make appearances. To enhance the atmosphere of the plays, musicians could play pieces from a spot above and behind the stage, actors could make sound effects like thunder and ghostly wails from below the stage, and up in the attic, a cannon could fire to herald important entrances.
And then there was the blood. The simplest bloody special effect would have been a handkerchief soaked in animal blood. Blood-soaked dummies could have been used as a substitute for an actor whose character had died. Actors would conceal a bladder full of animal blood beneath their clothes which could be pierced by a sword or a dagger during a fight scene. Any of these effects could have been enhanced with animal bones, tongues and intestines to gain the extra “wow” factor.
The Globe Theater was built out of another theater
The Globe is not Shakespeare’s first theater. Before the Globe, his acting company performed at a theater creatively called The Theatre. James Burbage (whose son was a legendary Shakespearean actor) obtained the lease and had The Theatre built, but in 1597 the Puritan who owned the land refused to renew The Theatre’s lease. So, after some argument, the company simply disassembled The Theatre, took the wood to a new site and used it in the construction of a new venue – the Globe Theater.
Shakespeare only owned a tiny share in the Globe Theater
When the new theater was built, there were some difficulties in paying for it, so the Burbage brothers (sons of James Burbage) suggested that some of the acting company pitch in. Shakespeare was one of the men who agreed, and so ended up owning 12.5 percent of the Globe Theater. That share size dropped three more times when more investors put in money. Shakespeare’s final share was somewhere around 7 percent.
The original Globe was destroyed by cannon fire
The Globe was constructed almost entirely of wood, with a thatch roof.
Remember how I said there was a cannon in the attic?
To fire it, they filled it with live gunpowder and wadding, then set it off. During a performance of King Henry VIII, the cannon was fired, which produced sparks. The sparks set the thatched roof on fire. According to an account by Sir Henry Wotton, the whole establishment burned to the ground over the course of a single hour.
The Globe was a fire hazard waiting to happen. Not only was it made entirely of flammable material, but it also only had two small doors for exits. The spectators in the theater also didn’t run right away because they thought the smoke was from the cannon-fire (which, in a way, was true). Remarkably, nobody was injured except for one man, whose pants caught on fire. His flaming trousers were doused with a bottle of ale.
The second Globe Theater was shut down by the Puritans
The Globe was rebuilt and housed plays until 1642. In this year, under heavy pressure by the Puritan citizens, the English Parliament passed an ordinance banning the theaters’ activities. Two years later, the building was pulled down, and the Globe was gone – until 1997, when it was rebuilt, albeit 750 feet away from its original location.
Now check out these Shakespearean insults.