Today, people worldwide have entertainment at their fingertips. Large-screen televisions equipped with TiVo recording equipment and state-of-the-art speakers bring a wide array of dramas, comedies, and reality shows into nearly everyone’s home. If TV becomes a bore, consumers can immerse themselves in a World War II battle or a futuristic fantasy with a video game. Leisure activities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not virtual or passive. Instead, they required large-scale communal interaction often subject to the vagaries of weather and disease. For just a penny or two even the poorest Londoners could find hours of entertainment. In its day the Globe was one of the finest playhouses in London—a place where men, women, and children could be whisked to the canals of Venice, a magical island in the Mediterranean Sea, or the shores of the recently discovered New World. An afternoon at the Globe promised lords and ladies, scoundrels and damsels, a rowdy and rollicking time. In its heyday there was not a better place to be in the whole of London.
Opening and Controversy
The Globe opened on September 21, 1599, with a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a historical play of murder and politics. The date can be verified because Swiss tourist Thomas Platter, traveling with his half brother Felix, recorded the experience in his diary: “We witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar.”23 Fifteen actors played to a nearly full house.
Almost from the beginning, the Globe theater was a stunning success. With Richard Burbage as its featured actor, and William Shakespeare as its playwright in residence, audiences flocked to watch a new play performed there nearly every day. Shakespeare’s work had become quite popular, but one playwright could only write so many plays. Therefore, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men produced the work of other contemporary playwrights, too, including Ben Jonson. The other London theaters, including the Swan, had no choice but to make room for a glimmering new rival. The nearby Bear Garden and its animal acts also bore the brunt of the Globe’s financial success and saw attendance fall. And with a constantly changing variety of plays and some of the best actors London had to off er, the Globe kept audiences coming day after day.
In its first few years the Globe produced Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Othello, King Lear, and Richard II. The latter, written by Shakespeare in 1595, stirred controversy when the Earl of Essex commissioned, or paid, the Chamberlain’s Men forty shillings above their usual fee to produce the play at the Globe on February 7, 1601. Essex, a plotter against Elizabeth I, may have been trying to draw a comparison between the character of Richard II, a weak ruler, and Elizabeth and in this way incite a public revolt against the monarch. Eleven of Essex’s supporters attended the play; the next day Essex attempted to overthrow the queen but was quickly arrested.
Elizabeth showed mercy to the Chamberlain’s Men, who likely knew nothing about the plot. In fact, she invited them to perform the same play for her later that month, on February 24, the day before Essex’s execution for treason.
Raise the Flag
In Elizabethan England, advertising was less sophisticated than today but no less effective. Historians estimate that 10 percent of London’s population, or 150,000 people, attended a play every week. Each morning Bankside theaters circulated handbills throughout the city to announce which play was being performed that day. In the early afternoon the playhouses blew trumpets and hoisted a brightly colored silken flag high into the air on a flagpole to remind people— especially those living across the river in London—that the performance would soon begin. A red flag signified a history play; a white one comedy; and a black flag tragedy. “Each play-house advanceth his flag in the air,” writes one Londoner of the time, “whither quickly at the waving thereof are summoned whole troops of men, women, and children.” 24 Since the Globe and other theaters were open-air, the flags never flew on rainy days.
People had only two ways of crossing the river to reach the theaters: pay a few shillings to hire a waterman to ferry them across or walk across London Bridge, the only bridge that spanned the Thames. The city itself hardly resembled the sprawling metropolis of today. At the time, greater London—about 448 acres (181 ha)—extended only 2 miles (3.2 km) north to south and 3 miles (4.8 km) from east to west. Londoners, therefore, were used to walking. Their lives and livelihoods hovered around the Thames, which was nearly 1,000 feet (305 m) wide at certain points. Its depths contained a vast supply of sea life for fisherman to catch, including shrimp, flounder, eels, swordfish, and porpoises.
The bridge under which the mighty river flowed had been built in 1209. At 900 feet (374 m) long, the span brimmed with people and hundreds of shops. Business space on the bridge was highly valued, and in a time before skyscrapers, some of the buildings reached as high as six stories. A far more grim sight greeted theatergoers and other travelers on the Southwark end of London Bridge. There, of-ficials displayed the heads of traitors and other criminals, stuck on poles. After crossing the bridge, playgoers had only a short walk to one of the theaters.
Performances began daily at 2 p.m. Playgoers, however, often waited until the last minute to arrive. They entered the theater through a door in one of the building’s towers. By request of its owners, carpenters had framed the doors narrowly. This forced playgoers to enter slowly, one at a time. This ensured that patrons had to briefly stop to hand their admission fee—a penny—to the gatherers stationed there. At some theaters, those entering simply placed their money into a box, which, after the performance began, was taken to a nearby room for counting. This room came to be known in later decades as the box office.
Two types of patrons attended plays at the Globe: groundlings, whose penny admission fee gave them entrance to the open yard, and wealthy playgoers who paid for access to one of the three covered galleries that lined the theater. The first gallery, set below eye level to the actors on stage, provided what many patrons considered the best view of the action. Despite the extra cost, seating in the first gallery was typically filled to capacity. Some playgoers preferred the other levels to the first. According to scholar Andrew Gurr, the first gallery was, in fact, the worst one from which to see a play: “It not only meant watching the action from behind the groundlings but had the worst acoustics of the three levels, behind the shuffling groundlings and lacking the elevation of the two upper galleries.”25
The second gallery afforded its viewers a slightly higher angle from which to view the proceedings, and when that too was full, audience members had little choice but to climb the stairs one more level. Entrance to each of the three galleries was from the rear; general admission made the best seats available on a first come, first served basis. The seating itself was rows of benches, which afforded little comfort.
A Cut Above
For six to ten pennies more, those who desired more comfort and a closer view might walk along a corridor behind the first gallery to one of four compartments known as a “gentleman’s room.” Adjacent to the tiring-house, where actors changed costumes, and near to the stage door, were two such rooms. These private boxes were frequented mostly by affluuent nobles who wanted to be seen wearing their finest clothing in public. These lords and ladies, princes and princesses, would then enter by the stage door and walk onto the stage before taking their seats. This way, these members of the leisure class could avoid contact with the lower classes while strutting the latest fashion across the stage for all of London to see.
Within this already exclusive portion of the theater were areas known as “lord’s rooms.” Situated above the doors of the tiring-house and overlooking the stage, the lord’s rooms housed the most elite theatergoers who, if so inclined, could even play a hand of cards while enjoying the performance. Actors performed scenes in close proximity to those fortunate enough to be seated here. According to historian Tita Chico, theaters may have differed slightly as to how their rooms for wealthy theatergoers were organized. “The Rose,” says Chico, “even included a separate room for ‘visitors of position’ above the tiring-room. These privileged audience members were entitled to peer into the tiring-room. Going backstage was part of the price of their expensive tickets.” 26 Wealthy viewers could even sit onstage, where as much as 10 feet (3 m) was set aside for this purpose.
The groundlings had the least comfortable of the theater’s accommodations. Even though the raised stage forced them to crane their necks, little distracted them from the stage action. When it rained during a performance, they could seek shelter, for an added penny, in the first gallery. “In effect, the lower you were in the open-air playhouse,” says Andrew Gurr, “the lower your social status. Artisans and craftsmen, apprentices, house servants and those of the unemployed who could afford it crammed into the yard, the rough-surfaced floor on which the stage platform stood.”27 There, these groundlings did little to curb their boisterous appetites.
Concessions were sold. People could buy apples and pears, which some later hurled toward the stage when unhappy with the play or the performers. Other treats included nuts, gingerbread, and the latest Elizabethan temptation: tobacco. The festivities were further enlivened by the sale and consumption of ale. By a play’s midway point, the groundlings, especially, were loud and boisterous in their responses to the drama or comedy on stage. When they had to relieve themselves, Globe patrons had to improvise, since theaters had no toilets. The-atergoing was, thus, an experience that assaulted all of the senses.
The Play Begins
In the moments before a play began, audiences members were usually still milling around. Then, three trumpet blasts signaled that the play was about to begin. The first told the crowd that the players were ready; the second attempted to hush them; and the third occurred immediately before the play started. The actors entered through one of the tiring-house doors, where they had dressed.
Compared with theater and cinema today, the world as portrayed on stage was visually simple. Patrons saw little scenery, no curtains, and no attempt at an authentic portrayal of real life. Instead, playwrights used words to literally set the stage. Whether setting their scenes in a woman’s bedroom, a castle tower, or on a wide battlefield, description alone created the scene. Shakespeare’s history play Henry V (which takes place on the battlefield of Agincourt in France), uses a one-man chorus to set the scene and paint a visual picture for his audience. The words recited by the chorus include these: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention,/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!/can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France? or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt?”28
Ordinary props, or properties, and special effects enhanced the spectacle. Kings wore jeweled crowns and duels included swords. A pig’s bladder well hidden inside an actor’s coat spouted blood when stabbed, giving audiences a gory thrill. Other slimy animal innards might be displayed and splattered on the stage to suggest the aftermath of a battle. A wide trapdoor was raised and lowered using a simple hoist, or suspension mechanism, so that larger props such as cauldrons and beds could magically appear on stage. Another effec-tive technique used was the hiding and revealing of characters from behind curtains. These hidden characters might be eavesdropping or trying to avoid capture. This simple but often powerful technique kept audiences guessing and only deepened a drama’s suspense. The goal was to make the entire experience seamless for the audience, with little lag time between scenes.
The players also hoped to create a recognizable, if mostly symbolic, world for the crowds that filed into the Globe almost daily— a world in which evil was punished and good, in the end, prevailed. “The Elizabethan theater represents the stage as the earth,” says theater scholar Tetsuo Anzai, “existing between ‘heaven’ (the ceiling above) and ‘hell’ (the pit below), the physical structure of the stage as a whole thus standing symbolically for the cosmos, the theater of the world.”29 Perhaps the most unsettling example of this was used in the play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. During the play’s most dramatic moment, a golden throne descends from heaven, while a demonic-looking hell mouth spews smoke, suggesting the eternal fate that awaits the play’s title character for making an agreement with the devil.
Behind the scenes the Globe was no less dramatic. There, in the all-purpose tiring-house, actors changed costumes, donned wigs, and listened for entrance cues. To satisfy audiences that came almost all year round—even in the winter months—these players, when not performing, were preparing for the next play. That meant learning many lines in a short amount of time. Novices had the hardest time. They lacked the experience and hours of practice vital for presenting plays that could last as long as four hours. This meant a play might be full of flubs, misstated lines, or silent, empty moments when an actor forgot what he was supposed to say. Actors of the time coined a term for forgetting one’s lines: “drying up.”
To fight the mortifying feeling that came with dropping a line, players sometimes made up the missing dialogue on the spot. This in-the-moment improvisation was known as “thribbling,” and playwrights hated it. They wanted their words spoken as written. To minimize thrib-bling, a play’s meatiest roles were given to veteran actors like Richard Burbage or Will Kempe. But for a play like Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, even Burbage might have struggled. The title character, the gloomy prince of Denmark, speaks between fourteen hundred and fifteen hundred lines—nearly 40 percent of the play’s total.
Little rehearsal time added additional pressure for all involved. Since plays were performed nearly every afternoon, this only left mornings and evenings to prepare plays that would go up the next week or even the next day. No acting schools existed in Elizabethan England, so players learned their craft through trial and error. Younger actors relied on the advice and direction of older players to teach them how to perform with confidence and aplomb. “The preparation of the young player,” says historian Ivor Brown, “meant a steady and strict training by his seniors in... the proper carriage of unusual costume, singing, instrumental music, stage-fighting, and of course, the most thoroughly, in speech and gesture.”30 The voice especially mattered when performing in an open-air theater with thousands of noisy and sometimes raucous people. Players had to project their voices and speak their lines crisply and clearly so that everyone could hear them.
As in most workplaces, the Globe was structured as a hierarchy. The shareholders, in this case the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were responsible for the entire operation. They were the initial investors and owned both the acting company and the playhouse itself. Because they shouldered the biggest risk, they reaped the largest share of the profits. But before they could take their profits they had to pay the hired men and boys. The hired men were mercenary actors not directly tied to the Chamberlain’s Men. Plays often contained dozens of characters, far more than the core of six members. Thus, these actors-for-hire often filled out the other roles. They received little in the way of billing, which was reserved for the famous actors, and were paid far less than the shareholders. Beyond their work onstage, hired men also fulfilled most of the other positions required to run the playhouse, such as gatherer of money, stagehand, or tire-man, in charge of mending and preparing the costumes. The boys, meanwhile, were the apprentice actors who typically portrayed younger characters and female characters.
As the Globe and its performers flourished, England was experiencing a change in its own hierarchy. In 1603, after forty-four years and four months on the throne, Elizabeth I died. Never married and having borne no heir to the throne, she was succeeded by James VI, ruler of Scotland. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a longtime adversary of Elizabeth’s. In 1587, feeling threatened by Mary’s claim to the throne, the English queen had ordered Mary’s execution. Now, years later, Mary’s son claimed the English throne for himself; the new king became James I of England. Although his mother had been Catholic, James practiced Protestantism but tolerated Catholics in his kingdom.
Like his predecessor, he delighted in the theater, but James was a more distant ruler—nervous, sensitive, and altogether odd—in contrast to Elizabeth. Still, he and his subjects in London agreed on one thing. “The new ruler of England,” says Marchette Chute, “had one characteristic in common with the thousands who flocked to the Globe playhouse each week. Neither he nor they could resist the plays of William Shakespeare.”31 The monarch’s love of Shakespeare’s work and of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in particular inspired him to become the acting company’s new patron. Henceforth the troupe was known as the King’s Men. Such notoriety only raised the group’s profile and reputation further. During the winter of 1603–1604, it performed eight plays for the king and his family. A year later the royal court hosted the players eleven times. Seven of the plays were by Shakespeare, including The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and ffe Merchant of Venice. The last title so enthralled the king that he asked the actors to perform it twice over three days.
Their responsibilities at court and at the Globe kept the King’s Men extremely busy. Shakespeare himself had an exhausting list of duties, says Stephen Greenblatt: “He would have had to keep track of the receipts and expenditures; rewrite some of the scenes; help with the casting; decide on cuts [to the plays]; weigh in on interpretive decisions; consult on the properties, costumes, and music; and of course memorize his own parts.” 32 Shakespeare and his partners were paid handsomely in compensation for the strains of writing, performing, and managing. Each performance at court earned the King’s Men £10, a substantial payday. Each Globe partner not only received a large portion of these profits, but they also received a share of the Globe’s rent, since they owned the building itself. They were, in other words, both tenants and landlords. Consequently, after but a few years of work, Shakespeare and his fellow owners were rich men.
By 1605 the Globe’s future seemed limitless. The King’s Men were widely considered the greatest acting troupe in London and the Globe the city’s theatrical crown jewel. Yet Shakespeare’s attention was pulled back to Stratford more than ever. Family joys and tragedy forced the playwright to reconsider his own future.