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A Brief Overview of…
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
When Did He Live?
born in 1564
died in 1616
we don’t know exactly what day he was born, only his
date of baptism, so it is conventional to consider April
23 (St. George’s day) his birthday
born in Stratford, a middle-sized village about a day’s
journey away from Oxford and another day’s journey
to London (in a car, you could drive it in about two
Marriage and Children
Married Anne Hathaway in 1582 (it seems that he was 18, and
she was 27)
Their first child, Susanna, was baptized six months later
In 1585, their only other children, twins named Hamnet and
Judith were baptized
Only Sussanna survived to adulthood
In his will, Shakespeare famously left Anne the “second-best
bed,” which has led to much speculation about their relationship
We assume he was educated at the grammar school in Stratford
Boys would attend from the age of about 7 to about 14 (before that,
they would learn their letters; after that, they could go on to university)
The curriculum focused on Latin and then some Greek
Lots of translation
Emphasis on rhetoric
Ovid, Plautus, Plutarch’s lives – all grammar school texts that are later
major sources for the plays
Would also know the Bible, trades (lots about horses, agriculture), local
country and city life, and the court
What Do We Know About Him?
Authorship debates
No fewer documents than a lot of early modern
people who we now consider important or interesting
– and more that most people
That said, I would hesitate to make too many overly
definitive claims about what he was like as a person
on the basis of the plays or biographical evidence
Why Is He Important?
His Historical Moment
Rise of English as an important language
Rise of England as a nation
The moment when vernacular literature in English comes into its
Over time
Shakespeare seen as England’s first great author (or one of them)
not too very long after his death
British empire made Shakespeare something to export as culture
Has continued to be seen as “timeless,” of enduring value
Has so permeated the culture that he is part of the way we think
about ideas like timeless ness and enduring value
William Shakespeare’s plays have the
reputation of being among the greatest in the
English language and in Western literature.
There are 38 plays
They are divided into the genres of tragedy,
history, and comedy.
They have been translated into every major living
language, in addition to being continually
performed all around the world.
Plays (cont.)
Among the most famous and critically acclaimed of Shakespeare's
plays are:
Romeo and Juliet
King Lear
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Henry V
The Taming of the Shrew
Julius Caesar,
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
The Merchant of Venice
Richard III
Play Structure
Five acts
Act One – mostly exposition, introduction of characters
Act Two – rising action, complication, introduction of problem
Act Three – complication – everything will flow from what
happens here
Act Four – moving towards resolution
Act Five – everything wraps up – often quite quickly
Play Structure (cont.)
Mix verse and prose
High and low characters
Usually a main plot and a subplot
Comedy v. Tragedy
Two or more couples
A fool
Tends towards a sexual nature
Typically end in happiness with all of the couples getting married
A tragic hero character or couple
A villain
Tends towards pervading insanity
Typically ends with the death
Theatre in England
(Shakespeare’s Time)
Sixteenth and seventeenth-century English
people knew about permanent spaces
designed for performance.
As well, England had its own tradition of live
performances of plays.
Typical spaces where these groups performed were the
great halls of aristocratic households.
They also performed in inn yards.
When the first permanent structures devoted to theatre were built in
England, they were modeled on inn yards.
The Construction Dates of Key Theatres
The Theatre: 1576
The Curtain: 1577
The Rose: 1587
The Swan: 1595
The Globe: 1599
The Fortune: 1600
The Red Bull: 1604
Public theatres were built outside of the walls of the city of
London. Thus, players and their audiences were not subject to
oversight by city authorities.
This means they were located in the same area as
brothels and bull-baiting and bear-baiting pits.
A multi-sided polygon of three levels with
its center open to the sky.
There are also a number of key characteristics
of the stage and thus of performances.
An empty stage
Natural lighting
Two entrances
Hand props
Discovery space
The heavens
Trap door
Elaborate costumes
The theatre companies
Like traveling companies of the mid-sixteenth
century, these troupes of players doubled parts and
relied upon boy actors to play women’s roles.
These companies did increase in size, often
including eight to ten men, two or three boys, and
additional actors brought in to play roles as needed
(up to fifteen to seventeen people total).
These companies also went on the road, performing
in inn yards and great houses.
Theatre companies and
Because of a 1572 legal statute, players without
patrons were classified as vagabonds and masterless
men and thus subject to severe penalties.
The better theatre companies seem to have been able
to get aristocrats to serve as their patrons, naming
the members of the company as servants.
Thus, theatre companies in this period are always
referred to as so-and-so’s men.
Players would be expected to have a
number of skills.
Playing music
As well, they would have to possess staggering
memorization abilities.
While the theatres were open, from April to October, a
company might perform a new play every week or two
and might be called upon to work up an old play with
very little notice. It seems likely that most players
would have had about nine plays in their heads at any
given time. Since performance versions of plays were
approximately 2500 lines, this is a tremendous amount
of text to have memorized.
Please note…
There is currently some scholarly controversy about
whether the plays by Shakespeare we read, all of which
derive from early modern printed texts, reflect what was
actually performed on stage (in other words, whether the
plays as we read them are performance scripts). New
research seems to indicate the plays we study might have
been uncut versions intended for reading and that in
performance plays were regularly cut to about 2500 lines, or
two hours playing time. For more information on this
matter, see Lucas Erne’s Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist
(Cambridge UP, 2003).
Richard Burbage,
Shakespeare’s leading man
Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s clown
So, who went to these
A lot of people…
A theatre like the Globe had the capacity to
hold 1,500 to 2,000 audience members -- at a
time when the population of the city of
London was approximately 100,000.
Different kinds of people…
Anyone who could afford a penny…
A penny could buy you
Two tankards of beer
A boat ride across
the Thames River
1/6 of a play book in
What people earned
An apprentice made six
pennies per week, plus
room and board.
To become a knight, you had
to have an income of at least
thirty pounds per year.
A household servant made
two to five pounds per
year, plus room and board.
The average earl made
4000 pounds per year
from his land.
We know the following types
of people definitely went…
Inns of Court men
The story of the Globe, or, how
Shakespeare made his fortune.
The Theatre was built in Shoreditch, north
of London, in 1576 by James Burbage.
The Burbage family, as owners of the the
Theatre, were doing very well financially.
The Theatre was the London performance home for
the Lord Chamberlain’s men, the theatre company
with which Shakespeare was associated as primary
playwright and company actor.
Around 1599…
The Burbages bought a property in the city of
London they hoped to use for year round
performances, an old monastery known as the
But they were denied permission to perform in
the city.
Around the same time, their twenty year lease on the
land on which the Theatre sat ran out.
All of these factors left the Burbage family in some
financial trouble.
And so…
The Burbages offered shares in the Theatre to
members of the company. Richard and Cuthbert
Burbage, James’s sons, each took two shares for a
total 50% interest. Four other shareholders -including William Shakespeare -- each held 12.5%
Using this new revenue, the Burbages moved
the timbers of the Theatre from the north side of
the Thames to the south side and rebuilt the
Theatre into the Globe.
Within a few years, the Lord Chamberlain’s
Men (after 1603, the King’s Men) had
permission to perform in the Blackfriars. As a
shareholder in a company with a year round
playing space in London, Shakespeare
became quite a wealthy man.
So what was the Blackfriars?
It was called the Blackfriars because it had been a
monastery founded in 1275 by a group of Dominican
monks (Dominicans wear black robes).
After King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries
in 1538, the property was divided up. Some of it
was sold off, some leased by the crown.
Nevertheless, the old usually monasteries
continued to be known by monastery-like names.
Why wasn’t it possible for the Lord
Chamberlain’s men to get permission
to perform there?
It seems that city officials didn’t want plays to be performed in
the city limits for a number of reasons:
Crowds and the risk of
The risk of distracting
people (esp.
apprentices) from their
Crowds and the risk of
disease (esp. plague)
Issues of morality (playing
on Sundays, worries about
prostitutes at theatres, etc.)
So why did the Burbages think they
would be given permission to
perform in the Blackfriars?
They actually had two good reasons…
In 1576, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, some of the buildings were
leased to Richard Farrant. Farrant was Master of the royal chapel’s boys’
choir, a group that performed plays while calling themselves the Children of
the Chapel Royal. Officially, the buildings were were used for rehearsals and
“private” performances that made it possible for the “Chapel Children” to then
put on great performances at court. In reality, they charged admission and
seem to have been quite a popular attraction. They were finally shut down in
1584 by city officials who claimed the performances created too much traffic.
In other words, there had already been an active
and successful theatre at the Blackfriars.
While the Blackfriars was within the city limits of London,
within the city’s walls, it was technically considered part of
the “liberties,” a section of the city under the direct control
of crown or other outside authority. (Historically, all
monasteries and abbeys were liberties, albeit controlled by
the church, not the crown.) Thus, it would have been
technically legal to perform there with permission from the
court even if city officials objected.
A map of London showing the
What happened next, exactly?
When the Burbages were denied permission to perform in the
Blackfriars, they leased the property to children’s companies
and for other private use.
They finally got permission to perform there starting in fall
The Blackfriars remained a thriving venue for theatrical
performance until the theatres were shut down in 1642.
So, what renovations were
required to make the space
into a theatre?
The space originally was
split into a number of small
rooms. Burbage had all of
these rooms combined into
one large room. He also
built a stage and put in
How did the indoor theatre
differ from a theatre like the
Illuminated with
candles and torches
More expensive to
Possibly a more exclusive
How much more expensive?
Basic admission started at six pennies, six
times the amount of basic admission to the
public theatres.
One could pay more for better seating -- and pay
the most to sit on a stool on the stage.
What did these theatres look like?
Like a cross between a great hall and what we think of as a theatre….
Key features of a private, indoor
theatre like the Blackfriars…
Light level is the same for the
audience and the stage.
No sets or
Still, elaborate
costumes and hand
more music.
Probably longer
plays with slightly
bigger groups of
stage effects.
Because of the Blackfriars…
The King’s Men had a venue in which to
perform in the winter. They could perform
plays in or around London year round.
This is partly what made Shakespeare, as a
shareholder in the company, such a rich
How rich was he?
He purchased…
A coat of arms for his
A great deal of land and a
very nice house in Stratfordupon-Avon.
He was able to retire from the stage
to live the life of a country gentleman
by about 1611.
That would be the ripe old age of forty-seven.
By that time, he had written all or part of at least
forty plays, a sonnet cycle, and other poems
Shakespeare certainly would not have
become wealthy as an actor or a
Poets were paid approximately five to seven
pounds for writing a new play, less for
updating an old play.
A professional actor made about one
shilling per day for every day the
theatre was open during the playing
Imagine the stage of the Globe:
Now, imagine the stage of the
For more information…
Visit the websites for
•The Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Virginia (available through the
website for Shenandoah Shakespeare’s American Shakespeare Center
•The new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London
•The Folger Shakespeare Library
Look at these books:
•John Cox and David Scott Kastan, eds. A New History of Early English
Drama (Columbia University Press, 1997)
•Andrew Gurr, Shakespearean Stage, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University
Press, 1992, rpt. 1994) and Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 3rd ed.
(Cambridge University Press, 2004)