Theater Experience in Shakespeare's Lifetime

Contemporary theater was very different for audiences

The Globe Theatre
Theatre patrons enjoying performance at the Globe. Getty Images

To fully appreciate Shakespeare, it's best to see his plays live on stage. It’s a sad fact that today we typically study Shakespeare's plays out of books and forego the live experience. It’s important to remember that the Bard was not writing for today’s literary readership, but for a live audience.

Shakespeare was not writing for just any live audience but was writing for the masses in Elizabethan England, many of whom couldn’t read or write. The theater was usually the only place the audiences to his plays would be exposed to fine, literary culture. To better understand Shakespeare's works, today's reader needs to go beyond the texts themselves to consider the context of these works: the details of the live theater experience during the Bard’s lifetime.

Theater Etiquette in Shakespeare’s Time

Visiting a theater and watching a play in Elizabethan times was very different from today, not just because of who was in the audience, but because of how people behaved. Theatergoers were not expected to be still and silent throughout the performance as modern audiences are. Instead, Elizabethan theater was the modern equivalent of a popular band concert. It was communal and even, at times, raucous, depending on the subject matter of a given performance.

The audience would eat, drink, and talk throughout the performance. Theaters were open air and used natural light. Without the advanced technology of artificial light, most plays were performed not in the evening, as they are today, but rather in the afternoon or during the daylight.

Furthermore, plays during that era used very little scenery and few, if any, props. The plays usually relied on language to set the scene.

Female Performers in Shakespeare’s Time

The laws for contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays banned women from acting. Female roles were thus played by young boys before their voices changed in puberty.

How Shakespeare Changed Perceptions of the Theater

Shakespeare saw the public’s attitude towards theater shift during his lifetime. Prior to his era, the theater in England was considered to be a disreputable pastime. It was frowned upon by Puritan authorities, who were worried that it might distract people from their religious teachings.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, theaters were still banned within the city walls of London (even though the Queen enjoyed the theater and frequently attended performances in person). But over time, the theater became more popular, and a thriving “entertainment” scene grew on Bankside, just outside the city walls. Bankside was considered to be a “den of iniquity” with its brothels, bear-baiting pits, and theaters. The place of theater in Shakespeare's time widely diverged from its perceived role today as high culture reserved for the educated, upper classes.

The Acting Profession During Shakespeare’s Time

Shakespeare’s contemporary theater companies were extremely busy. They would perform around six different plays each week, which could only be rehearsed a few times before the performance. There was no separate stage crew, as theater companies have today. Every actor and stagehand helped to make costumes, props, and scenery.

The Elizabethan acting profession worked on an apprentice system and therefore was strictly hierarchical. Playwrights themselves had to rise up through the ranks. Shareholders and general managers were in charge and profited the most from the company’s success.

Managers employed their actors, who became permanent members of the company. Boy apprentices were at the bottom of the hierarchy. They usually began their careers by acting in small roles or playing the female characters.