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, you need to see his plays live on stage. It’s a sad fact that today we typically study Shakespeare's plays out of a book and forego the live experience, but it’s important to remember that he wasn’t writing for today’s literary audience.

Shakespeare was writing for the masses of Elizabethan England, many of whom couldn’t read or write, a fact he would have been well aware of. The theater was usually the only place the audiences to his plays would be exposed to high culture.

Sometimes it helps to go beyond the texts themselves and consider what the live theater experience would have been like during the Bard’s lifetime, for a more thorough understanding of his works and the context in which they were written.

Theater Etiquette in Shakespeare’s Time

Visiting a theater and watching a play was very different not just because of who was in the audience, but because of the expectations of how people would behave. Theatergoers were not expected to be still and silent throughout the performance like modern audiences are. Rather, it was the modern equivalent of going to see a popular band, communal and at times raucous, depending on the subject matter of a given performance.

The audience would eat, drink and talk throughout the performance, and theaters were open air and used natural light. Most plays were performed not in the evening as they are now, but rather in the afternoon or during the daylight.

And plays during that era used very little scenery and few, if any props, instead using language to set the scene most of the time.

Female Performers in Shakespeare’s Time

The custom for contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays called for the female roles to be played by young boys. Women never performed on stage.

How Shakespeare Changed Perceptions of the Theater

Shakespeare saw the public’s attitude towards theater shift during his lifetime. The theater was once considered to be a disreputable pastime and 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 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 – good company for the world’s greatest and most popular playwright.

The Acting Profession During Shakespeare’s Time

Even more so than they are now, 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 beforehand.

Also, there was no separate stage crew like theater companies have today; every actor and stagehand would have to help make costumes, props, and scenery.

The Elizabethan acting profession worked on an apprentice system, making it very hierarchical. Even Shakespeare would have had to rise up through the ranks. Shareholders and general managers were in charge and profited the most from the company’s success.

Actors were employed by the managers and became permanent members of the company. And boy apprentices were at the bottom of the hierarchy. Sometimes they were allowed to act in small roles or play the female characters.