The Development of the Theatres and Stages from Medieval Drama to Shakespeare’s Time

"HAMLET Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness. O! it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it."

The development of the theatres and stages from Medieval drama to Shakespeare’s time was revolutionary. The ‘mystry’ and ‘miracle’ plays as they came to be called, were performed on platforms, or carts, that moved around the city to various ‘stations’ where the audience gathered. In early years of Elizabeth’s reign groups of players performed where they could, indoors in hells or courts, but more frequently in the square on the yards of inns. The companies were all licensed by patronage of some great lord, for it unlicensed they were deemed ‘Rogues and Vagabonds’ according to a statue of 1598. the earliest playhouses, ‘The Real Lion’ and ‘The Theatre’ which had permanent stages, were built by 1576 outside the jurisdiction of the critic authorities. The ‘Globe’ the most spectacular of playhouses in Shakespeare’s times and the one patronized by Shakespeare’s himself, was built by Burbage operational by 1599. The leave for the level and the authorship of Globe was divided into two: fifty percent of assets by Cuthbent and Richard Burbage; the other fifty percent was apportioned among five other numbers including Shakespeare himself. It is the nature of contemporary play houses that usually determined Shakespeare’s choice of locale the descriptive language in the actors’ mouth as well as the fertile use of asides and soliloquies.

Although no picture and diagram exists, a drawing of the swan in about 1596 by Johannes De Witt ,a Dutch traveler who made the sketch while on a trip to London, who was then visiting London gives a fair idea of all contemporary playhouses. These playhouses were all similar the basic conception. All were relatively large arena theatres, hexagonal or octagonal in structure with a circumference of about eighty feet, though the discovery of the foundation of the Globe proved it to be larger, of about a hundred feet. As chambers points out in “Elizabethan stage”, the roundness led De Witt to call them ‘amphitheater’. They accommodated between two thousand and three hundred spectators, and there was a hierarchy of accommodations for the socially & economically diversified. A Swiss visitor noticed how during the performance of Julius Caesar, the spectators paid one penny to stand in the arena another penny to sit in the gallery & another extra penny to sit in the most comfortable place where he can not only see everything well, but also be seen. One may remember Hamlet’s caustic inexplicable dumb-shows and noise’.

The stage of the Globe was a level platform about 43 feet in width some 28 feet deep that was raised about 5 feet off the ground. The cover above the stage was perhaps initially a simple canopy, designed to protect actors, properties and hangings from the worst of the weather. It was painted on the underside with a represent of the sun, moon, stars and zodiac, & known as the ‘heavens’. As Wickham points out, in the Globe the heavens ‘for windlasses and machinery to low people and properties on to the stage’ (“Early English stages”). The stage floor was usually made of streak oak  boards, and the area underneath was jocular trapdoor made possible various kinds of startling appearances, like the Devil that rises from the stage in scene 3 of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It was a visible window above from which the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet could be enacted. In some plays the rear wall of the stage served as the battlements of a city under siege, a castle, houses and shops in a street, a forest, a seashore, or whatever a dramatist like Shakespeare declared it to be.
Globe Theatre
It is noteworthy that the arena stages of the Shakespearean times were radically different from modern times. In modern times actors usually appear behind a proscenium arch, in front of an audience sitting in a darkened auditorium. In contrast, in Elizabethan times, it was of fundamental importance that actors and audience shared the same lighting, the same space in the arena playhouses, since the stage projected into the middle of the pit. They provided an especially close relationship between actors and audience, with no visual barriers between them, allowing the actors to identify as intimately as he pleased with the spectators, or to distance himself within the action. Gurr rightly notes that ‘Awareness of the illusion as illusion was therefore much closer to the surface all the time’ (“Shakespearean Stage”). Two devices used with especial brilliance were the aside, in which an actor could step out from his role for a moment to comment on the action, and the soliloquy, in which the actor could address the audience directly and seem to take it into his confidence.

Johannes De Witt's drawing of the swan has perpetuated the idea of the Elizabethan theatres having a bare stage and minimal facilities, but modern evidence suggests that their accommodation & equipment were continually being improved. Many different kinds of spectacular effects could be conclusion in the couplet. Shakespeare was, however, achieved by the use of hangings, of practicable tents, scaffolds,  chairs of state, beds, ladders, trees, and other objects brought on stage, or thrust through the trap door. The use of fireworks also made possible such effects as lightning, or the effect of a blazing star. The open-air theatres also made much use of loud noise, of trumpets and drums as in Macbeth, & the shooting of guns. One might bear in mind the fact that the use of an actual cannon on the Globe for the performance of Henry VIII led to the burning of the Globe and the end of Shakespeare’s career as dramatist.

Shakespeare’s stage also held, a Hamlet put it, a mirror up to nature, but it did so usually by the use of language. With no stage lightning & with the daytime sky above, the author had to write speeches about the time, season, and weather of the play. There are more than forty such speeches in Macbeth. We know that we are in the Forest of Arden, for example, or on the battlements of a Danish castle, or on the seacoast of Bohemia, because the characters tell us so, not because we can see or hear for ourselves that we are. Visual spectacle, though not unimportant, was secondary to dialogue; we speak of going to see a play where audiences up to the 19th century spoke of ‘hearing’ one.

Thus, even if Shakespeare were of all times he would scarcely have used the plots, the languages, the asides and soliloquies, and the descriptions which he actually did, if the playhouse & stage conditions were other than what he found in the contemporary times. If Shakespeare determined the much improved state of the play, his plays were at least partly determined by the state of the stage. 

Let's sum up Chronicle  of Development of Renaissance Theatre:

  • By the late 16th century in Europe, permanent buildings were being constructed to house a new kind of commercial theater.
  • In 1576 actor James Burbage built London's first public theater, known simply as The Theatre, which was an open-air structure that combined features of pageant wagons, fixed stages, and banquet halls. 
  • The most famous Renaissance theater Globe Theatre was completed 1599. It shared the talents of playwright William Shakespeare and Burbage's acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, later renamed The King's Men. A modern reconstruction of the Globe stands on the south bank of the Thames River in London.

  • By 1610 a rebuilt Blackfriars Theatre had become the winter home of Shakespeare's company, and by 1642 six other private theaters had opened.

  • In Italy conventions of theater architecture and stage spectacle introduced in Florence, Venice, Parma, Bologna, Rome, and Milan during the Renaissance and most popular was commedia dell’arte, an actor-centered improvisational theater.

Literary Timelines,
History of English Literature- Albert 
The First Public Playhouse -Herbert Berry
A Life of William Shakespeare--Sir Sidney Lee

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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