Elizabethan theatre —Page 2

Richard Burbage, along with Edward Alleyn, was the most successful actor of Elizabethan theatre. The son of the James Burbage, owner of the Globe theatre, he performed more leading roles in the major plays of the time than any other actor. They included the original performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Richard III, as well as lead roles in Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemist.

The success of The Theatre prompted Henry Lanman to build The Curtain playhouse close by just a few months later in 1577, which continued until 1627. It was most likely of similar design but little record of it remains. Possibly Shakespeare’s Henry V was first performed there during a year-long closure of The Theatre.

Between medieval times and the 18th century Southwark, on the far side of London Bridge and just beyond the jurisdiction of the City authorities, was a place associated with popular and illicit pleasures such as inns, brothels and cock pits, much of which developed from the late 16th century. Borough High Street was lined with taverns and Southwark was an ideal place to build theatres outside of the interference of the City.

The Rose in Southwark on the south bank of the river, built by Philip Henslowe and in operation from 1587 until 1606, was the first playhouse to be built in that area and the home of the Lord Admiral’s Men, of which Henslowe’s son-in-law Edward Alleyn, one of the most successful actors of his time, was the lead man.  Shakespeare’s Titus Adronicus and Henry VI were first performed there, as were most of Christopher Marlowe’s plays. The Rose was followed by the Swan in 1594 and was demolished in 1606, by which time Henslowe and the Admiral’s men had already moved north of the city to Cripplegate.

When James Burbage died in 1597 his sons Richard and Cuthbert fell into a dispute with the landowner at Shoreditch and The Theatre closed for a year, during which time the Chamberlain’s Men performed at the nearby Curtain. In December of the following year they dismantled The Theatre, which had been cleverly constructed using timber frames and pegs by their carpenter father in case of such need. The brothers and the acting company disassembled the building after Christmas of 1598 and reassembled it as The Globe on land leased at Southwark, which was completed by the end of January. It was a twenty-sided polygonal open-air building with a diameter of around twenty four to thirty metres, making it similar but larger than The Rose. In its centre was a yard for the stage and a standing audience, surrounded by three tiers of seated galleries. To pay for the cost of the new building the brothers offered members of the cast shares and four of them, including Shakespeare, took up the offer. About fifteen of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at The Globe including Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Othello and the Taming of the Shrew. Hamlet was first performed at The Globe in 1601 with Richard Burbage in the title role. The building, located at what is now the southern end of Southwark Bridge, was destroyed by fire in 1613 but rebuilt the following year. It was eventually demolished in 1644.

Audiences at playhouses such as The Globe came from all strata of society, from the criminal and working-classes to the nobility, each tending to watch from their own separate areas of the theatre. Being open-air and, without the convenience of modern lighting and heating, performances took place each afternoon at two o’clock.

Special performances were occasionally performed for the royalty or nobility. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost possibly had its debut in such a way during the Christmas season of 1597. The first performance of Twelfth Night was given in the hall of Middle Temple in 1602.

All playhouses around London were forced to close for a year in 1593 due to a plague that hit the city. When they reopened the first performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice at The Rose and The Comedy of Errors at the hall of Gray’s Inn were given. A play performed at The Rose in 1597 was considered so seditious by the government that all playhouses were closed again for year as punishment.

Plays in the Elizabethan era were performed exclusively by men and boys (impersonating women where necessary) and generally without scenery, the story being told through the dialogue and costumes. Good clothes were extremely expensive at the time and there were strict ‘sumptuary’ laws detailing which classes of people could wear particular garments. It was not uncommon for the wealthy to bequeath clothes to their servants who, unable to wear them by law, would sell them to companies of actors to be used in plays. It was normal for performances to be given in contemporary Elizabethan costume, even when the play was set in ancient times.

Theatre companies of the time performed a different play each day, normally from a repertory of around forty, requiring the cast to be continually keeping many parts in their memory. Leading actors with principle parts would have needed to deliver around five thousand lines per week. Mornings were spent learning the lines for the afternoon performance and junior actors probably did not have the benefit of a rehearsal or even reading the entire script. If a particular play was not successful on its first night it was normally dropped from the repertory, whereas the more successful were revived on a continual basis.

Sources include: Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; Nicholas Robins ‘Walking Shakespeare’s London’; information from the Globe theatre.

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