Elizabethan Theatre

Print of William Shakespeare by Samuel Cousins, 1849. Museum no. DYCE.3164

Print of William Shakespeare by Samuel Cousins, 1849. Museum no. DYCE.3164

In the late 16th century all classes of society (apart from royalty) visited the public theatres. The new theatres were popular and their audiences had a voracious appetite for new plays. New companies flourished and writers were employed to satisfy the demand for novelty.

The acting companies

Companies were hierarchical – actors who had a stake in the company were called 'sharers' and divided up the profit between them; 'hirelings' were just paid a weekly wage, whilst the boys who played women's roles were 'apprentices' and paid very little. Actors specialised in specific roles which they performed as part of their repertoire.

The two most famous companies were the Admiral's Men and the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who were rivals. Companies became known by the title of the patron's household, for example 'Leicester's Men' were named after the Earl of Leicester. Leicester's Men consisted of actor James Burbage and four others.

William Shakespeare was principal writer with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Famous Elizabethan actors included Will Kempe, Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage.

Plays and playwrights

Companies would perform between 30 and 40 new plays every year. Documentation from the period shows that the Admiral's Men performed every afternoon for six days of 40 weeks of the year.

Playwrights were expected to produce a number of new plays every year to satisfy demand. Many of these were never published. Plays, when written, became the property of the company and not the playwright. William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and John Fletcher were just a few of the many playwrights of that era whose work is still performed today.

Queen Elizabeth Viewing the Performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre, by David Scott, oil on canvas, Britain, 1840. Museum no S.511-1985

Queen Elizabeth Viewing the Performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre, by David Scott, oil on canvas, Britain, 1840. Museum no S.511-1985

The Globe

The Globe Theatre for which Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays, was erected in 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. When the lease on the land at their playhouse, The Theatre, in Shoreditch ran out, the company decided to rebuild it on the south bank of the River Thames. They dismantled the timber frame building and pieced a similar structure together and called it The Globe.

This painting from 1840 is one of the earliest attempts to imagine the Globe's interior during performance. In fact Queen Elizabeth never visited the Globe or any other public theatre.

The project was financed by seven of the actors (of whom Shakespeare was one) and they became the 'housekeepers' who had investment in the building as well as the company. They also received a share of the takings from the gallery.

The 20-sided structure had a capacity of up to 3000 people. A reconstruction of the Globe was built near its original site, on the South Bank of the River Thames in London, in the 1990s.


Portrait of Shakespeare (1564-1616), print of an engraving, late 18th century

Portrait of Shakespeare (1564-1616), print of an engraving, late 18th century


Title page and frontispiece of book Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, edited by I Hemige and H Condell, printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed Blount, London, 1623. National Art Library, Dy

Title page and frontispiece of book Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, edited by I Hemige and H Condell, printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed Blount, London, 1623. National Art Library, Dyce 8936

William Shakespeare (1564 -1616)

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and numerous sonnets. It is not just the breadth of his work that makes Shakespeare the greatest British dramatist, but the beauty and inventiveness of his language and the universal nature of his writing. Shakespeare is performed today because his writing still speaks to audiences all over the world.

England's most famous playwright was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1564. His father was a glove maker and wool dealer. William attended the local grammar school in Stratford until he was 14 or 15, but there is no record of him going on to university. It is not known what Shakespeare did after leaving school. At the age of 18 in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway and they had three children. However, there are no records of how he was employed.

Shakespeare went to London where his first patron was the young Earl of Southampton. The first reference to Shakespeare as a writer was in 1592, when his early plays were successful enough to arouse professional jealousy in some of his peers. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries were scathing about his lack of a university education.

In 1594 Shakespeare had joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men as an actor and their principal playwright. He wrote on average two new plays a year for the company. His earliest plays included The Comedy of Errors and his first published work was the poem 'Venus and Adonis' in 1593. His tragedies Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear were written after 1600. His last plays, the romances, are Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest which were written between 1608 and 1612.

In comparison with contemporary playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, Shakespeare had a relatively scandal-free life.

Shakespeare returned to his Stratford home and died there in 1616.

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Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays (Hardback)

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Wed 14 January 2015 15:30

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