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.
Old Vic printed poster
Jude Law in Dr Faustus
Christopher Marlowe's story of Dr Faustus is of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of absolute knowledge and pleasures of his choice. The deal is sealed in Faustus' own blood, taken from his arm.
Jude Law returned to the London stage to play the role at the Young Vic in 2002.
Engraved print of John Fletcher
John Fletcher collaborated with William Shakespeare in writing Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. However, Fletcher's name is usually linked with that of Francis Beaumont. Collaboration was a common method of working for playwrights at this time and Fletcher wrote plays with a number of different partners. Many of the plays performed and published under the label Beaumont & Fletcher were actually written by Fletcher and Philip Massinger. Beaumont and Fletcher's collaborations include Philaster, The Maid's Tragedy and A King and No King. Fletcher also wrote as a solo dramatist, his best-known plays including The Faithful Shepherdess and The Woman's Prize or The Tamer Tamed, a sequel to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Following Beaumont's death in 1616, Fletcher became chief playwright for the King's Men.
Fletcher died in 1625 and is buried in Southwark Cathedral in the same grave as Massinger.
Will Kempe was the principal clown of Shakespeare's company during the 1590s. He would have played major comic roles and was well known for his ability to 'ad lib', amusing audiences with tumbling and physical comedy.
Kempe was not only an actor. Before and after his time in the theatre he travelled around Europe as a clown and musician. When he left Shakespeare's company in 1600, he danced from London to Norwich, with spectators betting on his progress. He wrote a book entitled 'Nine Days Wonder' about his adventures. This picture, which was an illustration to the book, shows Kempe dancing on his journey with morris bells tied to his legs.
Scene from Tamburlaine the Great
Tamburlaine the Great is a two-part play by Christopher Marlowe. In this scene Tamburlaine, played by David Wolfit, is about to kill the King of Persia, played by David Waller. Other cast members included Leo McKern, Kenneth Griffith and Jill Balcon. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie.
Portrait of Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage was the leading player in Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which later became the King's Men. Burbage created many of the leading roles in Shakespeare's plays. He specialised in tragic roles and was the first Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Richard III. Burbage's family was also involved with the London theatre. His father, James Burbage, became an actor and then a theatre builder. He rented land in Shoreditch and built The Theatre, the first amphitheatre playhouse in London. His sons, Richard and Cuthbert, inherited The Theatre but after problems with their landlord, they dismantled The Theatre and transported the pieces across the River Thames where they rebuilt it and called it the Globe. Richard Burbage acted there until his death in 1619.
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.
Painting of The Alchemist
Full length portrait of Benjamin Griffin and Benjamin Johnson as Tribulation and Ananias in Act III, Scene 2 of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, died in 1637, but his works were still popular well into the 18th century. His scholarly and sophisticated witticisms appealed to Restoration audiences, and The Alchemist was regularly revived. Set in Blackfriars in the heart of London, this comedy is about two conmen, Subtle and Face. Subtle poses as an alchemist (someone who claimed he could turn base metals into gold). Tribulation and Ananias, pastors of an Amsterdam church, are two of the ‘gulls’ who fall victim to the scam.
Portrait of Edward Kynaston
Edward Kynaston was one of the last Restoration actors to play women's roles. As the picture shows, he was a good looking young man and made a convincing woman. Samuel Pepys called him 'the loveliest lady that ever I saw', though he added 'only her [sic] voice not very good'. Part of Kynaston's appeal was his ambiguous sexuality. Colley Cibber recalled that 'the Ladies of Quality prided themselves in taking him with them in their Coaches to Hyde-Park in his Theatrical Habit, after the Play'. Cibber also reported that a performance of a tragedy attended by Charles II was once delayed because, as someone explained, Kynaston, who was playing the Queen, 'was not shav'd'.
In the 1660s women were permitted to appear on stage and the day of the boy player was over. Kynaston went on to make a successful career in male roles. He was noted for his portrayal of Shakespeare's Henry IV.
Portrait of Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton was a contemporary of Shakespeare. Although he produced many plays in his lifetime, none are performed today and he is better remembered as a major poet of the Elizabethan period. His most thankless task was collaborating on a play about Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle was the name originally given by Shakespeare to the character of Sir John Falstaff in his Henry IV plays. The character proved so popular that Philip Henslowe, owner of the rival theatre to Shakespeare’s, the Rose, commissioned Drayton and others to write a play on the original Sir John Oldcastle. Henslowe, it seems, wished to cash in on Shakespeare's success and also to set the record straight. The historical Oldcastle was a Protestant martyr, very different from the roistering drunkard, Falstaff, but, unsurprisingly, Falstaff proved the more popular of the two and Drayton's play has not survived on the stage.
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.
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.
Judi Dench as Isabella and Alec McCowen as the King in Richard II
Ben Thomas as King Lear
Claire Bloom as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Albert Finney as Hamlet
Cut-out characters from Shakespeare
Top left: Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and William Charles Macready as Macbeth from Macbeth Act II, Scene 2.
Top right: Henry Irving as Benedick and Ellen Terry as Beatric from Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, Scene 1.
Bottom left: Madge Kendal (née Robertson) (1849-1935) as Rosalind and her husband, William Henry Kendal (1843-1917) as Orlando from As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 1.
Bottom right: David Garrick as King Lear and Miss Younge (Mrs Elizabeth Pope) (1744?-1797) as Cordelia in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 7.
Cut-out characters from Shakespeare
Top left: William Terriss (1847-1897) as Romeo and Mary Anderson (1859-1940) as Juliet embracing on the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 5.
Top right: Mary Eastlake as Ophelia and Wilson Barrett as Hamlet from Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5.
Bottom left: Signor Tommaso Salvini as Othello and Charlotte Cushman as Desdemona from Othello, Act III, Scene 3.
Bottom right: G V Brooke as Shylock and Helen Faucit at Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene