Essay | Shakespeare’s London and the Emergence of the Playhouse

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London from Southwark, c.1630.

Today, the idea of the theatre can evoke tradition and history, having perhaps one of the longest histories of all the arts. But when the theatres first began springing up in London in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, they were places that transgressed and challenged social boundaries, and were considered dangerous by the well-to-do of the age.

The Emergence of the London Playhouse

Although companies of actors had been performing plays for centuries, the first purpose built playhouse was the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567. Eight years later, in 1575, a spring a theatre spaces began to open across London, of which most were taverns and inns converted into playhouses, such as The Bull or Bishopsgate Street Inn. The Theatre, built by James Burbage in 1576, was one of the first which performed Shakespeare’s plays. This stood just outside the city walls, near Curtain Road in Shoreditch in today’s London. When Shakespeare’s company—The Lord Chamberlain’s Men— lost their lease on The Theatre in the late 1590s, they took the novel step of dismantling the theatre, transporting the wood and other materials to the other side of the Thames, and re-using them to build The Globe on Bankside, which is now famous for being the first theatre to operate solely as a place for plays (previous theatres had all doubled up as homes for other, often less salubrious forms of entertainment, mostly notably bear-bating). 

These theatres, both outdoor and indoor, where located in ‘liberties’—areas of private land free from city authorities and the Crown—which tended to be on the outskirts and margins of the city of London. Liberties were filled with playhouses, brothels, and bear-baiting pits, as well as other places, all of which were spaces of excess and lack of authority. Just as these places occupied the fringes of the city, the activities taking place there pushed social boundaries of morality to the extremities: they were associated with vulgarity, corruption and commonness, and the playhouse was a prominent feature in this scene. As Shakespeare scholar Russ MacDonald notes, if the city authorities had hold over the playhouses, they would have probably shut them down permanently, such was the strong opposition to them from London authorities and members of the population.

The Performance

Early modern performances were different to the theatre performances we know today in several ways, a significant one being the “bare stage” which actors performed on. There were for example, not even curtains to the stage (a much later development). Despite the fact that one of the early theatres used by Shakespeare being called The Curtain, this was in fact due to it’s proximity to the city walls due to anything on the stage.

Unlike the present day, where much effort goes into producing a set that creates a sense of reality for the audience, early plays were self-consciously aware of themselves as a performance, and it seems there was little attempt to convince the audience otherwise. While the stage itself remained relatively empty, the lack of spectacle was compensated for by the extravagant and unrestrained costuming of the actors, which drew much criticism from Puritans for its decadent excesses. Another aspect of costuming criticised by the puritans of the city was cross dressing—men and boys decked out in women’s clothing and make-up—which was seen as vulgar. Although this might suggest a transgression of gender boundaries however (which to a degree was the case), this was in turn caused by necessity, as it was considered socially unacceptable for women to act in theatres until well after the Reformation in the seventeenth century. 

But through the dressing up of actors, who were considered extremely low on the social ladder (not much better than beggars), in costume that impersonated higher classes, even nobility, we see an emergence together of a different class that could probably only occur in the theatre. Moreover, plays often placed characters of different social ranking in dangerously close proximity with each other, a good example being Prince Harry and Falstaff, the working-class drunkard in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Here, class distinction is reduced to mere performance, rather than something that is rigid and fixed. 

The Audience

The concept of theatre etiquette was virtually non-existent in early theatres. Audiences were not expected to be still and silent throughout the performance, rather they were loud, bawdy and raucous, the extent to which depended on subject matter being performed. They were more a part of the play than passive spectators, which is accentuated by the fact that, because of the “bare stage”, audiences had to rely on their powers of observation to discern things like the time of day.

While it is impossible to be certain about the make-up of audiences, Russ Macdonald argue that outdoor theatres would have been filled by most social classes, from ‘apprentices to gallents’. This appeal to various social classes was something exclusive to the theatre, and part of the reason they were seen as a threat to order. However, despite this type of cultural egalitarianism, it’s important to note the structure of theatres did its best to maintain class distinctions: higher paying people sat higher up, with the poorest gathered at the bottom of the stage. Interestingly, the place below the stage was called ‘hell’ and the place above it ‘heaven’, terms implicitly associating the poor with debasement and the wealthy with elevation. So there was certainly tension between the merging of social classes, and certainly resistance to it.

The Crown and the Theatre

Further resistance to theatres as places of freedom from authority is evident in their relationship to the royal Court. King Henry VIII created the Revels office during his reign, which was to ensure that plays were protecting the Crown’s interest at all times. This censorship limited the extent to which theatres were places that challenged authority, and, moreover, the fact that plays were often performed in Court suggests they sometimes functioned as royal propaganda. Indeed, some critics argue that had the Royal family not enjoyed watching plays, theatres would have not been given leeway and allowed to function. The theatre, then, carried a strange duality; it was marginalised to the outskirts of the city, yet its plays were often performed in Court.

While it is easy to read the early modern theatre as a tool to transmit monarchic propaganda to the masses, doing so disregards the genuine threat they were felt to pose to the established order. This was not only in the subversive content of the plays, but through the ability of the theatre to draw together people from all different social standings, the costuming of the actors, and the very location of the theatres, in the outskirts of the city, hidden from the centre.

Words by Khadeeja Saleem.

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