In the cobblestone roadways and roughly built playhouses, an extraordinary development took place in England in the 1500s. At that time, a burst of literary accomplishments arose that was never before seen in the history of the theater. In the all-new idea of theaters, playwrights lifted the Elizabethan Theater to new heights. Men like Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe dared to write plays about real people in a variety of real situations. (Yowell 13) Through their efforts, these men and those of similar qualities produced dramas that were far more sophisticated and entertaining than ever before.
Audiences expressed their pleasure by demanding more and more plays. The public shared a great deal of interest in the theaters and playwrights of this time. People from all over the city of London would travel to experience the dramatic feel of the Elizabethan Theater. The theater was a very important aspect of Elizabethan life in the medieval ages. Life in Elizabethan times was difficult and dangerous. Many people were poor tenant farmers, often living at the mercy of wealthy landowners. People threw trash of all kinds into streets, and tolerated fleas, lice, and rats in their homes and clothing.
Richman 1) Disease and Death were a part of everyday life. Elizabethans sought relief from their harsh lives by attending plays and other forms of entertainment, which made the theater so important to Elizabethan culture. There were many theaters in Elizabethan times, all very similar to each other. However, when William Shakespeare began writing playwrights, the final production was so exceptional, that no other person could compare. With this, Shakespeare was mainly centered at one theater, The Globe. With the popularity of playwrights in the middle ages, the theaters themselves were popular as well.
By the late 1500s, performances were becoming expensive, shutting out the non-payers. (Hartz 35) The solution was to find or construct buildings that were suitable for the performance of plays. By the late 1500s, there were over a dozen theaters in the immediate London area. At this time, the most popular theater, “The Theatre” housed the most prestigious of plays. For years, this one individual theater acted as the center of the town, where the most famous plays were shown. But in 1597, the lease on the land on which The Theatre sat expired and the owner of the land would not renew the lease.
Encarta n/p) In the winter of 1598, while the original owner was away, the people of London decided to move the theater, board by board. They began to rebuild the theater in Southwark, London, near The Rose, The Swan, and The Hope theaters. After ten months of rebuilding, the theater was later renamed as The Globe in 1598. The Globe Theatre was rebuilt primarily for the fall of the previous theater. Upon completion of the newer, revised theater, The Globe actually turned out not to be the largest of it’s time.
The theater was three stories high, one-hundred feet in diameter, and could hold as many as 2,900 patrons if desired. (Encarta n/p) The Globe Theatre was constructed as a mixture between a Roman Amphitheater and an English Tudor House. The architecture of The Globe was very unique. There was no roof over the actual theater. There was however a thatched roof over the stage. The use of a roof over the stage was not only to protect the performers from the weather, but to improve acoustics as well. (Hornell 44) Two very elaborate, almost gaudy pillars held the roof over the stage, a style favored by the Elizabethans.
The stage in itself was rectangular and extended into the middle of the auditorium. Various trapdoors were cut in the center of the stage, through which an actor might disappear or leap forth, as the action demanded. A balcony hung over the rear of the stage and a musicians’ gallery was tucked behind the balcony. (Richman 1) Unseen, behind the stage, was the Tiring House. Here is where the actors dressed for the plays. Individual dressing rooms were not a feature of Elizabethan playhouses, so actors were to dress in whatever open space they could find. (Yowell 16)
The Globe Theater was the home to one of the most honored writers of the time, William Shakespeare. Here, Shakespeare wrote, rehearsed, and performed his plays. Plays such as “Caesar” and “Romeo & Juliet” were performed at The Globe, which helped build The Globe into a very popular and prestigious theater. (Richman 1) When the actual performance was taking place, a flag was raised to show that the play was ready to be performed. (Encarta n/p) Inside the theater was very different than one might expect. The Globe was almost always filled to its capacity with people.
Thus, it was so filled that it was near impossible to move about once inside. In Elizabethan times, people were known not to bathe frequently. With close to 3,000 patrons all rubbing against each other, the stench was quite horrendous. (Hornell 30) Holes in the roof over the stage were constructed to let more wind in, and the stench of dirty bodies out. (Yowell 42) Rats and fleas were also a very big problem inside the theater. This was mainly due to the audience’s behavior. During plays, audiences ate, drank, spat, argued, booed, fought, and even threw fruit at the actors.
This was the main cause of the rat and flea problem. (Hornell 12) Prostitutes would hang around the stage, looking for drunken individuals to take advantage of. (Hornell 15) With all of this, disease was also a major problem the theaters faced. Smallpox, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis were just a few of the diseases that regularly killed thousands of people in the Elizabethan time period. When fights broke out, there were big risks of the disease spreading when blood was dispersed. Other diseases were due to the rodent and flea problem. (Yowell 6)
In 1613, a great tragedy happened. During a performance of Henry VIII, a blast of flaming wadding shot from a canon and landed on the thatched roof. The building went up flames very quickly. The audience escaped safely, with the exception for one man who was badly burned. (Hartz 51) Fire was always a real danger in all Elizabethan buildings, since they were usually constructed of wood and thatch, and oil lamps or candles were used for light. (Hartz 50) The draperies and thatched roofs were very dry, and burned like a torch if sparked, which was the case in The Globe Theater.
There were no fire extinguishers or fire departments at the time, so the normal practice was to get leather fire buckets, fill them with water, and dump them on the blaze. (Hartz 52) Many years later, a new globe was rebuilt, shortly before Shakespeare’s death. This time, it was constructed with a tile roof and fire exits. (Yowell 32) It never stood up to the stature of the original Globe, but remained as a memory of William Shakespeare and his theater. The role of the theaters of the Elizabethan Era proved to be a very important one.
It gave even the lowest class of citizens of London a subject to take interest in, and kept them entertained in the progression of the playwrights. The theaters opened up acting as an entirely new form of work, and opened up many jobs to the nearby citizens. Becoming a top-notch actor was not easy however. Only the best of the best were chosen to act. Shakespeare was by far the most influential factor of Elizabethan playwright history. (Richman 1) No other individual could possibly compare to the knowledge and depth of Shakespeare’s plays.
He kept the public entertained as well as involved. Looking back, the idea of the life and prosperity of the theaters is truly unique. How one man can change a person’s life style, and transform a plain and simple theater to a historical artifact to be known for years to come is truly remarkable. The voice of Shakespeare, spoken through the mouths of his actors remains one of the greatest voices yet to be remembered. This is why Shakespeare’s Theater, a little thatched building that disappeared long ago will always be commemorated.