How Were Shakespeare’s Plays Performed?

From the lecture series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

You’ve likely seen a performance of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, but how were Shakespeare’s plays performed back in his own time? Gain an intimate look at the eclectic audiences as well as what the stages physically looked like, getting a sense of what it was like to actually watch one of Shakespeare’s plays as it was performed hundreds of years ago.

The Globe Theatre in London set up for a performance of Romeo and Juliet in March 2019
(Image Jack1956/Public domain)

Where Did Shakespeare’s Plays Come From?

All artistic creation springs from sources, influences, and traditions. If we can understand something of where Shakespeare came from, then we can better understand the works he created.

We ask where did his plays come from and what were the sources of his inspiration?

In 1567, a man named James Burbage opened a theater in central London called The Red Lion. This is the invention of modern theater as we know it: a public space where people pay money to watch a play performed.

Within three decades, a host of theaters like this one would arise in London: the Theater, the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, and Shakespeare’s own, the Globe. You may be wondering what these theaters looked like, what their conventions were and what possibilities they provided for performance.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

To understand how and why he wrote the plays that he did, we need to know what tools of the stage were at Shakespeare’s disposal.

First, consider the locations of these theaters: They were built outside of the original Roman walls that surrounded the City proper of London. At the time, the City was controlled by the Puritan leaders, who despised and distrusted theater. They insisted that we must be what God has commanded us to be—our vocations, our calling—but theater teaches us to transform into or pretend to be that which we are not.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s use of stagecraft, and how his plays require your own active participation and powers of imagination

On stage, commoners pretend to be lords, ladies, kings, and queens. Since it was illegal to have women onstage during Shakespeare’s day, boys or young men would pretend to be women. To the Puritans, this was deeply upsetting, even sinful, and so they outlawed theater within the city limits.

Merging High and Low Culture

In response to the cultural and political climate, Shakespeare and his colleagues built their theaters across the river, on the South Bank of the Thames. This was not the only activity that went on in Southwark, in areas called “the Liberties.”

It was also the section in London of the bear-baiting pits: they would stake a bear in the middle of a pit, then unleash hounds to attack it and take bets on how long it would take the dogs to tear the bear to pieces.

Here, too, were the gambling dens, the seedy taverns, the brothels, and the whorehouses. In short, this was the area of license and illicit activity. Here is where Shakespeare was at home.

This doesn’t mean his plays are not absolute triumphs of high literary art; they are. But it does mean that Shakespeare was more at home with the tavern keepers and the prostitutes than with the upper class and the nobility. He could, at the very least, traverse both the high and the low of society, something to keep in mind as we study his plays.

Shakespeare shows all the strata of society, from the most common workers, such as the aptly-named “Bottom” and his companions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to kings, queens, and even gods.

James Lewis as Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer night's dream
James Lewis as Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream, circa 1888. (Image: Napoleon Sarony/Public domain)

In Henry IV part 1, Prince Hal hangs out in the rough tavern world with Falstaff and the other criminals and prostitutes because he knows a good king must know all the levels of his kingdom. We can think of Shakespeare in the same way: He wanted to know every aspect of his society so that he could present it truthfully on the stage and hold the mirror up to nature.

The theaters would cater to a very mixed audience. There could be as many as 3,000 spectators for any play, a huge number for a city of about 200,000 people, as London was at this time. It would also attract the whole range of the population, “stretching from the aristocracy to the poorest workmen and boys,” in the words of Andrew Gurr, one of the foremost scholars on the Shakespearean stage.

Many classes would mingle here, from wealthy landowning gentry to the emerging middle class down to the poor, who could enter the theater for a mere penny and stand on the ground in front of the stage and cheer, boo, and catcall their way through an entire play. Small wonder the authorities were nervous about these playhouses; anything was liable to happen in there.

Learn more about how Shakespeare created theatrical “reality” through language

The Shakespearean Theater Experience

Conjectural reconstruction of the Globe theatre by C. Walter Hodges based on archeological and documentary evidence
The Globe Theatre featured a round interior with three tiers of seating. (Image: C. Walter Hodges – Folger Shakespeare Library/Public domain)

The interiors of these theaters were roughly round or octagonal in shape, and inside there would have been seating going upwards in boxes on at least three sides of the stage. The stage itself was a thrust stage: it was pushed out among the audience who would surround the playing area. This is the opposite of a proscenium stage, where the actors are more distant from the audience.

The Shakespearean theater experience was much more in-your-face, for the actors could see and even interact with the audience, and vice versa.

Keep this in mind as you listen to a soliloquy—those intimate speeches are meant to be a shared intimacy between the actor and ourselves. We’re brought into the scene through those great soliloquies.

Lighting would have been natural daylight augmented by torches. There was virtually no scenery. The idea of a highly elaborate, life-like stage that resembles the world emerged in the Victorian era; Shakespeare’s stage was bare.

Learn more about the tools you use to understand Shakespeare’s plays

How Shakespeare’s Plays Cater to the Sets

As we visualize these scenes and try to imagine how they might appear on stage, we need to keep this in mind and focus on the heart of the play, which is its language. Shakespeare theater scholar Adrian Noble describes the sort of stage Shakespeare wrote for:

“He was writing for a theater without scenery, with very simple costumes under open light, and so he had to use the one tool he had, which was language, which was his words, to create the world…You’ve got that at the very beginning of Hamlet, for instance, where you’re told in the first six lines of the play that it’s past midnight, and it’s bitter cold, and that was something people were told in the middle of the afternoon in broad daylight.” (Adrian Noble on A&E Biography: William Shakespeare: Life of Drama [1996])

Shakespeare himself calls our attention to this in many scenes. A great example comes in Act 4 of King Lear

At this point in the play, Gloucester, the father of Edgar, has been brutally blinded and despaired of his life. He has been guided to what he thinks is the edge of the cliffs of Dover, and here he decides to jump to his death. Unbeknownst to him, his son Edgar is his guide, and Edgar uses words to fool his father into thinking he is about to jump to his death. In reality, Gloucester is nowhere near the cliff’s edge.

Edgar describes the scene to his blind father:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

Gloucester’s convinced that he’s at the top of an awesome cliff, so he leaps, falls to the ground, seems to faint, and then is convinced that he’s indeed fallen off the cliff but has been rescued.

It’s a bizarre scene, but it captures the very thing Shakespeare is constantly trying to do for his audience: to use language masterfully to conjure an illusion that, if we participate in it, can almost become our reality, for that magical two hours’ traffic on the stage.

Common Questions About How Shakespeare’s Plays Were Performed

Q: What Shakespearean play was first to be performed at the Globe Theatre?

Julius Caesar was likely the first Shakespearean play, performed in 1599 at the Globe.

Q: At what hour of the day were Shakespeare’s plays performed?

According to documentation, Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the afternoon as the sun set and the climate was still warm but cooling off.

Q: In what venue were Shakespeare’s first plays performed?

Shakespeare’s first plays were performed in the Globe Theatre in the Southwark district in London.

Q: Who played the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays?

Men played all roles in Shakespeare’s and most plays during Shakespeare’s time. It wasn’t until 1660, 44 years after Shakespeare’s death, that actual women appeared in Othello.

This article was updated on October 17, 2019

Keep Reading
The History of London: A Guided Tour Through the Developing City
How Pushkin Discovered Shakespeare
Literary Britain: Poets and Novelists

About Kate Findley 164 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.