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Attending a play in the mid-1600s was not a simple affair. In London, England, there were playwrights, actors, and plays but not playhouses. In 1642 puritanical authorities drove out players in London, but people set up performances in other cities. Large audiences followed, and the “theater” was born. Eventually, playhouses made their way back to London.
One of the earliest English playhouses was the Globe, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed. The first public playhouse in London was called The Theatre. After its founder, James Burbage, died, its lease could not be renewed. As a result, his sons literally moved it—dismantled timber and all—and built the Globe on Bankside. Historians believe that the Globe was a wooden, circular structure with galleries that housed a two-tiered balcony and overlooked a courtyard.
Plays during Shakespeare’s lifetime were bawdy, noisy affairs. People of lower classes stood and watched the play for one penny (almost a day’s wages) and were called “groundlings.” They were known to hoot and holler during performances. Middle- and upper-class spectators sat in the galleries and paid a greater fee.
The English Renaissance is sometimes referred to as “the Shakespearean era” or “the Elizabethan era,” referring to England’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. However, these are contemporary terms; Shakespeare was not nearly as well known during his lifetime as he is now, and the English Renaissance extended past the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Other playwrights who staged works during Shakespeare’s time were Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and John Webster. These playwrights tinkered with the classic forms of tragedy and comedy , creating new genres.
Henry V (Folger Shakespeare Library). Washington, DC: Washington Square Press, 2004. A comprehensive guide to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It includes the history of the play, a guide to reading Shakespeare’s language, commentary on the play, and other resources.
12 Plays by Shakespeare: The Essential Shakespeare in Twelve Individual Volumes. New York: Dover Publications, 2004. A boxed set of a dozen of William Shakespeare’s well-known plays, including Hamlet, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, and more.
Five Plays. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. A collection of five plays (A Trick to Catch the Old One,The Revenger’s Tragedy, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Women Beware Women, and The Changeling) by Thomas Middleton, a playwright and Shakespeare’s contemporary.
Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works. Washington, D.C.: Washington Square Press, 2004. Queen Elizabeth I reigned during the English Renaissance. This is a collection of her poetry, speeches, essays, letters, and prayers.
Condemnation of the Elizabethan Theater
Folger Shakespeare Library
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
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