Shakespeares Theatre in Shakespeares Time

The London theatre scene in the 1590’s was a lot like the old west. It was a rough, bawdy lifestyle, just on the wrong side of morally acceptable (hence the reason theatres had to be on the South bank of the Thames river). The actors, playwrights and producers were shameless opportunists, catering to whatever would fill the seats, from scandalous comedies to glorifications of British history to non-theatre activities like bear-baiting. For a time companies of performing children were popular, so many actors found themselves put out of work by ten-year-olds.

As for the plays themselves, as far as we know there are no surviving manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays, nor much from any other writers at that time. Caxton had just introduced the printing press to England a few years earlier, so the technology to print plays was available, but few people saw the value of a script beyond learning the lines for performance. In fact many companies took pains to guard their scripts very closely, so that another company couldn’t pirate their production and deprive them of income. It was only later when other people besides the playwrights assembled volumes of works for printing, and we have no choice but to trust the choices of these early editors as to the accuracy of their texts.

But how did this rough, rowdy time manage to produce the greatest playwright who ever lived?

At first glance, Elizabethan England would seem an unlikely source of artistic greatness. True, the Renaissance was in full flower, but the rest of Europe was undergoing a similar, if not more profound transformation, and no French, German or Italian writer was able to serve as more than inspiration for Shakespeare’s work. England’s grand colonial adventure was still in its infancy, so there wasn’t a world-view of inspiration available to a fresh-faced country boy new to the big city. In short, we no of nothing particularly remarkable about the life and times of one William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon beside the fact that he wrote (at least) 37 incredible plays.

And few Elizabethans would have guessed that they were contemporaries with such an important literary figure. Jonson was forever critical (until after Shakespeare’s death), and critics of the time would likely have regarded Marlowe’s brief career with more reverence than anything Shakespeare might have wrote. Still the Lord Chamberlain’s men (later renamed The King’s Men) managed to earn a living wage for the better part of twenty years thanks largely to Shakespeare’s plays, performing in private for the nobility, and in public year-round, inside during the winter at Blackfriars, and outside in the summer at the famous Globe Theatre. Shakespeare himself retired to Stratford a very wealthy man.

Understanding Shakespeare’s theatre doesn’t require vast amounts of knowledge about how and why he lived, and the conditions under which he wrote his plays. If this were the case we wouldn’t understand them half as well as we do. In order to appreciate the work we must, as readers or as audiences, engage with, connect to and actually experience these plays. It is a personal, visceral, honest reaction, an invocation of our true selves. To do so means we can understand Shakespeare or any other playwright from any other time period not as we have been told to do, but as the author intended we should.