The Globe stage had little scenery, no front curtain to hide the bare stage, and little or no stage machinery for special effects until after they had been acquired for Blackfriars A chorus, or dialogue between characters, established the scene. Entrances and exits were through two doorways to the “tiring house” (a contraction of “attiring house”) backstage.
The theater was by no means a drab affair. A lack of scenery was compensated for by magnificent costumes. Even if the play was supposed to take place in ancient Egypt (Antony and Cleopatra), or some mythical faroff Island Kingdom, the audiences knew that the plays were really about themselves, and so there was little attempt to make the costumes fit the time or style of the setting. Not only did a wealthy company not spend great sums of money on costumes, but theatrical goups also inherited discarded fashions from their wealthy patrons.
Battle scenes were accompanied by loud bangs and smoke, with braying trumpets sounding the start and announcing the arrival of important characters. Music played a large part in Elizabethan theater, and often incidental music that included jigs and reels and clowning was used, even when the main event was a tragic play such as King Lear.
The “dead” were carried off in dramatic flourishes because there was no other way to get the bodies off the stage. Intimate scenes like the murder of Desdemona in Othello may have been played in a space behind the central door, covered by a curtain. There might also be an open gallery or balcony high up on the back wall of the stage.
The area in front of the stage was left open to the elements, but a roof covered the rear stage. The exposed underside would sometimes be painted with a moon and stars. A trapdoor in the stage would allow a “ghost,” such as in Macbeth, to arise, or for the gravediggers to throw up bones in Hamlet.
Unlike the modern theater, where the expensive seats put you almost on the stage, and certainly near the front of the theater, the “cheap seats” weren't seats at all, but a courtyard open to the sky in front of the stage where the “groundlings” stood. They were a mixed group composed of apprentices and merchants as well as tourists and the stray nobleman. These patrons drank freely and spoke openly during performances. Prostitutes and cutpurses worked the crowd.
The groundlings stood in a rough circle some sixty feet or more in length in front of a stage that stood some five feet off the ground, was about forty feet in width, and had a jettylike piece that jutted into the audience as much as twenty feet or more. The vertical walls of the theater in front of the stage had a number of “boxes,” or galleries, that were reached by steep staircases. On a good day, a packed house could have upwards of 3,000 people in the audience.
Given the nature of the audience, we can presume that feedback was instantaneous, with shouts of encouragement and applause for what worked, and boos and rotten fruit and vegetables thrown onstage for what didn't work. The groundlings would have paid a penny, which was roughly one-sixth of a day's wages, to see the play, and they wanted value for their money. The price was six times that for the boxed seats. Due both to terrible inflation at different moments of the sixteenth century as well as to modern changes in economic systems, it is very difficult to establish monetary equivalencies between our world and Shakespeare's. But given that a penny could buy either entrance to the theater or six eggs, it seems that theater attendance was something of an affordable luxury for the working-class citizens of London. Perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of these determined and diverse theatergoers when he wrote in As You Like It:
All the world's a stage,