To Play or Not to Play
As professional theater developed, actors began to be able to support themselves through their craft A large part of this independence was due to the growth of theaters in London, a thriving city nestled against the banks of the River Thames since the days of the Romans. As the sixteenth century drew to a close, ships sailed up the Thames from foreign ports and departed on the turn of the tide as London sent its sons and daughters as far afield as newly colonized Virginia in the New World, while welcoming travelers from all over the known world.
The Effects of War on Shakespeare's Writing
Newly Anglican (i.e., Protestant) London was the capital of a nation at war, engaged in a drawn-out fight with the Catholic Spanish Empire that controlled a great deal of Europe, either directly or by alliance. The Lowlands of the Netherlands (Holland and Flanders) were the battlefields of constant engagements between the armies of Spain and small companies of French and English men who joined with Dutch forces to hold them back.
At sea, meanwhile, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were harrying Spanish ships bringing back gold and exotic trade goods from the New World. Although really pirates or privateers, they received a royal blessing from Queen Elizabeth, who turned a blind eye as long as money filled the royal coffers. It all came to a head in 1588, when, with the help of a storm, the English smashed a vastly superior Spanish Armada. The war dragged on, though, and the English lost Calais to the Spanish in 1596. For days, it was said, you could hear the sounds of the cannons as far as London.
Shakespeare wrote a lot about a nation at war or existing in an uneasy peace, during which religious strife and bigotry could result in a treason trial and one's head being stuck on a pike at Traitor's Gate. As the medieval guilds began to flounder, unemployment grew, and beggars and homeless people filled the streets and prisons of towns and cities. A kind of “baby boom” also took place as the country recovered from the ravages of the Black Death over the previous 100 years.
But the riches of the Renaissance began to pour forth, and the notion of being an Englishman was steadily taking hold. This growing pride in nationhood and military might, particularly after the defeat of the Armada, is a key to understanding a lot of Shakespeare's work.
The Queen's Protection
Presiding over the growth of art and drama and maritime adventure was the aging queen. Elizabeth was childless and unmarried; her advancing age and the likelihood that the throne would soon stand empty threatened the peace and security of the nation with potential civil wars or the imposition of foreign potentates. Shakespeare touched all of these anxieties in his plays but did so with sufficient subtlety to avoid royal anger.
Most plays were staged during the daytime and literally could not hide from those come to assess the loyalty of players, playwrights, and audience alike. London's city alderman and constables feared that the theaters would become meeting places for mobs and disaffected groups, as well as dangerous centers of infection in times of plague. Events seemed to justify such concerns: The Earl of Essex and his men attended a performance of Richard II as a source of inspiration for their attempted coup against Queen Elizabeth. Unlike Essex, Shakespeare and company suffered no serious harm, though they were forced to remove from production the scene in which Richard hands over his crown to those who came to seize it.
Meanwhile, disease was constantly forcing the theaters to close and the acting troupes to take to the road. The actors were allowed to follow their vocation under sufferance simply because the rich, particularly the queen, demanded their entertainment.
Attacking Moral Purity
The Protestant clergy considered the theater an attack on the moral purity of the populace, particularly the young. In 1583 in his The Anatomie of Abuses, religious leader Philip Stubbes declared that far from teaching men and women how to be better people, plays offered instruction in how to lie, cheat, steal, and deceive.
Philip Stubbs said: “If you will learn to jest, laugh and leer, to grin, to nod, and mow [fornicate]; if you will learn to play the vice, to swear, tear, and blaspheme both Heaven and Earth; if you will learn to become a bawd, unclean, and to devirginate maids, to deflower honesty wives; if you will learn to murder, flay, kill, pick, steal, rob, and row.”
Most companies consisted of about a dozen or so regular players and were required by law to have the patronage of an aristocrat or member of the law court. That explains company names which range from Lord Leicester's Men to the Admiral's Men. Shakespeare himself joined a troupe called the Lord Chamberlain's Men with acting stars such as Richard Burbage. The troupe was renamed the King's Men when James I came to the throne.
In 1576 James Burbage, a former carpenter and then the actor/manager of Lord Leicester's Men, leased a piece of land in Shoreditch, just north of the London city limits, and built the first permanent theater called, appropriately enough, the Theatre. (Burbage's son, Richard, later headed a company of actors with Shakespeare.) A second theater, The Curtain, was built nearby the next year. Building permanent theaters within the London city limits was prohibited.
Other theaters on the south bank of the Thames soon followed, including the Rose and the Swan. Builders of permanent theaters thus continued to avoid the interference of the local authorities, joining other adult entertainments in the Elizabethan equivalent of a “red-light” district. Here you could also find brothels, gambling dens, and bear-baiting arenas
It was once thought that as people entered the Globe Theatre, they would drop their admission fee into a box, leading to our modern term for the box office at the front of the theater. But in fact, “gatherers” collected fees at the entrances to various levels of the Globe. This was the one job allowed women at the Globe.
In 1598, Richard Burbage lost the lease to his father's theater, which fell into disrepair. In the dead of night, he and his players had to sneak the building timbers off the property before the landowner confiscated them. They dismantled the building, transported it piece by piece across the frozen River Thames, and reassembled it on the south bank of the river and called it the Globe.
Different companies adopted particular theaters as their “homes” even if they toured the countryside and gave performances in the houses of noble patrons. The Blackfriars, for instance, was a small indoor theater that housed a troupe of boy actors, offering highbrow theater for nobles (as did other boy companies) until it was taken over by Shakespeare's King's Men in 1608. This immediately became the company's winter home and then its principal theater when the Globe burned down in 1613. Scholars speculate that some of Shakespeare's later plays, particularly those such as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, which called for special effects, may have been composed for the more intimate setting of the Blackfriars, and its richer, perhaps more sophisticated audiences.