William Shakespeare’s plays are classics, they have been staged, adapted and alluded to many many times. Have you ever read one? How did you go about it?
There are several ways of reading a play. You can focus on the story itself and allow the characters to come alive in your mind in the way they are described on the page. However, by doing this you are disregarding the fact that it is a play and it was originally meant to be staged. Instead, try to picture the actors in the theatre, think of the way they portray the characters and give them the chance to drag you into the story.
To help you imagine what a play would look like in Shakespeare’s time, here are some basics to keep in mind:
- The Elizabethan theatre or English Renaissance theatre was usually three stories high, built around an open space at the centre: the pit. Where the pit was for standing, people in the galleries could often sit.
- The theatres were seen as an uncultivated place and were therefore banished to the outskirts of the city. London’s magistrates might have had a point in this: the crowd was full of prostitutes looking for potential clients and people shouting to sell food and drinks. Many theatres were also used for cockfighting and bear beating. Shakespeare’s plays were not nearly the ‘high culture’ they are regarded today.
- The stage was very bare. The mood, setting and time of the play were conveyed through the language, not through a background or props. Their elaborate costumes were often the most valuable thing a theatre company owned.
- The stage usually had a raised platform near the back. Shakespeare plays a lot with differences in height or entrances & exits at different ends of the stage to mark relations between people.
Characters and Writing
- At that time, originality was not about inventing things from scratch, but how you used other people’s material. Shakespeare’s works are full of allusions to Roman and Greek mythology as well as more contemporary sources.
- Shakespeare only wrote for one company, which was very unusual at his time. He was a shareholder of the Lord Chaimberlain’s Men and knew the company very well, as he both acted with and wrote for them. He often wrote characters for specific actors, who each had their own set of characters. For example, the man who played the king always played the king.
- It is often believed that this is one of the reasons that women started playing a more significant role later on in his plays. Women were not allowed on stage, so they were played by men, mostly boys with high voices and bare cheeks. When a great boy actor joined the company Shakespeare could write more complicated female parts for him.