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					Shakespeare Background

from Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute

          Acting was not an easy profession on the Elizabethan1 stage or one to be taken up lightly.
An actor went through a strenuous period of training before he could be entrusted with an
important part by one of the great city companies. He worked on a raised stage in the glare of the
afternoon sun, with none of the softening illusions that can be achieved in the modern theater, and
in plays that made strenuous demands upon his skill as a fencer, a dancer and an acrobat.
          Many of the men in the London companies had been “trained up from their childhood” in
the art, and an actor like Shakespeare, who entered the profession in his twenties, had an initial
handicap that could only be overcome by intelligence and rigorous discipline. Since he was a
well-known actor by 1592 and Chettle2 says he was an excellent one, he must have had the initial
advantages of a strong body and a good voice and have taught himself in the hard school of the
Elizabethan theater how to use them to advantage.
          One of the most famous of the London companies, that of Lord Strange, began its career
as a company of tumblers, and a standard production like “The Forces of Hercules” was at least
half acrobatics. Training of this kind was extremely useful to the actors, for the normal London
stage consisted of several different levels. Battles and sieges were very popular with the
audiences, with the upper levels of the stage used as the town walls and turrets, and an actor had
to know how to take violent falls without damaging either himself or his expensive costume.

         Nearly all plays involved some kind of fighting, and in staging hand-to-hand combats the
actor’s training had to be excellent. The average Londoner was an expert on the subject of
fencing, and he did not pay his penny to see two professional actors make ineffectual dabs at each
other with rapiers3 when the script claimed they were fighting to the death. A young actor like
Shakespeare must have gone through long, grueling hours of practice to learn the ruthless
technique of Elizabethan fencing. He had to learn how to handle a long, heavy rapier in one
hand, with a dagger for parrying in the other, and to make a series of savage, calculated thrusts at
close quarters from the wrist and forearm, aiming either at this opponent’s eyes of below the ribs.
The actor had to achieve the brutal reality of an actual Elizabethan duel without injuring himself
or his opponent, a problem that required a high degree to training and of physical coordination.
The theaters and the inn-yards were frequently rented by the fencing societies to put on exhibition
matches, and on one such occasion at the Swan4 a fencer was run through the eye and died, an
indication of the risks this sort of work involved even with trained, experienced fencers. The
actors had to extremely skilled, since they faced precisely the same audience. Richard Tarleton, a
comic actor of the 1580’s who was the first great popular star of the Elizabethan theater, was
Master of Fence the year before he died and this was the highest degree the fencing schools could
         Not being content with savage, realistic fights in its theater productions, the London
audience also expected to see bloody deaths and mutilations; and it was necessary to find some
way to run a sword through an actor’s head or tear out his entrails without impairing his
usefulness for the next afternoon’s performance. This involved not only agility but a thorough
knowledge of sleight of hand, since the players were working close to the audience and in broad
daylight. Elizabethan stage management was not slavishly interested in realism but it was always
concerned with good stage effects and when bloodshed was involved it gave the audience real
blood. It had been found by experience that ox blood was too thick to run well, and sheep’s
blood was generally used. To stage a realistic stabbing one actor would use a knife with a hollow
handle into which the blade would slip back when it was pressed home, and his fellow actor
would be equipped with a bladder of blood inside his white leather jerkin,5 which could be
Shakespeare Background                                                                             1
painted to look like skin. When the bladder was pricked and the actor arched himself at the
moment of contact, the blood spurted out in a most satisfactory manner.

          Another test of an actor’s physical control was in dancing. Apart form the dances that
were written into the actual texts of the plays, it was usual to end the performance with a dance
performed by some of the members of the company. A traveler from abroad who saw
Shakespeare’s company act Julius Caesar said that “when the play was over they danced very
marvelously and gracefully together,” and when the English actors traveled abroad special
mention was always made of their ability as dancers. The fashion of the time was for violent,
spectacular dances and the schools in London taught intricate steps like those of the galliard,6 the
exaggerated leap called the “capriole” and the violent lifting of one’s partner high into the air that
was the “volte.” A visitor to one of these dancing schools of London watched a performer do a
galliard and noted how “wonderfully he leaped, flung and took on”; and if amateurs were talented
at this kind of work, professionals on the stage were expected to be very much better.
          In addition to all this, subordinate or beginning actors were expected to handle several
roles in an afternoon instead of only one. A major company seldom had more than twelve actors
in it and could not afford to hire an indefinite number of extra ones for a single production. This
meant that the men who had short speaking parts or none were constantly racing about and
leaping into different costumes to get onstage with a different characterization as soon as they
heard their cues. In one of Alleyn’s7 productions a single actor played a Tartar8 nobleman, a
spirit, an attendant, a hostage, a ghost, a child, a captain, and a Persian; and while none of the
parts made any special demands on his acting ability he must have had very little time to catch his
breath. The London theater was no place for physical weaklings; and, in the same way it is safe
to assume that John Shakespeare must have had a strong, well-mad body or he would not have
been appointed a constable in Stratford, it is safe to assume that he must have passed the
inheritance on to his eldest son.

         There was no more physical qualification an Elizabethan actor had to possess, and this
was perhaps more important than any of the others. He had to have a good voice. An
Elizabethan play was full of action, but in the final analysis it was not the physical activity that
caught and held the emotions of the audience; it was the words. An audience was an assembly of
listeners and it was through the ear, not the eye, that the audience learned the location of each of
the scenes, the emotions of each of the characters and the poetry and excitement of the play as a
whole. More especially, since the actors were men and boys and close physical contact could not
carry the illusion of love-making, words had to be depended upon in the parts that were written
for women.
         An Elizabethan audience had become highly susceptible to the use of words, trained and
alert to catch their exact meaning and full of joy if they were used well. But this meant, as the
basis of any successful stage production, that all the words to be heard clearly. The actors used a
fairly rapid delivery of their lines and this meant that breath control, emphasis and enunciation
had to be perfect if the link that was being forged between the emotions of the audience and the
action on the stage was not to be broken. When Shakespeare first came to London, the problem
of effective stage delivery was made somewhat easier by the use of a heavily end-stopped line,9
where the actor could draw his breath at regular intervals and proceed at a kind of jog-trot. But
during the following decade this kind of writing became increasingly old-fashioned, giving way
to an intricate and supple blank verse10 that was much more difficult to handle intelligently; and
Shakespeare Background                                                                               2
no one was more instrumental in bringing the new way of writing into general use than
Shakespeare himself.
         Even with all the assistance given him by the old way of writing, with mechanical
accenting and heavy use of rhyme, and Elizabethan actor had no easy time remembering his part.
A repertory system11 was used and no play was given two days in succession. The actor played a
different part every night and he had no opportunity to settle into a comfortable routine while the
lines of the part became second nature to him. He could expect very little help from the
prompter, for that overworked individual was chiefly occupied in seeing that the actors came on
in proper order, that they had their properties available and that the intricate stage arrangements
that controlled the pulleys from the “heavens”12 and the springs to the trap doors were worked
with quick, accurate timing. The stage effects, which naturally had to be changed each afternoon
for each new play, were extremely complicated. A single play in which Greene and Lodge13
collaborated required the descent of a prophet and an angel let down on a throne, a woman
blackened by a thunder stroke, sailors coming in wet from the sea, a serpent devouring a vine, a
hand with a burning sword emerging from a cloud and “Jonah the prophet cast out of the whale’s
belly upon the stage.” Any production that had to wrestle with as many complications as this had
no room for an actor who could not remember his lines.
         Moreover, an actor who forgot his lines would not have lasted long in what was a highly
competitive profession. There were more actors than there were parts for them, judging by the
number of people who were listed as players in the parish registers.14 Even the actor who had
achieved the position of a sharer in one of the large London companies was not secure. Richard
Jones, for instance, was the owner of costumes and properties and playbooks worth nearly forty
pounds, which was an enormous sum in those days, and yet three years later he was working in
the theater at whatever stray acting jobs he could get. “Sometimes I have a shilling a day and
something nothing,” he told Edward Alleyn, asking for help in getting his suit and cloak out of
         The usual solution for an actor who could not keep his place in the competitive London
theater was to join one of the country companies, where the standards were less exacting, or to go
abroad. English actors were extravagantly admired abroad and even a second-string company
with poor equipment became the hit of the Frankfort15 Fair, so that “both men and women flocked
wonderfully” to see them. An actor like Shakespeare who maintained his position on the London
stage for two decades could legitimately be praised, as Chettle praised him, for being “excellent
in the quality he professes.” If it had been otherwise, he would not have remained for long on the
London stage.

1.  Elizabethan adj.: Concerning the period 1558 to 1603, when Elizabeth I ruled England.
2.  Chettle: Henry Chettle (died 1607?), an English playwright, publisher, and poet.
3.  rapiers n.: Slender, two-edged swords with cuplike handles.
4.  the Swan: A London theater of the time.
5.  jerkin n.: short, close-fitting jacket.
6.  galliard n.: Lively French dance.
7.  Alleyn’s: Edward Alleyn (1566-1626), an English actor and theater owner.
8.  Tartar: Turk or Mongol
9.  end-stopped line: Line of poetry read with a pause at the end.
10. blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter
11. repertory system: The alternate presentation of several plays by the same theater company.
12. the “heavens”: A canopy above the stage.
13. Greene and Lodge: Robert Greene (1558-1592) and Thomas Lodge (1557-1625), English
14. parish registers: District records.
15. Frankfort: Frankfurt, Germany.

Shakespeare Background                                                                            3
After reading Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London, answer the following questions in
complete sentences on your own paper.

1. Identify three skills an Elizabethan actor had to learn. Then explain why each of those skills
   was important.
2. Identify three demands the Elizabethan audience placed on the acting companies of the time.
   Then explain how the companies met those demands.
3. How many actors usually comprised a typical acting company? Explain the difficulties this
   number put upon the company and its actors.
4. Explain the constraints caused by using only men and boys as actors.
5. Explain the importance of the words, or the speaking parts, of the play in terms of what they
   replaced on the stage.

Shakespeare Background                                                                              4
from The Life and Times of William Shakespeare by Robert Anderson

William Shakespeare’s Life
         We know very little of William Shakespeare's life. In the early years of the 1600s,
nobody realized that this actor and writer would one day become known as the world's greatest
playwright and poet. In the 1600s, there were no talk show hosts to interview Shakespeare, no
Sunday supplements to feature all the intimate details of his life. This neglect, however, has been
corrected in the past few hundred years. By now, more material has been written about
Shakespeare and his works than about any other writer in the world.
         What we do know about Shakespeare comes mainly from public records. We know that
he was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon, a market town about one hundred miles
northwest of London. It is assumed he was born a few days before his baptism, and so, his
birthday is celebrated on April 23, possibly only because he died on that date in 1616. He was one
of eight children.
         His father, John Shakespeare, sold gloves and other commodities in Stratford and was a
man of some importance in the town, serving at various times as alderman and "high bailiff" - the
equivalent of a mayor today.

         William Shakespeare’s birthplace   Stratford upon Avon            Anne Hathaway’s cottage

          William went to the local grammar school, which was very different from grammar
schools today. In those days it was rare for students to move on to a university; the Stratford
grammar school provided Shakespeare and other boys of Stratford (no girls went to school) with
all their formal education. And what they learned in this school was Latin—Latin grammar and
Latin literature, including the schoolboys' favorite—Ovid's amorous retelling of the Greek and
Roman myths.
          In 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than he was,
and in 1583, their first child, Susanna, was born. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet and
Judith. Then, from 1585 until 1592, Shakespeare's history goes blank.
          Many people believe that Shakespeare went to London to seek his fortune the year after
the twins were born. We know that by 1592 he had become an actor and a playwright because
that year a rival playwright, Robert Greene, scathingly warned other playwrights against the actor
who had become a writer:

    There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers ... that supposes he is as well
    able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you ....

    Greene refers to a fable in which a crow struts about in another bird's feathers-as an actor can
only recite others' words. Greene was insulting an upstart, a mere actor who dared to write.
    Actors were held in disrepute at the time. In fact, they were often lumped together with other
unsavory groups: "rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and common players." Local officials
frequently tried to close the theaters because they felt clerks and apprentices wasted time there
(performances were in the daytime). They also felt that disease was too easily spread among the
audience members. In fact, the London theaters were closed for long periods during the plague
years of 1592-1594.
    Thus, actors sought the protection and support of noblemen with the power to speak for their
rights against critical town authorities. In 1594, it appears that Shakespeare became a charter
Shakespeare Background                                                                               5
member of a theatrical group called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men
in 1603. (The patron of the group was none other than King James himself.) Shakespeare acted
and wrote for this company until he retired to Stratford in 1612. By that time, he had written
thirty-seven plays—comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances—including his tragic
masterpieces Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
     It is sometimes difficult to fix the dates of Shakespeare's works because plays were not
routinely published after production as they generally are now. In Shakespeare's day, plays
became the property of the theaters, and the theaters were not eager to have copies made available
for rival theaters to use. Some of Shakespeare's plays were published during his lifetime but often
in versions of dubious authenticity. It was not until 1623 that two men who had been with
Shakespeare in the King's Men brought out what they called "True Original Copies" of all the
plays. This volume is called the First Folio.
     It is believed that Julius Caesar was written in 1599, because a Swiss traveler who was in
England in September 1599 wrote about a visit to the Globe. The Swiss visitor was most
impressed, for good reason, with the intricate and vigorous Elizabethan dancing:
     After dinner on the twenty-first of September, at about two o'clock, I went with my
     companions over the water, and in the strewn-roof house [the playhouse with a
     thatched roof] saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius with at least fifteen
     characters very well acted. At the end of the comedy they danced according to their
     custom with extreme elegance. Two men in men's clothes and two in women's gave
     this performance, in wonderful combination with each other.

     Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at the age of fifty-two. He was buried in the Holy Trinity
Church at Stratford, where his grave can still be seen today. A bequest he made in his will has
attracted almost as much interest and curiosity as anything in his plays-he left his wife his
"second-best bed."

                     Holy Trinity Church           Shakespeare’s funerary monument

The Elizabethan Stage
         The Elizabethan stage would have seemed very strange to American theatergoers of fifty
or sixty years ago, who were accustomed to elaborate and realistic settings placed on a stage
separated from the audience by a huge velvet curtain. This is called a proscenium stage, and
though it's still more or less standard today, the newer arena stages, thrust stages, and open stages
have made us much more at home with Shakespeare's theater. The use of these simpler stages that
make the audience feel they're a part of the action recalls the saying that all you need for a theater
is "a platform and a passion or two."
         As with Shakespeare's life, we have only sketchy information about the early English
theaters. It appears that the wandering acting companies in England had originally set up their
stages-mere platforms- wherever they could find space, often in the courtyards of inns. The
audience stood around three sides of the stage, or if they paid more, they sat in chairs on the
balconies surrounding the inn yard.
         When James Burbage (the father of Richard Burbage, the actor who was to perform most
of Shakespeare's great tragic parts) decided in 1576 to build the first permanent theater just
outside the city of London, it was natural that he should duplicate the courtyard theaters in which
his company had been performing. Burbage called his new playhouse simply "The Theater."

Shakespeare Background                                                                               6
The Globe—The “Wooden O”
         In 1599, the owner of the land on which Burbage had built his theater apparently decided
to raise the rent. Because the theater was somewhat behind in its rent payments, the landlord
threatened to take it over. On the night of January 20, 1599, James Burbage's son Cuthbert and
others in the company stealthily took their theater apart timber by timber and rowed the pieces
across the river, where they later reconstructed the theater and called it the Globe. This was the
theater where Shakespeare's greatest plays were performed.
         In Henry V, Shakespeare calls the theater "this wooden 0." It consisted of an open space,
perhaps sixty-five feet in diameter, surrounded by a more or less circular building thirty feet high
and consisting of three tiers of seats for spectators. As in the inn courtyards, the stage, which was
forty feet by thirty feet and five feet off the ground, projected into the open space.
         The interesting part of the stage was at the rear, where there was a small curtained inner
stage, flanked by two entrances, with an upper stage above it. Stout pillars held up a narrow roof
over the rear part of the stage. This was called "the Heavens." The front part of the stage was
equipped with a trapdoor, which could be used for burial scenes, surprise entrances, and
mysterious exits.

The Globe Theater in London

The Sets: Mostly Imagination
        Shakespeare trusted his audience's imagination. He knew he did not need elaborate sets to
re-create a battle scene or a bedroom or the Roman Forum. The audience members could do it for
Moreover, without elaborate sets to move on and off the stage, Shakespeare could change scenes
with the kind of fluidity we see in movies today.
        Here is how Shakespeare prompted his audience to see hundreds of horsemen (and to
costume his kings) in lines from the Prologue to Henry V:
        ... let us ...
        On your imaginary forces work. ...
        Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
        Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth;
        For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings ...

         Though Shakespeare made no attempt to use realistic settings, it appears that his kings
and other characters were splendidly decked out. He also called for flags and banners and
musicians, and the multilayered stage could produce special effects. Characters could be lowered
from the Heavens by cranes, and there were sound effects as well. In fact, these special effects
caused the destruction of the Globe. In 1613, during the battle scene of Henry VIII, a stagehand
was lighting the fuse of a cannon. A spark flew up and started a fire in the thatched roof of the
Heavens, and the theater burned down.
         Because the plays were performed during the daytime in the open air, there was no need
for stage illumination. Shakespeare had to convey the idea of night by having characters carry
torches. (Today, to shoot a night scene in the daytime, movie directors use filters on their cameras
to darken the scene.)

The Actors: All Males

Shakespeare Background                                                                              7
         In Shakespeare's time, all actors were male. (It wasn't until 1660, when the exiled King
Charles II was restored to the English throne, and the repressive Puritan dominance ended, that
women played in professional theaters.) Boys who had been recruited from the choir schools and
trained professionally played the female roles. It was not too difficult to create the illusion that
these boys were women. Shakespeare's plays were performed in contemporary Elizabethan
costumes, and women's clothing of the day was very elaborate and concealing, with long, full
skirts flowing from extremely narrow waists. Women also wore elaborate wigs and powdered
their faces heavily. So, all in all, the transformation of boys into women characters was not that

         The Elizabethan theater was a convivial place where people arrived early; visited with
friends, made new acquaintances, moved around freely, and ate and drank before and during the
performance. (The occasion might have had something of the feeling of a Saturday matinee at a
local shopping-mall movie theater.) Playwrights had to write scenes that would catch the attention
of this audience, and many actors held their attention by vigorous and flamboyant acting. By
comparison, today's movie cameras are so sensitive that sometimes all an actor has to do is think
the right thoughts, and that is enough. Elizabethan actors had to do more than that since they were
trying to hold the interest of three thousand restless people who were also busy eating, drinking,
and talking. We get the impression that, like actors working on modern thrust or arena stages, the
Elizabethan players had to keep on the move so that spectators on all three sides could catch their
expressions and hear their voices.

Elizabethan costumes.

How to Read the Play

Shakespeare Background                                                                                 8
Hear the Beat
        As with all of Shakespeare's plays, Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse. Blank
verse duplicates natural rhythms of English speech. Blank Verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter,
which means that each line of poetry in the play is built on five iambs. An iamb consists of an
unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable as in the word “prepare.” Pentameter means
simply that there are five iambs in a line. Read these lines aloud to feel the beat. In fact, strike the
strong and weak beats with your finger.
         u s         u      s   u        s u s u           s
        But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

         u s u s         u su s u s
         It is the East and Juliet is the sun!

        A whole play written in this pattern would become singsong. To break the monotony and
emphasis, Shakespeare sometimes reverses the stressed and unstressed syllables. Which syllables
would you stress in the following speech? Actors don't always read with the same emphasis.
You'll probably find variations in reading these lines in your own group. (Read aloud.)

         What’s in a name?
         A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare doesn't let all his characters speak in blank verse. You'll notice that the commoners
speak, as we all do, in ordinary prose.

Pauses and Stops for Breath
         Follow the punctuation marks, and resist the temptation to stop at the end of each line.
Thus, in the first passage above, you would pause at the end of the first line and come to a full
stop at the end of the second. (Try it.) In the next passage, you'd make a full stop for breath at the
end of the first line but not at the end of the second line. The second line has no end punctuation,
and sense requires that you move on. (Try it.) Lines that end with a punctuation mark are called
end-stopped lines. Lines that do not end with a punctuation mark are called run-on lines. (For the
complete meaning, you must "run on" to the next line.)

Archaic Words
        In Shakespeare's day, the word sooth meant "truth." We rarely use the word now. Here
are some other words that are now archaic.
ague: fever
alarum: a call to arms, such as a trumpet
an: if
betimes: from time to time
hence, whence, thence: here, where, there
hie: hurry
ho: hey, to get someone’s attention
knave: servant, or person of humble birth.
Marry!: a mild oath, shortened from "By the Virgin Mary!"
moe: more. Moe was used to refer to number and amounts; more, to size
prithee: pray thee (beg thee)
smatch: small amount

Shakespeare Background                                                                                 9
After reading Robert Anderson’s background article, answer the following questions in
complete sentences on your own paper.

William Shakespeare’s Life
1. When is Shakespeare’s birthday celebrated?
2. When did Shakespeare die? How old was he?
3. Where was Shakespeare born?
4. Describe Shakespeare’s educational background.
5. Describe Shakespeare’s marriage and family.
6. How were actors regarded in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s?
7. Why did local law enforcement try to shut down the theaters?
8. How did acting companies receive their names? Why?
9. How many plays did Shakespeare write before he retired?

The Elizabethan Stage
10. Name and describe the typical kind of stage used today.
11. What kind of stage did Shakespeare’s company use?
12. Who built the first permanent theater? When?

The Globe
13. What happened to the first permanent theater?
14. What is the name of Shakespeare’s theater? What is the nickname?
15. How was the theater destroyed?
16. Describe the shape and floor plan of Shakespeare’s theater.

The Sets
17. Describe the sets that Shakespeare used.
18. Describe the costumes.
19. When were plays performed?

The Actors
20. Why did only men and boys act?
21. Why was it easy for boys to portray the parts of women?
22. Describe the audience at a typical play at this time.
23. How did the actors and writers gain the attention of the audience?

How to Read the Play
Hear the Beat
24. Define blank verse.
25. Define iamb.
26. Define pentameter.
27. Define iambic pentameter.

Pauses and Stops for Breath
28. Define end-stopped line.
29. Define run-on line.

Shakespeare Background                                                                  10

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