The World of theatre

The permanet playhouse

James Burbage, a carpenter by trade, built the first permanet theatres, the Theatre and the Curtain north of the walls of the City of London. So Elizabethan players had a stable home. They were accustomed to acting on a variety of stages: in the halls of noblemen's houses, in one of the Queen's palaces, or at the Inns of Court, and they acted in public in town halls and inn yards, or in any place where they could erect a stage and gather a crowd.

The Architecture of theatres

Permanet theatres were circular or octagonal. Within the outer walls there were three tiers of roofed galleries, looking down on the stage and the yard where the poorer spectators, or "groundlings", stood.

The internal layout

The stage itself, technically known as an "apron stage" , jutted out into the yard or "pit", so that when the theatre was full the players were surrounded on three sides. No more than twelve actors could appear on stage at the same time due to the space restrictions. Over the stage the "shadow" or thatched roof protected the players from the rain. In the front of the stage there was a "trap door" used for devilish apparitions and disappearances, and also for burials. The actors " tiring house" , that is to say, the place where the actors changed their attire, was presumably at the rear of the stage. There were two doors for entrances and exits. Behind the stage there was an "inner stage" concealed by a curtain when not in use, which was clearly demanded for several plays: for Juliet's tomb, for a hiding place for Claudius and Polonius in Hamlet. This inner stage was used not only for discoveries, but also for concealments. one major problem was the staging of the final scene of those tragedies which ended with several corpses on the stage. Only two methods were avaible: either the body was carried off or else it was concealed within a recess , since the Elizabethan stage had no general stage curtain. There were also an "upper stage" hidden by a curtain and an upmost area normally used by musicians. When a play was in progress a flag flew above the roof of the theatre with its emblem.

Elizabethan and modern theatres

The structure of the stage considerably affected the form of elizabethan plays. In the modern theatre actors are separated from the audience by a curtain which conceals or reveals the whole stage. Moreover, they act in bright light before spectators hidden in a darkened auditorium. On the apron stage the actor came forward in daylight into the midst of his audience. They were thus fused into a common experience. The device of the soliloquy was not artificial, as on the modern stagem but quite a natural form of communication as a character explained his thoughts and intentions to those immediately before him. As there was no need for him to shout, the greatest subtlety of voice, gesture, and expression was possible.

The scenery


Apparently there was no "scenery" and plays were acted in daylight. The stage relied on conventions using a limited number of "props!: tables, chairs, swords, canvases of the sun ad moon. For night scenes a simple candle or torch symbolically transported the audience into the night world. The action was continuous. A scene ended when all the actors had gone off the stage and a new set of characters came on. Usually, the exact locality of the scene was unimportant. When it necessary, Shakespeare showed it in the dialogue. But for the most part a simple " property" or garment was sufficient. Chiars or stools showed indoor scenes; a king wearing his armour was on the field of battle; a watchman carrying a lantern indicated the streets of a city at night.


The actors

The Elizabethan actor was a busy man, constantly rehearsing new plays. He had litlle time for long and elaborate preparations; but he belonged to a team and the trained actor was ready in emergency to improvise. In shakespeare's time there were no women actresses , the parts of young women were acted by boys. The Elizabethan acting company was a permanent "fellowship of players" and they worked on the basis of a shared system. Since the actos were partners in the concern, the company remained constant.

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