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In Elizabethan England (1558-1606), plays and the theater were the most common forms of entertainment. A traveling acting company traveled to towns and set up a stage wherever they could—usually an inn. The traveling actors were usually despised, and treated like vagabonds. James Burbage decided to build a permanent place where these actors could perform. In 1567 the Theatre was built. It was a huge success. More playhouses were built in London.
Then the plague struck London in 1592. All theaters were closed in London because at theaters there were masses of people together, which could help spread the plague. In 1594, the playhouses were reopened, and acting companies formed.
One of these acting companies was known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare joined them. Shakespeare was an actor there, as well as an important playwright. For 21 years, the Theatre triumphed. James Burbage had died, but his sons Richard and Cuthbert became managers. Things were going well. Then trouble hit when the owner of the land, Giles Allen, refused to renew their lease. He had other plans for the land. Allen owned the land, but they owned the Theatre, which contained valuable wood, which the Burbages wanted. The brothers had a plan.
At Christmastime, 1598, Allen was away. This was the perfect time to fulfill their plan. They rented land across the Thames River at Bankside. Then the actors began to dismantle the Theatre, and bring the wood across to the new foundation. In spring they were discovered, but half of the building was already up. Here they would build a new theater called the Globe.
Building the Globe would be expensive. The Burbages had a few money saving tricks. Tiled roofs were becoming popular. The Burbages considered it, but decided to stick with a thatched roof. This was cheaper, but also more prone to catching on fire. They also reused the wood from the Theatre. Still, they didn’t have enough money. The problem was solved by “sharers.” People were invited to invest in the Globe. To their surprise, only 5 people bought shares, making them joint owners. Because there were several investors, the costs were split. This made money less of a problem.
In mid-1599 the Globe was finished. It had no lights, so plays were only performed in the afternoon. It was so popular, that it drove the Rose Company, a rival acting company, away. The Globe’s shows were loved by all. A woman wasn’t allowed to go alone, unless she was selling something. She had to go with a man to be respected. The yard, or ground in front of the stage, housed one half of the theater-goers. It was mostly inhabited by apprentices, solders, servants, shopkeepers, and laborers of all kinds. They were known as “groundlings.” They to stand here, and if it rained, they were the only ones who got wet. It was also common for thieves to wander around here and cut money purses to steal coins. The five foot stage was approximately the same height of a person back then. Because of these conditions it only cost one penny to enter the Globe. For another penny, you were able to climb a flight of stairs that led to the galleries. Here, you were allowed to sit down on benches, and you had a roof over your head. The view wasn’t that great, but it was better than the groundling’s view. This area was filled with foreign tourists, lawyers, and merchants. For yet another penny, you could go to the gentlemen’s room, where there were cushions on the benches. Here, you had a great view of the stage. Nobles watched from here. Finally, for a total of six pence, you could sit in the Lord’s room. The extremely well off sat here. They could show off their clothes and jewels easily, and they had the best view in the house. Next to them were the musicians.
On the yard, and outside the entrances, people sold food. Women who sold fruits were called apple wives. They most commonly sold pears and apples. People also sold nuts.
In Elizabethan England, people went to “hear a play,” not “see a play” as we say. A play was more auditory than visual. The actors had very few props.
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William Shakespeare, Kings Men, English drama, Shoreditch, The Theatre, Shakespeares Globe, James Burbage, Playing company, Globe Theatre, John Underwood
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