The Theater District
William Shakespeare has stood the test of time so well that even now as we approach the millennium, more than four hundred years after his birth, he is held in the highest regard as the world's greatest poet and playwright, and Stratford-upon-Avon was respectful of him in his own time. Over the span of his fifty two years, from a relatively obscure background, he achieved fame, wealth and status without ever losing touch with his roots in his native Warwickshire. He began and ended his life in Stratford-upon-Avon and although documented evidence about his life is scant - he left no diaries or letters to illuminate his life - scholars over the centuries have pieced together enough for us to gain a good insight into the course of his life, during which he wrote thirty-seven plays, the poems Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and The Turtle and The Sonnets.
William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in a house in Henley Street. This is preserved intact. His mother, Mary Arden, was one of the daughters of Robert Arden, a yeoman farmer of Wilmcote: his father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and wool dealer of good standing who held the office of Bailiff of the Borough in 1568. From the age of seven to about 14, he attended Stratford Grammar School receiving an excellent well rounded education. At the age of 18 he married Anne Hathaway, who was seven years his senior and three months pregnant. She was of 'yeoman' stock - her family owned a farm one mile west of Stratford in Shottery. He endured her until he could stand it no longer and fled to London to become an actor. He then became actor-manager and part-owner in the Blackfriars and afterwards the Globe Theatres. He was a first-rate actor, but it is as a writer of plays that he has achieved lasting world-wide fame. His plays are thought to be the finest ever written in any language.His 37 plays vary in type; historical romances, light, fantastic comedies, some are tragedies, all including the comical and the farcical. He was a shrewd business man, amassing quite a fortune in his time. He returned to Stratford for his latter years where he died at the age of 52 and now lies at rest in his special grave at Holy Trinity Church.
Birthplace: The half-timbered house where William Shakespeare was born in 1564 is Stratford's most cherished historic place. It is the most frequently visited of all the tourist places. Descendants of the dramatist lived there until the nineteenth century, and it has been a place of pilgrimage for over 250 years. Open daily, tours start in The Birthplace which contains an acclaimed exhibition of the poet's life, William Shakespeare: His Life and Background They then carry on through the house, which is furnished in period style with many historic manuscripts and books. Finally the tour ends outside in the celebration garden.
The first permanent theater in England, called "The Theater" was built by James Burbage in 1576 at Southwark on the River Thames. But in 1599, his theater was torn down, and it's wood was used in the construction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater.
The original Globe opened in 1599. It burned down in 1613 and was immediately rebuilt. It was closed by the Puritans in 1642.
In 1970, Sam Wanamaker established the Shakespeare Globe Playhouse Trust. A site of 0.4 hectare was identified that very year on Bankside, but construction work only began in 1987. In 1982, Professor John Orrell provided new evidence on the shape and dimensions of the Globe. His analysis of Wenceslas Hollar's `Long View of London' (1647) - a panorama of London taken from the tower of Southwark Cathedral - proved that the angles and relative heights of the buildings depicted in the drawing were accurate. The next step in collecting evidence came in 1989. The Globe's original foundations were discovered on Bankside, about two hundred yards from the reconstruction site, together with those of the Rose theatre. Significant archaeological evidence was presented to scholars and the Globe's project architects, Pentagram Design - despite the fact that 95% of the site of the original Globe is covered by a listed building (Anchor Terrace, shown in the illustration, now converted into the "Globe Apartments"). Faithful design and the use of traditional materials and techniques have been key to the reconstruction of the Globe. The circular theatre is made up of twenty wooden bays, each three storeys high. These are thatched with Norfolk reed and the walls are made with lime plaster.The stage is roofed and thatched. The back wall (Frons Scenae) is fixed, highly decorated and elaborately carved in an early classical style with three openings. Huge oak pillars, painted to look like marble one on each side of the stage support the Heavens, the coffered and painted canopy over the stage.
The attic contains a huge room that is used both for storage of props and costumes and as a rehearsal and audition space.
The trap in the Heavens ceiling is accessed from the attic. It is used for descents
On the part of the Heavens above the stage proper you can only see part of the circle of the zodiac. The circle is completed in the ceiling of the Lords' Rooms, the balcony at the back of the stage where the richest patrons sat and the musicians played . The balcony was also used as an acting space: Juliet's balcony or the walls of Harfleur. This is why the circle includes it, as planets and constellations were believed to influence our destinies.
The stage roof is made of three parts: the Heavens, a thatched roof, and a small pentice that was added in order to cover the whole of the stage when the pillars were moved backward following the Workshop and Prologue Seasons (1995 and 1996). Under the pentice, the pediment figures Fama, or Fame, blowing her trumpet, or summoning spectators to the performance of famous plays.
The balcony runs across the whole of the Frons Scenae, and is divided into three sections - however there are no inner partitions at the New Globe, although some scholars believe there should be. The central section is usually used by the musicians, while members of the audience sit in the side sections. In the Renaissance, the aristocracy favoured these seats because they could be seen (and heard) as well as see the actors from very close. That is why they were called the Lords' Rooms. In the 20th century, these seats apparently seem less desirable, although the proximity with actors and musicians makes them very exciting. Early Modern patrons probably had to go though the Tiring House to access these seats, but in the new Globe there are also communication doors between the Tiring House (backstage area) and the galleries.
In this scene from the Opening Season's production of Henry V (summer 1997), three members of the English court stood in the balcony for a short while.
The balcony is first and foremost the musicians' room, offering the best acoustics and a good view for cueing. The musicians usually stand in the central section, as in this scene from the 1998 production of As You Like It. Sometimes they play behind the curtains as in the scene where Hymen enters at the end of As You Like It, or in act V of The Merchant of Venice. This is particularly necessary when the music underlines speech, if it is not to cover the actor's voice.The original Globe did not have its own band (or broken consort) until 1609, when the King's Men acquired the Blackfriars. That is probably the time when they added curtains on the balcony in order to turn it into a proper Music Room. It is not clear whether they played behind curtains at all times or not. So Globe productions are being very slightly anachronistic in having musicians on the balcony for plays that were written 10 years earlier, like Henry V and As You Like It. Hangings, curtained music rooms and audience members sitting on the balcony in Elizabethan playhouses can be seen in the Messallina and Roxana vignettes.De Witt's sketch of the Swan shows people in the balcony though it is not clear whether they are actors or audience members.
The stage of the new Globe is made of bare boards, as it was in the original Globe.The stage wall, or Frons Scenae is decorated in trompe l'oeil marble and stone, and illustrated with real and fake statues of gods and planetary deities, as close as possible to the descriptions made by visitors to the original Globe (e.g. De Witt).Behind the wall, the Tiring House is the part of the playhouse where Elizabethan actors would get dressed ('attired').In the scene above, taken from the 1998 production of As You Like It, you can see a white carpet in the centre delimited by the pillars, which was used to oppose the court scenes (played on the periphery) to the forest scenes (played in the centre).Most productions at the new Globe add hangings between the doors, and curtains in the balcony, both of which were likely features in the original Globe. In the Renaissance, the surface of the stage would have been strewn with rushes, which acted as an insulant, and were also used in London homes.
The stage is 5 feet high, which makes quite difficult to climb onto or jump from, but ensures that most groundlings (standing audience) see the action. It is believed that Elizabethan actors would not have left the stage to play in the yard because of the risk it presented to their persons and their clothing.
The two stage pillars are necessary to hold up the Heavens. They are made of two massive single tree trunks pierced through the centre in order to avoid warping. They are painted in trompe l'oeil marble effect. The place of the pillars on the Globe stage is a subject of controversy, since scholars believe they were closer to the edge, but actors and directors are more comfortable with them further inside. The columns can be said to figure the pillars of Hercules, to represent the dichotomy between War and Love (Mars and Venus, who are figured on the frieze at the top of the Frons Scenae), Night and Day, Tragedy and Comedy etc.
In the original Globe, you could sit on the wooden benches of one of three galleries when it rained or if you could afford to pay twopence rather than the one penny groundlings paid to stand in the yard. Your padded clothes would have provided some comfort, but as there was no limit on the number of people, it probably got rather cramped.
The original Globe could house up to 3000 playgoers, whereas the new Globe has a limit of 1700, of which 1000 are seated in the galleries.
In the original Globe, richer patrons sat in the Gentlemen's Rooms, the part of the middle gallery closest to the stage. They could ascend to those choice seats without crossing the crowded, smelly yard. It cost them threepence, as opposed to the one penny groundlings paid to stand in the yard or the twopence you had to pay to sit on the hard seats of the gallery. From there, they would sit comfortably on cushioned seats and enjoy an excellent view of the stage. Because they were so close to the players, they would probably be able to concentrate better on the text of the play (remember the Elizabethans said they went to hear a play rather than see it).
The yard is the most original part of the Globe: up to 700 people can stand in it, huddling around the stage, some watching the action from closer than any theatre can offer. They are free to move around, though on very busy days it can be rather difficult. In the original Globe, 1000 people could stand in the yard, and it got so smelly and hot that they were also nicknamed "stinkards". Food and drink can be bought in the yard, or just outside, and consumed during the performance. But the groundlings are the audience members who make performances at the Globe so memorable: they mediate between stage and galleries, they have an immediate response to jokes, they are made part of the action, both imaginatively by the actors who see them as an army, a forest or a court, but also by their own verbal and physical participation: throwing back the apple Jaques has just thrown into the yard, helping Bassanio make his choice of caskets, answering Touchstone's bon mots etc.
An Elizabethan groundling would pay one penny to see a 2 hour performance without intervals.
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