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What It Was Like To Be At A Shakespearean Play

Updated April 10, 2019 7.4k views14 items
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In 1600, William Shakespeare claimed the title of the most famous playwright in England, drawing up to 20,000 spectators to theaters in London. But what was the Globe Theatre like? The play-going experience was unique. Women were banned from appearing on stage, so male actors played the roles of Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, and Desdemona. And spectators didn't sit quietly in the audience. In fact, many of them stood during the play, oftentimes drinking beer and throwing things at the actors.

People went to the theater for entertainment, and since plays had to compete with bear-baiting, playhouses pulled out all the stops. The Globe pioneered special effects like rockets and occasionally put the entire building at risk. Peasants who had little money after the Black Death could buy the cheapest tickets and stand in the pit. And visitors even glimpsed Shakespeare on stage from time to time.

He might be known as one of the best writers of all time, but Shakespeare acted too and even got panned by a critic.

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  • Audiences Loved Gore

    Photo: Nicholas Rowe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    English spectators loved to see lots of gore when they went to the theater. Many of William Shakespeare's plays incorporated slayings, fights, and carnage. Acting troupes used props to put on the titillating shows audiences preferred.

    In 1594, spectators at George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar saw three vials of blood and various sheep organs used on stage. Spanish Tragedy even featured a corpse.

  • The Special Effects Occasionally Turned Dangerous

    Photo: Nicholas Visscher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The theater could be dangerous. During one performance that occurred near the end of William Shakespeare's life, the Globe Theatre actually burned down. The events occurred on June 29, 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII. The stage crew used a cannon with real gunpowder. 

    Consequently, a piece of flaming cotton set the theater's thatched roof on fire. The play was so engaging the audience didn't notice the fire at first. An eyewitness claimed, “Their eyes [were] more attentive to the show [than the blaze]." The entire theater burned to the ground in an hour. 

  • The Theater Smelled Terrible

    Photo: Aernout van Buchel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Theaters in William Shakespeare's day could fit 3,000 people in very close quarters. Visitors even complained the cheap seats smelled like garlic and beer. And the special effects only heightened the bad smells.

    Stage crews used sulfur and white saltpeter to make gunpowder or magic effects, so the rotten eggs scent from the sulfur and the dung from the saltpeter only added to the malodor. 

  • Most Plays Happened During The Afternoon

    Thomas Platter visited London in 1599 and saw multiple plays. He explained in his diary:

    Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.

    Theaters held their plays in the afternoon for good reason; they needed daylight. Most theaters in William Shakespeare's time were open-air, relying on natural light since artificial light was so expensive.