Weird History What It Was Like To Be At A Shakespearean Play  

Genevieve Carlton
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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.

Shakespeare's Theater Pioneered The Use Of Special Effects
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Photo: C. Walter Hodges/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Special effects were all the rage in William Shakespeare's day. At the Globe, audiences might hear "thunder" made by a cannonball rolled inside a wooden box. The special effects team made lightning by tossing resin powder into a candle. Elizabethan theaters used magic effects, too, often by creating black, white, or red smoke. 

Additionally, the stage crew used pyrotechnics by tying a firecracker to a rope and lighting it. The rocket would hiss across the stage, shooting out sparks and replicate a lightning bolt. 

People Ate And Drank At The Theater
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Photo: G. Topham Forrest/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The theater drew huge crowds, and many enjoyed beer or wine during the performance. Spectators also ate food like apples, oranges, nuts, and gingerbread. Theatergoer Thomas Platter reported in 1599, "During the performance, food and drink are carried 'round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment." Modern excavations even found oyster shells on the floors of theaters. 

Moreover, if the audience members didn't like the play, they let the actors know. In 1629, the audience pelted a visiting French troupe with apples, perhaps because the group included female actors.

The Audience Members Usually Participated 

Up to 3,000 audience members attended each show at the Globe, and the spectators didn't just watch the action: they often participated. For example, play-goers booed when a villain appeared on stage. They often cheered for elaborate special effects. And many plays ended with crowd members dancing.

As Thomas Platter reported in 1599, "When the play was over, [the actors] danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women."

But the dancing also caused problems. In 1612, the Fortune theater stopped playing music because the rowdy crowd caused "tumults and outrages."  

Theaters Had To Compete With Nearby Bear Houses
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Photo: Norden's Map of London/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The theater was relatively new when William Shakespeare became famous. In fact, one of London's first theaters was built in 1576, when Shakespeare was 12 years old. But play houses quickly became popular, and by 1600, London's theaters served between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators every week. 

Theaters had to compete with other forms of entertainment, like bear-baiting, though. Norden's 1593 map of London showed the close proximity of the bear house and the playhouse on the south bank of the Thames River. In fact, in 1591, the theater was banned on Thursdays because "the players do recite their plays to the hurt of bear-baiting, maintained for Her Majesty’s pleasure."