1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > London's Theatres in the Time of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
(Part 36)


London's Theatres

Never before, except perhaps in the Athens of Pericles, had the elements and conditions of a great national drama met in such perfect union. As we have seen, the popular conditions supplied by the stir of great public events and the stimulus of an appreciative audience were present in exceptional force.

With regard to the stage conditions, -- means of adequate dramatic representation, -- public theatres had for the first time been recently established in London on a permanent basis. In 1574 a royal license had been granted by the queen to the earl of Leicester's Company "to use, exercise, and occupy the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Interludes, and Stage Plays, and such other like as they have been already used and studied, as well for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think good to see them"; and, although the civil authorities resisted the attempt to establish a public theatre within the city, two or three were speedily erected just outside its boundaries, in the most convenient and accessible suburbs, -- the Curtain and the Theatre in Shoreditch, beyond the northern boundary, and the Blackfriars theatre within the precincts of the dissolved monastery, just beyond the civic jurisdiction on the western side.

A few years later other houses were built on the southern side of the river, -- the Rose near the foot of London Bridge, and the Hope and Swan further afield. There was also at Newington Butts a place of recreation and entertainment for the archers and holiday people, with a central building which, like the circus at Paris Garden, was used during the summer months for dramatic purposes.

These theatres were occupied by different companies in turn, and Shakespeare during his early years in London appears to have acted at several of them. But from his first coming up it seems clear that he was more identified with the earl of Leicester's players, of whom his energetic fellow townsman, James Burbage, was the head, than with any other group of actors.

To Burbage indeed belongs the distinction of having first established public theatres as a characteristic feature of metropolitan life. His spirit and enterprise first relieved the leading companies from the stigma of being strolling players, and transferred their dramatic exhibitions, hitherto restricted to temporary scaffolds in the court-yards of inns and hostelries, to the more reputable stage and convenient appliances of a permanent theatre.

In 1575 Burbage, having secured the lease of a piece of land at Shoreditch, erected there the house which proved so successful; and was known for twenty years as the Theatre, from the fact that it was the first ever erected in the metropolis. He seems also to have been concerned in the erection of a second theatre in the same locality called the Curtain; and later on, in spite of many difficulties, and a great deal of local opposition, he provided the more celebrated home of the rising drama known as the Blackfriars theatre.

When Shakespeare went to London there were thus theatres on both sides of the water -- the outlying houses being chiefly used during the summer and autumn months, while the Blackfriars, being roofed in and protected from the weather, was specially used for performances during the winter season.

In spite of the persistent opposition of the lord mayor and city aldermen, the denunciations of Puritan preachers and their allies in the press, and difficulties arising from intermittent attacks of the plague and the occasional intervention of the court authorities, the theatres had now taken firm root in the metropolis; and, strong in royal favour, in noble patronage, and above all in popular support, the stage had already begun to assume its higher functions as the living organ of the national voice, the many-coloured mirror and reflexion of the national life.

A few years later the companies of players and the theatres they occupied were consolidated and placed on a still firmer public basis. For some years past, in addition to the actors really or nominally attached to noble houses, there had existed a body of twelve performers, selected by royal authority (in 1583) from different companies and known as the Queen's players. The earl of Leicester's, being the leading company, had naturally furnished a number of recruits to the Queen's players, whose duty it was to act at special seasons before Her Majesty and the court.

But within a few years after Shakespeare arrived in London the chief groups of actors were divided into two great companies, specially licensed and belonging respectively to the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Admiral. Under the new arrangement the earl of Leicester's actors (who, as already I stated, after the earl's death in 1588 found for a time a new patron in Lord Strange [Footnote 761-1]) became the servants of the Lord Chamberlain.

James Burbage had already retired from the company, his place being taken by his more celebrated son Richard Burbage, the Garrick of the Elizabethan stage, who acted with so much distinction and success all the great parts in Shakespeare's leading plays.

In order that the Lord Chamberlain's company might have houses of their own both for summer and winter use, Richard Burbage, his brother Cuthbert, and their associates, including Shakespeare, undertook in 1599 to build a new theatre on the bank side, not far from the old Paris Garden circus.

We know from a subsequent document, which refers incidentally to the building of this theatre, that the Burbages had originally introduced Shakespeare to the Blackfriars Company. He had indeed proved himself so useful, both as actor and poet, that they were evidently glad to secure his future services by giving him a share as part proprietor in the Blackfriars property.

The new theatre now built by the company was that known as the Globe, and it was for fifteen years, during the summer and autumn months, the popular and highly successful home of the Shakespearian drama. Three years earlier Richard Burbage and his associates had rebuilt the Blackfriars theatre on a more extended scale; and this well-known house divided with the Globe the honour of producing Shakespeare's later and more important plays.

Shakespeare's position indeed of actor and dramatist is identified with these houses and with the Lord Chamberlain's company to which they belonged. On the accession of James I, this company, being specially favoured by the new monarch, received a fresh royal charter, and the members of it were henceforth known as the King's servants.

In the early years of Shakespeare's career the national drama had thus a permanent home in theatres conveniently central on either side of the river, and crowded during the summer and winter months by eager and excited audiences. Even before the building of tie Globe, the house at Newington where three of Marlowe's most important plays and some of Shakespeare's early tragedies were produced was often crowded to the doors. In the summer of 1592, when the First Part of Henry VI, as revised by Shakespeare, was acted, the performance was so popular that, we are told by Nash, ten thousand spectators witnessed it in the course of a few weeks.

It is true that even in the best theatres the appliances in the way of scenes and stage machinery were of the simplest description, change of scene being often indicated by the primitive device of a board with the name painted upon it. But players and play-wrights, both arts being often combined in the same person, knew their business thoroughly well, and justly relied for success on the more vital attractions of powerful acting, vigorous writing, and practiced skill in the construction of their pieces.

In the presence of strong passions expressed in kindling words and powerfully realized in living action, gesture, and incident, the absence of canvas sunlight and painted gloom was hardly felt. Or, as the stirring choruses in Henry V show, the want of more elaborate and realistic scenery was abundantly supplied by the excited fancy, active imagination, and concentrated interest of the spectators.


761-1 This is maintained by Mr Fleay in his recent Life and Work of Shakespeare. But the history of the early dramatic companies is so obscure that it is difficult to trace their changing fortunes with absolute certainty.

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