I would like to know about acting techniques of the Shakespearean theatre.I would like to know the actual techniques and information.  For example were there only male actors? What did...

I would like to know about acting techniques of the Shakespearean theatre.

I would like to know the actual techniques and information.  For example were there only male actors? What did characters in his comedies do to entertain the audience?


Expert Answers
shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You should know a bit about the theatrical construct of theatre companies in Shakespeare's day to understand how acting practices fit in to the world of performance.

First, generally, the theatre of Shakespeare's day is referred to as English Renaissance (or Early Modern English) Theatre, not Shakespearean.  This is because the practices used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries came out of the English theatrical traditions that had preceded them.  Though these practices were very influential for Shakespeare in creating his plays, he did not invent them.  This is true for most any artist; they use the conventions and rules that are in vogue during the time period in which they are creating their work.  And so it was for Shakespeare and Marlowe and the other English playwrights of their day.

Traditionally, the theatre of Shakespeare's day was very different from what we experience when we go to the theatre today.  For one thing, the light was "on" both actors and audiences alike, since the plays were usually performed in the afternoon in full sun.  This meant that, throughout the performance, actors could see the audience, and the audience could see the actors and each other.

And Elizabethans embraced this fact.  There was no sense of the actors performing behind an imaginary "fourth wall" that separated them from the audience.  Actors saw audience and interacted with them, including them as the "crowd" or "courtiers" or even as "confidants" when they were onstage alone with their soliloquies.  A good rule of thumb when thinking about Renaissance actors in England is that no actor was ever "talking to himself."  The audience was considered as much a participant in the play as the actors onstage, and treated as such.

The acting companies in Shakespeare's day were comprised of actors who performed together for many years in many different plays.  The actors themselves, however, tended to play the same types of roles over and over.  The actor who played the "leading" parts would be seen, for example, as Hamlet, Macbeth, Petruchio, Benedick, etc.; while the actors noted for their comic abilities would play the clowns and fools.

In Shakespeare's day, clowns were comic actors who were also very good at physical skills like juggling, pratfalls and slapstick.  The clowns often ignored the words written for them by the playwright and improvised their lines to get more laughs from the audience.  It is believed by some that Shakespeare actually invented the witty Fool character to keep the comic actors from ignoring his lines.  The Fool's humor is found in the lines, so the actor must speak the text as written to get the laughs.

And finally, the female characters were played by men and boys.  Other European countries (Italy, for example) allowed women onstage to perform alongside the men, but, in England, the world of the theatre was considered very disreputable, so women were barred from acting.  The young female characters in Shakespeare's plays were definitely played by teenage boys, but we imagine that, for parts like Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra, Shakespeare relied on some of these boys who had grown into men who were excellent at playing the female parts.

For more on English Renaissance Theatre and Shakespeare the Dramatist, please follow the links below.