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A bit of ancient history here:
In William Parkes book, Curtain-Drawer of the World (1612), we find this reference to the practice of raising flags to announce plays:
"Each play-house advanceth his flagge in the aire, whither quickly at the waving thereof are summoned whole troops of men, women, and children"
Flags were used by the Globe Theater to announce and proclaim the performance of a play. The modern equivalent is the theater marquee. Today theater marquees remain the same for as long as a particular play is performed. In the time of Shakespeare, plays changed or were postponed daily, and so the theater-going populace needed to be kept current about the latest showings. Think of the flags as the first theater advertisements.
Here are the colors of the flags and what they meant:
Black: The play was a Tragedy
White: The play was a Comedy or light-hearted in nature.
Red: The play was a History. (Red was chosen because history is often bloody :-)
Instead of a marquee, patrons of the Globe Theater in London looked high above their heads to see the color of the flag that flew at its peak. If the flag was black, a tragedy was scheduled; a white flag meant they could look forward to a comedy; and if they saw a red flag, they had the opportunity to see a history play. When they entered, they deposited their money into a money box--there was no box office. Since the theater had an open roof, the plays began in mid-afternoon in warm weather. A trumpet sounded to signal the beginning of each performance.
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