When Shakespeare began writing plays, the English stage was still in its infancy. Because of strong religious attitudes, for centuries the only types of drama allowed were allegories, such as Everyman, which preached moral lessons in a highly formalized fashion. In England, however, things began to change during the early 1500s, under the very secular King Henry VIII. For the first time, plays, such as Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle began showing real people in real-life situations. Still, their plots and characterizations were relatively primitive. It is astonishing to realize that only a few decades later, Shakespeare and his contemporaries would raise staged drama to the heights of artistic excellence and sophistication.
Only a handful of theaters existed in Shakespeare’s time, and the one with which he was most associated was the Globe. Circular in shape (a reference by Chorus in Henry V calls it “this wooden O”), it had a small stage that protruded onto an open courtyard. In box seats overlooking this space sat the nobles, merchants, and other people of wealth. On the bare earth were the common folk (“groundlings”), who paid a few pennies for admission and stood for the entire performance.
Except for a balcony, a few trapdoors, and tapestry curtains, the Elizabethan stage presented little in the way of theatrical illusion. Nor did the audience demand it. Unlike theatergoers of...
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