Theatre was not an entirely uncomplicated business in London in the late 16th century, even though it has to be said that it during the Elizabethan era both experienced a heyday as well as produced playwrights the like of which we may never see again, not least William Shakespeare, but also Ben Johnson who maybe could be described as the second name of the era, and last but absolutely not least, even if during a much shorter period; Christopher Marlowe.
Acting and entertainment of course exited in England, and London, long before the end of the 1500´s, not least masques had for a long time been popular as well as religious mystery plays as well as other dramatized performances which were presented by smaller travelling theatre groups. Plays and stories about Robin Hood was popular, but less than appreciated by the men in power, not least for their symbolic value- But Robin Hood was not the only “threat” against the power, times were hard and when Elizabeth and her lords feared the gathering of people that a play could gather also could form into a rebellion, it wasn´t completely unfounded.
Another cause for concern were the recurring epidemic of the plague which meant that travelling theatre groups were forbidden in 1574 and when all theatres was closed almost continuously between 1592 and 1594, it was due to an outbreak of the Bubonic plague.
To attend a play during this period would have been quite different from today, when it’s more or less implied that the individual should feel deeply ashamed, should he or she happen to sneeze. Theatre in the days of Shakespeare was big, it was loud, there were laughing and there were booing, and at times things were thrown at the actors. As a playwright it was also quite possible to end up behind bars for something you wrote, a fact Ben Johnson knew all about.
The plays were written during a time when the ability of the masses to read were poor, and it was for those masses the plays were produced, even if the nobility too discovered the theatre companies and were patrons of several. In spite of the harsh times, there was love between the Londoners and the theatres which in several cases could house an audience of 3 000, and sold every last ticket, something modern theatres often can only dream about.
At the time, there was no particular costume designers, no stage workers, the things that needed to be done the actors had to do themselves, from sewing to carpentry, About six different plays were played every week with little time for rehearsal, and primarily during the afternoons as it later in the evenings would be too dark for anyone to see anything.
One of the most prominent theatre companies was The Lord Chamberlain´s Men, for which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays, with mainly Richard Burbage in the leading roles. It was founded in 1594 and enjoyed the patronage of Henry Carey, at the time Lord Chamberlain of England. He was also in charge of court entertainments. The patronage as well as the title as Lord Chamberlain would in time pass on to his son George Carey. When James I ascended to the throne in 1603, the company´s name was changed to “The King´s Men”.
The second most prominent company was the Admiral´s Men, whose patron was Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham. At first they were known as Lord Howard´s Men, but when he was appointed Lord High Admiral the company changed its name, something which happened again in 1603 when they became Prince Henry´s Men.
In 1640´s all the play houses were shut down by the Puritans.
Shakespearean Playhouses – J.Q Adams
The Shakespeare Stage – Andrew Gurr
London, the illustrated history – Cathy Ross & John Clark
A Shakespeare Companion – Andrew Gurr