Find the Perfect Birthday or Anniversary Gift at Amazon
The Globe Theatre
An Overview
Home: Shakespeare Index

Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Texts That Define Difficult Words and Explain Difficult Passages

By Michael J. Cummings
Copyright © 1995, 2003, 2010, 2017

Table of Contents

Description of the Original Globe (1599)

The original Globe Theatre opened in the fall of 1599 on the south bank of the Thames River, across from central London. It was believed to be a three-story, wood-framed building with plastered outside walls joining at angles to form a polygon with approximately twenty sides. It was constructed on land owned by the son of Thomas Brend (1516-1598), a scrivener (one who copied documents, wrote letters, and performed other tasks requiring the ability to read and write). Brend had purchased the land in 1554 and, upon his death in 1597, bequeathed it to his son, Nicholas. Nicholas then leased part of the land to the builders of the Globe.

The interior of the structure resembled that of a modern opera house, with three galleries protected from rain and sunlight by a roof. About 2,000 playgoers paid two or more pennies to sit in these galleries. The stage, said to be about fifteen yards wide and nine yards deep, was raised four to six feet from ground level. Above the stage was a ceiling supported by pillars. Above the ceiling was a balcony from which actors could recite lines. The stage projected forward into a roofless yard where up to 1,000 "groundlings" or "stinklings," who each paid a "gatherer" a penny for admission, stood shoulder to shoulder under a hot sun or threatening clouds. This roofless yard allowed sunlight to illuminate the stage. Playgoers could also sit in seats to the left and right of the stage if their wallets were fat enough to pay the high price.

It is unlikely that the uneducated groundlings who huddled in the yard understood the difficult passages in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare himself belittled them in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, calling them (through lines spoken by Hamlet) incapable of comprehending anything more than dumbshows (pantomimes). But because the groundlings liked the glamour and glitter of a play, they regularly attended performances at the Globe. When bored, they could buy food and drink from roving peddlers, exchange the news of the day, and boo and hiss the actors.

There was no curtain that opened and closed at the beginning and end of plays. At the back of the stage was said to be a wall with two or three doors leading to the dressing rooms of the actors. These rooms collectively were known as the "tiring house." To tire means to dress—that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege. Props and backdrops were few. Sometimes a prop used for only one scene remained onstage for other scenes because it was too heavy or too awkward to remove.

Londoner Peter Street (1553-1609) was said to be the carpenter/contractor hired to construct the Globe. In 1600, he and his workers also constructed one of the main rivals of the Globe, the Fortune Theatre.

In Shakespeare's time, males played all the characters, even Juliet, Cleopatra, and Ophelia. Actors playing gods, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural characters could pop up from the underworld through a trapdoor on the stage or descend to earth on a winch line from a trapdoor in the ceiling, called "the heavens." Off the stage, the ripple of a sheet of metal could create thunder. Stagehands set off fireworks to create omens, meteors, comets, or the wrath of the Almighty. Instruments such as oboes and cornets frequently provided music. If an actor suffered a fencing wound, he simply slapped his hand against a pouch (perhaps a pig's bladder) beneath his shirt to release what appeared to be blood. Apparently, there were no directors, in the modern sense, to guide the actors and supervise the special effects.

The gallery had a thatched roof. (Thatch consists of straw or dried stalks of plants such as reeds.) During a performance of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down after booming cannon fire announcing the entrance of King Henry at Cardinal Wolsey's palace ignited the roof. Everyone escaped, including a man whose pants caught fire. Someone threw ale on him, dousing the fire, according to Henry Wotton (1568-1639), an English author.

Location: Wrong Side of the Thames

The Globe was built west of London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames River in an area known as Bankside, part of the London borough of Southwark (pronounced SUTH uk, with the th pronounced as in think). It was a seedy section of Greater London, frequented by prostitutes, pickpockets, and other unsavory people. Not far from the Globe were "bear gardens," where Londoners attended entertainments in which a bear chained by the neck or a leg was attacked by dogs, including mastiffs. The sport was known as bearbaiting. More than two decades before the first Globe Theatre was built, Queen Elizabeth herself attended an entertainment involving thirteen bears. Bankside residents also enjoyed bullbaiting. In this entertainment, a bull’s nose was primed with pepper to excite it. Dogs were then loosed one at a time to bite the bull’s nose.


Richard Burbage and his brother, Cuthbert, inherited a playhouse called The Theatre from their father, James. The Theatre, which opened in 1576, stood in the suburban Shoreditch section of Greater London. It had a circular seating area surrounding an open area with a stage. In front of the stage was a yard in which playgoers unable to afford seating could stand.

When the owner of the land on which The Theatre stood threatened to demolish the building after the lease expired, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse and used the timbers for construction of the Globe on the south bank of the Thames in a district where two other theatres, the Rose and the Swan, were already competing for the coins of London playgoers. The construction was completed in 1599.
Richard Burbage was an actor in a company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which Shakespeare had joined in 1594. (The name of this company became the King's Men in 1603 after King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth, who died in that year, as the ruler of England.) Burbage was believed to be the first actor in history to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Romeo, Henry V and Richard III. Cuthbert Burbage did not act, although he was interested in drama. The Lord Chamberlain's men was arguably the most prestigious acting company at the time. However, another company known as the Admiral's Men—which featured the works of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), among others—also enjoyed wide popularity and respect.


The Burbage Brothers (see Builders) owned a 50 percent interest in the Globe. William Shakespeare and four other investors—John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and Will Kempe—owned the remaining 50 percent in equal shares (12½ percent each).

First Performances

The first Shakespeare play performed at the Globe was probably As You Like It. Other Shakespeare plays performed at the theatre in its opening year of 1599 were Julius Caesar and Henry V and Ben Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour. Ben Jonson (circa 1572-1637) was a first-rate playwright and poet who debuted plays at various London venues.

Second Globe

After the first Globe burned down, a second Globe was built with a non-flammable tile roof. But it was torn down in 1644, two years after a fire of another sort, Puritan zeal, spearheaded the passage of a law that closed all theatres. Puritans were strict Protestants who favored strait-laced living and opposed theatre performances. After the Globe was razed, tenements replaced it. Between September 2 and 5, 1666, the Great Fire of London—which destroyed more than 13,000 dwellings and more than 80 churches—burned the Globe to the ground. However, in 1989, the Museum of London discovered ruins of the foundation on Park Street during an excavation. Modern recreations of the first and second Globe theatres use seventeenth-century descriptions and drawings. No one knows the exact dimensions or appearance of the second Globe or its predecessor. Globe Theatre recreations are based on educated guesses and on the surviving drawings and descriptions of rival theatres.

Featured Authors

William Shakespeare was the main dramatist at the Globe. But other authors also debuted plays there. They included Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Thomas Dekker (1572-1632), and the writing team of Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625). Fletcher and Shakespeare teamed up to write Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen and probably collaborated on Henry VIII.

Shakespeare's Acting Company

The acting company to which Shakespeare belonged established itself in 1590 as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, also called simply the Chamberlain's Men. Shakespeare joined the company about 1594. After the company's patron—Henry Carey, First Lord Hunsdon, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I—died in 1596, Carey's son, George (Second Lord Hunsdon), assumed the patronage of the company. It then adopted a new name, Hunsdon's Men. However, the company reverted back to its old name, Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1597. It retained that name until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March 1603 and the accession of James I as King of England. At that time, James became the company's patron, and the company's name changed to the King's Men.


All actors at the Globe and other theatres were males, even those who played Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) and Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra). Women were forbidden to set foot on the  stage. This proscription against females meant that Romeo probably recited his lines to a fuzzy-faced boy and that Antony may have whispered sweet nothings to a gawky adolescent male. However, because of wigs, neck-to-toe dresses, and makeup artistry, it was easy for a young male to pass for a female. After an actor reached early adulthood, he could begin playing male parts. Shakespeare himself sometimes performed in his plays, as well as the plays of other authors, as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men. It is said that he enjoyed playing the Ghost in Hamlet. All actors had to memorize their lines exactly; if they forgot their lines, they had to improvise cleverly or get cues from an offstage prompter.

Highly skilled actors, such as Richard Burbage, earned more money—and received more praise—than Shakespeare and other playwrights. Actors who played clowns and jesters were celebrities, much as today's television and movie comedians. The main actors associated with Shakespeare's acting companies or with his plays included the following. Each actor was a member of the
Lord Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men or both:

Allen, William (?-1647): Member of the King's Men.
Alleyn, Edward (1556-1626): As an actor, the chief rival of Richard Burbage. He acted in Shakespeare's plays and those of Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), and Robert Greene (1558-1592). Queen Elizabeth I was among his fans.
Armin, Robert (1563-1615): Comic actor who was said to have played fools or court jesters in Shakespeare's King Lear, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Timon of Athens, The Winter's Tale, and All's Well That Ends Well. He was a member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men.
Baxter, Richard (1593-1667): Member of the King's Men, beginning in 1628, twelve years after Shakespeare's death.
Beeston, Christopher (1579-1638): Member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men.
Benfield, Robert (?-1649): Member of the King's Men.
Bird (or Bourne), Theophilus (1608-1663): Member of the King's Men from 1640 to 1642.
Bowyer, Michael (1599-1645): Member of the King's Men, beginning in 1640.
Browne, Robert (1563-1622): Actor who inherited William Sly's shares in the Globe Theatre.
Bryan, George (1586-1613): Member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men.
Burbage (or Burbadge), Richard (1567-1519): The most renowned and beloved actor of Shakespeare's time. As a member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men, he starred in many Shakespeare plays—such as Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, and Othello—and performed in the plays of several of Shakespeare's contemporaries. He and his brother, Cuthbert, owned 50 percent of the shares in the Globe.
Burt, Nicholas (1621-circa 1690): Member of the King's Men as a boy actor. He played the lead role in Shakespeare's Othello in the 1660s. He also played Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.
Cooke, Alexander (?-1614): Member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men. He was a principal actor in Shakespeare's plays, according to the First Folio.
Condell, Henry (1576-1627): Member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men. Along with John Heminges, he collected and co-edited Shakespeare's works. (See John Heminges.)
Crosse, Samuell (dates of birth and death uncertain): A principal actor in Shakespeare's plays, according to the First Folio.
Ecclestone, William (dates of birth and death uncertain): Member of the King's Men.
Field, Nathan (1587-1620): Member of the King's Men.
Gouge, Robert (dates of birth and death uncertain): An actor in Shakespeare's plays, according to the First Folio.
Heminges (or Hemings), John (1566-1630): Heminges and Shakespeare belonged to the same acting company (first known as the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and later as the King's Men); both were part owners of the Globe. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to collect and co-edit, with Henry Condell, the first published volume of Shakespeare's plays, which appeared in 1623. It has come to be known as the First Folio.
Kempe (or Kemp or Kempt), William: (?-1603): Celebrated comedic actor and dancer. He was a member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men from 1594 to 1599 and appeared in several Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet as Peter and A Midsummer Night's Dream as Bottom. He also might have played in the Henry IV plays and Much Ado About Nothing.
Lowin (or Lowine), John (1576-1653:): A member of the King's Men. It is believed he played Iago in King Lear.
Ostler, William (?-1614): Member of the King's Men.
Phillips, Augustine (?-1605): Like Heminges, Phillips acted with Shakespeare in the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men. He also may have played musical instruments in stage productions.
Pope (or Poope) Thomas (?-1603): Comedic actor who was a member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men.
Rice, John (dates of birth and death uncertain): Member of the King's Men.
Robinson, Richard (?-1648): Member of the King's Men.
Shank (or Schanke), John (?-1636): Comedic actor as a member of the King's Men and other acting companies.
Sly (or Slye), William (?-1608): Member of the Lord's Chamberlain's Men and the King's Men.
Taylor, Joseph (?-1652): Member of the King's Men beginning in April 1619, three years after Shakespeare's death. He was highly accomplished and praised for performances in Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and other plays.
Tooley, Nicholas (1583-1623): Member of the King's Men. He may have appeared in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.
Underwood, John (?-1624): Member of the King's Men.

Spare Sets Equal Improved Writing

Because settings on a stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.
        Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).

Special Effects

Before performing a bloody play such as Titus Andronicus, actors in Shakespeare's day filled vessels such as pigs', sheep's, or bulls'  bladders with blood or a liquid resembling blood and concealed them beneath their costumes. Onstage, they had only to pound a fist against a bladder to release the blood and die a gruesome death. Stagehands in the wings simulated thunder by striking a sheet of metal, pounding a drum, or rolling a cannonball on the floor. They also sometimes set off fireworks during battle scenes, lit torches during night scenes, and threw a volatile powder on a lighted candle to simulate a flash of lightning. A heavenly spirit could enter a scene by being lowered on a rope from an open trapdoor in the ceiling. An evil spirit could enter through a trapdoor in the stage floor. The imagination of the audience was called upon to provide other special effects.

Music and Dancing

Productions of many Shakespeare's plays included singing, dancing, and/or instrumental music, especially in plays performed on special occasions before royalty. Minor characters usually sang the vocal selections, with lyrics composed by Shakespeare.

Music abounded in his comedies. But even some of his darkest dramas, such as Macbeth and Othello, present music. For example, when Hecate enters in the first scene of the fourth act of Macbeth, she tells her three sister witches,
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in. (4.1.44-46)
The stage directions that follow say, "Music and a song, ‘Black Spirits,’ &c."

Music helped Shakespeare underscore a theme, alter or maintain a mood, herald the entrance of important persons, or create the right atmosphere for an event or occasion, such as war, a dance, or a banquet.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a song sung at the court of the palace of the Duke of Milan underscores the theme of love.
Who is Silvia? what is she?     
That all our swains commend her?     
Holy, fair, and wise is she;     
The heaven such grace did lend her,     
That she might admired be. (4.2.40)
In The Tempest, solemn music that invisible Ariel plays makes Gonzalo, Adrian, Francisco, and other crewmen from the wrecked ship fall asleep. Moments later, when Antonio and Sebastian begin plotting against Gonzalo, Ariel sings this song into Gonzalo's ear:
While you here do snoring lie,     
Open-ey’d Conspiracy     
His time doth take.     
If of life you keep a care,     
Shake off slumber, and beware:     
Awake! Awake! (2.1.306)
In Henry VIII, Queen Katherine asks one of her attendants to cheer her up by playing her lute and singing. The attendant then sings these lines:
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart (3.1.5)
In As You Like It, Amiens sings a song comparing the ingratitude of man to biting winter wind.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,     
Thou art not so unkind     
As man’s ingratitude;     
Thy tooth is not so keen,     
Because thou art not seen,     
Although thy breath be rude,     
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:     
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.     
Then heigh-ho! the holly!     
This life is most jolly. (2.7.184)
Characters in the plays sometimes sing drinking songs to accompany revelry. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, Octavian, Lepidus, Pompey, and others drink wine while a boy sings the following song:
Come, thou monarch of the vine,     
Plumpy Bacchus, with pink eyne!     
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,     
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d:     
   Cup us, till the world go round,     
   Cup us, till the world go round! (2.7.114)
Instruments used included the trumpet, the oboe—called an hautboy or hautbois (pronounced O bwa)—and stringed devices such as the viol and the lute. The plays also included dancing. In fact, Romeo and Juliet met at a masked dance. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king, Oberon, dances with his queen, Titania, after inviting her to “rock” with him. Oberon says, “Sound, music! Come, my queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.” Shakespeare’s popular comedy As You Like It ends with a dance. Other plays with dancing include Henry V and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the schoolmaster and the jailer’s daughter speak of a dance called the morris, in which the dancers enact a folk tale.


An actor in Shakespeare's time could wear any costume that reflected the social standing and/or occupation of a character. In this regard, actors were exempt from the Sumptuary Law of 1574, which directed citizens to wear clothing reflecting their social status. A commoner, for example, was forbidden to wear apparel associated with nobility and royalty. The intent of the law was to curtail excessive spending on fancy clothes by the lower classes and thereby prevent them from going into debt and, further, from turning to crime to pay their debts. The law was also intended to maintain the distinction between upper and lower classes. The law stated, for example, that ordinary citizens could not wear "any silk of the color purple [a color which, since ancient times, has symbolized royalty], cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables." The law was difficult to enforce, however. Other countries and city states in Europe had passed similar laws.

In a Shakespeare play, an actor might have worn an elaborate costume to depict a king or queen; he might also have worn plain clothes—perhaps those he wore around his house—to depict an ordinary citizen.

Colors of the clothes sometimes suggested a quality of the actor wearing them: white represented innocence; red, anger and passion; black, evil. In some plays, actors wore clothes with contemporary accents even though they were characters in an ancient setting. For example, the characters in King Lear and Cymbeline, both set in ancient Britain, wore clothing popular at the time of Shakespeare. Presumably, it was sometimes too costly and time-consuming to research and make costumes of another era.

Stunts and Skills

Shakespearean and other actors of his era had to perform their own stunts, such as falling or tumbling. They also had to wield swords and daggers with convincing skill. In addition, most actors had to know how to perform popular dances.


Lines spoken by actors in the Globe Theatre did not always reach the ears of the audience. One problem was bad acoustics. Another was crowd noise. The groundlings in the yard hissed and booedor cheered and clappedin response to what a character did or said. Moreover, they had a tendency to chat among themselves. Consequently, actors usually had to recite their lines with boom and thunder—meaning they had to have a voice of robust timbre—while helping to convey their meaning with exaggerated gestures. 

Memorizing Lines

Actors in Shakespeare's time had to know all their lines word for word. In a day when their were no cue cards and no intermissions—and actors had to perform in many plays each year instead of the one or two that occupy modern actors in New York and London—such a task surely was Herculean for the major actors playing Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. However, acting companies did post a person offstage to prompt actors who forgot their lines.


In an age when royals and nobles held sway over commoners, the Globe Theatre was a democratic institution, admitting anyone—whether a baron, a beggar, a knight, a candlemaker, an earl, a shoemaker, or a strumpet—if he or she had coin of the realm to drop in a box to pay for a performance. The viewers of a play could be noisy and rowdy—especially the lower-class groundlings standing in the roofless yard in front of the stage. They could deliver an instant review of an acting performance in the form or a rotten tomato colliding with the forehead of an offending actor. Shakespeare referred to the groundlings in Hamlet, saying they were "for the most part . . . capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise" (3.2.3).


The Globe had a Latin motto: Totus mundus agit histrionem. It was a translation of one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: All the world's a stage (As You Like It, 2.7.147). The line can also be translated as "all the world plays the actor."

Meaning of Box Office

Some writers have erroneously attributed the derivation of the term box office to the use of a money box at the Globe Theatre into which theatregoers deposited coins to pay for seeing a play. In fact, the term box office did not originate until several centuries later, when it was used to refer to an office at which theatregoers could reserve an enclosed area of seating (box) for viewing stage performances. However, at the Globe, attendants apparently did use a box to collect entry fees from theatregoers.


There was none. But a flag flew over the theatre on play days to advertise performances. If a tragedy was scheduled, the flag was black; if a comedy was scheduled, the flag was white; if a history play was scheduled, the flag was red.

Other Playhouses in London

Before the Globe and other theatres opened, playwrights between 1550 and 1576 staged their productions in inns, halls, public squares, and other venues. Among the most frequently used spaces were the yards of inns. Joseph Quincy Adams wrote in Shakespearean Playhouses (Houghton Mifflin, 1917):
Before the building of regular playhouses the itinerant troupes of actors were accustomed, except when received into private homes, to give their performances in any place that chance provided, such as open street-squares, barns, town-halls, moot-courts, schoolhouses, churches, and—most frequently of all, perhaps—the yards of inns. These yards, especially those of carriers' inns [inns accommodating deliverers of messages and merchandise], were admirably suited to dramatic representations, consisting as they did of a large open court surrounded by two or more galleries.
The first two structures in the London area constructed specifically for stage productions were the Theatre, completed in 1576, and the Curtain, believed to have been completed in 1577. Shakespeare acted and/or presented plays in both theaters. His history play Henry V debuted at the Curtain in 1599.

In the prologue of the play, Shakespeare refers directly to the Curtain. He asks, "Can this cockpit [theatre] hold the vasty fields of France?" In other words, can the small stage of the Curtain adequately present a play set on a vast battlefield? He then asks, "Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?" The wooden O, of course, refers to the circular Curtain Theatre. Shakespeare was preparing his playgoers to use their imaginations to pretend that a great battle was to take place on the stage of the theatre, just as modern audiences pretend that everything they are about to see in movies is real and devoid of artifice. From time to time, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights also presented plays in private residences and the palace of the reigning monarch. There were so many plays and so many venues for them that in 1617, a year after Shakespeare's death, Englishman Fynes Morrison wrote in a journal,
The City of London alone hath four or five companies of players with their peculiar [own] theatres capable of [holding] many thousands, wherein they all play every day in the week but Sunday, with most strange concourse of people . . . . [A]s there be, in my opinion, more plays in London than in all the parts of the world I have seen, so do these players or comedians excel all others in the world. (Quoted by Michael Best, author of "The Players," published in Internet Shakespeare Editions, sponsored by the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and posted at <>.
Among the theatres and other facilities that presented plays in Greater London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the following:

Bell Inn: Inn in the Eastcheap section of London that staged plays in its courtyard from 1576 to 1594. Eastcheap was a meat market in central London.
Bell Savage Inn: Dating back to 1420, this inn on London's Ludgate Hill staged plays beginning in the late 1500s.
Blackfriars: Thirteenth-century monastery of Dominican priests, who wore black robes. After King Henry VIII closed all Roman Catholic monasteries between 1536 and 1541, Blackfriars saw new life as a theatre, beginning in 1576, when a company of boy actors (the Children of the Chapel) staged plays there. Actor and theatre builder James Burbage purchased part of the site and renovated it for stage presentations. Unlike the Globe, which had a roofless yard, Blackfriars was completely sealed off from the elements, allowing winter productions. His son, Richard, inherited it in 1608 and began presenting plays there with adult actors. Shakespeare was a shareholder in the theatre and lent his artistic talents to performances.
Boar's Head: Inn located in the Whitechapel district of London that staged plays in its yard, beginning in 1557, before being converted to a playhouse that operated from 1598 to 1605.
Bull Inn: London inn that staged plays between 1576 and 1594, before theatres like the Globe came into existence.
Cockpit-in-Court (also known as the The Royal Cockpit and, simply The Cockpit): Entertainment building constructed by King Henry VIII during his reign. Tennis, bowling, and cock-fighting were among the pastimes it featured. It was rebuilt as a theatre in 1616 and debuted its first production in 1617.
Cross Keys Inn: London inn on Gracechurch Street that presented plays on a stage in a yard from circa 1579 to 1594.
Curtain: Theatre in east London that staged plays between 1577 and 1625. Shakespeare's Henry V opened at the Curtain.
Fortune: Theatre constructed in northern London in 1600 by the same builder who constructed the Globe, Peter Street.
Gray's Inn: One of the Inns of Court.  Gray's Inn dates back to the 1300s. Shakespeare is believed to have debuted The Comedy of Errors at this venue.
Hope: Theatre in Southwark (pronounced SUTH uk, with the th pronounced as in think) constructed in 1613 and 1614. It also hosted the sport of bearbeating. Because bearbaiting proved more popular than stage drama, few plays were staged there after 1616. But bearbaiting continued at the Hope until just beyond mid-century.
Middle Temple: One of the Inns of Court. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night debuted there in 1602.
Newington Butts: Theatre in Southwark that began productions in the 1580s and staged Shakespeare plays in 1594.
Porter's Hall: London theatre in the suburb of Puddlewharf. It opened in January 1617, staging Nathaniel  Field's Amends for Ladies, and closed in the same month after the Privy Council and the king ordered it torn down.
Red Bull: Inn in the Clerkenwell district of Greater London that began staging plays in its yard in the late 1550s. An indoor playhouse was opened at the site in 1604.
Red Lion: Play venue opened in 1567 in the Whitehall district of Greater London. It failed to thrive and may have closed in the same year that it opened.
Rose: Theatre constructed in Southwark in 1587 that featured the Admiral's Men acting company, Lord Strange's Men, Sussex's Men, the Queen's Men, and Worcester's Men. Shakespeare is believed to have acted at the Rose. Evidence suggests that the Rose was razed in 1606.
St. Paul's: London theatre on Ludgate Hill near old St. Paul's Cathedral (built as a Roman Catholic church between 1087 and 1314). Two companies of boy actors performed in the theatre between 1575 and 1606. The theatre was destroyed in 1066 by the Great Fire of London.
Saracen's Head: Inn in the London borough of Islington that staged plays in the latter half of the sixteenth century.
Swan: London theatre completed by 1595 near the Thames on the site of a former monastery in Paris Garden in the Southwark section of Greater London. A 1596 drawing of the Swan by Dutchman Johannes de Witt depicts it as having a projecting stage, seating galleries, balcony, and roofless yard, all of the features attributed to the Globe, constructed four years later. Consequently, many modern researchers have concluded that the Globe was modeled on the Swan.
The Theatre: First important playhouse constructed specifically for plays. Inns and other facilities had already been presenting plays, but none of them was built for the sole purpose of presenting the work of playwrights. Built in 1576, it had a stage projecting into a roofless yard. Surrounding the stage and the yard were roofed galleries, resembling the seating in an opera hall. After it closed in 1598, it was torn down. Its timbers were used to construct the Globe.
Whitefriars: Like Blackfriars, Whitefriars was a former monastery. Carmelite monks, who wore white habits, occupied it until King Henry VIII's closure of monasteries between 1536 and 1541. In 1608, part of the monastery began serving  as a playhouse for two children's groups, the King's Revels Children and the Children of the Queen's Revels. In 1613, an adult group—Lady Elizabeth's Men—began performing there with the Children of the Queen's Revels. Afterward, the acting companies moved to other venues.
White Hart Inn: Southwark inn that staged plays in its courtyard between 1576 and 1594. Shakespeare refers to the White Hart Inn in Henry VI Part II (4.8.19).

Inns of Court: Meeting places in Greater London for barristers (specialists in law) and judges. There were four Inns of Court, dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: the Middle Temple, the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn, and Lincoln's Inn.

Why Some Londoners Opposed Theatres

Many Londoners opposed theatres on grounds that the crowds they attracted spread plague and other diseases and caused riots. In addition, opponents said theatre plays sometimes featured profanity and obscenity, employed actors with questionable morals, espoused dangerous opinions, and attracted panhandlers and pickpockets to the theatre environs. Moreover, theatre opponents said, play performances lured young people and tradesmen from gainful activity and tempted Sunday churchgoers to stray their paths to the theatre door instead of going to church. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth, who liked stage plays, allowed the theatres to exist. Women of nobility who enjoyed theatre sometimes attended in disguise to preserve their reputations.


Before any play could be staged in Shakespeare's time, it had to be approved by the king's (or the queen's) censor, the master of revels, and usually other government officials. The censor scrutinized each play at the expense of the production company. Plays considered morally or politically offensive could be banned under pain of imprisonment. Beginning in 1574, inns presenting plays were required to obtain a license. John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:
At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's acting company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.

Theatre Season and Time of Performances

Because the Globe had a roofless yard, it was a warm-weather theatre. In cold weather, the Globe owners held performances at the Blackfriars, a monastery converted to a theatre, or at another location completely enclosed. Performances at the Globe began in mid-afternoon, about three o'clock, after a trumpet sounded. Sunlight provided the lighting, although torches were sometimes lit to suggest night scenes. There were no intermissions. All performances had to end before nightfall so that playgoers could return safely home. There were no performances during lent or outbreaks of plague.

Stage Directions and Drama Terms

Stage directions tell actors and readers what characters in a play are to do before, during, or after they speak their lines. The most frequently used stage directions are enter, exit, and exeunt (pronounced EX e unt). Enter indicates that it is time for a character (or characters) to go onstage, and exit means that it is time for a character to leave the stage. Exeunt is the same as exit except that it refers to more than one character. Stage directions are not part of the dialogue (or conversation) in the play. A stage direction may appear at the the beginning or end of a scene, or anywhere in between.

Editors of Shakespeare's plays often enclose stage directions in brackets, such as this one at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet: "[Enter Sampson and Gregory, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and bucklers.]" Sometimes, too, editors use italics and omit brackets.

Following is a glossary of stage directions and drama terms.

Act: One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands could change the scenery.
Antagonist: A character, situation, feeling, idea, or thing that opposes the main character, or protagonist.
Alarum: Stage direction indicating the coming of a battle; a call to arms.
Arras: Tapestry hung on the wall of a stage to conceal a person or thing until the right moment. In Hamlet, an arras played a crucial role. Polonius hid behind one to eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. When Hamlet saw the tapestry move, he stabbed at it, thinking King Claudius was behind it, and killed Polonius.
Aside: (1) Words a character speaks to himself only; other characters on the stage cannot hear the words. However, the audience hears everything. (2) Words a character speaks to a nearby character or characters but not to any other characters on the stage. The audience hears everything.
Burden: Refrain of a song; recurring theme. Burdens occur in two of Ariel's songs in the second act of The Tempest.
Catchword: In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, catchword referred to a single word on the bottom of the right side of a page. This word was the first word appearing on the next page.
Chorus: The chorus was a single person who recited a prologue before one act or several acts (and sometimes a passage between acts) in Henry V, Henry VIII, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The lines spoken by the chorus were preceded by the designation "chorus" or "prologue." Generally, the chorus informed the audience of action offstage or outside the time frame of the play.
Chronicle Play: Another name for a history play, since it chronicles historical events.
Comedy: A play that ends happily. A comedy may contain humorous scenes and dialogue, as in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Taming of the Shrew. But humor was not a requirement in a stage comedy in Shakespeare's time. However, a happy ending was.
Dialogue: What the characters say to one another; conversation.
Dramatis Personae: List of the characters in a play. Such a list is found at the beginning of each Shakespeare play.
Enter: Stage direction indicating the entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Epilogue: Short address spoken by an actor at the end of a play that comments on the meaning of the events in the play or looks ahead to expected events; an afterword.
Excursion: Stage direction indicating that a military attack is taking place. The opening of the second scene in Act 3 of King John contains such a stage direction.
Exeunt: (pronounced EX e unt) Stage direction indicating the departure of two or more characters from the stage.
Exit: Stage direction indicating the departure of a character from the stage.
Fair Copy: Play manuscript after it has been edited. See also Foul Papers.
Flourish: Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important person, or several important persons. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage.
Foil: (1) A secondary or minor character in a literary work who contrasts or clashes with the main character; (2) a secondary or minor character with personal qualities that are the opposite of, or markedly different from, those of another character; (3) the antagonist in a play or another literary work. A foil sometimes resembles his or her contrasting character in many respects, such as age, dress, social class, and educational background. But he or she is different in other respects, including personality, moral outlook, and decisiveness. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is the foil of Romeo. Mercutio is cynical and skeptical. Romeo, on the other hand, is romantic, idealistic, and impractical.
Foul Papers: Original draft of a playwright's manuscript. See also Fair Copy.
Gallery: Roofed seating area of a theatre, such as the Globe, that resembled the grandstand of a baseball park. The Globe had three galleries that could accommodate about 2,000 playgoers.
Hautboys: Stage direction indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys (OH bwah), which are oboes.
Heavens: Ceiling of the stage roof, which rested on columns, and the balcony above it. A trapdoor in the ceiling allowed actors to enter a scene on a rope or another device.
Hell: Area beneath the stage floor. Stagehands could create sound effects in this area. In addition, actors beneath the stage could enter a scene through a trapdoor built into the floor.
History Play: A play that focuses on a real-life historical figure. Among Shakespeare's history plays are Richard II, Richard III, King John, and Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III and Henry VIII.
Induction: Preface or prelude to a play. The Taming of the Shrew contains an induction that precedes the main plot.
Master of Revels: Government censor who examined all plays for offensive material.
Monologue: Long speech spoken by a character. He or she may address the monologue to one character or several characters. If the speaker is alone on the stage, he usually delivers his monologue as if he is talking to himself. In reality, he is addressing the audience. Probably the most famous monologue in Shakespeare is Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, beginning at 3.1.66.
Passes Over: Direction indicating that a character is walking across the stage while other characters are conversing. Such a direction occurs several times in the second scene of Act I of Troilus and Cressida. Following is the script of part of this scene.
[AENEAS passes over the stage.]
PANDARUS:  That’s Aeneas: is not that a brave man? he’s one of the flowers of Troy, I can tell you: but mark Troilus; you shall see anon.  
[ANTENOR passes over.]
CRESSIDA:  Who’s that?  
PANDARUS:  That’s Antenor: he has a shrewd wit, I can tell you; and he’s a man good enough: he’s one o’ the soundest judgments in Troy,  whosoever, and a proper man of person. When comes Troilus? I’ll show you Troilus anon: if he see me, you shall see him nod at me.          
CRESSIDA:  Will he give you the nod?  
PANDARUS:  You shall see.  
CRESSIDA:  If he do, the rich shall have more.

[HECTOR passes over.]
PANDARUS:  That’s Hector, that, that, look you, that; there’s a fellow! Go thy way, Hector! There’s a brave man, niece. O brave Hector! Look how he looks! there’s a countenance! Is ’t not a brave man?         
CRESSIDA:  O! a brave man.  
PANDARUS:  Is a’ not? It does a man’s heart good. Look you what hacks are on his helmet! look you yonder, do you see? look you there: there’s no jesting; there’s laying on, take ’t off who will, as they say: there be hacks!  
CRESSIDA:  Be those with swords?  
PANDARUS:  Swords? any thing, he cares not; an the devil come to him, it’s all one: by God’s lid, it does one’s heart good. Yonder comes Paris, yonder comes Paris.
Prologue: Introduction of a play or an act in a play. In Henry V, a chorus (one person) speaks a prologue that encourages the audience members to use their imaginations to create what a stage cannot: battlefields, clashing swords, the might of warriors. Shakespeare writes, "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth."
Protagonist: Main character.
Promptbook or Prompt Copy: Edited version of a play in which an acting company inserted stage directions.
Re-Enter: Stage direction indicating the re-entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Scene: (1) Time and place of the action in a play; (2) part of an act in a play that usually takes place in one location.
Sennet: Trumpet flourish to introduce the entrance of a character, such as King Lear (Act 1).
Soliloquy: Passage in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters. "To be or not to be" is the beginning of a famous soliloquy recited by Hamlet.
Solus: Stage direction indicating a character is alone on the stage.
Stage Directions: Information in the script of a play that instructs the director, the actors, and others involved with the production (including musicians and stagehands who generate special effects) on gestures, sound effects, emotional responses of characters, the geographical location of a scene, the moment when a character should enter or leave a scene, the way a character should recite a line, and so on. The stage directions are usually enclosed in brackets.
Stationers' Register: Book in which the English government required printers to register the title of a play before the play was published. The full official name of the Stationers' Register was the Hall Book of the Worshipful Company of Stationers.
Thrust Stage: Stage that thrusts forward into the audience. The Globe was believed to have a thrust stage.
Tiring House: Dressing rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To tire means to dress—that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege.
Tragedy: A play in which the main character (or characters) suffers a downfall and usually dies. Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Othello are all tragedies.
Tragicomedy: A play containing elements of both tragedy and comedy. The Merchant of Venice is an excellent example of such a play. The play ends tragically for one of the leading characters, Shylock—a Jewish moneylender—who suffers financial ruin and humiliation (although he does not die). The play ends happily for the other leading characters, all Christians. The Roman playwright Plautus (circa 254-184 BC), who wrote comedies, coined the term tragicomedy in Latin (tragicomoedia). Shakespeare himself did not use the term to refer to any of his plays, but later critics and scholars did.
Trapdoor: A hinged wooden flap in the floor of a stage or the ceiling over the stage. It could act as an entrance or exit for characters.
Torches: Stage direction indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Tucket: Stage direction indicating a trumpet flourish.
Within: Stage direction indicating that a character speaking or being spoken to is offstage. The audience is to imagine that he is isolated from the other characters in another room. He may also be at the front door, in the cellar, or any other place where the characters onstage cannot see him.

Amphitheatres vs Playhouses

An amphitheatre was a partly roofless building constructed for the presentation of stage dramas. The center of an amphitheatre, the yard, was the roofless part. It accommodated standing audience members at a cheap price while allowing light from the sky to illuminate the stage. Other audience members paid more to sit in roofed galleries around the yard. The Globe was an amphitheatre. A playhouse, on the other hand, was completely roofed in. Because an amphitheatre was too cold in the winter for performances, theatre companies used playhouses—such as Blackfriars—in the winter.

Elizabethan vs English Renaissance Theatre

Elizabethan theatre refers to stage plays performed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603. English Renaissance theatre refers to stage plays performed from 1562 to 1642. Because English Renaissance theatre includes most of the period of Elizabethan theatre, the two terms are often regarded as synonymous. Shakespeare lived in parts of both periods: he was born in 1564 and died in 1616.

Elizabethan vs Jacobean Eras

Shakespeare wrote and acted in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Elizabethan refers to the period when Elizabeth I was the queen of England. She reigned from 1558 to 1603. Jacobean refers to the period when James I was the king of England. He was king from 1603 to 1625. Shakespeare wrote and acted in part of both eras.