Shakespeare – Module 2: Shakespeare’s Life, Influences and Craft – 2 of 5

Objective: To explore how Shakespearean theatre was prepared and performed in the Elizabethan/ Jacobean era.

What was it like and how did it feel to go to the theatre in Shakespeare’s day? What did Shakespeare focus on in his plays? How did actors prepare for shows? What did Shakespeare need to do to make sure he was filling the seats of the theatre…more to the point, what was the name of his theatre? Remember that there was no radio, no TV and definitely no PS4s when he was alive.

Task 1: Create a mindmap or bullet point list of all the things you can remember about Shakespeare’s theatre, its layout, how actors prepared or anything else specifically about plays, theatres or acting at the time.

Task 2: Watch this video and add a minimum of 10 more ideas or pieces of information to your mindmap/ list.

Task 3: Watch the video, below, about gender roles in Shakespeare. Why do you think that Shakespeare chose to present men and women differently to the way that they behaved in his society? What was his purpose in doing this?

Strangely enough, only men were allowed to act on stage during Shakespeare’s lifetime. This meant that women and girls’ roles in his plays were performed by men and boys. Imagine the confusion in some plays where you have a boy acting as a girl who dresses up as a boy during the play! Shakespeare purposefully did this to confuse and entertain his audience.

So…that gives us a hint of what it was like to be in a Shakespearean play…but how did they rehearse?

Task 4: Read the information below from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Summarise the key points in 4 bullet points.

The writers of the Elizabethan era worked in a very different way than playwrights today. Instead of producing a play independently, they were first required to present a company with their idea for a plot. The leading actors and managers would then decide whether they liked it or not, and offer a down payment for its completion.

This close relationship between the writer and the performers meant that writers created their characters with certain actors in mind. For example, knowing that Richard Burbage was the Chamberlain’s leading man, and that he had a good memory for long scripts, Shakespeare created the parts of Richard III and Hamlet for him. And as the actor grew older, Shakespeare made his characters more mature. There was a large gap between the young Desdemona and the ageing Othello.

When Shakespeare finished a play it was not distributed to the actors in books. Instead, each player received his own ‘role’, which was a long sheet of parchment with his lines written on. This meant that he would not see who else was going to be on the stage until they actually rehearsed the scene. This would seem very strange today – reading a play for the first time, actors were unable to flick through the pages to see who entered when, and what happened next.

Rehearsals were used to sort out the details not specified in the script. Entrances, exits, costumes, and songs were all expected to be filled in by the actors.

There was an area behind the stage called the tiring house which was used for changing costume during the play. The actors prided themselves on the accessories they wore, and the company even bought clothes from Lords and Knights, to wear on the stage. In 1599 a Swiss visitor called Thomas Platter saw the Lord Chamberlain’s production of Julius Caesar and reported that ‘the actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed.’

Task 5: Write a diary entry (300-500 words) from the point of view of an actor in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Imagine that you are preparing for a role. How do you feel on the day of the performance? How have you prepared for it? What is the atmosphere like with the rest of the cast? What is the atmosphere like during the performance? Does everyone enjoy the performance or are there shouts and jeers or food thrown at the stage?