Setting the Scene: Stages, Sets and Costumes

Reconstructing just what a play would have looked like in Shakespeare’s time has been a tantalizing question for historians for the centuries after his death. Because the theaters were closed during the English Civil War, we have lost a lot of the records and traditions from Shakespeare’s time. But we do have a few clues that tell us what it might have been lie to see a play during Shakespeare’s lifetime.


Shakespeare’s actors would have performed on a mostly bare stage. Philip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose theater, kept records of his theaters costumes and set pieces, which can give us a glimpse on how stages were set. It seems that there were simple pieces like chairs, chests and beds. He also mentions that the inventory has “the city of Paris”, but we can only imagine what that means. It seems from these simple pieces that most of the dramatics came from the actors.


Costuming for the plays was probably not historically accurate. Part of this was because there was not the research on historical clothing during Shakespeare’s time that we have today. Also, clothing of all types was expensive, so it would have taken up quite a bit of the budget to make bespoke costumes. There is one drawing, called the Peacham Drawing, which is believed to be an illustration of Titus Andronicus and seems to depict characters in an outfit similar to a toga. This could have an attempt at historical costuming, but the same drawing has characters in contemporary Tudor clothing, so historians aren’t sure of the intent of the outfit.


Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So, what would his actors wear instead? The costumes were often second hand clothing from aristocrats. Often servants would be gifted used clothing from their employers, and if they couldn’t use it they would sell it to the theater company. Sometimes wealthy patrons would donate their second-hand clothes to their favorite company. This costuming was wonderful because it was well made clothing that looked lived in.

"Designing Shakespeare" Shakespeare Unlimited Podcast, Folger Shakespeare Library.

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