Most people who are familiar with Shakespeare know a little bit about the theaters where his plays were performed: The Globe and the Blackfriars. The differences in these two theaters allow us to look at how theater was experienced in Tudor Stuart England.
The simply named The Theatre was one of the first theaters to be built in England since the times of the Roman Empire. Construction began in 1576 by James Burbage. It had a similar design to the Globe: a large open yard with a simple stage at one end, which was encircled by tiers of covered seating. Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed in the Theatre starting in 1594, but the Burbages lost the lease a few years after that in a property dispute. This is when construction began on the Globe, and to pay for this new theater, James Burbage needed investors. He asked five actors in the company, including Shakespeare, to share in the lease. This arrangement would have greatly added to Shakespeare’s income and provide a place for his plays to reliably be performed.
Photo Credit: Second Globe Theatre, detail from Hollar's View of London, 1647
Much like theaters today, there was a variety of prices for the seats. Because there was so much space, the theater could offer seating at a low price. The cheapest tickets, just one penny, allowed spectators to stand on the yard for the performances. If you wanted to sit in a balcony seat, it would set you back two pennies. At capacity, the theater could hold about 3,000 patrons. Being an outdoor theater also allowed for some spectacular special effects. The Globe was a bit of a technological marvel for advanced special effects. For example, Shakespeare’s company was able to pull off a dramatic storm during Julius Caesar using pyrotechnics. The Globe, which did have to be rebuilt because of a special effects mishap during Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, is still a theater, dedicated to showing what attending a play in Shakespeare’s time.
Photo courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
"Shakespeare's Theater" Folger Shakespeare Library
"Shakespeare's Playhouses" Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library