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The City and the Theater in Shakespeare's Time

To see one of William Shakespeare’s plays during the time period that he lived would have been a very different experience compared to how most of us see his plays today, or even how we think of them. The Globe, a theater built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s playing company, stood on the south bank of the River Thames in London. Though the original theater no longer exists, a modern recreation of the Globe stands less than 1,000 feet away from the site of the original. Though the two theaters look the same and stand in the same place in the very same city, they are worlds apart. Many things have changed since then, from costumes to actors to even the pronunciation of English itself! Let’s go back to the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras of the late 1500s and early 1600s to learn about how Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have enjoyed his plays.

London has been a large and prosperous city for many centuries, but much about it was different during the time period that William Shakespeare lived there. The sights and sounds of the city would have been different, dirtier and muddier than it is today, as would have been the kind of entertainment available for someone looking to have a fun afternoon outing. The south bank of the Thames, where the Globe stood, was something of an entertainment strip. Upon disembarking from one of the boats that ferried people to and fro across the river, a visitor would have had many different options to choose from. Would they see a play at the Globe, or at the Swan? Would they stop by a tavern for a drink, or watch some “live entertainment” in the form of bull or bear-baiting, a sport in which vicious dogs were pitted to fight against the aforementioned beasts. Needless to say, though one can still find plenty of pubs in the area today, you will be hard-pressed to find any fighting bears.

If one decided to see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, they could get in rather cheaply, as long as they were content to stand in the “Yard,” the ground floor of the theater, right up close to the stage, though a couple of feet below its raised floor. The Yard would have been full of people, drinking, laughing, chatting, and slipping across the straw-filled floor. Spots here could be had for as cheaply as a single penny, and even today those spots go for less than $10. The ability of almost anybody to see a play at the Globe for a fair price is one thing that hasn’t changed. In the next post, we will learn a little bit about Shakespeare’s plays as they would have been performed during his lifetime.


London in Shakespeare’s time -







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