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The Players: Acting in Shakespeare's Time

Let’s talk about the actors that would have been in Shakespeare’s play during his lifetime. We are lucky enough to have records from the time that give us some idea about what would have been required of stage actors. We also have some of their names and we know the types of roles they often played.

If you think of an actor on Broadway, what type of talents would you assume they might have? We might expect that the actor can dramatically inhabit a character. We might also think that they should be great dancers and singers. Actors in Shakespeare’s time would be expected to have the same varied abilities. They would need to be able to dance, sing, and play instruments on stage. Stage fighting was also a big part of the performances. Actors would need to be able to convincingly fight without hurting each other, and they would often be reading intricate dialogue at the same time.

Most actors had a great variety of skills, but we also know that the stars focused on certain types of roles. If you went to see a company that you were familiar with, you might know what to expect from a character based on the actor who was playing them. Will Kempe was well known for his comedic performances. Richard Burbage took on leading dramatic roles. Since Shakespeare worked with these actors as an actor himself, he would have been acutely aware of the strengths of the actors who would have been in his plays. Burbage was described as physically strong as well as being a talented actor, so this may have been why Hamlet is such a demanding role. He was able to fight several times, all well reciting a huge amount of dialogue!

Can you think of any other Shakespeare roles where the actor portraying them might have affected who Shakespeare wrote the role?

Source: Shakespeare's Theater, Folger Shakespeare Library





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