The Performance History of the Plays of William Shakespeare.
Use our Fact Sheets for the historical background to the theatre productions of each and every Shakespeare play.
For current theatre productions of Shakespeare plays go to Shakespeare Theatre.
SHAKESPEARE PERFORMANCE HISTORY
'British theatre is set on a seam of Shakespeare, like a land that sits over a massive mineral deposit...'
Richard Eyre & Nicholas Wright in 'Changing Stages'
In 1576, 22 years after Elizabeth became Queen of England, the first specially constructed professional playhouse since ancient times was built by James Burbage, a wealthy joiner, in London . The Theatre, a wooden octagon nearly 100 feet across, opened in Bishopsgate, just north of the city walls. Within a few years, other theatres sprung up nearby - the Curtain, the Fortune, the Red Bull. Elizabethan theatres were generally octagonally shaped, three storeys high with benches in the gallery levels and open to the elements. The design was influenced by the courtyards of inns where travelling stage companies had put on touring performances. On the ground level there was an open arena in front of the stage that had space for the 'groundlings' - who stood during the performance. The groundlings usually paid a penny while the gallery bench seats could cost up to sixpence. The largest theatres could hold an audience of 3,000 people. To make the best use of daylight, performance usually began at 2 pm ending at 5 pm. Actors in the company would rehearse the upcoming show in the morning, then perform a show in the afternoon.Theatres had a different show every afternoon. The acting companies might perform 15 different plays in a month. A successful show could be kept in the repertoire, while some less popular plays only had 3 performances.
'Shakespeare...wrote these infinitely rich and complex plays with great psychological depth. I don't think he would have done it unless his actors could have done him justice..'
John Barton in 'Playing Shakespeare'
In Shakespeare's theatre, the parts in the plays were often written specially for the actors in the company. Most of the major tragic figures - Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Richard III - were played by Richard Burbage. Early on in Shakespeare's writing career, the comic parts were played by Richard Tarlton, a professional clown. When Tarlton died in September 1588, he was replaced by Will Kemp, a dancer and broad comic, who probably played the part of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. The later more complex tragi-comic parts of Touchstone, Feste and the Fool in King Lear were performed by Robert Armin, who took over when Kemp left the company. It is also thought that the writing of the more complex female roles such as Cleopatra were only made possible by the inclusion in the company of a strong and versatile boy who could portray them. Female parts were played by young boys as there were no actresses until the Restoration in 1660. Shakespeare played with this theatrical effect by having some female characters - Rosalind, Viola, Portia - dress as boys. There was little or no scenery, few props (a sword, an handkerchief) and the stage would generally be bare. The actors wore modern dress (Elizabethan) with some costumes donated by rich patrons. Shakespeare's theatre relied on the words of the play to convey changes of location and mood.
Theatrical Performance History
Henry IV Pt 1
Henry IV Pt 2
Henry VI Part 1
Henry VI Part 2
Henry VI Part 3
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter's Tale