Share this page

Modern theatre vs Tudor theatre

Amy Davies explores how theatre in Shakespeare’s day differs from how we recognise it today.

Amy Davies

Along with lots of other people, I really miss the theatre. I used to be a regular attender and visited every couple of months to see musicals, pantomimes, and of course productions of Shakespeare. Thankfully as the country slowly emerges from the pandemic, so too are the theatres. But is modern theatre anything like it was in Shakespeare’s day? As it turns out, there are quite a lot of differences. Read on to find out more…

1.We sit down, they used to stand. In a Tudor theatre, the area closest to the stage wasn’t filled with seats but was left empty for people to stand. This area was called the pit and the people who stood to watch the performance there were called groundlings. It would cost them just a penny which was about the price of a loaf of bread. For wealthier people such as merchants and business men who wanted the comfort of being seated during the performance, two pence would secure a seat in the gallery. If anybody of a higher status was in attendance they would sit closer to the stage in areas known as the Lords’ or Gentlemen’s Rooms, which are similar to the private boxes that we often have in our theatres today. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play with over 4000 lines and takes almost 4 hours to perform. I certainly don’t envy the groundlings having to stand in one spot for that long

Shakespeare's Globe and the Thames. The painting shows the Globe theatre silhouetted on the left (looking more like a castle, with a very Turneresque yellow sky and vague buildings on the opposite bank of the river.
Globe Theatre and the River Thames in the time of Shakespeare, Arthur Keene, STRST: SBT 2004-38

2. We typically go at night, they went in the day. Tudor theatres had to rely on natural lighting to be able to operate, so although the performances took part inside a building, it wasn’t completely enclosed. Playhouses were circular buildings that weren’t completely roofed over so that the sunlight would come in (and unfortunately the rain as well if it happened to be a miserable day!). The stage and pit where the groundlings stood would be exposed to the elements, but people sitting in the galleries around the edge of the building were protected by a circular thatched roof. The lack of artificial lighting also meant that plays couldn’t be put on in the evenings, so most performances started at around 2pm in the afternoon. Nowadays we have the luxury of electric lighting meaning that we don’t have to risk getting wet or even sunburnt whilst watching a play, and we mostly go in the evening too.

3. We stay quiet, they were loud. Noisy theatregoers nowadays will undoubtedly find themselves shushed if they dare to talk or if, heaven-forbid, their mobile phone starts ringing during a performance. Tudor audiences were the opposite and were in fact rather rowdy. Similar to our modern-day pantomimes, audiences would cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and may have even thrown whatever food they were consuming at the actors if they were at all unsatisfied with the performance. They were encouraged to join in with songs and dancing, and the actors would have been well versed in going off-script to put any hecklers in their proper place. Everyone’s a critic!

Globe Theatre by Graham Clarke, The circular theatre is in the foreground, with a bit of the front wall missing to show the stage with the set of a house. behind the theatre can be seen houses, and the river with lots of boats.
The Wooden O, Graham Clarke, STRST : SBT 1994-16

4. We can go to the theatre in almost every town in the UK, they couldn’t. In Tudor England the only permanently erected theatres were in London because it was the biggest and richest city in the country. Therefore only Londoners, and those visiting the city, were able to watch a play in an actual playhouse. This doesn’t mean that people in the rest of the country went without this form of entertainment though. On the contrary, plays were frequently put on all around the country by travelling actors who would use town halls, village greens and inn yards as their stages. Rich nobles also hired theatre companies to travel to their country estates and put on private performances. Even Shakespeare’s own company, the King’s Men (previously known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) went on tour to places such as Bath, Shrewsbury, Oxford and Ipswich. This was particularly common if there was a plague outbreak in London which caused the theatres to close (that sounds familiar).

5. We have scenery, they didn’t. Theatre productions today use everything at their disposal to create dramatic and captivating backdrops. Whether it’s rotating sets, animatronics or even holograms, modern productions continue to push boundaries to produce breath-taking spectacles that transport audiences to other worlds. Theatres in Shakespeare’s day had little to no scenery, and may have only had an occasional prop which was vital to the plot e.g. a bed or a throne. This meant that audiences had to rely on the actors’ lines to conjure up and evoke the setting for them. Shakespeare even refers to this in the prologue for Henry V. Here he asks his audience to use their imaginations to picture the stage as the battlefields of France:

...Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?…
...Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them,
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times…

Henry V, Act 1, Prologue

Inside the Red Bull Playhouse, from ‘Shakespeare portraits and Miscellanies’: Hunt papers, ER1/49

6. Our theatres are prestigious establishments, there’s weren’t. Theatre today can often be considered a highbrow form of entertainment, but in Shakespeare’s day these establishments weren’t nearly as prestigious. Even though the monarchy and nobility enjoyed watching plays as much as commoners, they only did so when the acting companies came to them in their private homes. The playhouses themselves were not appropriate places for a person of high status to visit. Theatres were opposed by the authorities and the church because they were believed to spread immoral ideas, encourage depraved behaviour and contribute to outbreaks of the plague. Because of this a lot of the playhouses, including Shakespeare’s Globe, were situated in Bankside, Southwark. This was a part of London on the south bank of the River Thames which fell outside of the official city limits. This meant that the theatres were outside the jurisdiction of the Mayor of London and therefore he had no authority to shut them down. Bankside was also home to other businesses that were considered disreputable, such as bear-baiting dens, gaming houses and brothels. The theatres attracted people of questionable moral behaviour; drunks, pick-pockets and prostitutes were to be found among most, if not all, audiences.

7. Actors today are given a copy of the whole script, Tudors actors weren’t. Back in Shakespeare’s day scripts were handwritten. The printing press had been invented in the late 1400s but it would have been too costly to use this method to make copies. Instead the actors would be given a script with only their own lines and the three or four words cue words spoken before. This meant that actors wouldn’t have copies of scenes or acts that they weren’t in, and they wouldn’t know each other’s lines to be able to help if someone forgot theirs! Writing out their lines like this would have helped them to memorise them, but these actors probably had very good memories anyway. As schoolboys they would have learnt their lessons by copying out and memorising great swathes of text by heart, as learning things by rote was considered to be beneficial.

The Globe Theatre from an old view of London published in 1579, from ‘Shakespeare portraits and Miscellanies’: Hunt papers, ER1/49

8. We have female actors, they didn’t. Anybody can be an actor today regardless of age, gender or social background. This wasn’t the case in Tudor England. It was against the law for women to be actors so all the female parts were played by men, usually young boys who were smaller, with unbroken voices and who could reasonably pass for a woman if wearing a dress and a wig. This did not mean that women did not perform at all. Female acrobats, aerialists, tightrope walkers and sword dancers frequently performed all around the country in streets and inn yards and as part of festivities and pageants. Furthermore, although women weren’t permitted to act in the traditional sense, they often took part in court masques. These were a form of courtly entertainment that involved acting out often classical or mythical scenes with elaborate costumes and sets. The performers consisted of members of the nobility who would pose in tableau and dance but were not permitted to speak any lines as this would remove the distinction between their class and professional actors. Queen Anne was known to regularly perform in masques for her husband King James I.

9. We have specially made costumes, they didn’t. Theatre companies today have costume departments who meticulously, research, design and create the most fantastic and elaborate costumes to bring each character to life. Tudor actors of course would have also been in costume, but the way they sourced these was quite different. Members of a Tudor acting company wouldn’t necessarily have the skills required to design and make their own costumes. If bespoke costumes were needed they would employ a tailor. But more often than not, the company would have costumes donated to them by wealthy patrons, or they would buy items of clothing that used to belong to the nobility. It was quite common for nobles to bequeath their old clothes to their servants in their wills. However, these clothes would have been too fine for the servants to wear so they would usually sell them to acting companies who were in need of such ornate clothes, especially to portray characters such as kings and queens. In fact, actors were among the only people permitted to wear clothes that weren’t reflective of their social class. Everybody in Elizabethan England had to abide by the Sumptuary Laws which controlled which clothing people could wear depending on their status in society. This was to limit the expenditure on clothes and to reinforce the social structure and class system. For example, only the monarch and their immediate family were permitted to wear the colour purple. In reality these laws were largely ignored and not properly enforced. Nevertheless, actors were an exception to the regulations because they had to wear fine clothes in order to properly portray rich and noble characters.

10. Theatre was for everyone… and still is. This is one characteristic of Tudor theatre which remains the same today. Anyone of any social class could go and see a play performed in Tudor England. Even though commoners went to the playhouses but the rich had the actors come to them, the plays that were performed were the same. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be understood and appreciated by all, from the Queen herself, to her lowliest subject. Even those who didn’t live in London had the chance to see travelling actors perform in their local town square or inn yard. Nowadays theatre is still for all of us. Whether it’s an award-winning West End show, local amateur production or even simply a school play, theatre is something that all of us can enjoy and hopefully will be able to return to very soon.

The Globe Theatre as it appeared in the reign of King James I, from ‘Shakespeare portraits and Miscellanies’: Hunt papers, ER1/49

Recommended blogs

See all blogs