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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

The Birth of The Theatre and the Birth of William Shakespeare

The Theatre, the first theatre built for the purpose of performing plays in England since Roman times, was opened 3 December 1576.

It was built in the rough and tumble area of London called Shoreditch -- where the authorities did not police -- notable for taverns, brothels, slaughterhouses, and Bedlam hospital -- and whose name was derived from the long ditch that ran down the length of the main street, and served as an open sewer.

The Theatre was built by James Burbage, who had once been an actor for Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester -- the very first royal patron of playing troupes.

He had been a joiner by trade, and I like to think that he oversaw the joining of every last piece of The Theatre itself. It must have been a very well built edifice, since it would be dismantled piece by piece, board by board, and re-assembled into what was The Globe.

A drawing from about 1598 of The Theatre (with the flag) on left, 
and The Curtain on the right

James was the proud father of Cuthbert, who would succeed him in managing it, and Richard Burbage, who would go on to perform the roles of Hamlet, Richard III, Shylock, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth (and many more) for the first time in history.

Sir Ian McKellen visiting the site of The Theatre, which was recently discovered

I like to think that James's wife Ellen did everything else -- from taking admission, to supervising the sale of beer and other food to the crowd, to kicking out the occasional too-rowdy drunk!

The success of The Theatre gave birth to other theatres -- The Curtain, right nearby in Shoreditch, and then to The Rose and The Swan, and so forth.

The Theatre could hold upwards of 3000 people.

There were four levels to the audience:

1. The Pit -- an open space on the ground, where the "groundlings" would pay one penny to stand (!) for the duration of the show.

2. Galleries Uncushioned -- there were three levels of galleries where people paid two pence to sit down on the hard wood benches.

3. Galleries Cushioned -- for a third penny you could have a cushion to sit on in the galleries.

4. Lords Rooms -- for five pence, these were the best seats in the house, above and behind the stage, in order to hear the actors the best.

The Theatre had no roof, and as such would have allowed in the sun, the cold, and the rain.

Shakespeare's Theatre by Gustav Klimt, showing the final scene of Romeo and Juliet

I would think that it was impossible to keep the noise from interrupting the plays -- from the sound of animals being slaughtered right next door, to the sound of church bells ringing across the city. There were 114 churches, so it might have even stopped the show for a moment until the sound faded enough for the actors to be heard.

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, this might have been the very first theatre he worked in, as an actor and playwright. By 1594, The Theatre was the exclusive home to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, to which Shakespeare belonged.

It was the theatre where many of his greatest plays were born -- Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost.

A Midsummer Night's Dream may have been first performed at The Theatre

It was into this wild part of London where plays became wildly successful and a young man from Stratford could write plays that thrilled his audiences -- and continue to thrill us today.

In my versions of Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I show what it was like in The Theatre to watch these plays for the very first time, with the very first people in history who saw the plays.

The effect it had on them must have been profound. They were witnessing something that was entertaining and funny, and which spoke to them directly.

By watching their reactions to the play, we can finally understand what the plays are really saying.

After all, Shakespeare did not write his plays for us.

So, today, please join me in celebrating the 436th anniversary of the birth of The Theatre -- which gave birth to William Shakespeare!


David B. Schajer

Related Article:

Shakespeare and The Great Theatre Heist

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