Drama was a nation-wide activity in Shakespeare's
time but only in London were there buildings designed specifically for
performing plays. Most public theatres were tall, roughly circular structures,
open to the sky, with a cover over part of the stage and a roof running
round the edge to protect the galleries. Performances took place in the
afternoons, with the actors playing on a raised stage which projected
halfway into the theatre. All the women's roles were performed by boys.
The audience, which either stood in the yard around the stage or sat in
the galleries, represented a wide social mix of people.
The Globe Theatre
In 1599 the acting company with which Shakespeare
was involved, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, built a new theatre, the Globe.
Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark,
it is the theatre most closely associated with Shakespeare's plays, and
he was one of the shareholders in the enterprise. Two of his plays, Henry
V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written during the
year in which the Globe opened. In 1613, during a performance of Henry
VIII, a fire broke out and destroyed the Globe, but it was rebuilt
the following year
In 1599, Shakespeare and six associates became owners of the Globe,
a new outdoor theater in the London suburb of Southwark. The Globe was
one of the largest theaters in the London area. It may have held as many
as 3,000 spectators.
Also in 1599, a printer named William Jaggard published The Passionate
Pilgrim, a book of 20 poems supposedly written by Shakespeare. However,
the book contained only two of Shakespeare's sonnets and three poems from
his comedy Love's Labour's Lost. The printer used Shakespeare's
name on the title page to promote the book's sale, which illustrates the
playwright's popularity at that time.
The King's Men
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by her cousin James
VI of Scotland. As king of England, he became James I. James enjoyed and
actively supported the theater. He issued a royal license to Shakespeare
and his fellow players, which allowed the company to call itself the King's
Men. In return for the license, the actors entertained the king at court
on a more or less regular basis.
Some of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies
were written in the early 1600s, including Hamlet and, after James
I's accession, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. His
late plays, often known as the Romances, date from c. 1608 to 1612 and
include Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest
James's support came at a convenient time. An outbreak of plague in 1603
had closed the theaters for long periods, making theatrical life uncertain.
In fact, James's entry into London as king had to be postponed until 1604
because of the plague.
When James finally made his royal entry into London, the King's Men accompanied
him. The members of the company were officially known as grooms of the
chamber. In spite of this title and the name King's Men, the actors were
not actually friends of the king. Their relationship to the royal court
was simply that of professional entertainers.
The King's Men achieved unequaled success and became London's leading
theatrical group. In 1608, the company leased the Blackfriars Theatre
for 21 years. The theater stood in a heavily populated London district
called Blackfriars. The Blackfriars Theatre had artificial lighting, was
probably heated, and served as the company's winter playhouse. The King's
Men performed at the Globe during the summer.
From 1599 to 1608 was a period of extraordinary literary activity for
Shakespeare. During these years, he wrote several comedies and almost
all the tragedies that have made him famous. Shakespeare's masterpieces
during this period include the comedies Much Ado About Nothing
and Twelfth Night; the history Henry V; and the tragedies
Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth,