It seems simple to say that the greatest playwright in history would have a theater, but in the 17thcentury the idea of a purpose built theater was actually a radical idea.
Similar to the “dot com” boom that happened back a few years ago in entrepreneurship, James Burbage would set off a huge wave of theaters in London when he built the very first purpose built theater in 1576, when William Shakespeare was just 12 years old. It was called, fittingly, The Theater.
The space was a multi-sided structure with a central, uncovered “yard” surrounded by three tiers of covered seating and a bare, raised stage at one end of the yard. Spectators could pay for seating at multiple price levels; those with the cheapest tickets simply stood for the length of the plays.
Thanks to Shakespeare’s Lost years, or the years after he left grammar school but before he was famous in London, during which time we don’t know where he was or what he was doing precisely—it is hard to say how he got here, but around 1594, Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men were one of several companies that performed at The Theater. James’ Burbage’s playhouse performed amazingly well, far outpacing some of the other theaters at the time due in part to the fact that they were not a receiving house for touring companies, as many performance locations were, but setup long term engagements, essentially in repertory, which at the time was a radically new form of theater.
Now Shakespeare must have been good friends with James and his son, Richard Burbage (who was also one of Shakespeare’s leading actors), because when the Burbage’s lease ran out at their location, it was Shakespeare who would partner with them and a total of 5 partners who radically changed the way theaters were run, and set a precedent for theaters today.
When the lease ran out, they lost their claim to the land the theater was sitting on, but they still owned the structure itself. The land owner thought he was being sneaky, but he didn’t count a group of crafty artists to outwit him!
Under the cloak of night the burbages, William Shakespeare and two of their other friends dissassembleed the entire Theater and moved it across the Thames River (in the middle of winter no less!) to a new location on the Southbank of the river, in Southwark, renaming the relocated structure The Globe.
The Curtain theater and the Swan theater are Elizbaethan playhouses where Shakespeare performed, and some of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (of which Shakespeare was essentially the leader), owned shares in The Curtain, so some historians speculate that Shakespeare may have been involved in the success of these theaters as well, but we can’t say for certain that he owned them.
Interesting facts about those two theaters: The Swan is the place where the highly controversial play, Isle of Dogs was performed, to such a scandalous reception that the government closed all playhouses because of it.
The Curtain theater is where The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour here in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast.
The Globe was an open air theater, meaning that the center is subject to all manner of weather. It’s a great atmosphere when the weather is right, but Shakespeare and the Burbages long plotted over how to secure an indoor theater as well, which would be able to operate year round.
In 1609, the Burbages took over London’s Blackfriars theater. The story of the Blackfriars being acquired is an entire story to it’s own (perhaps one we will cover in a future video) because the owner thought he was passing off a lemon to the Burbages, but he too underestimated the drive and capability of the entrepreneurial spirit.
The Blackfriars theater, and it’s innovative approach to performance using artificial light in a much more intimate setting, allowed the company to charge higher ticket prices to a higher social class, and resulted in immense revenue for the Burbages and William Shakespeare.
That’s it for this week here at Did Shakespeare, I hope you learned something new about the bard.
See you next week!
The history of Elizabethan theaters is vast and very interesting. To help you explore this topic further, here are the sources I used for this video, as well as some links to learn more. (Does contain some affiliate links).
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