Welcome to Episode #50 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When William Shakespeare was writing The Tempest was he considering the light bouncing off the walls of his playhouse? When he directed Feste to be fond of singing in Twelfth Night, did Shakespeare know the people in the back would be able to hear him?

We don’t often think about Shakespeare’s plays in context of where they were originally performed, but this week our guest Sarah Dustagheer has written an entire book exploring that very question. Turns out, many of Shakespeare’s lines were written for the location where they were first to be performed.

Sarah is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at The University of Kent, and author of her latest book, Shakespeare’s Playhouses: Repertory and Theatre Space at the Globe and the Blackfriars, 1599-1613

We are delighted to have Sarah visit with us here this week to take us inside Shakespeare’s playhouses and explore the importance of venue in the performance of the bard’s plays.

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Sarah Dustagheer is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at The University of Kent, and author of her latest book, Shakespeare’s Playhouses: Repertory and Theatre Space at the Globe and the Blackfriars, 1599-1613

Sarah specializes in researching playwriting, performance and theatre space in early modern London, as well as contemporary Shakespearean performance.  She is the co-author of Shakespeare in London (Arden Shakespeare, 2015) and has published in Moving Shakespeare Indoors (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Literature Compass and The Shakespeare Encyclopaedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works (London: Apple Press, 2009).

Sarah has written for London’s City Hall blog, the Shakespearean London Theatres Project blog (www.shalt.org), Exeunt Online Theatre Magazine and the RSC myshakespeare blog. She has delivered public talks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and The Marlowe Theatre. Sarah is a member of Shakespeare’s Globe Architectural Research Group, an association tasked with advising on the maintenance of the Globe and the construction of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Learn more, and connect with Sarah, here.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Sarah about :

  • How much did Shakespeare’s plays take into account where they were being performed?
  • If Shakespeare was writing for specific audiences, were individual plays designed to be performed at one venue but not the other?
  • What changed about performance practices when the company was at The Blackfriars?

    …. and more!

All the world’s a stage, 
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances; 
And one man in his time plays many parts, 


As You Like It, II.7

Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. [Public Domain]

The Blackfriars

Representing the innovation in theater going on in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Blackfriars introduced new ways of performing both sound and visual effects on stage. While it was a long time coming, neccessary as it was to overcome a sea of legal hurdles to be able to perform plays there, once the Burbages and William Shakespeare achieved permission to play at the converted monastery in 1609, the results were stunning. The indoor venue allowed for a more sophisticated atmosphere and the astute entrepreneurs took full advantage by charging significantly higher admission prices and tailoring the performances there to a decidedly higher class audience than those frequenting The Globe. The protection from the elements provided by the indoor venue also allows Shakespeare’s company to perform year round, instead of being limited as they were at The Globe, by the harsh English winters. 


You conclude that my master is a shepherd, then,
and I a sheep?

Two Gentlemen of Verona, I.1

DIAGRAM: Lighting through the ages. Antiquity: 1. Prehistory. – 2-3. Egyptian – 4-5. Assyrian. 6-13. Roman. – 14-15. Carthaginian. – 16-17. Merovingian period. – Middle age and modern times: 19-20. 11th century. – 21. 12th century. – 22. 13th century. – 23-24. 14th century. – 25-26-27. 15th century. – 28. 16th century. – 29. 17th century. – 30-31. 18th century. – Contemporary period: 32. (original) Argand lamp. – 33-34. (Antoine Quinquet’s improved) Argand lamp – 35. Stephenson (Geordie) lamp (mines). – 36. Street light. – 37. Davy lamp. – 38. Air-fed wick lamp (theatre). – 39. Railway lamp. – 40. Carcel lamp. – 41. Gasifier. – 42. Auer (gas) lamp with gas mantle. – 43. Gas street lighting (regular burner). – 44. Gas street lighting (high intensity burner). – 45. Auer (petrol) lamp. – 46. (Air-fed) petrol lamp. – 47. Incandescent (electricity). – 48. Lighthouse (electricity). – 49. Mine lamp (electricity). – 50. Incandescent (electricity) [street light]. – 51. Arc light (electricity). – 52. Acetylene lamp (burner). – 53. Acetylene lamp (bycicle). – 54. Acetylene lamp (lamp). – Japan: 55. Street light. – 56. Transportation (rickshaw). – 57. Lantern for funerals. – 58. Portable lantern. “Eclairage”, in Nouveau Larousse Illustré, tôme quatrième E-G Maurice Dessertenne Public Domain 

PAINTING 1 :Godfried Schalcken – Young Girl with a Candle circa 1670-1675. oil on canvas. Source

PAINTING 2:  Young Woman Seated at a Table, Holding a Candle byGodfried Schalcken .late 17th century. Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication Source

Candles in Theater


One of the most well known aspects of the Blackfriars theater that set it apart from performances at The Globe was the fact that Blackfriars theater was lit the way monasteries would have been, through candle light. It’s possible they also used oil lanterns. The diagram below shows a variety of candle and lighting options throughout the ages, with #1-29 spanning just before and during Shakespeare’s lifetime. As you can tell, the ability to cast shadows and use light in a performance venue would have been irresistible to an artist like Shakespeare and the Burbages. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Cymbeline and The Tempest are thought to have been written to take full advantage of the new venue’s possibilities. During a single performance, chandeliers were the boys hired to change out the candles during a performance, lighting and snuffing on cue with the stage portrayals to enhance the action on stage much like what we do with a spotlight or stage hands adjusting the electric lights in theater today. 

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, 
trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our 
players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines


Hamlet, III.2

Country Inns and Estates.

The concept of a specific location being dedicated to performances of an established company of players which performed together nightly was a new concept for the world, not just England. 

Before the establishment of theaters, and during Shakespeare’s lifetime, companies of players would be in the service of a particular patron, as was required by law, and they would perform plays at that patron’s home for his guests and noble entertainment. Additionally, the players could make money travelling to country estates, local inns, and even places of education like schools. 

By establishing a particular location for plays to be performed, whether indoors or at the open air Globe theater, Shakespeare and his players were the disruptive innovators of their time. 


One non-theater location Shakespeare’s company performed was at Hampton Court Palace. This sketch shows what a “stage” would have looked like for Shakespeare to perform there. This theater is the last remaining location in the world where William Shakespeare physically stood himself and performed plays. Source

If the tag-rag people did not 
clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and 
displeased them, as they use to do the players in 
the theatre, I am no true man.


Julius Caesar, I.2

Sir John Gilbert’s 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare, containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare’s plays. Public Domain. Source

Repertoire Format

Another way William Shakespeare’s playing companies were inventing the way theater was done the world over was through their repertoire format. That’s a theater word that means the same group of people perform together no matter the performance.

It lead to a strategic type casting for the players themselves. For example, Richard Burbage was often the strong lead character, playing the first King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo, Othello, and Macbeth. While Will Kempe, who was later disbanded from the group after a row with Shakespeare personally, was often cast as the comic in the plays. This format allows the players to gel as a company and performing different plays every night, adjusting for the differences in venue, all became easier when you knew what to expect form your fellow players and you all performed the same plays together regularly.  

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Books & Resources Sarah Recommends:

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Paul Menzer, one of the editors of “Inside Shakespeare” is a guest of That Shakespeare Life. Listen to his episode here.

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