Design of theatres

Purpose built theatres

Actors sometimes performed inside large houses, by daylight or candlelight, but the first permanent theatres in London were open to the sky. 

More on theatre construction: We do not know all the details about their construction, though the reconstructed Globe built in the twentieth century is based on much research, and is accurate enough to give us a good idea — as is a drawing made by the Dutchman Johannes de Witt in 1596 of The Swan theatre.

The ‘Wooden O'

The Wooden O

The Globe was built as an octagonal outer frame, probably 30 metres in diameter, with several tiers of seating covered by a straw roof. A bird's-eye view from above would show what Shakespeare famously, in the Prologue to Henry V, called a ‘Wooden O'. Those who could not afford seats could stand in the area around the main stage.

Four levels of acting

The Globe Theatre

  • The main stage was a platform which projected out from one side of the outer framework into the central courtyard. This ‘apron' stage was about 1.5 metres in height, 13 metres across and 7.5 metres deep. There were no curtains around the stage to conceal the actors.
  • Above the stage, and offering some protection from the elements for the actors, was a roof, painted on the underside with stars, and known as ‘the heavens'. Through a trapdoor in this roof actors could descend on a sort of trapeze as gods.
More on ‘the heavens': There may be a reference to ‘the heavens' above the actors in Act II scene ii of Hamlet, where Hamlet describes to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ‘this most excellent canopy ... this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire'.

Shakespeare shows us in Act V of his play Cymbeline: ‘Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle.'
  • In the centre of the main stage was a trapdoor through which actors could ascend from and descend to the space below the platform, which was surrounded by curtains – brightly painted for comedies, more sombre for tragedies. This enabled actors to mysteriously appear and disappear.
More on the trapdoor: A trapdoor was necessary for the Weird Sisters in Macbeth: ‘The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?'
  • At the back of the stage was a balcony, as used in Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps for the ramparts where the Ghost appears in Hamlet. This was sometimes referred to as the ‘upper stage'.

Between the doors was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage' which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed.

More on the inner stage: Examples of its use are:
  • In Act III scene iv of Hamlet, it is probable that Polonius would have hidden there, behind the ‘arras', to spy on Hamlet and Gertrude.
  • When Ferdinand and Miranda are discovered playing chess in a ‘cave' at the end of The Tempest.

The flow of the drama

Actors could be seen by the audience from all three other sides of the main stage. In the wall at the back were two doors, one on each side, from which actors could arrive on stage from the ‘tiring house' (i.e. dressing rooms and backstage area). As one group of actors left by one of the rear doors, another group could be arriving without pause from the other. 

More on using the stage space: Shakespeare uses the possibilities of this uninterrupted flow of actors to use juxtaposition — that is, the setting side-by-side of scenes suggesting very different moods — for effective contrast. For example, we move without pause from the exit of the guards and Horatio from the battlements in Act I scene i of Hamlet to Claudius' smooth and convincing performance before the members of the court in scene ii.


Because of the open nature of the stage, scenery was minimal or non-existent. Instead the playwright indicates to the audience what they need to imagine:

  • In Hamlet, the play's opening line, ‘Who's there?' tells us that the action is taking place at night — even though Shakespeare's audience would have been watching it in daylight.
  • Francisco's ‘'Tis bitter cold' tells us that we are to imagine him outside, in winter.
  • In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon's first line is ‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania' and she asks him, ‘How long within this wood intend you stay?' So the audience knows that the action is taking place in a wood, at night.

Shakespeare did not need artificial trees and electric lighting to assist his audience's ‘willing suspension of disbelief'.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare specifically makes us laugh at those who feel such artificial aids to imagination are necessary: it is the unintelligent mechanicals who ask how they are to reproduce moonlight and a wall in a play.


Costumes were neither elaborate nor historically accurate, as they usually are today. 

More on costumes: This explains why, in Julius Caesar, although productions nowadays usually have actors in Roman togas, we have what seem to be anachronisms in Shakespeare's text: for example, in Act I scene ii Casca says, ‘You pulled me by the cloak' rather than ‘toga'.
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