Design of theatres

Purpose built theatres

Actors sometimes performed inside large houses, by daylight or candlelight. The first recorded performance of King Lear, for example, took place in the banqueting hall of Whitehall in December 1604. 
However, the first permanent theatres in London were usually open to the sky – although in 1596, Burbage had developed the site of a former monastery and opened it as the (second - he had earlier had another on the site) Blackfriars theatre. This was unusual in being enclosed and using artificial lighting. 

Blackfriars and child actors

From early in the sixteenth century, choristers from the Chapel Royal and Saint Paul’s Cathedral had taken part in pageants at court. Later these groups formed companies of child actors, the most famous of which was The Children of the Chapel. In 1597 Burbage leased the Blackfriars theatre to this group, who performed many plays by important playwrights such as Webster and Jonson. 
Shakespeare felt the popularity of child actors to be a real threat to his company of older actors; gradually, however, children’s companies became less popular.

Indoor theatre

Because of the decline in popularity of The Children of the Chapel, in 1608 Burbage and his company, the King’s Men (of which Shakespeare was a part) took over the Blackfriars theatre during winter seasons. The different nature of the building, with its artificial lighting, allowed them to introduce new effects into the drama. 


James I and Anne of DenmarkJames I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, were very fond of theatrical entertainments known as masques (from the fact that, in early versions, players were masked). The masques at James’s court were held indoors, and involved spectacular scenery and costumes – made at great expense. They also contained a great deal of music and dancing. The participants were often courtiers, and James’ Queen enjoyed taking part. In these ways, the court masques were very different from the normal theatrical performances in London at the time, where women could not act on stage and where scenery and props were minimal.
However, when the King’s Men moved into Blackfriars theatre, they too were able to develop more elaborate staging, and in plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare introduced masque-like sequences into his drama. For example, the dance of the satyrs in Act 4 scene 4 of The Winter’s Tale is a reflection of the kind of dance that might be seen in court masques; Ben Jonson introduced a dance of satyrs into his ‘Masque of Oberon’ in 1611.

The Globe theatre

While the child actors occupied the Blackfriars theatre, the King’s Men acted at the Globe theatre, and this continued to be their summer venue (whilst they went back to Blackfriars for winter performances after 1608).
We do not know all the details about the Globe’s construction, though the reconstructed Globe theatre built in the twentieth century (see also King Lear biographical context) is based on much research and is accurate enough to give us a good idea.

Globe TheatreThe ‘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 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 (as some productions have the character Time doing in The Winter’s Tale)
More on the trapeze: Shakespeare makes reference to this device 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: For example, this 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’. Its use is well illustrated in Act 2 Scene 1 of King Lear in which Edgar appears above the main stage as if in hiding. Edmund then calls him down: ‘Brother, a word! Descend! Brother, I say!’
  • Between the doors was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage’ or ‘discovery space’ which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed.
More on inner stage: Examples of its use include:
  • In King Lear it is possible that the blinding of Gloucester was staged here, if it was considered too painful to be represented in full view at the front of the stage. The recess could also have been used as the hovel from which Edgar (as Poor Tom) emerges and in which Lear eventually agrees to take shelter. Another use could have been to distance Lear from the audience. For instance, in Act 1 Scene 1 Lear could move to the inner stage in order to make his pronouncements, which may have more symbolic weight if heard from a distance
  • In Romeo and Juliet this curtained area could be used to enclose the bed upon which Juliet is found, apparently dead, by her nurse
  • 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 the arrival / exit of actors: Shakespeare uses the possibilities of this uninterrupted flow of actors to create juxtaposition – that is, the setting side-by-side of episodes to create dramatic tension. For example:
King Lear Act 2 Scene 4, in which a succession of entrances is used to show Lear under stress -
  • Lear approaches Regan expecting her hospitality.
  • He is indignant at finding Kent in the stocks and has to ask twice who is responsible (Regan’s silence giving him reason to fear that she will be just as inhospitable as her sister Goneril)
  • When he is answered curtly by Regan (‘Good sir, to th’purpose’) he immediately hears the ‘tucket within’ and he learns from Regan that unwelcome Goneril is approaching
  • Next Goneril’s insolent servant Oswald enters, another shock for Lear.
  • And then comes Goneril herself, causing Lear to exclaim ‘Who comes here? O Heavens / If you do love old men…’
  • To make matters worse Regan greets Goneril with sisterly friendship causing their father to cry ‘O Regan! will you take her by the hand?’
The effect of this flow of characters onto the stage is to create a dramatic crescendo mirroring Lear’s increasing mental discomfort.   


Because of the open nature of the stage, scenery was minimal or non-existent; there was nothing to stop the action being supposed to be inside a building one moment and outside the next. Instead of scenery, the playwright indicates to the audience what they need to imagine:
  • In King Lear Shakespeare’s ability to create scenery out of words is nowhere better illustrated than by Edgar’s imaginative recreation of the view from the top of the ‘chalky bourn’ in Act 4 Scene 5
  • In The Winter’s Tale Paulina announces (in Act 2 scene 2), ‘The keeper of the prison, call to him.
  • In Act 3 scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale Antigonus asks ‘Thou art perfect, then, our ship hath touch’d upon / The deserts of Bohemia?
  • 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 a backdrop showing a shoreline, or 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.) 


These were easily movable objects, such as the stocks that Kent is put into in King Lear. The soldiers would also have needed weapons when they marched across the stage. Objects may also have been used to denote social position, such as a sceptre and crown for the king.


King Lear, for example, has memorable and dramatically crucial storm scenes. On Shakespeare’s stage, flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder were produced by lighting sulphur or vernis powder, shaking it from a container into a flame. Compared to the power of an actual storm, there was a danger that this sort of effect could appear rather weak. However, Shakespeare more than compensated through the power of the language he gives Lear, with its ‘oak-cleaving’ thunderbolts and ‘thought-executing fires’.


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 1 scene 2 Casca says,
 ‘You pulled me by the cloak,’ rather than ‘toga’.   
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