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 in 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 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’ 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, in which 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

Globe theatreWhile 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 Biographical context) is based on much research and is accurate enough to give us a good idea.

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 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.’Some details on this subject.     
  • 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’. The first scene in Othello has Brabantio appearing at an upstairs window, whilst in Act 2, two characters are above the stage, watching out for news of the sea battle taking place.
  • 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. In Act 5, Desdemona dies in her bed, which then has to be curtained off to conceal the sight from her maid, who enters straight afterwards.

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. 


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 Othello’s first scene Roderigo says ‘Here is her father’s house’, showing clearly the setting. Act 2 begins on the coast of Cyprus, which we know from the first line: ‘What from the cape can you discern at sea?’
  • 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. In Othello, where much of the play takes place at night, the actors would often enter carrying torches to show this.


  • There is a storm scene in Othello, where sound effects may have been used such as flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder. These were produced by lighting sulphur or vernis powder, shaking it from a container into a flame
  • Later a ringing bell is used to dramatic effect, as it heralds the dismissal of Cassio for drunkenness
  • Music is used to lighten the mood in Act 3 when a group of musicians appear on stage.


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

Women barred

In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed to act on the stage in England. All his female roles were played by adolescent boys whose voices had not broken – including such famous romantic leads as Cleopatra and Juliet. In Othello Desdemona and Emilia would have been played by boys.
This situation did not change until after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, who had spent many years in France where customs were different. 
In several of his plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Cymbeline and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has female characters disguise themselves in boys’ clothing, which must have been more comfortable for the boy actors.
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