Design of theatres

Purpose built theatres - the Globe

The first permanent theatres in London were usually open to the sky. We do not know all the details about the Globe’s construction, though the reconstructed Globe theatre built in the twentieth century 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 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.  
  • In The Taming of the Shrew, the curtained area could be used for Christopher Sly and his ‘wife’ to watch the play that is performed for them. It would be a space for them to be present and yet set apart from the action of the main plot.

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:In Act 3 Scene2 of The Taming of the Shrew the wedding scene starts off with a flurry of activity as Petruchio is late, then a messenger arrives, then Petruchio arrives with Grumio, then he leaves to greet Katherina and Baptista follows him off stage, and soon after this witnesses of the wedding arrive to tell Tranio what happened in the church. This uninterrupted flow of actors has the effect of time passing and in place of seeing the actual wedding ceremony, the audience hears it described by characters who are coming and going.


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 The Taming of the Shrew the wedding of Petruchio and Katherina does not take place on stage, but is reported to characters on stage immediately after the event
  • Later in the play, Petruchio makes a meta-theatrical reference to the fact that there is little stage scenery and that the audience was required to use its imagination in line with what the characters described. Petruchio tells Kate to look at the moon when it is really the sun; Kate describes a lovely young woman when there is really an old man on stage. The audience may not know who to believe and whether it is Petruchio being facetious or it is Katherina being argumentative
  • 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 The Taming of the Shrew the sound effects that would have accompanied the lord’s arrival after his hunting trip in the opening of the play would have included bells, trumpets and drums as well as possibly live dogs barking. 
Cannon balls were rolled along tracks behind stage to simulate thunder. Storm scenes such as the opening storm in The Tempest, or the scenes in Shrew were probably accompanied by such sound effects, with bells, trumpets, and drums providing additional emphasis. Flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder were produced by lighting sulphur or vernis powder, being shaken from a container into a flame. There was a danger that this sort of effect could appear rather weak, when compared to the power of an actual storm.


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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