Design of theatres

Purpose-built theatres

Actors sometimes performed inside large houses, by daylight or candlelight. 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. 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 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. There was a higher entry charge and the clientel were from higher social spheres than many of thoses attending open air performances.

In August 1616 Christopher Beeston acquired the lease to a building and converted it to the Cockpit Theatre. Beeston intended the Cockpit to serve as an indoor complement to the Red Bull Theatre, the outdoor theatre then home to his acting troupe, Queen Anne's Men. A winter venue was needed to compete with the Blackfriars Theatre (then the winter quarters of their rival troupe, the King's Men). After a difficult start, the company prospered in their new location. The White Devil was successfully revived here in 1631.


Queen 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' court were held indoors, and involved spectacular scenery and costumes designed by Inigo Jones – 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.

Masque-like sequences found their way into popular drama. For example:

  • Ben Jonson introduced a dance of satyrs into his Masque of Oberon in 1611
  • The dance of the satyrs in Act IV scene iv of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is a reflection of the kind of dance that might be seen in court masques.

It was the start of a more sophisticated theatre, catering for a different audience.

The Red Bull Theatre

Less is known of the Red Bull Theatre's provenance than of other contemporary venues such as the Globe Theatre (see Aspects of literature > Developments in drama > Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre design > The Globe Theatre) and Fortune Theatre. It was constructed in 1604 on St John Street in Clerkenwell; court documents reveal that it was built by renovating an inn with a central square. This origin accounts for its rectangular floor plan, a design shared only by the original Fortune among period playhouses. It may have been named for cattle that were driven down St John Street toward the markets at Smithfield.

Apart from these few facts, little is known of the theatre's particulars. Scholars assume that it was roughly the same size as the Globe and Fortune, its competitors. At least in its early decades, its companies offered credible competition to The King's Men and Prince Henry's Men.

The Red Bull Theatre was most likely similar to the other outdoor theatres against which it competed, with an uncurtained thrust stage backed by a ‘tiring house' (i.e. dressing rooms and backstage area) and balcony, surrounded by standing room, and overlooked by galleries on three walls. Its occupancy was perhaps slightly less than the nearly 3,000 of the Globe.

Four levels of acting

The Globe Theatre

The typical design of most outdoor theatres in this era was as follows:

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.

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 witches' disappearance in front of Banquo in Macbeth (Act 1 sc 3):

‘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'. This was probably used for the audience of courtiers to watch the fight at the barriers in Act 5 sc 3 in The White Devil.

There were two doors in the ‘back wall' and between them was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage' or ‘discovery space' which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed. It is here that Brachiano would be strangled in bed (Act 5 sc 3) and Cornelia would be discovered, tending to Marcello's corpse (Act 5 sc4).

More on the 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.

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.

Webster used a ‘split stage technique' at times in The White Devil:

  • In Act 2 sc 1 different characters split into groups and the audience's attention could be switched between the groups and parallels and contrasts could be highlighted
  • The dumb shows in Act 2 sc 2 were probably presented at either side of the stage to enhance the spectacle.


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 White Devil Francisco announces (in Act 3 sc 1) that the ambassadors are present ‘To hear Vittoria's trial.'


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 sc 2 Casca says,

‘You pulled me by the cloak' rather than ‘toga'.

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