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The Globe Theatre
During 1598, Shakespeare wrote another comedy that is still popular today, Much Ado About Nothing. As usual, he used two stories for a comparison. He took one couple, Claudio and Hero, from an Italian story. They have traditional ideas of love and arranged marriage. He invented the other couple, Beatrice and Benedick. They learn that real love is the product of what he calls in one of his sonnets, ‘the marriage of true minds’. The character of the comic town policeman, Dogberry, comes from his Stratford childhood.
Everything seemed to be going well for the company. James Burbage was dead, and the company now belonged to his sons, Richard and Cuthbert. But in the cold winter of 1598, they had problems. The theatre stood inside the city of London, and the owner of the land refused to let them continue there. They had to perform a number of times at court at Christmas time, and for a month or two they acted in another, smaller building. Then the brothers reached a brave decision. Between their performances at court they took the whole wooden theatre, in pieces, across the river to some land outside the city. In the spring they built a new theatre and called it the Globe. The Burbages needed money and so they invited the five leading members of the company to join them. From this time, Shakespeare was a partner in the theatre.
For the new theatre, Shakespeare wrote three plays. He finished Henry V to complete the story of the Prince, and he also produced a comedy, As You Like It, and a tragedy, Julius Caesar.
Laurence Olivier made a great film of Henry V at the end of the Second World War. He was able to show the scenes of fighting in colour in the film. Shakespeare realized how difficult it would be to do this on the stage, so he wrote speeches - which he probably spoke himself - asking the audience to use their imagination.
In an Elizabethan theatre, they always had to do this. The theatre was outdoors and some of the audience stood around the stage in the open air. People could pay more money for seats at the sides. If they wanted to be seen, not to see the play, they could pay to sit on the stage itself.
There were only two entrances, both at the back of the stage, but there was a special door in the floor where characters like ghosts and devils could suddenly appear. But although the actors had some simple pieces of furniture, the audience had to imagine where the scene was taking place. The dramatist also had to remember that the actors would not always perform in a theatre. They often performed at court. If there was plague in the city and they had to go on tour, they had to act in any building that they could find.
Unlike most other dramatists, Shakespeare acted in the plays himself. This was a great advantage. While he was writing, he imagined where the actors would be. His plays are full of lines that tell the audience what is happening and show the actors what to do. The main story of his beautiful comedy, As You Like It, comes from a popular book by Thomas Lodge. Early in the play the heroine, Rosalind, and her cousin, Celia, go to the forest to look for Rosalind’s father. Perhaps the actors put up two or three trees on the stage, but the audience knew that the girls had arrived when Rosalind said, ‘Well, this is the forest of Arden.’
In the same way, Shakespeare told the audience when characters were coming on the stage or going off. He gave them a picture of the scene and told them the time. Plays at the Globe were acted in the afternoon, but the first scene of Hamlet begins at midnight and ends as Horatio describes the sun coming up over a hill in the east.
Although it may seem that the audience had to use their imagination all the time, Elizabethan theatres had one great advantage when compared with most theatres today. The stage area was much bigger, and the actors could stand in the middle of the audience. It was easier for a character like Richard III or Hamlet to make the audience believe that the other actors on the stage could not hear him. He was much nearer to the audience than to them. In the second scene of Hamlet, at least ten actors came on to the stage. They placed thrones for the King and Queen, and stood near them while Claudius made a long political speech. Everyone was dressed in bright colours to celebrate the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude except Hamlet, who was dressed in black. He stood at the front of the stage, as far from the King and Queen as possible, and told the audience what he thought of them.
The Globe immediately became the most popular theatre in London. In September 1599 a Swiss visitor, Thomas Platter, saw a performance of Julius Caesar there. His diary gives us an idea of what an Elizabethan performance was like. Even after a tragedy, the actors danced: ‘I saw the tragedy of Julius Caesar with at least fifteen characters very well acted. At the end they danced according to their custom.’
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