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Trans. Royal Soc., 1892, IV. 26 if., quoted by Wallace.


made by a shareholder in the company would be on a
different basis from those made by a housekeeper or
owner of the theater. However, the theaters were
generally owned or controlled by men interested in the
companies ; and, indeed, they eventually came largely
into the control either of the Burbages or of the Hens-
lowe-Alleyn partnership.

The Burbages gave members of their company shares
in their theaters, and hence Shakespeare became a part
owner of both the Globe and Blackfriars. The Bur-
bages, however, controlled the Theater, Globe, and
Blackfriars ; and Henslowe and Alleyn controlled the
Rose, the Fortune, the Hope, and possibly at times the

A brief chronological summary will indicate the
general course of the theatrical history. Before 1576
the place of the theater was mainly supplied by inn-
yards, and perhaps inside rooms where the children's
companies acted. From 1576 to 1590 there were
only two regular theaters, the Theater and the Cur-
tain, but some of the innyards still continued to supply
performances in spite of prohibitions, and the two
children's companies had regular places, probably
within doors, one of which in Blackfriars has been
identified. On the Bankside two amphitheaters pro-
vided for bull baiting and bear baiting, and plays
may have been given in some of the innyards ; but
as yet there were no theaters. Possibly there were
plays, and even a playhouse to the south, at Newing-
ton Butts.

From 1590 to 1603, i.e. from Shakespeare's first
play to "Othello," was a time of great activity. Hens-
lowe first appears on the scene with the Rose, where
various companies acted, and where by 1596 the Lord


Admiral's men were firmly established. The Swan
shortly followed the Rose on the Bankside, but the
companies using it are unknown, except the Earl of
Pembroke's in 1597-98. The Burbages, when threat-
ened in 1596 with the loss of the Theater, secured a
new house in Blackfriars, but leased it to the Children
of the Chapel, and in 1598-99 transferred the Theater
bodily to the Bankside, where they rebuilt it as the
Globe. Here Shakespeare's company, then known as
the Lord Chamberlain's men, was established. Imme-
diately after the advent of the Burbages on the Bank-
side, Henslowe and Alleyn built the Fortune beyond
Cripplegate, a theater as large as the Globe, and
thither the Admiral's men were moved, the Earl of
Worcester's men going to the Rose. Meanwhile, the
Paul's Boys at their singing school and the Children
of the Queen's Chapel at the new Blackfriars were
proving dangerous rivals to the adult companies.

At the accession of James I, a virtual monopoly was
given to a few companies. The Chamberlain's men
became the King's men and acted at the Globe and
(after 1608) at the Blackfriars, under the management
of the Burbages. The Admiral's men became the
Prince's men and acted regularly at the Fortune under
the management of Alleyn and Henslowe. Worcester's
company became the Queen's men and acted at the
Curtain and the Boar's Head inn, and after a few
years at the new Red Bull. What became of the
other adult companies and of the Rose and Swan
theaters, is not clear. These playhouses seem to have
been used less and less for acting, and the minor com-
panies were fairly forced out of London. The two
children's companies continued for a time, and another
children's company appeared, taking the new theater


in Whitefriars. But the supremacy of the adult com=
panics was soon reestablished ; and they took pos-
session of the private as well as of the public theaters.
In 1614 the Hope, another venture of Henslowe's,
was built on the Bankside, but was soon given over
entirely to the bears. The King's men now, not only
had the best playwrights, Shakespeare, and such suc-
cessors as Fletcher and Massinger ; they also had the
best patronage. The Globe seems to have maintained
its reputation as the chief of the public theaters, while
the Curtain and Red Bull, and even the Fortune,
were known rather for their efforts to please the vulgar.
The Blackfriars was from the start the most fash-
ionable theater, and it seems to have maintained its
reputation to the end, and became the model for the
private theaters, the Salisbury Court and Cockpit,
and hence, through their descendants in the Restora-
tion period, the direct ancestor of all modern English




THE sources of our information in regard to the
physical stage of the Elizabethan theater are uncertain
and baffling. Four pictures of theater interiors have
been preserved from the seventeenth century, but
these are at best of slight assistance in re-creating a
detailed view of the stage. The picture of the Swan
theater has already been discussed in Chapter III,
and has been found manifestly inaccurate in details.
The so-called picture of the Red Bull theater, which
was first published in Kirkman's 'Wits,' in 1672,
has probably nothing to do with the Bull or any other
specific theater ; it represents an imaginary stage of
a crude type. 1 Two other pictures are taken from
title pages of plays- 'Roxana,' 1632, and 'Mes-
sallina,' 1640. These agree in showing a curtain
stretching across the rear of the stage ; but they are
too small to supply us with any details. In spite of
these drawbacks, the Swan picture (p. 51) gives a
general view of the interior of a public theater, and
the 'Messallina' picture opposite gives the best rep-
resentation we have of a typical stage. 2 In addition
to these pictures we have some valuable documentary

1 Albright, 40-42. The title 'Red Bull' was apparently not attached
to this plate until 1809. See W. J. Lawrence, Elizabethan Playhouse, 32.

2 Attention should also be called to the very interesting drawings for a
theater by Inigo Jones, preserved in Worcester College, Oxford, and repro-
duced by Mr. Hamilton Bell in the Architectural Record for 1913, pp. 262-



information from travelers' reports and Henslowe's
Diary ; but even the most important document -
Henslowe's contract for the Fortune theater - - gives
no description of the stage itself.

The stage directions of all the plays printed from
1550 to 1642 furnish additional information, but they
do not supply an open book. In general, Elizabethan
plays print very few stage directions beyond the neces-
sary entrances and exits. There is never anything
like the elaborate description of setting and furniture
that modern dramatists use. Rarely, indeed, are
there references to properties, furniture, doors, win-
dows, etc. In many cases it is doubtful whether we
have directions designed to govern the actual presen-
tation of a play ; some are manifestly mere suggestions
by the author, and others are not intended for the
actors, but for readers of the play. 1 In a few cases,
however, we have manuscripts that were apparently
used by the companies, and in other cases directions
intended solely for the theater have crept into the
printed text. Further, in plays where there is a
good deal of spectacle, the directions are naturally
fuller and more descriptive than usual ; and in plays
issued piratically from shorthand notes taken at a
performance, there are usually somewhat detailed
descriptions of the stage business. It is, however,
very difficult to classify or evaluate the different
kinds of evidence afforded, or to come to a sure de-
cision in the many cases of contradictions. Stage
directions are at best scanty and uncertain, though
they are one of our main sources of information.

267. They show an octagonal theater, with a stage and background after
the fashion of Italian imitations of the classical theater. No clue exists as
to their purpose, but they were presumably designed for a court or university
theater. 1 On these and other difficulties, see Neuendorff, Chap. I.


More important still in supplying knowledge of the
physical stage and the methods of presentation is a
careful study of the plays themselves. The text it-
self furnished the key to the action, business, proper-
ties, and the stage for which these were designed. But
the text of a play often fails to give any sure indica-
tions of the stage performance. It can be made to
fit two very different conceptions of the stage, and
it rarely affords decisive evidence if considered singly.
One must rely not on this play or that, but on the
cumulative evidence offered by all the plays.

Another means of information arises from the fact
that the stage, like everything else connected with
Elizabethan drama, was part of an evolution ; it is
the offspring of the medieval stage ; although in-
fluenced by conditions that did not arise until the
sixteenth century, it is still in many respects medieval
rather than modern. On the other hand, it is the
ancestor of the modern stage, and we can trace, step by
step, the successive changes that have gradually trans-
formed the stage of Shakespeare into that of to-day.
On all questions where direct contemporary information
is lacking, we must attempt to reconstruct the Eliza-
bethan stage and its practices from our knowledge either
of earlier or later times. Since our knowledge of the
Restoration stage is based on abundant information,
we are able to apply this with great advantage in our
effort to reconstruct the Elizabethan stage.


In preceding chapters I have hastily traversed the
changes in the English stage up to the time that the
theaters were erected, and have examined with care
the history of playhouses in London from 1576 to 1642.


Certain considerations bearing on the physical stage
are important. From 1576, although there was still a
medley of traditions in regard to the stage and the
staging of plays, yet henceforth these were all sub-
ordinated to the practical demands of the profes-
sional companies. Variations continued, but the
permanent theater created permanent arrangements
and unquestionably tended toward agreement in es-
sentials. We must assume differences which are now
impossible to determine, but we can also safely assume
a typical stage. The result was a platform extending
into the body of the theater and exposed on three
sides to the view of the spectators. This is, in
fact, the chief essential of the Elizabethan stage, as
shown in all pictures and in the contract for the For-
tune, and this projecting platform stage remained
characteristic of the English theater long after the

What were the other characteristics ? In the
upper part of the rear side there was a balcony, repre-
sented in all the pictures and alluded to again and
again in the plays. Further, in all of the pictures
except that of the Swan there is a rear curtain, and in
the earliest extant plays acted in London theaters,
there is mention of a curtain used when persons or
properties were suddenly discovered or concealed.
The references to this curtain in later drama are various
and numerous ; and it is clear that from an early date
the curtain became a frequent and finally an in-
variable feature of the stage. The most obvious use
of the inner stage, behind the curtain, was as a recess,
a cave, study, bedroom, or an arbor, which needed
special properties and concealment until a specified
time. It is so used in many plays throughout our



period. The most common uses of the upper stage
of the balcony were as an upper room, the walls of the
town, or any place requiring elevation. The front of
the stage must have been used for the main action and
dialogue. The exits on a temporary stage might be
through the curtain ; but in the permanent theaters

i i

Tiring Room Inner Stage Tiring Room
i I

Door Curtain Door
Ou-hcr Stage











doors were provided, and it was possible to enter or
exit through these without passing through the inner
stage. One other feature of minor importance seems
to have been early adopted by the open-air theaters ;
the hut, a small building on the roof, whence gods
and goddesses descended to the stage below.

A typical stage is represented in Diagram A, con-
forming to the dimensions of the contract for the
Fortune theater.


It must be confessed, however, that the subject
cannot be dismissed as simply as this diagram would
indicate. The main difficulty is with the curtain
and its position in reference to the balcony, the
doors, and the front stage. It is possible that some
theaters had no regular curtain, though it would have
been easy to arrange for one even on the Swan stage.
The drawing is manifestly inexact ; but over the large
door, a curtain might be placed that would correspond
roughly to the one in our diagram. The stage direc-
tions give no manifest indication of the exact position
of the curtains, and these, as well as the Swan draw-
ing, have been differently interpreted by students.
A number of scholars have made the inner stage pro-
ject into the front stage, so that it would form a sort
of central room, with the curtains on three sides. 1
This is contrary to the Messallina picture ; but is
based on the Swan picture, with a curtain placed
between the two pillars, and side curtains from the
pillars to the rear wall. It has been observed that the
pillars on the stage were an evil probably abandoned
in the later playhouses, and also that the Swan picture
furnishes no basis for the reconstruction of a typical
stage. The objections to this central curtained room,
however, are manifest; it is an impracticable, un-
necessary, and complicated arrangement. That some-
thing of the sort might have temporarily been arranged
is possible, but there is no evidence that such an ar-
rangement was the general practice of the Elizabethan

1 See Brodmeier, Wegener, and pictures of reproductions by the Eliza-
bethan Stage Society and Harvard University, in G. P. Baker's Development
of Shakespeare as a Dramatist. Neuendorff thinks the Swan type of stagr
var, without a curtain.


If the balcony and curtained space be considered to
project only a little from the rear wall, there is of
course less objection to the three-sided structure.
Such a slightly projecting inner stage has some support, 1
but at best it would have been an awkward arrange-
ment and likely to give way to the simpler and more
convenient plan of my diagram.

Convincing evidence that the general practice was
in accord with Diagram A has been educed by
Dr. Albright, 2 who has shown that the theaters of
the Restoration period were manifestly modeled on
the Elizabethan, and that they presented precisely the
features indicated in our diagram : first, a projecting
front stage entered by proscenium doors, and, second,
an inner stage shut off by curtains across the rear.
With the introduction of scenery, the inner stage
was used for scenes and properties, and gradually
became more important than the front stage. The
projection on the front was cut down at various inter-
vals, until it disappeared ; but the proscenium doors
on either side of the curtain (and opening on the front,
not on the inner stage) continued long after they had
ceased to be used for entrances and exits, and may be
still seen in some theaters to-day. The front stage
grew shallower, and the inner stage expanded in
depth and size until it has become the picture-frame
stage of to-day. We can reverse the process of evolu-
tion and reconstruct the Elizabethan stage from the

1 Creizenach, IV. 430. T. S. Graves, op. cit. 88 ff. See also Graves's
able argument against NeuendorfPs theory that on stages like the Swan,
the central portion behind the pillars was used as a sort of uncurtained inner
stage. What little evidence there is for such an arrangement by no means
suggests any such extensive application as Neuendorff proposes.

2 See also William Archer, "The Elizabethan Stage," Quarterly Review,
April, 1908.


arrangement and methods of the Restoration theaters.
In fact, in the case of the doors, the strongest evidence
of their position comes from their existence in the
Restoration and later periods. On the other hand,
as we have seen, the Elizabethan stage diagram is
the natural outgrowth of the medieval stage, with its
neutral ground, and its special propertied places. The
projecting platform is the platea, and the inner stage
and gallery are the successors of the loca and domus
of the church drama. The performances by the pro-
fessional companies had resulted in this simplification.
Now, Diagram A is manifestly too simple to serve
for seventeen theaters and during seventy years. It
must have been modified to conform to the needs as
shown by experience. The space behind the curtain
may have been at first a mere passage, like that be-
hind the arras covering a wall. Later, the pillars on
the stage required to support the heavens would be
done away with, if possible, as was the case in building
the Hope. The balcony would be provided with
curtains when needed. Since the square stage would
leave narrow and inconvenient aisles for spectators, it
might be rounded or cut off on the front corners.
There would also be an obvious gain in putting the
doors on tKe bias (or on the side in indoor theaters),
instead of at the rear. Then windows or balconies
could be placed over the doors and used conveniently
to designate the upper rooms of houses. Moreover,
if the doors were on the bias, there would be room for
a wider inner stage and curtain. We have evidence
that these and other changes actually took place ;
and a considerable variation must have been caused
by the change from public to private theaters, that is,
from unroofed buildings where the performance was


by natural light, to indoor rooms where the light was
artificial. The inner stage would be better lighted,
more visible, and, consequently, probably enlarged
and more frequently used than in the public theaters.
The front stage w r ould also presumably become rela-
tively wider and less projecting, though the spectators
sitting on the sides of the stage would still leave the
actors decidedly in the midst of the audience.

The changes in the arrangement of the inner stage
and the use of the curtain cannot be traced chrono-
logically with exactness. The evidence is ample to
indicate the general arrangement and the resulting
principles of staging, but it is not sufficiently exact
to forbid exceptions and variations. So far as the
stage directions are concerned, it may be worth while
to summarize the evidence in order to indicate the
general usage as to the curtains, and the possible de-
partures from that usage.


Reference has already been made to the various
terms used to describe the curtain. No exact dis-
crimination can be found in these terms, which are
often curiously applied. The 'hangings' of the stage
are often mentioned. They must have been occasion-
ally changed, for they were black in the case of tragedy.
Usually they seem to have been of arras cloth with
pictures, and in the later private theaters were some
times of silk. They could have hung only on the rear
wall, i.e. where the doors, curtain, and balcony appear
in my diagram. Some cases, however, indicate that the
inner stage was hung with arras, disclosed when the
curtains proper were opened. The term 'hangings'
in a few unmistakable cases and the term 'arras' ir,


many are used as referring to the main curtains. 1
4 Canopy,' another term sometimes used as an equiv-
alent of curtain or of the inner stage, may denote a
canopy over the throne or some arrangement different
from the regular curtain, which, however, seems al-
ways intended by still another word 'traverse.'
'Scene,' a common equivalent for curtain at that
period, is so used in the stage directions of only two
plays, 2 though it is used occasionally for the inner
curtained stage. The words " discover ' : and "dis-
play' require the drawing of a curtain, though not in
all cases the main stage curtains. The word "cur-
tain" itself is frequently employed, singular or plural,
with definite or indefinite or no articles, but only
once does the full expression "the stage curtains' oc-
cur. 3 These parted in the middle and were drawn
to the sides. Presumably they were of the same
material as the other hangings. They were black in
the 'Warning for Fair Women," and were quite
likely referred to by the Grocer's Wife in the "Knight
of the Burning Pestle" when she inquires, "What story
is that painted upon the cloth ?'

It is also necessary to distinguish the main curtains
from certain special curtains, as those about a bed,
or concealing some other object. 4 That the curtains
belong to the bed is clearly indicated in some direc-
tions, as the following from Heywood's "Iron Age,"
IV. i. "Enter Egisthus with his sword drawne,
hideth himselfe in the chamber behind the Bed-cur-
taines." In other cases, however, it is not easy to say

1 Neuendorff, op. cit., 31 ff.

2 // this be not a good play. Jovial Crew. See Graves, op. cit., 15, 16, for
other uses of "scene." 3 Parson's Wedding, V. ii.

4 See Albright, 58 ff. for further examples and discussion.


whether the main curtains or only those of the bed
effect the discovery. Small curtains are also used to
conceal jewels or small objects. Curtains might also
be drawn at right angles to the main curtain, separating
the inner stage into compartments. 1

Further difficulty arises because of the ambiguous
language of the directions. 'Enter' is often used in a
conventional way, when the actors were manifestly
discovered, as in the following direction from ' Bon-
duca," V. i.

*' Enter Caratach upon a rock, and Hengo by him sleep^

The terms 'set forth,' 'thrust in,' 'set out,' applied to
beds and other properties, are sometimes used merely
referring to the placing of properties on the inner
stage to be disclosed by the opening of the curtains,
as in another direction from the "Devil's Law Case."

"A Table set forth with two tapers, a death's head, a
book. lolentha in mourning. Romelio sits by her."

In other cases, however, these conventionalized
terms, 'Enter,' 'set out,' 'set forth,' etc., clearly
imply definite motion to the front stage. This may
have been made from the inner stage, whence the
beds or persons were brought down front, but the
directions are often open to various interpretations.
Take, for example, the following directions which
offer somewhat typical difficulties.

Hector of Germany, I. i. "A bed thrust out, the Palsgrave
lying sick on it, the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Savoy,
the Marquis Brandenburg entering with him." This seems
a discovery.

1 See Wise Woman of Hogsdon, V. Bartholomew Fair, II. i.


Sir John Oldcastle, V. i. "Enter Cambridge, Scroope, and
Gray as in a chamber, and set downe at a table, consulting
about their treason : King Harry and SufTolke, listning at the
door.'' This may have been a discovery, or may have taken
place on the balcony or on the front stage, so far as the stage
direction shows.

Woman's Prize, V. i. "Livia brought in on a bed ; Moroso
by her." The context indicates that the bed was actually
brought on.

The City Night Cap, II. i. "A bed thrust out. Lodo-
vico sleeping in his clothes; Dorothea in bed. Enter clown
leading in Francisco." This appears to have been a discovery.

The Lost Lady, V. i. " Enter the Moor on her bed, Her-
mione, Phillida, and Irene. The bed thrust out." Here
there is first a discovery and then the bed is drawn to the
front. But do the following more laconic directions indicate
discoveries or not ?

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, III. ii. "A bed thrust out
upon the stage ; Allwit's wife in it."

The Maid's Tragedy, V. i. 12. "King abed."

Efforts have been made to derive from these incon-
sistencies reconstructions of different stages, 1 especially
of two types, one with and one without a curtain ;
but contradictory stage directions occur for plays
given at the same theater and even in the same play.
Dramatists, like Shakespeare and Fletcher, writing dur-
ing long periods for the same company and the same

Online LibraryAshley Horace ThorndikeShakespeare's theater → online text (page 6 of 34)