All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. As You Like It, Act II Scene VII.
in two days, on April 15th, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday. So here’s wishing him a happy birthday.
It was a brand new world the Elizabethans were creating. It was only a hundred years or so since Gutenberg gave them the printing press and inexpensive books to read. It was a little less than one hundred years since the Tudor Henry defeated Richard on Bosworth Field and ended the Civil War the English knew as the Wars of the Roses. It was only three quarters of a century or so ago since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on a church door, virtually ending the dominance of Rome over Christianity. It was only in 1588 that England defeated a Spanish Armada and began its rise as an European sea power. And under Good Queen Bess the arts flourished. Especially music, dance, poetry and theater.
Sure there was plague every few years. Sure it was a hierarchical society. Sure there were still fears that the Pope’s agents would assassinate the queen. But there was such optimism in the air that anything was possible for the English. The sixteenth century was a good one for England. By its end, London was the largest city in Europe.
By the time Shakespeare’s first play appeared on stage in 1590, it had been less than a century since Columbus proved that the planet was round. Not flat as everybody believed. That was a big deal. As big as what Wilbur and Orville did at Kitty Hawk. Maybe bigger.
Ships would not fall off the earth when they went far out to sea. There were no sea monsters to gobble up ships and their sailors. First Magellan, then Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. In 1580, Drake and his Golden Hind returned from his three years at sea with stories and riches. He brought back enough booty that the Queen’s share doubled her annual income for that year. Anything was possible.
The only thing to compare with the attitude of the English was the feeling Americans had after defeating Germany and Japan in 1945. Anything was possible. Even putting a man on the moon.
A reflection of this “anything was possible” attitude was the theater. The first playhouse in England was built in Shoreditch, London by James Burbage in 1576. It had a very original name. It was called The Theater. Until then, plays were performed by wandering troops of actors in guildhalls, in local nobles’ halls, in inns and at festivals and fairs. By the 1590s, there were a number of theaters in London like The Curtain and The Rose. And in 1599 Shakespeare and his fellow players of the Chamberlain’s Men opened The Globe.
There were an amazing group of dramatists to excite London audiences. William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont and Thomas Middleton. Of all the rivalries, it was the one between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that excited audiences the most. It was like watching Picasso and Braque’s competition with cubism in the early twentieth century. It was like seeing Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams battle it out on Broadway in the late forties and the fifties.
Creativity was in the English air and London was the place to be. Only Marlowe’s premature death caused the Elizabethans to pause, then continue with some of the greatest drama in the history of Western Civilization. And it wasn’t just a drama for the court and the upper classes as it was in Moliere’s France. The theater was for every class in society from the blacksmith and the baker to the Queen of England.
The Globe was appropriately named to give the English a sense of the wide world Drake and others were beginning to reveal. For the price of a ticket, a Londoner could leave the plague, the violence and the crime of London behind and step into a different world. Walking into the large round building that held up to 3000 people for a performance was an adventure. All that was required of the ticket holder was a few hours time and an imagination.
During the performance, the stage had no scenery. It might have a large wooden chair that was a throne. It might have a table and chairs for an inn. It might have a log for a forest. This is why Shakespeare’s plays use dialogue and prologues. To help the audience imagine the scene with prologues such as the opening of “Romeo and Juliet”.
Just listen to the Chorus in the Prologue of “Henry V”.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Or we get the weather in “Hamlet” with such dialogue:
Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.
In “The Tempest”, we get a shipwreck in a storm:
Boatswain: Here, master: what cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
Boatswain: Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!
Just from the dialogue we get the sound and fury of the storm these men are dealing with. Then in Act 1, Scene 2, we get further evidence of how bad the storm was:
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting souls within her.
With only dialogue, the actions of the actors, the colorful costumes and a few sound effects, the Elizabethans created in their imaginations the courts of kings, the forests of fairies, the streets of ancient Rome and Greece, castaways on an island and the battle scenes of great conflicts.
For Shakespeare’s audience, the Globe was truly a whole new wonderful world. And they loved it.