Why Do Shakespeare's Plays Make Great Movies? Part One—Shakespeare's Theater

Leslie Banks as the Chorus in  Laurence
Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V.
Image from TaoYue.
The original, 1599 performance of Henry V began with an actor asking the audience if the stage he stood on could do justice to the play's subjects, a clash of "mighty monarchies" and a king like the god of war himself. The stage was an "unworthy scaffold" for "so great an object," he said, the theater, "this wooden O," a mere "cockpit" unfit for the play's climactic battle. When that scene arrived, the same actor, who served as the play's "Chorus," returned to the stage and apologized that his company was about "disgrace" a monumental conflict "With four or five most vile and ragged foils . . . in brawl ridiculous." Such apologies were a convention that didn't necessarily reflect the feelings of the author. Shakespeare, who had been writing battle scenes for almost a decade, must have known that Henry V's climax would thrill his audience. When he dissed his theater—one of the best since actors clomped their platform boots across the stage of the Theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century BCE—he was both following convention and humblebragging.

Still, it's worth considering that he may have felt that the theaters of his day were inadequate vehicles for his plays.

The interior of an Elizabethan
playhouse as rendered in
Johannes De Witt's 1595 sketch
of a performance in the Swan. 
Henry V was first performed in the Curtain, which has a confusing name since Elizabethan theaters had no curtains (at least not large ones in front of their stages—they did have small curtains in front of alcoves in the back). The Curtain's name came from the nearby Curtain Close, a plot of land near a "curtain," a wall between towers in the fortifications that surrounded much of London north of the Thames. Like its famous successor, the Globe, the Curtain was a three-story wooden polygon open to the sky. If it rained, as it often does in London in the summer, when plays were performed, the thousand "groundlings" who stood in front of the stage got damp or soaked.

Things weren't that comfortable for spectators who had paid an extra penny to sit in the galleries either, even if they had paid yet another penny for cushions that protected their bottoms from the wooden benches. Except for those in the "Lords' Rooms" above the stage, who looked down on the tops and backs of the actors' heads, spectators in the Curtain and Globe were squeezed together in a way that would never be allowed in a modern theater. In London today, for example, fire laws limit the reconstructed Globe's capacity to 1,300; the original held more than twice that.

None of those 3,000 spectators took showers. Nor were they the polite culture vultures who go to the reconstructed Globe. As is true of today's multiplexes, people from all classes went to the theater, but Elizabethan theatergoers were far rougher than today's moviegoers. We get a sense of how rough when we consider other public spectacles that vied for their attention. At the most gruesome executions, for example, crowds watched as men were hanged until half dead and then brought down to have their genitals cut off and their intestines cut out. These were burned in front of their eyes before the executioner put the dying men out of their misery by decapitating them. Their bodies were chopped in pieces and their heads dipped in tar and set on pikes at London Bridge's south gatehouse.

Heads on London Bridge's south gatehouse.
Detail from Claes Visscher's 1616 panoramic
view of the city.
Image from antoniohernandez.es.
Shakespeare's audience passed beneath those heads on their way to Southwark, on the south side of the Thames, where they found entertainment in brothels, theaters, and arenas for cockfighting and bull- and bearbaiting. The cockfighting resembled what still goes on in many parts of the world: two roosters with blades tied to their spurs slashed at each other until one was dead or too wounded to fight. In bull- and bearbaiting, a bull or bear was chained to a stake and attacked by bulldogs (that's where bulldogs got their name—it's what they were bred to do). Some spectators bet on the outcome. Others simply watched or rooted for one side or the other. Except for Puritans, who despised these blood sports as "filthy, stinking, and loathsome" wastes of time (Stubbes 244), most Elizabethans, from servants on up to the queen herself, seem to have enjoyed cockfighting and animal baiting.

The queen held bearbaitings in the tiltyard of Whitehall, her London palace. She held cockfights in an arena that her father, Henry VIII, had built for just that purpose. The royal cockpit was a roofless polygon, so similar to a theater that it was easily turned into one during the reign of Charles I. The same layout was used in public cockpits and "baiting houses," and some of these were turned into theaters as well. For example, a Drury Lane cockpit became the Cockpit Theatre in 1616, the year that Shakespeare died. (The date is easy to remember—1616, double 16s—and it's a two-fer. Knowing it gives you the death date for both the greatest English-language and greatest Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, died the same year.)

Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe
in Shakespeare in Love.
Three years earlier, the most famous, and largest, baiting house—the Bear Garden, also known as the Paris Garden—became the Hope Theatre. After its transformation, the Hope's owners, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush and Ben Affleck in Shakespeare in Love) still held bearbaitings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We might think that they did this to support their more highbrow entertainment, much as an art museum might use popular exhibits on motorcycles or Star Wars to replenish its funds. In fact, blood sports were so much less popular than drama that they needed protectionist legislation: a 1591 law banned Thursday play performances so that they wouldn't compete with animal baiting. So Henslowe and Alleyn's Thursday bearbaitings, at least, were a legal necessity—they probably would have made more money with plays.

The Bear Garden and the Globe in another
detail from Claes Visscher's engraving. 
Forbidding Shakespeare plays to protect blood sports might seem like forbidding PBS to broadcast during a mixed martial-arts cage fight, but while the audiences for Downtown Abbey and UFC Fight Night are different—no doubt a few people like both—the audiences for Hamlet and bearbaiting were identical. Before the Bear Garden became a theater, the same people who squeezed into it on Thursdays would on Fridays squeeze into the Globe, which stood next door. Both venues offered violent thrills. The violence in the Bear Garden was real and that in the Globe was simulated, but the Globe's simulated violence—a father murdering his children and a mother eating her murdered sons in Titus Andronicus, for example—was often far more horrifying than animals fighting.

Much of the excitement in the Bear Garden and Globe came from suspense, from the anticipation of violence rather than from violence itself. The Bear Garden audience felt it as the bear growled and the dogs barked and strained at their leashes before being released. The Globe audience felt it before every history play or tragedy. At a history, many in the audience knew the main events that they were about to see represented. If they were seeing Richard III, for instance, they knew that they were going to watch a monster hack his way to the throne and die in battle. Even those who didn't know the history behind a history play still expected it to be full of bloodshed and war. If they were seeing a tragedy, they expected it to be full of violence and end with the main characters' deaths.

Like every good thriller writer, Shakespeare knew that suspense is usually more exciting than the violence that the reader or audience is anticipating. He often cranks up this anticipation by having characters talk about impending violence in asides and soliloquies (speeches delivered alone on stage, as if the character is thinking aloud or addressing the audience directly). These can let the audience know what other characters don't, setting up the "dramatic irony" that is rocket fuel for suspense. After a character has described his evil plans in a soliloquy, for example, spectators will hang on tenterhooks, watching in horror as the villain pals around with his unknowing future victims.

Marlon Brando renders Marc Antony's "dogs of war"
soliloquy  in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar.
Image from Examiner.com.
Characters who know that violence is coming sometimes compare it to violence that the original audience might have seen the preceding afternoon in the Bear Garden. For instance, in Julius Caesar's third act, Antony knows what Caesar's assassins don't, that Rome is headed for civil war. Alone with Caesar's body, he delivers a terrifying soliloquy (well rendered by Marlon Brando in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 film), in which he describes the "Blood and destruction" that will swamp Italy, the children who will be cut in pieces, once Caesar's ghost "let[s] slip the dogs of war." That famous phrase, for the original audience, conjured up howling mastiffs being released to attack a bear. Later in the same play, as Antony and Octavius prepare to meet their adversaries' armies, Octavius compares their situation to that of a baited bear: "we are at the stake / And bayed about with many enemies." The same comparison is used by Macbeth, who, facing his final battle, says, "They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, / But, bear-like, I must fight the course."

A "course" was a round of bearbaiting, and whether the audience was watching one of those or the fighting that followed Macbeth's lines—Macbeth killing a young man and being killed himself—they cheered or jeered what was happening. If they got really worked up, they could throw food. Though we're not 100% sure that they did this, we are sure that they had plenty of food to throw. Excavations of Elizabethan theaters have turned up the remains of hazel nuts, walnuts, almonds, apples, pears, figs, raisins, prunes, lamb, chicken, oysters, mussels, crab, cuttlefish, eel, herring, sturgeon, and pies, as well as bottles for ale and wine (Rose and Globe 148-53). Playgoers bought some of this food and drink before the show, from stalls outside the theater. They bought the rest from roving vendors who, during performances, worked the crowd like ballpark hotdog sellers.

Robert Greene's 1591 coney-
catching pamphlet, The
Second and Last Part of
Conny-Catching, warns of
pickpockets in theaters. 
Image from Luminarium.org.
Prostitutes and pimps worked the crowd as well, soliciting business for nearby brothels, while con men, called "coney catchers," tried various ruses to part suckers—coneys, rabbits—from their money. Pickpockets, or "cutpurses," used more direct methods, taking advantage of the audience's distraction to cut the strings that attached men's purses to their belts. Criminals of all sorts considered the theater a rich hunting ground. Locals knew this, and literate out-of-towners could learn about it in "coney-catching" pamphlets that warned of the hazards to be found in theaters, much as modern guidebooks warn of the hazards—pickpockets, touts, conmen—to be found in tourist destinations. A savvy groundling kept a street-smart eye out as he stood watching the play, and slurping his oysters, in the scrum in front of the stage.

His experience was less like being in modern theater or cinema than it was like being on a soccer stadium terrace or in the open seating area of a rock concert. But no matter how crazy things get at a soccer match or rock concert, the announcer or band will always be heard because of amplification. Obviously, Shakespeare's actors had no such assistance. Nor did they have lighting that would draw the audience's attention to the stage. At the indoor Blackfriars Theatre and at court performances, they used candles that illuminated the audience as well as the actors. At the Curtain and Globe, they simply stood in the afternoon light, with only their gestures and words to hold the unruly crowd's attention.

In a cinema, the lights go out, and our attention is drawn like a moth to the screen. We watch the feature in near-total darkness, an experience so engaging that a movie has to be nightmarishly bad before we'll walk out. Even our worst movies, perhaps especially our worst movies, can keep us entertained with spectacles that Shakespeare's company couldn't possibly produce on stage. No doubt they would have loved the giant sets and special effects available to filmmakers. Instead, they produced the plays' spectacles—royal pageants, storms and shipwrecks, sea and land battles—on a bare, forty-three by twenty-seven foot stage, with limited props and crude effects.

Groundlings at the reconstructed Globe.
The most impressive of these were the cannon used for battles and in court scenes, where they might accompany a king's revels, as in Hamlet, or his entrances, as in Henry VIII. (At a 1613 performance of Henry VIII, those cannon started a fire that burned the Globe to the ground, an event that Shakespeare probably didn't witness since he had already retired to Stratford.) In a theater as small as the Globe—a hundred feet in diameter, smaller than a baseball infield—cannon fire would have given the audience a good jolt, as would the metal sheets and drums that were banged to create thunder, and the fireworks that were set off for lightning. Props like blood (animal, not human) and severed heads (not real ones) in Titus Andronicus and, perhaps, the live bear—borrowed from the Bear Garden—in The Winter's Tale titillated or frightened spectators, especially those standing in front of the stage.

Next: Part Two—Shakespeare's Reading.