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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

Theaters during the Elizabethan time were open-air structures, with semicircular "pits," or "yards," to accommodate most of the audience. The pit could also serve as the setting for cock fights and bear baiting, two popular arena sports of the time.

The audience in the pit stood on three sides of the stage. Nobles, well-to-do commoners, and other more "respectable" theatergoers sat in the three tiers of galleries that rimmed the pit. During breaks in the stage action- and sometimes while the performance was underway- peddlers sold fruit or other snacks, wandering through the audience and calling out advertisements for their wares.

The stage itself differed considerably from the modern stage. The main part, sometimes called the "apron" stage, was a raised platform that jutted into the audience. There was no curtain, and the audience would assume when one group of actors exited and another group entered there had been a change of scene. Because there was no curtain someone always carried a dead character off. It would, after all, have spoiled the effect if a character who had just died in the play got up in full view of the audience and walked off stage to make way for the next scene. The stage often had one or more trapdoors, which could be used for entry from below or in graveyard scenes.

Behind the main stage was a small inner stage with a curtain in front of it. During productions of Hamlet, the curtain served as the tapestry (or arras) that Claudius and Polonius hide behind when they spy on Hamlet, and later it was opened to disclose Gertrude's bedchamber.

Above the apron stage, on the second story, was a small stage with a balcony. In Hamlet this small stage served as a battlement and in Romeo and Juliet as the balcony in the famous love scene.

Still higher was the musicians' balcony and a turret for sound effects- drum rolls, trumpet calls, or thunder (made by rolling a cannon ball across the floor).


Now that you know something about the theater he wrote for, who was Shakespeare, the man?

Unfortunately, we know very little about him. A writer in Shakespeare's time was not considered special, and no one took pains to document Shakespeare's career the way a writer's life would be recorded and studied in our century. Here are the few facts we have.

Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the little English country town of Stratford, on the Avon River. He was the grandson of a tenant farmer and the son of a shopkeeper who made and sold gloves and other leather goods. We know that Shakespeare's family was well off during the boy's childhood- his father was at one point elected bailiff of Stratford, an office something like mayor- and that he was the eldest of six children. As the son of one of the wealthier citizens, he probably had a good basic education in the town's grammar school, but we have no facts to prove this. We also have no information on how he spent his early years or on when and how he got involved with the London theater.

At 18 he married a local girl, Anne Hathaway, who gave birth to their first child- a daughter, Susanna- six months later. This does not mean, as some scholars believe, that Shakespeare was forced into marriage: Elizabethan morals were in some ways as relaxed as our own, and it was legally acceptable for an engaged couple to sleep together. Two years later, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet (notice the similarity to "Hamlet") and Judith, but by this time Shakespeare's parents were no longer so well off. The prosperity of country towns like Stratford was declining as the city of London and its international markets grew, and so Shakespeare left home to find a way of earning a living. One unverified story says Shakespeare was driven out of Stratford for poaching (hunting without a license) on the estate of a local aristocrat; another says he worked in his early twenties as a country schoolmaster or as a private tutor in the home of a wealthy family.

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