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THE ELIZABETHAN THEATER
The theaters in which Shakespeare's plays were first performed were quite different from those of today. You're probably accustomed to theaters in which the seats face a square stage with a proscenium arch (a "frame" that separates the audience from the actors). Elizabethan theaters were either circular or made of six, seven, or eight sides. The sides enclosed an open court surrounded above by galleries or balconies. Audience members stood or sat in the galleries or (if they couldn't afford gallery seats) sat downstairs on the bare ground-these spectators came to be called "groundlings." Extending into the courtyard was a covered platform, where the action of the play took place. There were no curtains and little painted scenery. In order to let audiences know where and when certain scenes were taking place, Shakespeare often made references to specific cities, rooms, times of day, or weather conditions. There was no lighting other than that provided by the sun. Performances in these theaters were held during the day.
The action of the plays was quick and continuous; only rarely were there intermissions. In fact, the divisions into acts and scenes that are used on stage and in print today were added to his plays after Shakespeare's death.
Theater audiences had to use their imaginations more fully than we do today. Elizabethans focussed more on character and language than on "special effects" (although costumes were often colorful and elaborate). Shakespeare captivated (and does to this day) his audiences with some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry ever written.
Since acting was considered immoral for women, young boys played all of the female roles. This may be why Shakespeare's plays have more male than female characters. It's interesting to think that some of the greatest roles for women ever written-Juliet, Cleopatra, Desdemona, Rosalind-were first performed by boys whose voices hadn't changed!
Shakespeare had an uncanny knack for knowing what audiences enjoyed (and still enjoy!). He offers not only bawdy humor and exciting action, but also exquisite poetry and penetrating psychological and political insight. Shakespeare's still a box-office sellout, over 300 years after his death. Perhaps we miss the special communication he enjoyed with Elizabethans and Jacobeans who were his contemporaries. But we can share their appreciation for the elements that have kept Shakespeare alive for centuries: his splendid language, his understanding of human problems, and his steadfast compassion for all of us struggling to cope on this wonderful and dangerous planet.