Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsHello, learners, and welcome to the week three summary video. I'm Jennifer Reid. And I'm Jonathan Bate. And this week, we've been talking about A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of talk and a lot of themes of this week is about putting on a play, the idea of a play within a play that features A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yeah. I mean, this is the wonderful thing, isn't it, about seeing The Rude Mechanicals rehearsing their play, led by Peter Quince, because it gives us a window onto the whole process of creating theatre. We don't have as many documents as we would like to have from backstage.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsAnd so seeing, albeit in comic form, the process of putting a play together can allow us to work out a lot about how Shakespeare's plays were put together, in particular this business of each individual actor not having a full script, but just having their own part with the cue lines. And of course this great kind of comic play of this, of Bottom getting his cues all wrong and so on. But it really does give you a sense of the quite improvisational quality of theater-making at the time. And this idea that parts would have been written for specific actors as opposed to actors auditioning for parts. Yeah, very much so.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 secondsThis is something that I think is one of the reasons why Shakespeare's plays were so effective, is that from 1594 when the Lord Chamberlain's Men, his acting company, were formed, right through the rest of his career, he was always writing for the same acting company. He wasn't a freelancer in the way that most dramatists were. And of course, he was a shareholder in the company, he knew the actors very well. So he's writing the plays knowing as he creates each part who is the actor that will play it, what's the kind of range, the versatility of that actor. And he's particularly always thinking about key parts.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 secondsObviously the lead, the hero, but also things like the role for the company clown. And one of the striking things about the development of Shakespeare's writing for clowns and fools is this thing that when Will Kemp, who was the original Bottom the Weaver, when he left the company in 1599, he was replaced by this other comic actor, Robert Armin, whose style is less kind of physical, less sort of being sort of lovably-- foolish and lovable. More witty word play. Shakespeare just picks up on that, and the clowns and comic parts for fools in his later plays, characters like Feste in Twelfth Night, the Fool in King Lear, are written very much for Robert Armin. Different style from Will Kemp.

Skip to 3 minutes and 10 secondsWhat about the staging of a play, because A Midsummer Night's Dream requires quite a lot of set, perhaps, than some productions do. But how would that have worked on Elizabethan stage, and where would they have got their costumes and things from? Yeah, I mean all very interesting questions. We can work out quite a lot about the Elizabethan stage from the surviving diary and account books of Philip Henslowe, who was the proprietor of the Rose Theatre, rival company to Shakespeare's. Alas, the equivalent documents for Shakespeare's company were probably lost in the great Globe fire of 1613. But we can work out from Henslowe's the sort of costumes that they had, and indeed such stage sets as they had.

Skip to 3 minutes and 54 secondsOn the whole, of course, Shakespeare and his contemporaries write for bare boards, a platform stage. The scenery, the settings, are brought to life through the poetry, in the imagination of the audience. Upon your imaginary forces learn the-- upon your imaginary forces work, the chorus says in Henry V. But we know from Henslowe's list of properties that occasionally there were bits of more elaborate scene setting. You know, the entrance to hell, for instance, for the play Doctor Faustus. So it is possible that Titania's bower would have been brought onto stage, or maybe revealed in that discovery space at the back of the stage.

Skip to 4 minutes and 42 secondsAs far as costumes are concerned, we know that the aristocratic and courtly households would sometimes pass on or sell off their costumes to the actors for sort of-- so that's very interesting, because we've talked a bit about how there were quite strict rules of dress at the time, that to wear certain materials you had to be of a social rank. If you weren't above the status of gentleman, you weren't allowed to wear silk and so on. But what happens when secondhand clothes are worn by actors is that you actually have people of low social status on stage wearing the real clothes of those of high social status.

Skip to 5 minutes and 28 secondsIt's a kind of-- it's a way of breaking those so-called sumptuary laws, the laws about dress and status. It's a funny thought to think of them performing at court and someone spotting their old dress. Yes, that's my-- yes, oh, I wish I hadn't let that one go, you know. So what about-- today, when we put on plays, we're familiar with the parts of director, producer, and that sort of thing. Would Shakespeare have taken that sort of part in his plays, do you think? Yeah, I think-- again, the character of Peter Quince is really useful for this, because he is organising the company, handing out the parts, telling them what to do, a role akin to the modern stage director.

Skip to 6 minutes and 9 secondsAnd I think it's highly likely that Shakespeare himself would have played that role. The little bits of evidence we have about Shakespeare's acting career suggest that he tended to take quite small parts that would free him up for that kind of role. And there seems to be evidence that the kind of producer, company manager type role was mostly taken by Philip Henslowe, one of the most highly regarded actors in the company. And of course, Henslowe was one of the prime movers after Shakespeare's death in bringing his plays into print in the so-called First Folio. Moving from the stage to the audience, really simple question, but who went to the theatre? Because why weren't they at work? Yeah.

Skip to 6 minutes and 50 secondsIt's a very good question. And indeed, one of the reasons that Puritans didn't like the theatre, it wasn't only the irreverence of the language and the fact of having boy actors dressed as women, but also the fact a lot of Puritans tended to be sort of city businessmen with a Puritan work ethic. And they hated the fact that their apprentices would sometimes skive off work in the afternoon to go to the theatre.

Skip to 7 minutes and 21 secondsA lot of work has been done about the audiences of the public theatre. And you know, the numbers are truly extraordinary. The numbers that, for a hit play, would pack into the Globe Theatre, you're talking about maybe 3,000 people at a time when the population of London is tiny compared with what it is today. The women, of course, went to the theatre. So there's lots of examples of citizens' wives, the theatre being a social meeting-place for them. So a genuinely mixed demographic. Visitors, as well. I mean, this was the beginning of a time of globalisation, if you like. A lot of trade, tourists, tradesmen visiting London.

Skip to 8 minutes and 10 secondsAnd it was an absolute sort of acknowledged thing on the tourist trail, so to speak. You'd maybe get a tour around Westminster Abbey, but you'd also definitely make a point of going to the theatre. Just like today. Just like today. And it would've been a slightly more raucous affair than the theatre today. It would indeed. That sense of a silent audience is actually a very recent thing. We need to remember that artificial lighting, of course, didn't exist in the outdoor theatre. When Shakespeare's company acquired the indoor theatre, they did have candlelight.

Skip to 8 minutes and 44 secondsAnd one imagines the small indoor space of the Blackfriars Theatre where his plays were put on in winter in the latter part of his career would have had a more hushed audience. But undoubtedly, the outdoor theatre, a lot of noise, a lot of shouting back by the audience, people selling nuts and fruit, and indeed prostitutes touting their wares in the audience during the play. Perfectly, perfectly common thing. Even actually when indoor theatre really became the norm after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all through the late 17-- well, right through the late 1600s through the 1700s into the early Victorian period, the lights actually remained on in the auditorium.

Skip to 9 minutes and 36 secondsAnd it was perfectly common for people to be talking to each other and shouting at the players. It's only really in the mid 19th century that you get the idea of the darkened auditorium and the silent audience. So next week we're looking at Henry V. What tips have you got for this one? Well, this is one where I'd absolutely say do try to get to see one of the movie versions of it. There's the great old Laurence Olivier film made just before the D-day landings and very meant to sort of gee up the morale of the British and the Americans as the Second World War came to an end. But then Kenneth Branagh filmed it in the early 1980s.

Skip to 10 minutes and 19 secondsAnd the film, I think it stood up really well. And it was-- it had been a long period where Shakespearean film was rather moribund. The Branagh Henry V did a lot to revive it. And then it was also done again very effectively in a television format by the BBC as part of their so-called Hollow Crown season. So there's lots of really good film versions out there, although of course what we do need to remember about the film versions-- and the Olivier is kind of rather clever in suggesting this-- is that a film showing you real horses and blood and mud and thousands of soldiers on a battlefield, that isn't how it was in Shakespeare's theatre.

Skip to 11 minutes and 3 secondsAnd we'd be talking about how, in particular, the chorus-- do carefully read those wonderful speeches by the chorus-- how the chorus encourages us to imagine the world of the battlefield. So lots to look forward to. Well, thank you, Jonathan.

Week 3 summary

In this summary video, we bring together some of the themes and ideas from Week 3 of Shakespeare and His World.

In the video, Jonathan says that the producer and company manager role for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the company for which Shakespeare wrote) was probably taken by Philip Henslowe. He has asked us to note that the person he should have named was John Heminges. Jonathan sends his apologies for the confusion.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Shakespeare and his World

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

Contact FutureLearn for Support