- Open-air amphitheatres. These were usually polygonal. The stage
projected into the central yard and may or may not have been covered.
The audience stood around the stage in the yard, where places
were cheapest, or stood or sat in the tiers of galleries that
enclosed it. These playhouses relied on natural light.
- Indoor halls. These were rectangular, with the stage along one
of the short sides. The audience sat, either immediately in front
of the stage where the seats were most expensive, or in galleries
which ran around the other three sides of the room. These playhouses
were lit by candles and torches.
The playhouses were brightly decorated inside. Their stages had
two doors for entrances and exits, often flanking a larger central
opening at the back which could be used for more ceremonial comings
and goings. There was little or no scenery but hangings, for example
painted cloths and curtains, were used on the stage. Properties,
such as beds, thrones, or tombs, were needed for some plays.
Audiences were socially mixed, and women as well as men visited
both the open-air and the indoor playhouses. Admission to the
amphitheatres cost one old penny, and they catered more for the
citizenry. Admission to the indoor halls cost six old pennies,
and they were frequented
by the court and gentry.
The Swan and the Globe.
J. C. Visscher, Londinum
Florentissima Britanniae Urbs, 1616. British Library, Maps
C.5.a.6, detail. Larger
The Theatre was built in 1576 by James
Burbage, father of the actor
Richard Burbage. It was located in Shoreditch, north-east of the
City of London and just outside the City’s jurisdiction. It
was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries and
a covered stage. From 1594, the Theatre became the playhouse of
Chamberlain’s Men. After the lease on the site expired
in 1597, the Burbages dismantled the Theatre and in 1599 rebuilt
it as the Globe.
The Curtain was built just south of the Theatre in 1577, and was
similar in construction. The Lord
Chamberlain’s Men seem to
have used the Curtain for performances between the end of the lease
on the Theatre in 1597 and the opening of the Globe in 1599. The
Curtain was still being used for performances in the 1620s.
The Rose was built by Philip
Henslowe in 1587, south of the River
Thames on Bankside. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three
tiers of galleries but smaller than either the Swan or the Globe.
Henslowe increased the size of the Rose in 1592 and may, at the
same time, have had the stage covered. Its audience capacity was
about 2,000. The Rose was demolished by 1606.
The Swan was built in 1595 on Bankside, and was intended as a competitor
to Henslowe’s Rose. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with
three tiers of galleries and a covered stage. It was the largest
of London’s playhouses, and the only playhouse of the period
for which a pictorial record of the interior survives. It was closed
by government order in 1597, and apparently never regularly used
Johannes de Witt copied
by Aernout van Buchel, Sketch of the interior of the Swan, about
1596. Utrecht University Library. Larger
The Globe was built in 1599, from the reused timbers of the Theatre.
It was located on Bankside, near to the Rose. It was an open-air
amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries, a covered stage and
a thatched roof. The Globe was owned and operated by a syndicate
of the leading players among the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The
first Globe was burnt down in 1613, when its thatch caught fire
during a performance of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry
VIII (All is True). The second Globe was built on the foundations of
the first, but given a tiled roof. It could accommodate an audience
of 3,000. From 1609, the King’s Men used the Globe during
the summer and their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars during the
The Fortune was built by Philip Henslowe in 1600, to rival the
Globe. It was an open-air amphitheatre, with three tiers of galleries,
and a covered stage. The Admiral’s Men used the Fortune for
many years. It burnt down in 1621, but was rebuilt. The Fortune
survived until 1661, when it was demolished.
The Blackfriars indoor playhouse was established as early as 1576
for the children of the Chapel Royal. In 1596 the property was purchased
by James Burbage, who began to convert it into an indoor hall playhouse
for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Following local opposition,
it was again leased to a company of boy players. This company disbanded
in 1608, and Richard Burbage quickly brought together a syndicate
of players to run the Blackfriars playhouse. From late 1609 the
King’s Men took it over. They gave performances at the Blackfriars
during the winter, and at the Globe during the summer.