Shakespeare inherited a popular tradition of playgoing that emerged, oddly enough, out of the liturgy of the Christian mass. Ironically, the same institution that originally suppressed the drama revived it. In its early centuries the Christian Church condemned all forms of play acting, but parts of the liturgy are inherently dramatic and stage crucial moments in the life of Jesus: his baptism by John, the Last Supper, and many of the festivals of the liturgical year. In the Easter service, for example, the congregation reenacts the moment when the two Marys arrive at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus's body had been lain. They discover that the stone had been rolled away and the body was no longer there, and angels guarding the tomb announce the resurrection. Starting in the ninth century CE, different voices in the congregation sang out the angels' question, "Whom seek ye in the sepulcher," the Marys' answer, "Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, " and the angels' reply, "He is not here; he is risen; just as he foretold." Drama in Europe began with this, the "Quem quaeritis" trope.


At the Sepulchre

Soon after a long line of Old Testament prophets and worthies were introduced to give life to sermons. Hundreds of years later, in the churchyards of many English villages, lay people began to offer "mystery" or "miracle" plays to teach their illiterate neighbors the stories of the Bible from Creation and the Fall to the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. Called Corpus Christi plays in England, these were usually staged for the Feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day sixty days after Easter celebrating the miracle of the mass, by the craft guilds.Often the guilds produced pageants linked to their crafts: in Norwich the grocers performed the Fall of Man; in York the pinners (who made nails) performed the Crucifixion; in Chester, Noah's Flood was performed, naturally enough, by the water-leaders and drawers.

By the end of the fourteenth century cycles of "Miracle" plays were performed all over Europe. Some, like the Corpus Christi cycle at York in England, grew to forty plays performed over two days. As the religious drama evolved, ceremonious observances gave way to show and spectacle. For its play of the Last Judgment in the Ludus Coventriae, for example, the drapers' company (drapers made cloth) was equipped with an earthquake and "a barrel for the same." Violence had its innings. In "The Trial before Annas and Caiaphas" from the Ludus Coventriae, Christ's tormentors "beat Jesus about the head and the body and spitten on his face and pullen him down and setten him on a stool and casten a cloth over his face."

The Corpus Christi plays were staged on decorated carts, called pageants, which were moved through the town from place to place so that everyone could see them. The word pageant, in fact, comes from the Corpus Christi plays; it originally meant a stage or platform on which scenes were acted or tableaux presented, and then came to mean the movable structure or "carriage consisting of stage and stage machinery used in the open air performances of the mystery plays." The pageants, or scaffolds provided the specific, localized settings of the plays. But most of the acting was done in the unlocalized playing area between the scaffolds or pageant wagons. Some of the pageant carts had doors for spectacular effects. The bakers specialized in entrances and exits through the trap doors representing "hell mouth," making good use of their culinary skills to recreate the fires of hell. Shakespeare may have been old enough to have seen mystery plays staged; despite an active campaign to suppress them by Protestant reformers who saw them as papist, the last cycle in York was performed in 1576, the last in Chester in 1600.

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York Performance Sites


In the middle ages drama was concerned with one topic only: human salvation. It was represented in one of two ways. First, historically, in the miracle plays, which over the course of several days unrolled before the spectators of the parish the whole scheme of salvation from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and then, later, allegorically, in the morality plays, which depicted the process of salvation in the individual soul on its road between birth and death, beset by the snares of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. In the fifteenth century plays staged by the trade guilds on Biblical subjects were slowly supplanted by morality plays, performed by touring companies of professional actors, in which the spiritual forces of good and evil warred for the soul of a generic "Everyman." The morality plays are dramatized allegories in which personified abstractions share the stage with mere mortals, who are dwarfed by the eternal figures who war over and around them. In The Castle of Perseverance (1425), for example, the World, the Flesh, Covetousness, and the Devil all clash with God for the soul of Mankind.

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Morality Play

The plot of the moralities is always the same: they are divine comedies in which innocent mankind falls through his own free will, surrendering to the appetites of the flesh, only to be redeemed and delivered from sin into salvation by divine grace. In this struggle Mankind is always a supporting character, a fragmented and fragmentary figure. His being is dispersed across a battlefield in which his conflicting faculties--characters with names like Good Deeds, Knowledge, Beauty, Strength, as well as Lust, Pride, and Riot or Vanity--struggle to determine his eternal destiny. Here is the verso of the titlepage of Everyman,printed around 1520; the hero is depicted in the middle of the top row, surrounded by Fellowship and Beauty, while below him are Discretion, Strength, and Cousin. Mankind or Everyman himself--needless to say, the hero is always male--is only the temporary location of a recurring conflict that exists before his birth and continues after his death. Morality plays show their mortal protagonists as bewildered, gullible victims of a war in which they must participate but which they do not in any sense initiate. Man is thus a transitory configuration of fragments, of states of being over which he has only the most minimal control. In the late fifteenth century the representative human being has no unifying essence. The hero of the moralities is not the origin of action; he is not a subject. History is a preparation for the Day of Judgment, the perpetual reenacting of the Psychomachia, a recurring battle for possession of human beings in which they are simultaneously the stake and the instruments. The agents of history, its subjects, are good and evil, God and the Devil. Mankind or Everyman is merely the field on which they stage their timeless struggle for his soul.

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Staging a Morality

Surviving directions for an open-air staging of The Castle of Perseverance make that clear. We know that the play was performed by professionals because it was to be staged on a hill surrounded by water or "strongly barred all about" to insure that no one got in without playing. Scaffoldings for God, the World, Covetise, the Devil, and the Flesh like those for the miracle plays dominated the circular playing area. This 1522 title page from the morality Mundus et Infans, "the World and the Child," showing the World enthroned under a canopy gives us a good idea of what one of these scaffolds looked like. Mankind spent most of the play in his bed under the castle, while the war for his soul raged around him. The actor playing the devil Belial probably had the best part and certainly had the best costume: "look that he have gunpowder burning in pipes, in his hands, and in his ears, and in his arse, when he goeth to battle," reads the direction. [Also, I couldn't resist including at bottom left a woodcut of a costumed devil with two faces: one in the usual place and flying out of his butt.]

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The World

The inhabitants of this world include the audience within the circle, who are implicated in the progress of their representative, Mankind. The play opens with the World's address to the denizens of his realm, which is also the playing area, the "place." This staged world has its own emblematic geography. God's scaffold is in the east, like paradise, the altar, and the Second Coming. Opposite God is the scaffold of the World. The Devil dwells in the north, and the Flesh in the warm south. Mankind is free to choose the direction of his journey. Only one way leads to God. The stage plan shows human beings dispersed, unfixed, not in control. What are fixed and coherent, stable and enduring, in this world are the personified abstractions, the universals: God, World, Flesh, Devil. Mankind, on the other hand, wanders between these fixed poles, defined only in relation to them, always in flux until fixed by death.

Morality plays continued to flourish into the middle decades of the sixteenth century. The Vice remained the chief attraction as he practiced his diabolical--and entertaining--wiles against a succession of Everymen. The morality play Youth, written around 1520, opens with a dialogue between characters named Youth and Charity. Here's an illustration from the printed text showing Youth dressed as a soldier on the right, and Charity, as an archer on the left. The young man has just inherited his father's land and flush with the insolence of, well, youth, expresses his lusty disdain for spiritual things. Charity leaves, and a character named Riot enters, bringing his friends Pride and Lechery. All three proceed to party until Charity reenters with his friend Humility. Youth repents, and the play ends. You don't have to be a Shakespearean scholar to see the germs of Falstaff, whom Prince Hal calls "the tutor and feeder of my riots," in the character Riot.


During the early 1500s the Moralities themselves evolved into hybrid forms. In the 1560s Preston's Cambyses, "a lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth," intermingled historical characters like the King of Persia with personified abstractions from the moralities like Shame, Diligence, Cruelty and Murder. Preston also personified the members of the body politic: the Commons and the Council. Shakespeare knew the play: in the first part of Henry IV, Falstaff threatens to portray Prince Hal's father "in King Cambyses' vein." Shakespeare also knew that the crowd-pleaser in the piece was the Vice, Ambidexter, who is (as his name implies) a double dealer. Here's the titlepage of Cambyses, showing how the parts could be played by a professional company of six men and two boys; the two main actors played the King and the Vice.

Cast List


The miracle and morality plays bequeathed Shakespeare a presentational, not representational, style. Shakespeare's theater descended from a moral theater based not upon mimesis but the embodying of ideas, a theater in which characters present ideas as much as imitate reality. In Shakespeare, morality play characters like Good and Evil, Pride and Lechery, Riot and Vanity, are adapted and made to seem more realistic. The same is true of Shakespeare's staging. Shakespeare's platform stage drew on the medieval pageant wagons and traditional scaffold and inn yard stages used by itinerant strolling players and drew on their traditional interplay between the symbolic locations represented by the pageant wagons and the neutral undifferentiated space between them.


This sketch of the Swan Playhouse made in 1596 illustrates the structure of an Elizabethan public theater. The proscenium or main playing area is a platform, about forty feet wide, projecting into the yard (again, like the moralities), where the groundlings, who paid a penny for admission, stood. The stage was surrounded by three ranks of roofed galleries where, for another penny, spectators could sit, as this drawing of the second Globe, built after the first burned down in 1613, shows.


At the Globe, where Shakespeare's company performed from 1599 on, the stage was roughly square. A more schematic, and generic diagram shows this more clearly. The stage contained a trap door, big enough for two men, like Hamlet and Laertes fighting in Ophelia's grave. At the back of the stage stood a wall, the frons scenae; this photo shows the frons scenae at the reconstruction of the Globe in London. This wall concealed the "tiring house," the dressing room where costumes and props were stored. In the middle of the wall was a curtained space, called "Within," which was used for bringing large props like the chair of state or throne on stage. Ceremonial entrances were probably made from "Within"; fools or clowns often entered by sticking their heads through the hangings. Sometimes the space was used as a discovery space, like Prospero's cell; at others it provided access to a raised platform like a tent or canopied chair of state.

Public Theatre
Frons Scenae

Flanking it were two entrances that allow the actors flexible movement. The central area above it, the upper stage, could be used for scenes like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or the scene at Flint Castle in Richard II where the King descends "like glist'ring Phaeton" from the castle walls into "the base court" (3.3.178-82). The upper stage was flanked by the "Lords' rooms," where the highest-paying spectators sat behind the stage. The roof above the stage was called "the heavens"; it contained a trap door, and a throne could be lowered from it by a pulley. [The canopy of Hamlet's speech, it also reflects the non-representational or emblematic staging of the moralities, in which the scaffolds refer to symbolic space and allegorical personifications.]

Upper Stage

Shakespeare's stage is presentational, not representational. It derived from the symbolic staging of the morality plays: heavens above, hell below, and the symbolic scaffolds or places of the moralities reflected in the staged locations like the throne of state. Space--both horizontal and vertical--is symbolic. The back of the stage corresponds to the scaffolds or symbolic locations of the moralities. Here, from the wide, curtained discovery space "within" the players would make their grand ceremonial entrances and position their weightiest properties, like the canopied chair of state where the monarch would sit, enthroned in his sacred "presence," perhaps like the figure of the World in the morality Mundus et Infans. From the unlocalized down-stage position the players could suspend both space and time, by marching, say, from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill or by speaking directly to the audience in asides and soliloquies that suspend the illusion of durational time. High-sounding or conventional speeches were delivered from the illusionistic area upstage; from the position down stage an actor could, through aside and direct speech to the audience, comment critically with superior awareness in chorus-like fashion. Hamlet's caustic first aside, "A little more than kin, and less than kind" (1.2.129) is usually delivered from this down-stage position.

In vertical space Shakespeare's three-tiered stage represents the medieval Christian view of the world as a liminal space between the poles of heaven and hell. The action takes place on a platform suspended between the heavens above and hell below. When Hamlet describes the sky and heavens as "This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire" (2.2.299-301), he was very likely describing the canopied roof over the stage at the Globe playhouse.

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Heavens at the Globe

Beneath the stage in the cellarage and connected to it by another trap door was hell. Under the stage was traditionally the location of hell in English drama. The scaffolds or pageants of the miracle plays had trap doors representing hell-mouth or hell-gate. Satan, for instance, falls into hell-mouth in the Deliverance of Souls from the Wakefield cycle. In The Harrowing of Hell at Chester, put on by the Cooks and Innkeepers, a stage direction reads, "a clamor shall be made, or a loud sound of things striking together, and let Jesus say: 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.'" The use of a trap door representing hell was carried over into the Elizabethan theaters. In Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (c. 1588-9) a rout of devils carries a screaming Faustus down to hell through it. "Hell being under every one of their stages," the playwright Thomas Dekker wrote, "the players . . . might with a false trap-door have slipped [the devil] down, and there kept him, as a laughing-stock to all their yawning spectators." In Hamlet the ghost of Hamlet's father enters and exits through the trap door and speaks from the cellarage, suggesting to the audience that he is a "goblin damned" sent "from hell" (1.4.40-1) to lure Hamlet to his damnation. When Ophelia's body is laid to rest in the same trap, Shakespeare underscores through his staging that her soul's fate, since she died at best unshriven and at worst a suicide, was either hell or purgatory.

Dr. Faustus


Shakespeare's theater was the popular culture of his day. His audience of 2,000 to 3,000 at the outdoor Globe theater ran the gamut of all the classes of Elizabethan society excepting the "starving class"; gentlemen from the nearby Inns of Court, the Elizabethan law schools, rubbed shoulders with "sour apprentices" and "rude mechanicals" like the prototypes of Francis the tapster in 1 Henry IV and Nick Bottom, the weaver, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later, the King's Men, was the most successful, and Shakespeare, who owned a fifth of it, was its most valuable property; his plays, performed by the company, were the biggest box office, the most frequently performed at Elizabeth's and later James's court. Like our popular culture, Shakespeare's was sometimes controversial for its sex and violence--London's Puritans objected most vociferously--and often for its politics.

Lord Chamberlain

Literature was politics and was accordingly censored. As early as 1559, before the first buildings devoted to playing were built in London, plays had to be licensed for performance. An "act for the punishment of vagabonds" in 1572 deemed "common players in interludes and minstrels not belonging to any baron of this realm or towards any other honorable personage of greater degree" to be "rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars" liable to arrest, so that any company of players had to attach themselves to someone of the major nobility and wear his livery. A royal patent in 1574 gave the protection of the Queen to James Burbage's company, which Shakespeare would join, on the provision that it would submit all of its plays to censorship.

Imposed by royal proclamation as part of royal prerogative, control of the theater was exercised through the Master of the Revels, a court official who arranged court entertainments, licensed companies and playhouses, and had to read and approve all plays before they were staged. The precious copy containing the signed and stamped license of the Master of the Revels was bound into the prompt-book or playhouse text of each play. Here is the last sheet of the surviving manuscript of The Second Maiden's Tragedy, an anonymous play produced by Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, with the signature of the Master of the Revels, Sir George Buc, allowing its performance "with the reformations" he had made. Printed plays at first came under the separate censorship of printed books, controlled by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the ecclesiastical authorities, which was stricter in demanding cuts and changes, and was enforced through the Stationers' Company, a state-licensed monopoly, which wielded the power in the last resort to destroy presses and deprive offending printers of their livelihood. Early in King James's reign the Master of the Revels took over the responsibility of licensing plays for printing as well as performance. The players often clashed with the Puritan City of London, and the Privy Council was wary of political comment from the stage.

Tilney's Account


Censorship was strict. As early as 1559, before Shakespeare was born, Elizabeth proclaimed that no play could deal with "either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal." The City of London, controlled by Puritan aldermen, tried to prevent playing altogether. It was actually to protect the players that Elizabeth gave the authority of censorship to the Master of the Revels in 1581. The duty of the office was oringinally to provide for court festivities and entertainments, but the Master of the Revels became the censor of all plays wherever performed.

The Master of the Revels was especially sensitive to political content, sometimes refusing to pass them unless changes were made. Sometimes, when a play dealt with civil unrest or questioned authority, he refused to pass them at all. An example is the fate of Sir Thomas More, a play in which Shakespeare had a hand. The play included a sympathetic treatment of a major outbreak of civic unrest in 1517, when the resentment of London merchants, artisans, and apprentices against the foreign merchants and bankers to whom the crown had given virtual control of the economy broke out in riots on "Ill May Day." The manuscript of More survives with marginal notes in the hand of Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels from 1579 to 1610, ordering the players to "leave out the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof . . . and not otherwise at your own perils." Tilney was no doubt eager to avoid showing sympathy for the rioters, especially at a time when economic resentment against foreigners was growing among London's citizens. Although Shakespeare and others turned their hands to revising the play, it was never performed.

Sir Thomas More

Shakespeare himself felt the heat of censorship. For 12 years the scene in which Shakespeare's Richard II was deposed was omitted from printed texts of the play, in part because it made rebellion too respectable. In 1601, the day before the Earl of Essex marched on London with 200 armed followers in an attempt to overthrow an aging Queen Elizabeth, his supporters arranged for a performance of Shakespeare's Richard II at the Globe in the belief that Shakespeare's depiction of the deposition of a weak and imperious monarch with unpopular advisors and no heir would prepare the ground for Essex's coup--perhaps a naive belief in the political power of the stage. When Shakespeare's company complained that the play was so "old and so long out of use," Essex's men ponied up an extra forty shillings. After the coup failed, a representative of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Augustine Phillips, was summoned to Essex's trial to explain why they had performed the play. When he explained that the conspirators had paid them, the court accepted his explanation and did not punish the players. But the performance alarmed the Queen, who in an outrage snapped to her antiquarian, "I am Richard II. Know ye not that?" And she had one of the principals of the company summoned to the Privy Council to explain their actions.

Phillip's Testimony

Although Shakespeare himself had but one brush with the law, most of his contemporaries did at least some jail time, usually for something like insulting the Scots--King James I was a Scot--or defending an out-of-favor courtier. In 1597 a political satire by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, The Isle of Dogs, so offended the Privy Council that they closed all of London's theaters and imprisoned three actors, including Jonson himself for "very seditious and slanderous matter. In 1603 Jonson was questioned by the Privy Council and accused of writing treason with his play, Sejanus. In 1605 a comedy by Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, Eastward Ho!, apparently containing "something against the Scots, was construed as a personal insult to King James; Marston fled to the continent, Chapman went to prison, where he was voluntarily joined by Jonson, and both men nearly lost their ears. In 1606 Parliament passed "an act to restrain the abuses of players," against profaning the holy name of God, Christ, the Holy Ghost, or any member of the Trinity on the stage; the act forced alterations in a number of Shakespeare's plays. In 1608 the playwright George Chapman wrote to the Master of the Revels complaining bitterly that the Master was refusing to allow the printing of Chapman's plays on the royal house of France, Byron and the Conspiracy of Byron, although he had licensed them for performance.

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Eastward Ho!

The Masters of the Revels censored plays when they inflamed public opinion or threatened public order (like the depiction of riots against foreigners in Sir Thomas More), when they treated questions of royal prerogative (like the deposition scene in Richard II, which suggested that parliamentary authority might outweigh that of the monarch), when they upset powerful people (like Jonson's and Chapman's Eastward Ho!, which satirized the mercenary Scots courtiers surrounding King James), depicted troubling recent events (like the Earl of Essex's rebellion) or living monarchs (Chapman's Byron plays). Nashe, Jonson, Chapman, and Middleton all probably spent short stretches in jail, but no dramatist lost a hand, like the Puritan lawyer John Stubbs, who had dared to challenge Elizabeth's proposed marriage to the Catholic Duke Anjou, or languished for years in the Tower, like the historian John Hayward, who wrote an account of Richard II dedicated to Essex that drew parallels to Elizabeth's reign. In reading Shakespeare and his contemporaries it is important to remember that their every word was scrutinized by authorities who feared the stage and were on the look-out for evidence of treason.