The Life Of An Elizabethan Actor
The acting ‘profession’ is one of the oldest. We refer to it as a profession these days but paid actors are men and women who practice a trade and they’ve always worked alongside other tradespeople. Those working in theatre, television and film in our era have a high status but in Shakespeare’s time, even the writers were tradesmen – ‘playwrights’, makers of plays in the same sense as ‘wheelwrights,’ makers of wheels, were.
The life of an actor hasn’t changed much. Some of our actors are very famous, normally because they attract attention as a result of the films they act in, and if they become popular the viewing public shows an interest in them as people. And so, actors like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep are constantly in the news, with images of them displayed in magazines and newspapers. Those actors become very rich. The rest of the vast army of actors vary from very poor to comfortably off, and many actors spend most of their time looking for employment and have to take on temporary work as waiters, bar staff, and so on, while looking for acting work.
Elizabethan actors were not very different. Some of them became famous and rich. Their wealth didn’t come from payment for performances, though, but from buying shares in the theatre they worked in. The two most famous of Shakespeare’s time were Richard Burbage, the leading actor at the Globe, and Edward Alleyn of the Admiral’s Men. They lived in luxury and were recognised wherever they went, just like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep, and other movie stars. There were other famous Elizabethan actors but most actors were not much better off than beggars.
Actors had a very low social status and they could be arrested and imprisoned for nothing more than the accusation of having done something. Most of them were afraid of venturing out into the streets because they were so vulnerable while, although badly paid, the company that employed them looked after them, fed them and accommodated them. The work was hard, though. During Shakespeare’s time watching plays was the main entertainment in London. There were twenty-two theatres for a population of about twenty thousand, and the theatres were full every day. The theatres were in murderous competition with each other and the audiences expected new plays every day. The actors had to familiarise themselves with new parts, each one playing up to four or five roles in a single play. The plays were performed in the afternoons and very often there was only the morning to prepare for the performance. The actors had to learn their lines quickly and when there was no time to prepare they had to follow the directions of the prompt who read all the lines, with the actors repeating them. Modern audiences wouldn’t tolerate that but such performances were common in Shakespeare’s time.
It’s very strange to think that actors were very popular on the stage but virtually spat on outside the theatre. Popular as it was, acting wasn’t regarded as a respectable trade. It was regarded as a trade carried out by rogues, vagabonds and beggars. The young William Shakespeare, son of one of the civic fathers of Stratford, left his home, went to London and joined that band. As we know, he rose above everyone else by recognizing very quickly that new plays were in constant demand. He set about writing them at great speed and kept them coming. He went into partnership with others and became part owner of theatres. When he died he was a rich and famous man, but his wealth and fame did not come from whatever skills and talent he may have had as an actor. However, acting was a good way into the career that made him immortal.
How Shakespeare became hooked on theatre
William Shakespeare was nine years old when the first theatre in England was opened. The idea of a dedicated building for the performance of plays was conceived as late as 1576, when James Burbage, the father of Shakespeare’s future acting colleague, Richard Burbage, built a theatre in Shoreditch, London, which he called ‘The Theatre.’
These days theatres are very common, and there is hardly a town in the world that doesn’t have at least one theatre. Even countries ruled by the most repressive regimes have theatres in their towns. They range from tiny, converted back rooms in pubs, through open air venues, to huge arenas where great extravaganzas can be staged. We have all attended at least one, whether it’s in our local neighbourhood, run by an amateur drama club or one of our town’s established theatres. Perhaps we’ve even enjoyed something like a gig at Wembley Arena.
To say that the troupes of players just wandered about performing is not strictly true, however, because they were subject to strict censorship. Actors tended to be free and easy people, often political dissidents with strong views on the way they were being governed, just as actors are today. And playwrights, too, have always used their skills and the opportunity of an audience to publicise their social views through satire. Theatrical groups therefore had to be licensed, and they would lose their licence at best, or players might land up in gaol, or, at worst, lose their heads if they stepped out of line. Wealthy or well connected patrons had to take responsibility for the political good behaviour of the players.
Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a leading civic figure in Stratford – an alderman and at one stage the elected mayor – and performances by visiting acting groups would have been one of his responsibilities. That duty by his father was probably the key to young William’s connection with the theatre and acting – the boy will have attended several performances, and he was in a position to meet and talk to the actors. We know that Shakespeare went off to London to be an actor as soon as he had the opportunity as a young adult. Perhaps he had harboured that ambition throughout his childhood.
It is known that one of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Will Kempe, had been a member of an acting group and we know that he had performed in Stratford. It’s likely that Shakespeare knew him and thought of him as a contact when he decided to go off to London. In 1587, two years after the birth of his twins, Judith and Hamnet, he set off and we know what happened after that. It’s likely that he met up with Will Kempe because during the following years they became close colleagues and, indeed, it’s almost certain that Shakespeare created his major comic roles with Will Kempe in mind.
Although we know nothing directly about Shakespeare as a child growing up in Stratford, the circumstantial evidence for his contact with the theatre and the opportunity he had, through his father, and his better than casual experience of the actors and performances is compelling.
As I look around at the Shakespeare scene in England at the moment I’m struck by how many young people take to the stage. Actors have flooded in from around the world to participate in the Shakespeare festivities.
It’s interesting to reflect on the young man who came to London one day four hundred years ago and became an actor. Why would he want to be an actor? It wasn’t like today where it’s quite alright for a young person to have such an ambition: the acting profession is as respectable as any other. But in Elizabethan times actors were despised, considered to be the lowest form of life, classed, along with rats, as plague carriers as they travelled around the country. So why would this young man, the son of a Stratford dignitary, wish to demote himself so drastically?
Apart from being outcasts they were discriminated against by law, often arrested and imprisoned without trial for things they didn’t do simply because someone had accused them of something. Many of them had left apprenticeships to join a theatre group. Once they had done that they had no protection if they were dismissed, as they had forfeited the protection afforded by the powerful trade guild they had turned their back on. These days, news about Hollywood actors seems to have almost more unfair dismissal cases than anything else as there are contracts and conditions and expectations that protect actors, none of which existed in Shakespeare’s time.
In 1572, Parliament passed two acts which were devastating for the acting profession. In the first one, the Queen, wanting to curb the power of local grandees, forbade “the unlawful retaining of multitudes of unordinary servants by liveries, badges, and other signs and tokens.” The result was that hundreds of actors around the country were dismissed. The other act “for the punishment of vagabondes,” allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of the unemployed, including actors, often actors who had work but were caught wandering about the streets of London.
There were still rich and powerful theatrical sponsors, like the Earls of Sussex and Leicester, noblemen who were able to obtain royal permission for their players to perform in London. It is probable that this is how the young William Shakespeare entered the scene and was able to become an actor and also to walk about the streets of London without fear of arrest.
We have no idea of how Shakespeare became an actor. We have his plays and think of him first and foremost as a writer: we have no information about his acting life but he would have considered himself first as an actor, acting work being the bread and butter of his career. We know he didn’t become one of the big stars of the stage, like Edward Alleyne and Richard Burbage but we do think that he performed before the Queen.
It may be that it all began with him simply joining a group of travelling players in Stratford and ending up in London with them. One interesting idea that could account for Shakespeare’s interest in acting is that he may have performed in one of the cycles of Mystery plays mounted as Whitsun pastimes in Stratford. One of them, in 1583, was presented by one Davi Jones, a relative by marriage of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne. Perhaps the young man had his first taste of performance in that.
However Shakespeare happened to become a man of the theatre we are all pleased that he did. By doing so he’s made us all richer and given us the language with which to think about the world around us.
Elizabethan actors existed in a contradictory world in which they were regarded as the lowest of the low, but if they achieved success and, most important, a following, they would be regarded as almost godlike, exactly as film stars are today. Modern film stars may spend years in near starvation, playing minor roles and living in circumstances that most of us would find intolerable, before becoming the gods that we see worshiped by hysterical fans. In Elizabethan London it was the same: actors worked hard and slept rough and, like in the modern world, most actors never ‘made’ it. But those who did made it big.
We find today that a president or a monarch or a member of a royal family will invite a movie star to a Whitehouse or Buckingham Palace event. There’s nothing new in that. The immensely popular theatre clown, Richard Tarlton, was taken up by Queen Elizabeth herself, and granted royal favours. She is said to have stood up and applauded one of his performances. Open any tabloid paper today and you will find a close interest in the doings of successful actors reflected there. In Elizabethan London the theatregoers also clamoured for nuggets of information about the doings of the stage stars, particularly if there was anything prurient about them.
Big stars are often in the news for things like charity walks across continents, participation in cycling or running marathons: their presence can steal the headlines of the event. Will Kemp, one of the most famous actors of Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who played jesters and burlesque characters, was also an accomplished dancer and led the jigs that ended each play at the Globe theatre. In 1600 he Morris-danced all the way from London to Norwich.
There was no bigger star of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre than Richard Burbage. One wonders how many of the Hollywood stars of our time will be remembered in 400 years from now. Richard Burbage has lasted that long, though. Four years younger than his friend, business partner and fellow actor, William Shakespeare, Burbage is still lauded as one of the greatest actors of the theatre, amongst all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. His fame could rest alone on his having been the first actor to play Hamlet, but he was also the first to play all the iconic tragic heroes. Indeed, while Shakespeare was working on his great tragedies he had Burbage’s skills and talents in mind as he wrote, for his friend played all those roles – Macbeth, Othello, Lear, etc.
It is impossible to underestimate the part played by the theatre in the life of Elizabethan Londoners. Whereas today we have thousands of forms of public entertainment Elizabethan London had only the theatre and a few other things like bearbaiting and cock fighting. The Elizabethans had the passion for the theatre that we have in the modern world for our great sports events and the stars of the stage were as big as football and baseball stars are today.
Gender in Elizabethan Theatre
Helen Mirren plays the role of Prospero in a new film of The Tempest. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post she said: ‘I played the man role. Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls but not so often women dressed as men, but I play it as a woman. I don’t play it as a man.’
That may be so, but Shakespeare intended Prospero to be a man. It is true that one can really do as one likes with a Shakespeare play as long as one sticks to the text, and anything that one does throws new light on the text for the generation in which it’s done. However, although in his time Shakespeare was forced to use boys to perform female roles, he was very clear about whether his characters were male or female.
Helen Mirren is confused. When she says that Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls she is not altogether right. Shakespeare always had boys dressed as girls in plays with female characters, and every one of his plays had female characters. He was forced to use boys as it was against the law for girls and women to appear on the stage. But each role was clearly either male or female.
Shakespeare was unconcerned about having to use boys to play women and went ahead and wrote the roles as though women were going to perform in them. Think about Juliet and her authentic teenage girl’s passion. And in Antony and Cleopatra, often referred to as the greatest love story ever told, Cleopatra is female through and through, from her passion, through her flirting and sexual scheming, to her ability to make all men fall in love with her, a quality absolutely authentically portrayed in the text.
Shakespeare tried to neutralize the effect at times, however. He took advantage of the theatrical convention of using disguises. In some plays a character would start dressed as a woman and then disguise herself as a boy or a man, which would enable the actor to be a convincing male throughout most of the play. He would then be revealed as a woman and act out the last part of the final scene as a woman. Clever.
There is no real reason for the selection of Helen Mirren to play Prospero, apart from the fact that she has a huge fan base and will therefore bring in the money. But, as she says, ‘It would just give a new take on the relationships in the play. Shakespeare is such an extraordinary writer — you can do all kinds of things with him and the core of the piece stays strong, but you do get different reverberations through the play.’ That’s true, and it’s a testament to the genius of Shakespeare that whatever you do doesn’t ruin the play – it adds new insights for that particular generation. And that will go on for as long as the English language exists.
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