Find out what society was like in Shakespeare’s time.
Who went to the theatre?
Everybody! Just like today, theatre tickets cost different amounts depending on where you sat. Merchants could buy stools in boxes next to the stage, which were expensive but not too flashy. Noblesbought seats on the stage because they could be seen by the whole audience. They went to the theatre to show off their clothes and be admired by the lower classes. A seat in the gallery on the first or second floor cost two or three pennies, and for a penny more you could have a cushion. Even poor people could afford to go to the theatre – a standing ticket in front of the stage cost just one penny. People who stood were called ‘groundlings’. Hamlet refers to them when he’s complaining about actors who ‘split the ears of groundlings’ by shouting too loudly. The only person who did not go to the theatre was Queen Elizabeth I herself – but she loved plays too. She ordered plays to be written and commanded special performances at court. Twelfth Night was commissioned by the Queen – to be performed as part of the celebration of the Twelfth Night after Christmas, which was the end of the Christmas celebrations. This timing is the only reason for the play’s name – it has nothing to do with what happens in it!
Did you know?
- The groundlings could wander about and talk during the performance if it wasn’t interesting enough. They could also buy snacks, like meat pies, and drinks, like ale, from sellers in the theatre – a tradition which still goes on with interval ice-creams.
- The audience might buy apples to eat. If they didn’t like the play, the audience threw them at the actors! This is where our idea of throwing tomatoes comes from – but ‘love-apples’, as they were known, come from South America and they weren’t a common food at the time.
- The groundlings were also called ‘stinkards’ in the summer – for obvious reasons!
Society in Shakespeare’s time was quite strictly divided by class. The very richest people were the lords and ladies – the nobility. The nobles were the ruling class, influencing what the monarch did, as well as owning large areas of land themselves. Just below them were the gentry, who were rich enough to live off their own land, but did not have titles. Most of Shakespeare’s plays deal with kings or the nobility, although what affects them affects the lower classes too, like the fighting servants at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet.
The middle classes included yeomen, merchants and craftsmen. They were relatively well off and their sons would have gone to school and learnt to read and write. Shakespeare comes from this class – his father was a glove-maker. The lower class worked as servants or as labourers on farms.
The poor were the responsibility of each parish. Parliament passed new Poor Laws which meant that anyone who was poor but able to work would be sent to a poor house to earn their keep. The poor were not allowed to leave their parish – if they did they were described as ‘vagabonds’ and punished. There is rarely a character from this class in a Shakespeare play.
Some plays cover all the classes: in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwe see the rulers (the Duke and his bride), the nobility (the two couples lost in the woods) and the craftsmen (the
rude mechanicals who put on the play). The lower classes in the plays are often the butt of the jokes, or are shown as stupid or villains – think of the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing who always use exactly the wrong word.
Did you know?
- You could become a noble if the Queen gave you a title – like Sir Francis Drake, who earned his knighthood by exploring the world and bringing back spices and Spanish treasure. The Queen still gives titles to people today – but they don’t have the same effect on social class. Today you are just as likely to earn a knighthood for being a sporting hero, or working for charity or having been a Prime Minister.
- Your clothes in Shakespeare’s time were dictated by which class you belonged to. A set of laws called the ‘Sumptuary Laws’ laid out what materials, colours and styles of clothing you could wear – under pain of arrest and imprisonment. Only nobles could wear ermine fur – which is what the robes of members of the House of Lords are trimmed with to this day. The only people who could dress as nobles if they weren’t were actors – and only on stage.
In Elizabethan times women belonged to their fathers (or their brothers if their father died), and then to their husbands. Women could not own property of their own. This is one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth never married – she did not want to give up her power to a man.
The only exceptions were widows – women whose husbands had died. A widow was in charge of her own life and property, but would be likely to marry again to find someone to protect her and to be the legal guardian to her children.
Women were allowed to marry from the age of 12 in Shakespeare’s time, but often only women from wealthy families would marry so young. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13, but her mother says by that age she was already married with a child. Many marriages were arranged for the good of the family and small children might be ‘betrothed’ to each other in order to join the families together before they were old enough to get married. Many women did not marry until their mid-20s. Men had to be able to support a household when they married.
Women were not allowed on the stage. All the female parts in plays at the time were played by boys whose voices hadn’t broken yet – the apprentices. In several of the plays the female characters disguise themselves as men – so the audience would have seen a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. This happens in Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.
Did you know?
- Women were first allowed on the stage in 1660, when Charles II took the throne, after being exiled during the English Civil War. He saw women on the stage in Europe, and thought it would be a good thing to have in London.
- The age at which you could get married was only raised to 16 in 1929 – less than a hundred years ago! Before then you could get married younger with your parents’ consent – just like in Elizabethan times, over three hundred years earlier.
As well as visiting playhouses, people in London could watch cruel sports using animals, including cock fighting, dog fighting and bear-baiting. Bears were imported just for this sport. In one of Shakespeare’s later plays, A Winter’s Tale, there is actually a bear featured – although the only acting it does is to chase someone off stage. There would also be a lot of gambling on these sports – or anything else you could bet on. Chess and draughts were popular board games – Miranda plays chess in The Tempest.
The courtiers, or nobles, held jousting tournaments for entertainment. Knights fought on horseback with lances. They hunted with birds of prey. They also played tennis, but the game was rather different in those days and it was played on special indoor courts. There were 14 tennis courts in London in Shakespeare’s time. Common people did not have access to this kind of activity, but might well go ice-skating in the winter, or play sports like bowls or even football.
Shakespeare uses these entertainments to create images in his plays – the Duke of Gloucester when he is about to be tortured in King Lear compares himself to a bear
tied to th’stake, as he would be in bear-baiting. There is also a famous scene with tennis balls in Henry V, where the Prince of France sends hundreds of tennis balls to the King of England as an insulting present.
Did you know?
- In Elizabethan times football wasn’t played on a pitch. It was a game played by gangs in the streets, running for miles. The ball was an inflated pig’s bladder – not quite the game as we know it!
- Snowballs were as fun in Shakespearean time as they are now – they crop up in two different plays, Pericles and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- The game ‘Blind man’s buff’ where a blindfolded person has to identify another player by touch was known as ‘Hoodman’s blind’. It turns up in lots of plays when people talk of ‘hoodwinking’ someone or something – which we still use today to mean cheating or deceiving someone.
( source: BBC Bitesize )