2. GREAT HALLS

More refined performances took place in the great halls of noblemen's houses, of the Inns of Court, or of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. Slide number 5 shows us Hampton Court slide 05 where plays were often performed. In 1603, during the Great Plague, the King and his Court left London to stay at Hampton Court Palace and there Shakespeare's company performed their plays to entertain them.

The Great Halls were, again, make-shift theatres and the Players would act in such places by invitation. A screen would be erected at one end of the hall and behind it there would be room for the actors to dress, to move around and so on; in front, they would perform their play. In general, these would be more serious performances, often to celebrate some special occasion, such as a wedding; I don't mean by that that the plays would not be comedies - they probably were, more often than not - but there would be less clowning, juggling, tumbling and so on to fill in the gaps.

Shakespeare himself presents several 'plays-within-plays': for instance, slide 06 in The Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream and, most notably, Hamlet. These are all performed in noble houses as were a number of his own plays, particularly the later comedies. One such performance we know of for certain was Twelfth Night, which was performed on the 2nd of February 1602 in the Hall of the Middle Temple. On slide number 6 you can see the shape of this great hall, not much changed since Shakespeare's day. Just as the Inn-Yards dictated the shape of the later open-air theatres, the Great Halls influenced that of the indoor theatres - but again, more of that later.

Well, there were some obvious advantages of both such theatres; first of all, the Players were in no way responsible for their upkeep; secondly, in both the Inn-Yards and the Great Halls there would be ready-made audiences. On the other hand, there were very obvious disadvantages: the Players always had to rely on the hospitality of inn-keepers or of the noblemen and others who owned the Great Houses; then, they had no storage space, so they had to carry all their properties and costumes with them. However, the biggest disadvantage of all was that the City of London authorities were hostile to them. Then as now, London was like a magnet and the Players, particularly, were drawn to it, since the population was such that they could perform the same play a number of times and still get an audience; furthermore, there was some prestige in playing in London; everybody who was anybody went to London to make his name and as I have already mentioned, Shakespeare went there when he was a little over twenty years old. Thus, hostility from the City authorities made life very difficult. Nevertheless, it was this hostility that brought about the great advances in the theatre which took place in the sixteenth century.

This page is part of Dr. Hilda Spear's Lecture on The Elizabethan Theatre