A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Peek into Elizabethan Theatre

Occasionally, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into what life was like in Elizabethan England. A Midsummer Night’s Dream may offer a look into what the theatre was like during Shakespeare’s time through the dysfunctional group of actors. The few short scenes that feature the actors show us the collaborative nature of the theatre from casting to adjusting the performance for specific audiences. We are able to apply what we know of Elizabethan theatre to these scenes and imagine how Shakespeare’s personal experiences may have provided material.

First and foremost, we see the collaborative nature of the theatre. For decades we imagined Shakespeare as this sole author working alone in a room to produce the great plays we know today. However, more recent research has shed light onto the deeply collaborative nature of playwriting. Writers would collaborate with other writers and with the other actors in their troupe. Parts were written to cater to specific actor’s talents. Opinions were given during the rehearsal process and adjustments made as necessary. We see this when the acting troupe is first introduced [Act I, Scene 2]. Peter Quince, the playwright, casts the roles and introduces the play. Everyone provides some input on the casting, particularly the leading man, Bottom.

Casting a performance was a task that required specific consideration. The writer had to be certain that the actor playing the role was correct for the part, much like in the theater today. However, because the same actors often worked in a single troupe, the writer would write parts with a specific actor in mind. We know that Shakespeare did this because sometimes the actor’s name made it into the stage direction, not the character. Quince gave his casting this consideration. We can see this when the actor, who is bad at memorizing lines is cast as the lion, the character with no line. You can also see it in his insistence that everyone play the part assigned.

Of course, it wasn’t unusual for actors to play multiple parts. Acting troupes were often smaller than their cast of characters, so extra hires needed to be brought in, or actors would play multiple roles. Scripts had to be carefully constructed to allow for costume changes and movement backstage. This may be why Bottom, overconfident in his own abilities, offers to play nearly all of the roles.

Bottom: And I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe, too, I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice, ‘Thisne, Thisne;’ ‘Ah, Pyramus, my lover dear! Thy Thisbe dear, and lady dear.’ [Act I, Scene 2: 53-56]

Bottom: Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me. [Act I, Scene 2: 72-73]

This offer is, of course, a ridiculous circumvention of what would be done because he wants to play two characters that are in the same scene. Still, one has to wonder how often overconfident actors tried to play more parts than was feasible.

Another casting convention we see is the fact that young boys were cast as women. It was considered improper for a woman to act on the stage. Women were only allowed to participate in court masques, an entirely different sort of production. Young men were brought into the troupe as apprentices and would play female roles until their voice cracked. In this group, the young man is nearly too old, or at least he thinks he is, so he protests at being cast as the woman.

Flute: Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming.

[Act I, Scene 2: 49-50]

However, being cast as the female lead or having a female lead written for you was an indication of skill. The writer had to be certain that the young actor could handle a lead role and Shakespeare wrote some amazing female parts.

We also see in these small scenes that performances were tailored for specific audiences. During the warmer months, or when plague wasn’t present, the troupe would perform publicly in outdoor theatres, like the Globe. However, if they couldn’t perform at the Globe, they would travel the country, performing in smaller towns. This would often include court performances, paid for by wealthy noblemen. As such, performances were carefully chosen and constructed to make a good impression on the audience. This was how the actors were often paid after all. This is why the actors are greatly concerned with how the ladies in court will react to the violence and the scary lion. So, they decide it would be best to add speeches that explain everything. Angering the audience could have serious consequences.

Quince: An you would do it too terribly, you would fright the Duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek; and that were enough to hang us all.

[Act I, Scene 2: 76 – 78]

Over the years we have learned much about how Elizabethan Theatres operated. Collaboration was common, casting complex, and performances tailored to specific, especially wealthy, audiences. A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives us an excellent glimpse into how the theatre worked through this comical troupe. I like to think that Shakespeare was also having a little fun with his fellows actors.

What else can we learn about the theatre from this play? How is the theatre different from the theatre today? How do you incorporate lessons on the theatre into your Shakespeare lessons?

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