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Shakespeare Lecture Transcript

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is considered the greatest poet and play write in the English language. Now we've had a chance to view one of his plays, "Much to do About Nothing," and this lecture is to help you better understand the play write William Shakespeare, as well as to better understand how plays were put-on in Shakespeare's time, as well as how performances are done in our time. So remember to click on that green button to move to the next lecture.


We don't have a lot of information about Shakespeare's childhood; we do know he was born in Stratford upon Avon - that is a town outside of London in England. Avon by the way means river, there are lots of towns in England by the name of Avon. He was the son of a glove-maker, and he went to grammar school for 12 hours a day. Now at grammar school, he studied Latin and he also studied the works of Roman poets and playwrights that you see listed here. In fact, Shakespeare was very influenced by those playwrights and he reflected many of their themes and ideas in the plays that he wrote later in life. Shakespeare developed a vocabulary of more than 50,000 thousands words. When you consider that the average American has a vocabulary of only 15 to 25,000 thousand words, you can see that Shakespeare was very well educated in the English language. Not only did he know language well, he was also very familiar with many different subjects, such as music, law, seamanship, the Bible, and I have a whole list of things on this slide that he knew about. His knowledge of these things was revealed in his plays and this what makes his plays so interesting. He uses languages very interestingly, very cleverly, and he had a wide knowledge of subjects and that kept his audiences entertained.


Shakespeare married young. He married Ann Hathaway, who also lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, but soon Shakespeare moved to London to pursue his fortune. He originally started off as an actor, and then he became more famous as a playwright and was hired into Lord Chamberlain's Men - which was a famous acting group. The Lord Chamberlain's Men performed in front of Queen Elizabeth. Now Shakespeare is doing really well until 1592 and 1594 when the theatres in London were closed due to plague. It was during this time, however, that Shakespeare wrote his poetry. He wrote many sonnets such as "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day", or "My Mistresses Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun". In fact, Shakespeare considered himself a better poet than a playwright. Shakespeare has become so famous that his works have been translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible, so you see what kind of impact he has had on English language and literature.

Shakespeare and Language:

English was rapidly growing new words and phrases during Shakespeare's time and they didn't have any dictionaries or grammar books like they do today. William Shakespeare himself coined many words and phrases such as: assassination, courtship, critic, critical, disgraceful, etc and you can see a whole list here; and in fact, we have these words now in our language because Shakespeare wrote them down in his portfolio of his plays.

Shakespeare the Playwright:

During Shakespeare's life time, he wrote a total of 36 plays. He wrote histories such as Henry the VI, comedies like "Much Ado about Nothing" which we have seen, and tragedies like "Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet". He borrowed many of his plots from other sources - remember those Roman playwrights that he read? Well, he also borrowed from other playwrights of his own time, and he wasn't always faithful to historical accuracy. For example, you know he played in front of Queen Elizabeth while he wrote history about Tudor kings, but he didn't want to paint Elizabeth's father in a bad light, soooo he kind of changed the story a bit to make his patrons happy.

Did he or didn't he?:

Some critics have wondered if Shakespeare was really able to write all those magnificent plays and poems, and so there has been a debate about the authorship about Shakespeare's plays. Now some critics in England believe that a normal common person like Shakespeare could not have written such wonderful language. and so they think perhaps other more high aristocratic author's such Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward Devere might be the authors. However, other critics disagree. They say that Shakespeare's authorship was never questioned in Shakespeare's own time, and so that it's unlikely that someone else wrote the plays because if the people in Shakespeare's time believe that he did it, that's probably the best evidence in Shakespeare's favor. Additionally, the folios were written long after the plays had been performed, so what usually happened is a playwright would make a play, and then he would show it to the actors, the actors would make some changes, then they would show the plays to audiences several times, and they would make more changes so they could figure out what made the audience laugh more, what made them cry more, etc. The folios were never written down until a play had been shown to audiences 40 to 50 times. So that final product we see is learned over time by the actors as well as the playwright. We still don't have any concrete evidence that Shakespeare did or didn't write these plays, but I believe that he actually did.

His Audiences:

Shakespeare's audiences were enthralled by language. In fact, it was a very auditory rather than a visual audience, so they really wanted to hear clever language. Those who could pay more sat above the stage in these raised up seats, while the poor people stood on the ground as groundlings, and they paid a penny for admittance. Now all social classes attended the plays, so the playwrights had to be very clever. They had to write a play that would make Lords and Ladies happy as well as the peasants standing on the ground happy. For example, in "Much to do about Nothing", we have higher level for the nobility. We have "Don Pedro", we have "Claudio's Love for Hero", we have this kind of noble, romantic love. But on the other hand, we also have a very foolish sheriff and a very foolish watch, who act very silly. We have farcical comedy, and so this mixture was needed to make the audience happy.

Shakespeare's Themes:

Shakespeare's crowd really enjoyed viewing the same kinds of things we like today. They wanted action, adventure, and excitement; in fact, they liked supernatural spirits, madness, dueling, monarchy's intrigues, and all kinds of very powerful characters in wonderful costumes. And so, Shakespeare tried to give as much of that in his plays as much as possible. For example, Hamlet had all of these things encompassed in a single play.

Active Audiences:

Another thing to note about Shakespeare's audiences was that they were very active. The actor addressed the audience, and the members of the audience often spoke back. In fact, they yelled back, they hooted, they hollered, and if they didn't like what they saw, they would often throw things at the actors. So being an actor in Shakespeare's time could be a little dangerous. Norrie Epstein claims that the "average Elizabethan hooted, yelled, snacked, chatted." And in fact, she says that going to a play in Shakespeare's time is much more like going to an NBA basketball game than going to a play in our time where audiences sit quietly in the dark.


History tell us that play going was a very smelly experience, as there were no bathrooms in the play houses, people relieved themselves inside, and people rarely bathed. So it probably wasn't real pleasant, which is why the people who were of noble birth sat up higher, away from the crowds up towards the open roof ceiling where they got better air verses the groundlings who paid that penny and stood on the ground in that dirt.

The Theatre:

The theatre of Shakespeare's time looks rather like that picture you see in the bottom right hand corner. It was round - the ceiling was open to let in the sunlight although they did have some awnings to cover some of the gallery seats and stage, but the groundlings were mostly standing in the sunlight. Now these theatres were not in the city of London but on the outside of the city because in 1574 public plays had been banished from the city because of "corruption of youth and other enormities". Well, what was happing inside the play house, you would get thieves who were pick pocketing and you were getting prostitutes who were selling their wares in the dark corners, and so they weren't really necessarily healthy/safe places for people to be. Lords and Ladies of the highest nobility often would not go to playhouses because they were not good places to be socially however some of them liked the excitement and went disguised.

The Performances:

Performances took place in the afternoon, and the players were not allowed to advertise with posters or anything like that for their play. So what they did was raise the flag over the playhouse and sound/blare a trumpet to let people know when a play was about to begin. A black flag meant tragedy, a white flag a comedy, and a red flag meant history.

The Performances continued:

During performances vendors also walked around and sold beer, water, oranges, nuts, gingerbread, and apples and in fact some of those prostitutes were often called orange girls because they sold oranges and well as other things. Up to 30 plays were performed in one season, so those actors had to be very much on the ball and remember their roles and customarily that program changed daily so the actors had to prepare to put on a different play every day.

Scenery was simple-Audiences had to use their imaginations:

Scenery was very simple in Shakespeare's time, and the audience needed to use their imagination. Instead of lighting and technicians, the actors had to tell the audience what time of day it was, for example Horatio in Hamlet says, "But look the morn is russet mantle clad walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill." Essentially he is saying, "Look it's morning", and he wants the audience to know because they don't have the technology to just put on a light and make it look like the sun coming out.

Scenery continued:

While they didn't have great scenery, they did have beautiful, extravagant costumes that were often donated by the nobility who wanted to see the plays. They also had musical accompaniment. They would have some musicians to the side of the stage providing some background music. All the parts in Shakespeare's time were played by males, so you had men being actors and you had young boys who were playing the parts of women and this can be very funny in some of the plays because all of the audience knew that it was all boys even though the boys were playing girls. For example in one play, at the end of the play, a boy dressed as a girl walks out to the audience and says "any of you men who wants me, I do not want you", so he's making a joke, a homosexual joke because he's saying, you know, because everybody knows he is a boy, and so there were a lot of these kind of double jokes being played in Shakespeare's time, and we don't see so much in our time because women play those rolls.

Last Updated: 01/26/2015
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