Shakespeare's Arena

As a Sheldon Traveling Fellow, LESLIE HOTSON in 1924 visited the Record Office in London, and in a matter of weeks tracked down the murderer of Christopher Marlowe and the eyewitness account of the stabbing. Five years later—this time on a Guggenheim Fellowshiphe brought to light “Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet.”In 1931, as Professor of English at Haverford, he publishedShakespeare versus Shallow,”his discovery of Shakespeare’s quarrel and arrest. The results of another important detective case, the dating of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, appeared in the Atlantic in 1949. The illuminating article which follows was printed in the Sewanee Review last summer, and we are happy to bring it to the attention of Atlantic readers.



JUST how did Shakespeare stage one of his plays? Appreciation of this question’s importance has been growing ever since William Poel first, made his revolutionary points, that “Shakespeare invented his dramatic construction to suit, his own particular stage" and that “the plays were shaped to suit the theater of the day and no other.” By now it has been borne in upon us that the more unlike our stage conditions are to Shakespeare’s, the greater our problems in producing him will be, and the farther we shall come from obtaining his effects. The consequent necessity of trying to discover something definite about his methods needs no underlining.

But what kind of stage and scene did he use? Despite much confident, theorizing, it is on this fundamental point that authentic detail is missing. We know that his plays were frequently acted in halls and chambers at the royal palaces, at noblemen’s houses, and occasionally in the hall of an Oxford college or of an Inn of Court, as well as in the open-air Globe on the Bankside, and after 1608 in a room in the Blackfriars. It stands to reason that the means employed in all these places were sufficiently similar to permit the same actors to produce the same play both at the Globe and on a temporary stage in an indoor hall without radical change of method. And if it turns out that the method they used at Court is utterly incompatible with what modern theory believes they used at the Globe, modern theory will have to be thoroughly overhauled.

What do we know for certain about Shakespeare’s stage at the Globe? Perhaps it is not generally realized just, what is known, and how much is guesswork. What we know — from the carpenter’s contract of 1600 for the Fortune stage, which was to be like the Globe’s — is that the stage measured fortythree feet in “length” along its front, and in “breadth” extended forward twenty-seven and a half feet, to the middle of the “yard”: an oblong stage, strikingly wide and deep; that a high roof or cover to keep off rain was supported over it by pillars; and that behind the stage stood a structural greenroom or “tiring-house.” From many other sources, both pictorial and literary, we know also that over ibis tiring-house behind the stage there was a row of spectator-boxes or expensive seats called the “lords’ room.” And that is all we know.

It has been supposed that in addition there must have been a curtained alcove or “inner stage" in the front of the tiring-house behind the stage; and also, curiously enough, that the high-paying spectators must have been banished from the boxes above it to make a “balcony or upper stage.” These extraordinary devices, unexampled in the Continental theaters of the day, must be presumed, we are told, in order to stage intimate indoor scenes and “balcony” scenes.

Modern producers of Shakespeare have, however, been very reluctant to adopt these two presumed features. And for the best of reasons: they have not proved to be “good theater” but definitely bad. Romeo and Juliet in the Capulet tomb, the murder of Caesar in the Capitol, Antony dying in the monument, Iachimo in Imogen’s chamber: important scenes like these should be witnessed at least, as intimately as “street” scenes, if not more so. In the films they would be presented as medium shots or as close-ups. To pigeonhole them as remotely from the spectator as possible verges on theatrical imbecility. And yet we are asked to believe that the actor-poet who could give birth to such scenes would stand by and let them be suffocated in alcoves set behind twenty-seven and a half feet of open-air stage!

It is therefore reassuring to remember that these two hypothetical features have no foundation in fact. They have been imagined by modem theorists, as means for presenting action which must be shown “within” (as in a curtained study or bedroom) or “above” (as at an upstairs window or “on the walls”). In the sole surviving contemporary view of an Elizabethan playhouse — a copy which represents the interior of the Swan as seen by Johannes de Witt about 1596 — nothing resembling such theoretical stages is to be found. Where the central “inner stage” of our imagining ought to be, is shown a solid wall: the front of the tiring-house, with heavy double doors to right and left; and above it is the “lords’ room” — a row of boxes shown filled with spectators viewing the stage from the rear. No “ upper stage” at all.

But suppose we disregard the evidence for a moment, and imagine these mythical alcove stages in existence as essential parts of the public theaters. At once the question arises, What happened when the actors took their plays to a temporary stage at Court? Was a similar double-storied structure built behind the stage for them there? If it turns out that no such facility was afforded, and moreover that at Court they presented dramatic action “within” and “above” by a realistic and long-established method which had no use whatever for an “inner or an “upper” stage, the reasonable conclusion is obvious: there is neither need nor justification for rejecting contemporary evidence and inventing such stages for the public theaters.

What we require for an answer is a clear idea of three things: the sort of scenic materials provided when the companies took their plays to Court, the method of present at ion they employed there, and the kind of stage on which they acted. For the first, it has long been common knowledge, drawn from the Revels Accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s Household, that the essential scenic materials furnished for plays at Court were apt howses, made of canvassa, Framed, Fashioned and paynted accordingly. These were light structural units with roofs or tops and side curtains or practicable doors, and sometimes “upstairs” windows. Naturally the limits of playing-space in an indoor room kept them rather small.

A “house” or “mansion” of this sort, often represented in miniature a city, a battlement, a senatehouse, a country (“Scotland”), or even a continent (“Africa”). Atop the favorite “ battlement,” or at a “mansion’s” window, action took place “above”; and from around a “tent,” a pillared “palace,”a “senate-house,” or a hermit’s “cell,” curtains were drawn back by masked stage-keepers to reveal action “within.” No inner or upper stages were either used or required. Usually there were at least, two of these “mansions,” standing at the ends left and right of the playing-area, with open space between. As Sir Edmund Chambers observes, this method was clearly employed in Shakespeare’s single setting for The Comedy of Errors. On his stage stood three “houses”: the Priory, the house of Antipholus, and the Courtesan’s house.

The “mansions” or “houses on the English stage, corresponding to the damns of the medieval miracle plays, and to the case and the maisons of the sixteenth-century Italian and French theaters, thus provided “multiple scenes, set before the play began, and remaining unshifted throughout the performance. William Archer and W. J. Lawrence have epitomized this traditional method of staging as follows: “Under the ‘multiple’ system, all the clearly defined localities in a play were simultaneously indicated by means of ‘practicable’ constructions, known as maisons, ‘mansions, or ‘houses’ . . . changes of locality being indicated by the movement of the actors from one ‘mansion to another.” There is no evidence that plays at Court employed any all-concealing front curtain for the stage. (This is in sharp distinction from the Court “show,” pastoral, or scenic masque set as a tableau, which was revealed by dropping to the floor a curtain extended in front of it.) In performance the play’s action could flow continuously, the dramatic line unbroken by pauses for scene-shifting.


SO MUCH for a brief view of the Elizabethans scenic materials and their “simultaneous” or “multiple setting” method of presenting plays without a front curtain. Now we come to our third query, the stage. Whereabouts within the hall or room at Court was the stage located? This question will prove to be of crucial importance for an understanding of Shakespeare’s stagecraft.

Theatrical historians have commonly assumed that (since the upper or dais end of the hall would be occupied by the superiors) the stage must have been placed across the extreme lower end, against the “screen,” where a backcloth might, be hung, and where the main entry and service doors of the hall could be used for the players’ exits and entrances. But no authority has ever been alleged for such a placing of a stage for plays at Court; and a moment’s reflection will show its impossibility. On playing-nights at Court there was such a press of people trying to force their way past the powerful Yeomen Ushers in at those doors, that any use of them for players’ conveniences would be out of the question.

Aside from this, a prime requirement made it impossible to set the stage against the bottom end of the hall: the Queen must have the best place from which to see, to be seen, and to hear. Even if her canopied throne were moved considerably forward from the dais, it would still be too far from actors playing against the screen as a background. The open-roofed Hall at Whitehall was nearly ninety feet long; and in 1605 a point in a similar hall al Christ Church, Oxford, only twenty-eight feet from the stage proved too remote for King James to catch the speeches. The stage must be brought to the Queen, not the Queen to the stage. But where then could they put it? Not against one of the flanking walls; there it would present an oblique or sidelong aspect. Only one possible position remains — halfway or so up the room, and out in the middle of the floor.

Was this actually what, the Elizabethans did. In that case, we ask at once, What of the spectators thronging the whole lower end of the room? How could they see through the back of the stage? For it has been universally assumed that, no matter how far the Elizabethan stage-platform projected into the audience, the actors must have played against a background: a painted cloth, a wall, at all events, against something.

But suppose there was no background to the platform. Then spectators behind the stage would command a clear view of everything that went on, as they do in a circus tent. The “apt houses" constructed of frames and painted canvas would stand free, facing each other across an open stage; serving both as “scenes" for entrance and exit and for greenrooms, and offering a minimum of obstruction to the view of an encircling audience crowded on scaffolds rising high against all the four walls.

We have here followed conjecture to a revolutionary conclusion, which removes the background from our picture of Shakespeare’s plays as acted at Court, making his stage with its “mansions" an island in the center, open to view from all sides. If such was indeed the arrangement, on looking back into the century preceding we find that it was nothing new. This amphitheater or circus seating evidently was traditional for Court plays and “disguisings" performed without a front curtain. We read that for a “disguising" in the time of Henry VII, “all the great hall was . . . staged [i.e., scaffolded] abowte with Tymber” and that for a play at Whitehall under Henry VIII, “the Hall was scafolded and rayled on all parts.”

Our conjectural reconstruction is thus corroborated by precedent. But for definitive proof we need an unequivocal document from Shakespeare’s time, describing a Court stage for plays. This is something never found in all the years devoted to Elizabethan research. Where might such a document be preserved? Scenery was the business of the Revels; but the seating and the stages were built by the Office of Works. Have the Works Accounts been combed by historians of the stage? Apparently not, for Chambers’s encyclopedic Elizabethan Stage gives no sign that any of them near the close of Elizabeth’s reign have been consulted.

In remedying so strange an oversight, a search through the neglected Accounts proves to be rewarded with a wealth of light, thrown where we want, it most. There is no space here for more than the vital new information which comes at the height of Shakespeare’s career. Among the “Whitehall” items for the season 1601-1602, we find: a broad Stage in the middle of the Haull; and for 1603-1604, the haull . . . with a Stage in the myddle. Here we have the unmistakable proof. With spelling modernized, the whole entry for 1601—1602 runs: making ready the Hall with degrees [tiers of seats], with boards on them, and footpaces under the state [platforms under the Queen’s canopy], framing and setting up a broad stage in the middle of the Hall, and making a standing for the Lord Chamberlain [Shakespeare’s master. Lord Hunsdon], framing and setting up of eight partitions within the Hall end and entries [to control the throngs pressing for admission], framing and setting up a room with a floor in it in the round [bay] window in the Hall for the musicians.

There in the middle of the Hall is the stage — a “broad” (that is, a “deep”) one, evidently to allow for more ample scenic “mansions” at its ends left and right. On that very stage Shakespeare and his company played before the Queen on the two nights following Christmas, 1601, on New Year’s Night, 1602, and on Shrove Sunday six weeks later. That the word middle means middle, that the stage was completely surrounded by the spectator-scaffolds or “degrees,” is made unmistakable by contemporary descriptions of the festivities at Whitehall in the preceding winter of 1600-1601; “In the Hall, which was richly hanged, and degrees placed round about it, was the play after supper.” And an Italian report of that same evening describes the “degrees with ladies” (gradi con donne) as placed atorno atorno. “Bound about" and atorno atorno both mean on every side.

This customary arrangement for a play in a hall, with the uncurtained stage lying across the middle, set with painted canvas-and-frame “mansions" at both ends, and surrounded by the audience as in a circus, is also what Queen Elizabeth had found in Christ Church Hall when she was entertained in 1566 with plays at Oxford. There the stage was set up beyond the middle, in the upper part (parte superiori) of the Hall, transversely, and at its ends right and left stood the magnificent and stately painted “mansions” (magnifica palatia, aedesque apparatissimae). Against all the walls (iuxta omnes parietes) were constructed stands, whence the spectators could see from every side (circamcirca).

It was only in 1665 by order of Charles II that the fundamental change at Whitehall was made to the modern proscenium, drop curtain, and background of movable scenery for legitimate drama. In her Restoration Court Stage (1932), Miss Eleanore Boswell showed from a Works Account that in 1665 the new or proscenium stage was built across the lower end of the Hall from wall to wall. Its great depth took up more than a third of the entire Hall, thereby cutting down spectator-capacity to about half the number formerly accommodated on “degrees round about.”

But Miss Boswell did not realize what the Account implied about the position of the old stage. It was still where it had always been, in the middle of the floor. For without changing its position, the carpenters of 1665 raised “the old stage" higher, trimmed off its ends, and put a platform on it for the royal thrones, with boxes around — as the choice central seats from which to look through the proscenium arch of the new stage.

Thus, half a century after Shakespeare had played his last “kingly parts in sport” at Whitehall, his Elizabethan arena-stage ended up underpinning a central royal loge or box-seat for the grandson of King James. This diminished Restoration age had little playwrights busily “improving” the dramas of Shakespeare. The designers’ similar “improvement” of the stage brought to a close the Hall’s abounding life as an intimate cockpit or circus theater, with its platform as the heart of massed and eager hundreds, like those which surrounded Burbage and Shakespeare as they played before their incomparable Queen.


DISCOVERY in the Works Accounts of the startling evidence that Shakespeare’s stage at Court was placed in the middle of the Hall has established a novel and revealing point. Not only was his platform not provided with a front curtain: it was moreover not set against any scenic wall or background whatever. With this plastic rather than pictorial kind of stage, the only fluent method of production feasible is that of the traditional “multiple” or “simultaneous” setting of fixed “mansions” or “scenes” common to the European stage of the Renaissance.

Hardest perhaps for our modern minds to give up is the preconception of a backdrop: to realize, instead, that spectators were behind the stage, on the fourth side, as in a circus. But now we know that at Court Shakespeare’s plays were produced completely “in the round.” What then of the productions at the public theaters such as the Globe? Were they utterly different ? Or has our fixed modern idea of a “background” blinded us to the fact that here too there was no “scenic wall,” that the Globe productions also were completely “in the round ” ?

Once we lay preconception aside, it is curious to see how the proof that the public stage, like that at Court, was a complete circus stage has been staring us in the face unregarded. The De Witt drawing has always shown spectators on the fourth side, behind the stage. As W. J. Lawrence pointed out, “Of the four known views of early non-scenic theaters, three show incontestably that spectators sat in elevated boxes at the back of the stage” — a position from which it is physically impossible to see the “inner stage” of the theorists. Henslowe at the Rose Playhouse mentioned “the room over the tirehouse,” and contemporary references to this “lords’ room” for spectators at center-back “over the stage” are common. This audience on the fourth side refuses to be argued out of existence to make hypothetical and remote inner and upper stages possible. It is a fact, as it is at Whitehall. Clearly, the Elizabethans meant what they said when they called their playhouses “amphitheaters,” when they spoke of the “cirque” and “the Globe’s fair Ring,” and when they imagined “lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the Actor is the Center,”

Those responsible for the theory of an inner stage have managed to close their eyes not only to Shakespeare’s common sense as a producer and to the undeniable presence of high-paying spectators behind the stage, but also to the economics of the theater. A theory which would tuck crucial action away in a recess beyond the sight-line both of the lords’ room and of the adjacent arcs of “ this wooden O,” “this throngèd round, . . . this fair-fill’d Globe,” ignores the all-important box-office. The “inner stage” proposition would receive short shrift from any business manager. His advice would be, “Don’t be foolish. Keep the action out on the stage, as it is shown in the De Witt picture, where it can be seen from all the surrounding galleries. The only way to make money is to fill the house.”

It was in fact on this very vital point of spectatorcapacity that the English theaters far surpassed their Continental rivals and made the players wealthy. In proportion to their ground plan, those high-built circus theaters could pack in the paying customers in numbers which modern managers can only envy. De Witt reported that the Swan’s encircling galleries would accommodate three thousand. No doubt had the Burbages been so foolish as to reduce the possible seats by adopting an “inner stage,” Shakespeare would never have earned enough to buy New Place or to afford a comfortable retirement in Stratford.

Since the performance was viewed from all sides, the painted and stately “mansions” gave the sole scenic backgrounds, and the “doors” of entrance mentioned in stage directions were their doors. The important scenes “within” and “aloft ” were shown well out on the stage, in the “mansions,” with their curtains drawn back on every side. Where necessary, the “mansions” were set over traps giving understage communication with the tiring-house. No significant action whatever could take place by the back wall out of sight of the lords’ room.

When the rascally Captain Tucca (in Jonson’s Poetaster) vows revenge, should the players satirize him on the public stage, we naturally do not find him threatening to tear down the curtains of their inner stage or to rip out the hangings of their balcony, because those things did not exist. But he does vow to wreck their costly scenic “mansions” and canvas “houses”: “And you stage me, stinkard, your mansions shall sweat for’t, your tabernacles, varlets, your Globes. . . .”

Our error of imagination in this matter is both radical and formidable. It has thrown the orientation of Shakespeare’s stage a full ninety degrees out of true. With eyes and minds controlled by our picture stage, we have struggled to visualize Shakespeare’s productions set in the same way, front-toback, against and even through a unified background; forgetting that in a circus theater such as the Globe, with the stage surrounded by spectators, such an orientation and such an attempted sightline are not only irrelevant but impossible. In reality, productions at the public theaters were inevitably set out on the platform, oriented generally right and left in its long dimension, just, as they were at Court and at the universities. The great forty-three-foot length of the stage is meaningless oil any interpretation other than that it was used for the dispersed setting of curtained, open-work “mansions” in the customary way.

Its area — 1182 square feet — was large to permit the dispersed units to be cunningly placed so as to present the minimum of obstruction to a view of all the action. How successfully this was done is attested by foreign visitors, who reported that “everyone can well see it all,” that “from all parts the spectators most conveniently could see everything.” With an audience all around, there would necessarily be some spectators who, though hearing everything, missed an occasional sight here and there. This had always been so, and was expected. But it remains incontestable that with this circus method Shakespeare was able to bring his scenes closer to a larger audience, and to give that audience far more than it could ever have got from remote alcoves set behind the stage. Consider Romeo and Juliet. All the scenes, including those “within” and “aloft,” take place on the central platform. Everything is set out in view ready for use: the Capulets’ open, pillared hall; their house adjoining with a framework room and window somewhat raised, for Juliet’s bedroom “above,” looking out over the orchard and wall; Friar Laurence’s modest cell and the gloomy canopied Capulet monument, both with their curtains to be drawn back when their time comes; and at the “Mantua” end of the stage, the little apothecary’s shop.

Aloft and above in these small-scale “mansions” need of course be only a few feet. This is clear both from the speeches and from the stage directions in Antony and Cleopatra. Here the boys acting Cleopatra and her maids, aloft in the locked monument, help to “draw up” the dying Antony while the guards heave him front below. Feasible enough, if the aloft is no more than some six feet up, and the boys can lean out to draw him in. But if the operation had involved the problem of hoisting an inert body up to a “balcony stage” twelve feet above the floor, it is safe to say Shakespeare would never have written the scene.

What could be stranger than the modern notion of the Elizabethan stage as a bare and povertystricken affair, “with no scenery”? A wealth of contemporary comment shows us that the decoration of the public stage, so far from being merely passable, was strikingly splendid: “The sumptuous theater houses”—“the beauty of the houses and the stages” — “our scene is more stately furnished than ever it was in the time of Roscius” — “our stately stage” — “plays . . . set forth with as much state as can be imagined” — “the stately and our more than Roman city stages.” English travelers on the Continent drew damaging parallels. In 1600 Dudley Carleton wrote home that a play he saw at Amsterdam “might not be compared to your plays at London for stately setting fort h in stage and apparel”; and a Venetian theater seemed to Tom Coryate “very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately playhouses in England.” The Scottish chronicler Robert Johnston summed it up: “For variety and magnificence of plays, England in our age surpassed all nations.”

The modern world has been curiously deluded about the staging of the finest body of dramatic literature produced since the age of Pericles. So far from restoring to this drama its ample open stage upon which the designer is free to mount that stately “variety and magnificence” for which it was unequaled, we have not only robbed it of its decoration but labored vainly to put some of its finest scenes into the strait-jacket of an imaginary, awkward, and remote double-storied alcove.

But our new Elizabethan era is ripe for regaining Shakespeare’s true arena-stage. Dramatic art of late has been moving irresistibly in this very direction: away from the habit of breaking up a play into several chunks and setting them as peep-shows discovered within a pretended wall, and towards bringing it as a flowing stream of heightened life into the very heart of the audience. For the men of the theater, the exploration of Shakespeare’s stage will prove “a South Sea of discovery” in the roundness of a world which we have treated as flat. The designer is challenged with a new dimension. In place of “flats,” he can now raise transpicuous buildings both suggestive and symbolic. As for the actor, Shakespeare’s stage frees him from the stall which for three centuries has confined him to a one-sided performance. To take his true place at the center of all eyes will give him what he needs — the intimate post of command, where he can draw the encircling audience with him into the focus of dramatic experience. And the plays, once restored in their habit as they lived, will give up secrets we have never even suspected.