Before Shakespeare's time and during his boyhood, troupes of actors performed wherever they could—in halls, courts, courtyards, and any other available open spaces In 1574, however, when Shakespeare was ten years old, the Common Council passed a law requiring plays and theaters in London to be licensed. In 1576, actor and future Lord Chamberlain's Man, James Burbage, built the first permanent theater called simply The Theatre outside London’s city walls. Thereafter, many more theaters sprung up around the city, including the Globe Theatre in which most of Shakespeare's plays were premiered. (The image shows an illustration of the Curtain Theater, which was built some 200 yards away from The Theater and also housed many Shakespearean plays.)
Elizabethan theaters were generally built after the design of the original Theatre. Built of wood, these theaters comprised three tiers of seats in a circular shape, with a stage area on one side of the circle. The audience's seats and part of the stage were roofed, but much of the main stage and the area in front of the stage was open to the elements. About 1,500 audience members could pay an extra fee to sit in the covered seating areas, while about 800 "groundlings" paid less to stand in the open area before the stage. The stage itself was divided into three levels: a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area in the back for "discovery scenes"; an upper, canopied area called "heaven" for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called "hell," accessed by a trap door in the stage. There were dressing rooms located behind the stage, but no curtain in the front of the stage, which meant that scenes had to flow into each other and "dead bodies" had to be dragged off.
Performances took place during the day, using natural light from the open center of the theater. Since there could be no dramatic lighting and there was very little scenery or props, audiences relied on the actors' lines and stage directions to supply the time of day and year, as well as the weather, location, and mood. Shakespeare's plays convey such information masterfully. In Hamlet, for example, the audience learns within the first ten lines of dialogue where the scene takes place ("Have you had quiet guard?"), what time of day it is ("'Tis now struck twelve"), what the weather is like ("'Tis bitter cold"), and what mood the characters are in ("and I am sick at heart").
One important difference between plays written in Shakespeare's time and those written today is that Elizabethan plays were published after their performances and sometimes even after their authors' deaths. The scripts were in many ways a record of what happened on stage during performances, rather than directions for what should happen. Actors were allowed to suggest changes to scenes and dialogue and had much more freedom with their parts than contemporary actors. A scene illustrative of such freedom occurs in Hamlet: a crucial passage revolves around Hamlet writing his own scene to be added to a play in order to ensnare his murderous uncle.
Shakespeare's plays were published in various forms and with a wide range of accuracy during his time. The discrepancies between versions of his plays from one publication to the next make it difficult for editors to put together authoritative editions of his works. Plays could be published in large anthologies in folio format (the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays contains 36 plays) or smaller quartos. Folios were so named because of the way their paper was folded in half to make a large volume. Quartos were smaller, cheaper books containing only one play. Their paper was folded twice, making four pages. In general, the First Folio is considered to be more reliable than the quartos.
Although Shakespeare's language and classical references seem archaic to many readers today, they were accessible to his contemporary audiences. His viewers came from all classes and his plays appealed to all kinds of sensibilities, from "highbrow" accounts of kings and queens to the "lowbrow" blunderings of clowns and servants. Even utterly tragic plays like King Lear or Macbeth contain a clown or fool to provide comic relief and to comment on the events of the play. Audiences would also have been familiar with his numerous references to classical mythology and literature, since these stories were staples of the Elizabethan knowledge base. And yet, despite such a universal appeal, Shakespeare’s plays also expanded on the audience’s vocabulary. Many phrases and words that we use today—such as "amazement," "in my mind's eye," and "the milk of human kindness," to name only a few—were coined by Shakespeare. His plays contain indeed a greater variety and number of words than almost any other work in the English language.