The Globe Theatre
and the Case for Translation
Follow him, friends. We’ll hear a play tomorrow.
(Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)
You complain about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s plays and some knowing type says, “You can’t appreciate Shakespeare’s work by reading it on the page. Shakespeare wrote for the stage, and you must see his works performed to appreciate them fully. The actors, through their facial expressions, costuming, and gestures, will provide the necessary context to make the plays meaningful.”
Armed with such reassurance and confident that the actors at your local Shakespeare company will give you all the help you need, you head off to a production of Henry V. After a prologue in which a charming fellow tells you “Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play,” two men enter to catch us up on what’s troubling King Henry’s realm.
Man Dressed Like a Monk
My lord, I’ll tell you, that self bill is urged
Which in th’ eleventh year of the last king’s reign
Was like, and had indeed against us passed,
But that the scambling and unquiet time
Did push it out of farther question.
Another Man Dressed Like a Monk
But how, my lord, shall we resist it now?
Fifteen seconds into the play, panic sets in. But you remember some more advice. “It’s not important that you understand every word. Relax and just try to catch the gist.” All right, let’s try that. But first you desperately scan the program to find out who these two characters are. They called each other “my lord,” but they are dressed like monks. Ah, they are bishops. Now you can relax a little. But while doing this research, the bishops have pushed ahead. You pick up this bit of exposition from one of them:
...And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences;
So that the art and practic part of life
Must be the mistress to this theoric
Which is a wonder how his Grace should glean it,
Since his addiction was to courses vain….
Now even the gist is slipping away. And the actor, though he seems quite concerned about something, is not particularly expressive and does not gesture much, perhaps because his costume is so baggy. Wait, just relax.
…Upon our spiritual convocation
And in regard of causes now in hand
Which I have opened to his Grace at large
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.
Check your watch. If they keep talking this fast, the play can’t last more than three hours.
The problem is you are armed with wishful thinking, not helpful advice. No amount of expressive acting on the actors’ part or relaxation on your part can substitute for actually understanding what the characters say. Try this test. Watch a TV sitcom with the sound turned down. Choose a sitcom because, like Shakespeare, sitcoms use dialog, rather than physical action, to carry the story along. With the sound down, you probably know who is happy, sad, angry, and so forth, but you won’t get any of the jokes or learn much about the characters’ thinking or motives. Then turn up the sound and listen to the show from another room. Of course, you’ll miss out on the funny faces they make and any slapstick, but you will understand the basic plot and conflicts and catch many of the jokes.
Is attending a Shakespeare play too much like watching a sitcom with the sound turned down? If so, then we English speakers cannot appreciate what drove people to the theater in Shakespeare’s day and why people around the world who speak little or no English continue to marvel at his accomplishments. Shakespeare is not world famous because his plays were written in 400-year-old English. He is famous because his plays work brilliantly on the stage and are packed full of a rich variety of characters who say interesting things in vivid, metrically interesting language. And that language has been magnificently recreated in comprehensible translations in many of the world’s languages. Certainly contemporary English can join the list of languages where Shakespeare is fully understood by the casual reader or theater patron.
Enter the Globe
The design of outdoor theaters in Shakespeare’s day argues for comprehensible texts. The most famous of these theaters, the Globe, was the primary venue for Shakespeare’s plays from its opening in 1599 until it burned down in 1613. All told, Shakespeare wrote fifteen plays for that stage, with revivals of at least six earlier plays. Other venues staged his plays as well, including courts and indoor theaters. But the Globe and similar theaters—the Swan, the Rose, and the Fortune—were home to many great successes of the Elizabethan stage.
Since no theaters from Shakespeare’s time have survived, our knowledge of the Globe is limited to archaeological evidence, sketches, and eyewitness descriptions. By using this evidence along with imaginative back-engineering, architects, scholars, and theater experts have rebuilt the Globe Theater in London along the south bank of the Thames River not far from the site of the original Globe. This theater, a long-time dream of actor/director Sam Wanamaker (1919-1993) and architect Theo Crosby (1925-1994), officially opened in 1997 and is a working theater offering live productions and guided tours.
The structure of this close facsimile of the Globe sheds new light on how Shakespeare’s plays must have played to the audience. The Globe is a nearly round building with three tiers of seating in the shape of a round horseshoe (see Figure 1). The ends of the horseshoe connect to a three-story building called the Tiring House (from “attire”), which includes the backstage area and the dressing rooms.
The stage is large, about 1100 square feet, and is almost twice as wide as it is deep. The backdrop for the stage is the Tiring House itself (see Figure 2). The bottom story has three doors, the middle one curtained, allowing entrance to the stage from the backstage area. The second story is a balcony where actors or musicians can perform. It also has space for seating. Above this second level, a roof extends over the stage supported by two pillars that are about halfway across the stage in front of the side doors. Called the “heavens,” this roof is painted with the sun, the moon, and stars. Above the stage roof toward the back is an A-frame structure that resembles a small house. This structure can be used to produce sound effects such as thunder, trumpet blasts, and cannon fire. The stage floor has trapdoors used for special effects.
The main seating area is typical of Elizabethan outdoor theaters and is based on the Roman amphitheater with its stacked galleries. The three galleries, one directly on top of the other, stretch uniformly around the horseshoe with seating for about 900 people on benches. Every 12 feet or so, an 8-10 inch support post blocks the view of the seats behind it. A thatched roof protects the galleries, but the area between the galleries and the stage is open to the air. The open area in the roof provides the only source of light.
With the galleries forming a fairly large circle and the stage elevated 5 feet, there is an open area around the stage with room for hundreds of people to stand without blocking the view of those seated in the lower gallery. In Shakespeare’s day, this standing-room-only crowd—the “groundlings”—could attend the play for the price of a penny.
The pillars on the stage supporting the “heavens” are both a resource and a problem. They can serve as props, standing in for a forest or a hiding place, but they also block the view of part of the stage from all seating and standing locations. And because the Tiring House juts out into the arena, some seats offer a view of as little as 25% of the stage. In other words, no seat in the Globe offers a complete view of the stage, and many offer a highly restricted view.
The first assumption may be that the designers of the globe were incompetent until we see what happens when a play is performed. The Globe is not designed for watching a play up close. The stage itself is too large for that. It is designed for listening to a play, and performances today reveal that voices on that stage carry well. It turns out that the Elizabethan theater designers must have thought a lot about acoustics and incorporated that knowledge into their designs. It is notable that while no seat is particularly close to the stage, the farthest seat is no more than 65 feet or so from the center of the stage, well within easy shouting distance. Shakespeare’s own words remind us that plays were to be heard. The Prologue of Romeo and Juliet promises the playgoer that
...if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Scholars disagree as to what the actors are promising—whether to fix the dialog in future performances or to fill in with strong performances what the words don’t capture—but the lines clearly encourage close listening. We already saw that the prologue to Henry V humbly requests the audience to “hear” the play.
This is not to say that there was nothing to see, for everything about the Globe suggests color, extravaganza, epic, and shared audience experience. The actors wore elaborate costumes, and the theater was decorated with brightly colored, even tacky, carvings and trim. The stage was big enough to stage sword fights and dances. And as with arena seating today, the customers, sitting in what Shakespeare called “this wooden O,” were very aware of the other members of the audience, whose faces and attire were in plain view and part of the spectacle. No doubt those seated in the Lords’ rooms and Gentleman’s boxes, located behind the stage, were more interested in being seen than seeing.
This is also not to say that Elizabethan audiences were perfectly attentive. In fact, the natural restlessness of the audience may account for why Shakespeare’s language is so lexically rich and so rhythmically and syntactically intoxicating. The sound of the language itself commands our attention. Plus the theater’s layout may help enforce silence since those prone to talking and heckling can see disapproving faces. Bored spectators can keep entertained by studying the crowd.
The Globe’s design allows for the visual but ultimately argues against the notion that “seeing” a play is what Shakespeare is all about. Elizabethan drama had little scenery and limited props with no formal announcement of scene locations. Understanding Shakespeare did not require a perfect view of the stage or close-ups of actors’ faces. It required listening for hints in the dialog that suggest setting and identify characters. It required actors with loud, clear voices and a quiet theater. Today, even with a quiet house and highly trained, full-throated actors, attentive listening is not enough. Nuanced understanding is a struggle not because the actors speak too fast or because English teachers are not doing their job but because the archaic language has too many unfamiliar elements.
Let’s go back to Henry V. The longwinded Archbishop of Canterbury, now deep into a 63-line discourse, says,
…So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun...
Somebody two rows away laughs. The Archbishop continues,
...King Pepin’s title and Hugh Capet’s claim,
King Lewis his satisfaction, all appear
To hold in right and title of the female;
So do the kings of France unto this day,
Howbeit, they would hold up this Salique Law
To bar your Highness claiming from the female,
And rather choose to hide them in the net
Than amply to imbar their crooked titles
Usurped from you and your progenitors.
Did he say Sally Claw? Your mind has wandered a bit, but you still have hopes of grabbing some of the gist. It seems that some French kings helped a female who goes by the name of Sally Claw to usurp King Henry’s title. Well, you’re wrong. Sally hasn’t usurped anything. In fact, there is no Sally. The true usurper here—O you with patient ears—is time and language change. Those two have usurped our title to full comprehension of Shakespeare’s words and turned enjoyment into frustration. Careful translation can return this title to the rightful owners—those who speak the English we use today.