Find out how Shakespeare’s plays were performed back when he was alive.

Acting companies

The origins of Elizabethan theatre are in the medieval mystery plays – versions of Bible stories. Troupes of players travelled on carts from town to town. When they arrived they would turn the carts into a stage and perform, or take over a local inn. Actors would buy into a company and invest in it (costumes, for example, were expensive), and they would share the decisions and the profits. In the mid-1500s though, the laws against travelling, and the suspicion of strangers who might be carrying plague, made this a difficult way to run an acting company.

In 1576 the first theatre was built. Between four and six troupes of actors made their permanent home in London and competed for audiences. Actors would be signed up to a company, and would always perform with that company, unlike today. A company consisted of about 12 people – actors, workers and apprentices. The actors played the major roles, invested in the theatre and clothes and split the profits. Workers were paid to do odd jobs, and apprentices trained as actors, while playing the children’s and female roles.

We actually see a travelling acting troupe in one of Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet. A group of ‘players’ appear at court and put on a play. Hamlet gets them to insert a new scene into it – one that mimics the way his uncle killed Hamlet’s father, so that the murder is revealed.

Did you know?

  • Because acting companies were used to performing in local inns on their travels, the first theatres were made from converted inns.
  • The original acting companies travelled around performing theatre versions of Bible stories. These gradually transformed into stories which instructed the audience with a moral, which eventually turned into the idea of a play which simply tells a story as we know today.
  • Acting companies had to do everything themselves – from making the costumes to setting the stage. Today theatres have stage managers and a whole host of other people working hard back stage.