Shakespeare: Background

The Elizabethan Actor's Life

During Elizabethan times, many actors and writers held traditional jobs because they couldn't make a living from their theatrical crafts. Only those lucky enough to find patronage from a wealthy benefactor would be able to make their living solely from the theatre. In London, actors at one time were considered 'vagabonds' and could only work inside the City walls if employed by a licensed company supported by a patron. Actors would often apprentice during their boyhood years to learn all of the skills they would need to become a professional actor, including dance, music and sword fighting. And yes, boys and men played all the parts!

For those lucky enough to be part of a company, Elizabethan theatres put the actors through their paces--an actor performing a different play each day, six days a week. There was no 'director' at this time, and there were no 'rehearsals' as we know of them today. The actor received a scroll containing only his part and some of the cue words spoken by the character before him. This was because of the time it took for a scribe to write both the play and each character's scroll with quill, ink and parchment. There was usually only one version of the entire play, known as the prompter's script. An actor could look at that prompter's script, but really had to rely on his lines, his listening skills, his wits, and his talents in order to develop a character.

Censorship was an issue of the day and all plays had to be reviewed before being given permission to be performed. Writers and artists used all sorts of means to get around the censors as theatre was a popular form of entertainment and theatres sold out daily.

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