How do you imagine London theatres in the sixteenth century? Do you think they were temples where the words by Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson were celebrated in respectful silence? Are you convinced that an attentive stillness surrounded the actors who were playing?
Well, if that’s what you think, I am afraid you are far from the truth.
Elizabethan playhouses were terribly noisy places! They had sprang up like mushrooms on the south bank of the river Thames, outside the walls of London (because London was a walled city in those days). Their competitors were brothels and animal fighting arenas. Can you imagine the din! The shouting of the bookmakers, the dog- barking, the bear-growling, the sound of cock-fighting, the cries of vendors. Let alone the chitchatting and buzzing of the mob that flowed into the ‘fair’, which could be reached by boat or by crossing the only bridge at the time, a bridge ‘adorned’ with the impaled heads of the lawbreakers… and yes, it was easy to break the law at the time, since so many things were forbidden… The ‘decoration’ was a clear warning to the merry amusement-goers: hey, you… careful not to end up like those pretty little heads!
All these sounds invaded the theatre: because the pit of the playhouse was not covered by a roof, like the thatched galleries. Light had to come in on the stage from above (performances were held in the early afternoon) and along with the light noise came in too. But the actors knew how to catch their audience’s attention and the playwrights gave them words to do so: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, cried Marc Antony with loud voice from the pulpit when trying to begin his funeral oration for Caesar, whose lifeless, marred body lies below. At that moment it is not only the ‘Roman people’ on stage who fall silent. Because in the theatre the noise stopped and words, even whispers, could finally be clearly heard.
And what about music? There was so much music in the Elizabethan playhouse! Just think of all the songs we can find in Shakespeare’s plays. We do not know for certain which were the scores to be associated to the songs, therefore scholars debate and speculate. The truth is, however, that we will never know for certain what notes were the ‘original’ ones. But unheard melodies are sweeter, as the poet tells us.
I love to think that Shakespeare left it to the actors to add the melody they preferred to his words; perhaps they sang them to the tune of the latest hits. For sure such a choice would have caught the ear of an unruly audience much better!
Distracted by vendors of beer, apples, nuts; worried about not being robbed by the purse-snatchers who took advantage of the crowd, teased by the winks of those who invited them outside to consummate a quick love meeting, the spectators partly watched what was happening on stage and partly what was happening around them. There they are, at the performance of Twelfth Night, when Feste, the fool, begins to sing: “O Mistress Mine where are you roaming”. What a bitter-sweet song! It tells of how time flees and how delightful young love can be and how important it is to enjoy the moment before it passes by. They recognise the familiar melody and fall silent; perhaps they forget to drink the last drop of beer in the mug, perhaps the nut munching stops; perhaps they are really moved.
And for a moment all is silent and a song fills the playhouse.