The Chamberlain's Men performed for the queen in the royal court, but they also performed for the middle-class public. In 1599 the company finished construction on the Globe Theatre, a wooden, open-air playhouse designed with the stage in the center and the audience arranged in tiers that rose up from the polygon-shaped floor. Many of Shakespeare's best-known plays premiered here, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night.
Attendance at a Globe production was hardly the dignified, hushed event that we consider attending the theater to be today. Since this was long before electricity was invented, all performances were held during the day. There were no lights, curtains, microphones, or actresses—young men played female roles. You could shell out half-a-crown (about $50 today) for a box seat, or pay a penny ($1.66) to stand on the floor with the other common folks. Actors—or "players," as they were known at that time—were generally considered by the Elizabethans to be a scruffy, itinerant bunch, though the profession gained more respect during Shakespeare's time. Their acting was not necessarily what we would consider "good." To make themselves understood in the noisy, open-air theater, actors relied on exaggerated gestures and cadence to get their points across. Acting meant overacting.
Despite the stuffy conditions in the theater or the hamminess of the guys on stage, Shakespeare's language made the plays unforgettable. In an introductory note to the First Folio, Shakespeare's actor colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell wrote that Shakespeare's plays appealed to all, "From the most able, to him that can but spell."6 Perhaps only an educated person would have caught the most obscure references to Greek and Roman mythologies, but everyone could understand the human emotions reflected in Shakespeare's characters, with their all-too-human foibles, heartaches, schemes, and joys. When a grieving King John said, "Grief fills the room up of my absent child, / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. / Then have I reason to be fond of grief,"7 the audience felt the pain of losing a child. When an impish Puck said, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"8 the audience laughed in agreement. The plays were often bawdy, with dirty jokes written in language that passes over our heads today but was downright crass to Elizabethan ears. Shakespeare was a master of language, and his influence on English remains strong today. He invented words to suit his purposes, many of which—useful, lonely, bump—remain staples of our speech today. He coined phrases since used so often that they have become clichés—"too much of a good thing,"9 "what's done is done,"10 "all's well that ends well,"11 "what's past is prologue."12 Most of us now use about 2,000 words in our vocabularies; Shakespeare used more than 25,000.13
With modern playwrights, we can easily draw connections between events in the writer's biography and the subjects of their plays. With Shakespeare, this isn't the case. It's impossible to know which—if any—events in his personal life inspired his plays. As critics have pointed out, the author of Romeo and Juliet clearly understood the breathtaking passion of young love.14 But did the author of Macbeth have experience with regicide? Was the writer of As You Like It into cross-dressing ladies? Probably not. Shakespeare's inspiration was, as far as we know, not his personal experience. It was the human experience, and of this he was an unparalleled observer.