William Shakespeare was nine years old when the first theatre in England was opened. The idea of a dedicated building for the performance of plays was conceived as late as 1576, when James Burbage, the father of Shakespeare’s future acting colleague, Richard Burbage, built a theatre in Shoreditch, London, which he called ‘The Theatre.’
These days theatres are very common, and there is hardly a town in the world that doesn’t have at least one theatre. Even countries ruled by the most repressive regimes have theatres in their towns. They range from tiny, converted back rooms in pubs, through open air venues, to huge arenas where great extravaganzas can be staged. We have all attended at least one, whether it’s in our local neighbourhood, run by an amateur drama club or one of our town’s established theatres. Perhaps we’ve even enjoyed something like a gig at Wembley Arena.
When Shakespeare was a child he would have attended performances by the traveling players who wandered around, attracting audiences, performing in castles, the houses of wealthy patrons, on wagons, in market places and in other available open spaces. The most common venue was the courtyard of an inn, where the whole population of the village or town, regardless of class, could enjoy the performance.
To say that the troupes of players just wandered about performing is not strictly true, however, because they were subject to strict censorship. Actors tended to be free and easy people, often political dissidents with strong views on the way they were being governed, just as actors are today. And playwrights, too, have always used their skills and the opportunity of an audience to publicise their social views through satire. Theatrical groups therefore had to be licensed, and they would lose their licence at best, or players might land up in gaol, or, at worst, lose their heads if they stepped out of line. Wealthy or well connected patrons had to take responsibility for the political good behaviour of the players.
Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a leading civic figure in Stratford – an alderman and at one stage the elected mayor – and performances by visiting acting groups would have been one of his responsibilities. That duty by his father was probably the key to young William’s connection with the theatre and acting – the boy will have attended several performances, and he was in a position to meet and talk to the actors. We know that Shakespeare went off to London to be an actor as soon as he had the opportunity as a young adult. Perhaps he had harboured that ambition throughout his childhood.
It is known that one of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Will Kempe, had been a member of an acting group and we know that he had performed in Stratford. It’s likely that Shakespeare knew him and thought of him as a contact when he decided to go off to London. In 1587, two years after the birth of his twins, Judith and Hamnet, he set off and we know what happened after that. It’s likely that he met up with Will Kempe because during the following years they became close colleagues and, indeed, it’s almost certain that Shakespeare created his major comic roles with Will Kempe in mind.
Although we know nothing directly about Shakespeare as a child growing up in Stratford, the circumstantial evidence for his contact with the theatre and the opportunity he had, through his father, and his better than casual experience of the actors and performances is compelling.