The acting ‘profession’ is one of the oldest. We refer to it as a profession these days but paid actors are men and women who practice a trade and they’ve always worked alongside other tradespeople. Those working in theatre, television and film in our era have a high status but in Shakespeare’s time, even the writers were tradesmen – ‘playwrights’, makers of plays in the same sense as ‘wheelwrights,’ makers of wheels, were.
The life of an actor hasn’t changed much. Some of our actors are very famous, normally because they attract attention as a result of the films they act in, and if they become popular the viewing public shows an interest in them as people. And so, actors like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep are constantly in the news, with images of them displayed in magazines and newspapers. Those actors become very rich. The rest of the vast army of actors vary from very poor to comfortably off, and many actors spend most of their time looking for employment and have to take on temporary work as waiters, bar staff, and so on, while looking for acting work.
Elizabethan actors were not very different. Some of them became famous and rich. Their wealth didn’t come from payment for performances, though, but from buying shares in the theatre they worked in. The two most famous of Shakespeare’s time were Richard Burbage, the leading actor at the Globe, and Edward Alleyn of the Admiral’s Men. They lived in luxury and were recognised wherever they went, just like Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep, and other movie stars. There were other famous Elizabethan actors but most actors were not much better off than beggars.
Actors had a very low social status and they could be arrested and imprisoned for nothing more than the accusation of having done something. Most of them were afraid of venturing out into the streets because they were so vulnerable while, although badly paid, the company that employed them looked after them, fed them and accommodated them. The work was hard, though. During Shakespeare’s time watching plays was the main entertainment in London. There were twenty-two theatres for a population of about twenty thousand, and the theatres were full every day. The theatres were in murderous competition with each other and the audiences expected new plays every day. The actors had to familiarise themselves with new parts, each one playing up to four or five roles in a single play. The plays were performed in the afternoons and very often there was only the morning to prepare for the performance. The actors had to learn their lines quickly and when there was no time to prepare they had to follow the directions of the prompt who read all the lines, with the actors repeating them. Modern audiences wouldn’t tolerate that but such performances were common in Shakespeare’s time.
It’s very strange to think that actors were very popular on the stage but virtually spat on outside the theatre. Popular as it was, acting wasn’t regarded as a respectable trade. It was regarded as a trade carried out by rogues, vagabonds and beggars. The young William Shakespeare, son of one of the civic fathers of Stratford, left his home, went to London and joined that band. As we know, he rose above everyone else by recognizing very quickly that new plays were in constant demand. He set about writing them at great speed and kept them coming. He went into partnership with others and became part owner of theatres. When he died he was a rich and famous man, but his wealth and fame did not come from whatever skills and talent he may have had as an actor. However, acting was a good way into the career that made him immortal.