For the extraordinary quarter-century of Shakespeare’s career (approximately 1590-1616), Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre exploded in popularity with audiences. However, the city authorities tended to be dominated by Puritans who hated this profane and decidedly subversive new form of entertainment. The player’s companies were duly banished to areas outside the city’s jurisdiction, the so-called ‘liberties’, where the usual rules didn’t apply
South of the Thames at Bankside, where big new theatres like the Rose, the Swan and the Globe sprang up, an afternoon – plays were staged in daylight – and evening’s entertainment would have resembled an amped-up mixture of modern-day Soho, Amsterdam and Las Vegas, with a side order of Caligula’s Rome for good measure.
One thing the Puritans objected to was the prostitutes who had a habit of plying their trade in the vicinity of theatres. Ironically, the biggest landowner thereabouts was the Bishop of Winchester, so ladies of the night were known as “the Bishop of Winchester’s geese”.
Puritans were also disturbed by the idea of common play-actors imitating their social superiors. This could lead to all kinds of inappropriate activity, ranging from satire to outright sedition. Equally unsettling was the fact that female roles were played on stage by boys and young men – a clear inversion of the natural order and a likely corruptor of morals all round.
Fuelled by cheap ale and wine, the mainly male audiences would have thrilled to the spectacle of stage combat (including sword-fights and full-scale battles) bust a gut laughing at the vulgar physical comedy and smutty wordplay, and possibly shed a tear or two to some of the most beautiful poetry ever heard on the English stage.
The theatres were also situated near the infamous Bear Garden, where chained animals were set upon by dogs. Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, from The Winter’s Tale is, of course, “Exit, pursued by a bear”, when unlucky Antigonus has a close encounter with a large and hungry mammal. There’s even speculation that a real bear may have been used on stage.