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Classic English Literature

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The theatres of Sophocles and Shakespeare: A comparison
Theatre has always been society’s mirror, a way of revealing the true nature of society. Fifth century BC Athens citizens are a true testament to this fact. This is the time when many of the Greek tragedies that are so famous today originated; a time when plays were regarded selfishly, almost as if they were religious occasions. The plays were presented either at the winepress feast, Lenaea in January, or the Great Dionysia spring feast of the God of wine and crops Dionysius. The Athenians loved the contests so much that every playwright was required to present three tragedies on successive days in competition with each other. Each succession of tragedies was to be followed by a special comedy, mostly a mythic story with actors playing satyrs or strange creatures.
The arenas had up to fourteen thousand spectators watching the performances, which must have looked like the opera or modern day musical. The audience was arranged in rows, looking out across an orchestra where the chorus of the fifteen danced and sand lyrical passages of poetry and gave various dance moves. It is thought that the modern custom of dividing plays into several acts originated from these song and dance routines. The chorus had a part to play in the performance, often voicing the concerns of the audience and serving as an intermediary.
The actors stood behind the orchestra, in front of a stage house. Early fifth century BC Aeschylus plays would have no more than 2 actors on stage at any time.

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The actors wore masks, some with exaggerated mouthpieces from which sound would come. The mouthpieces were perhaps designed to project the sound across the large open air forum.
A comparison of today’s theatres and those of the Queen Elizabeth I’s time does not exactly go the same direction. During Shakespearean times, the plays had to be performed by daylight, and the scenery had to be kept simple. Much of what today’s theatres can offer, with their impressive scenery and lighting, playwrights of the time could only achieve by sparking imaginations using vivid language. However, this does not mean the theatre of Shakespeare was bare. The playwright still had some resources they could call upon. Their costumes were elaborate, many of them conveying recognized meanings. For instance, in one theatre manager’s inventory, there was talk of a Robe to go invisible in. The stage was very versatile. There were doors for entry and exits, as well as booths useful for hiding. Most of them had higher acting areas, think the Romeo and Juliet balcony type structure, with Juliet standing up on the raised area and Romeo raising his eye up to her. The buildings were round and octagonal, with members of the audience sitting at the gallery or standing in the yard in front.
Plays in the Elizabethan period had to please everyone in the audience, and not just the well-mannered and educated. This explains the use of various elements in Elizabethan plays, subtle poetry, philosophy, scenes of violence. Shakespeare’s company had, for instance, built a theatre outside the city because of a ban on public plays for their propensity to corrupt. Shakespeare was both an actor and playwright, a position which allowed him the ability to balance between what to give his audience, and the resources of his company.

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