On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,
Ten lords a-leaping,
The early theatres were an egalitarian place – where both commoners and nobility could attend and see the latest shows. “Groundling” seats cost only a penny – about the same as a loaf of bread.* As you got more fancy, the price went up (for cover, cushions etc), until you got to the “Lords’ Rooms” directly over the stage – not the best view of the action, but quite unparalleled for showing off…
Those who were very wealthy could summon troupes of players to put on plays at their homes – we know that Richard II was performed on 9 December 1595 at Sir Edward Hoby’s house in Canon Row**. The same was true of the monarchs of the day – both Elizabeth I and James I and VI summoned Shakespeare’s troupe to perform for them.
But this wasn’t their only form of entertainment – Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and their courts, acted in masques. These were increasingly elaborate affairs with music, dancing and acting, and requiring complicated stagings, elaborate costumes and stories written by major playwrights of the day – Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson worked in collaboration for many years.
But masques weren’t just for palaces – they also formed part of the theatrical scene. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and Anne Bullen dance together at a masque. Ferdinand and Miranda are entertained by a masque in The Tempest. And Romeo and Juliet meet at a masque. Those lords-a-leaping showed everyone how to have a good time!
* The Globe does its best but even £5 – by far the cheapest London theatre ticket price – would get you pretty fancy loaf of bread these days…
** Once a very grand address in Westminster, now, alas, home to the vehicular entrance to Portcullis House and some bins.