Scholar, author, playwright and storyteller Dr. Elliot Engel metaphorically transported All Saints Episcopal School middle and upper school students backward in time to show them what it was like to sit in the audience for a performance of a Shakespeare play.
Going to a Shakespeare play in 1600 was very different from going to a Shakespeare festival in 2015, Engel said in witty, entertaining and educational talks to All Saints students last week.
"It was an exciting time for literature," as previously there were only church plays when suddenly plays appeared as a secular form of entertainment, said Engel, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Raleigh who has taught at several universities and been inducted into the Royal Society of Arts in England.
Shakespeare was the greatest writer of all time in any language, not just the greatest writer in the English language, Engel said. Next year will mark the 400th year since the playwright's death and 1600 was the middle of his career.
When you walked into the back door of his playhouse in 1600 - the door was in the back and the stage upfront, Engel said, "You would not have taken two steps before an usher came up and demanded you pay four pennies for a three- and-a-half hour production."
The spectator had to drop the pennies into a small metal box rather than hand it to the usher because Shakespeare feared the usher would run away with it, Engel said. The small box quickly became full because a penny in those days was the size of a silver dollar today.
A large box was not used because the playhouse was the worst slum in England where prostitutes, robbers and murderers hung. "If they had seen a large box of pennies, they would have stolen the whole thing, but since it was a tiny box, they didn't steal it," Engel said.
Use of the small box meant, however, that the ushers frequently had to run back stage, unlock the door to a small office, throw in the full box, grab an empty box and rush back out, Engel said.
"They called that little office backstage where they locked up the money boxes the box office and that is why you can't go to a play, a concert, a movie or any form of public entertainment today without first going through something called the box office," Engel said. "We keep the name box office to honor William Shakespeare."
After the four pennies were paid, "you would not sit down because as you came down the aisle, you would have noticed up against each wall enormous refreshment stands.
"For the first time in history, they moved the food from outside the playhouse to inside the playhouse in Shakespeare's day because Shakespeare figured out that if you sell food to people once they are inside, you can charge any ridiculous amount of money you want and they will pay for it because if they have to go outside where it's cheaper, they will have to buy another ticket," Engel said.
"That is why 400 years later, you pay $7.25 for a box of buttered popcorn that cost the owner of the movie house 11 cents to buy the corn, pop the corn and hire the guy who serves it to you," he said. "It is the highest markup in American retail today and it was Shakespeare who taught us to gouge the people on the refreshments (because) he wasn't making a profit on the tickets."
Three food items were for sale in Shakespeare's day: an orange for dessert, meat pie for a main meal and a tomato.
Spectators in Shakespeare never ate the tomato; it was believed in those days to be a deadly fruit, Engel said. What they did with it was wait until the actor they considered to be the worst performer to move to the front of the stage and hurdle the tomato at him, Engel said.
"If there were too many tomatoes coming in, they stopped the play and the ushers had to refund all four pennies. They believed back then if it wasn't good entertainment, you shouldn't have to pay for it," Engel said.
"Had Shakespeare not been a great writer, he would have starved. He wouldn't have been paid. As far as we know, not one tomato was ever tossed at one of the plays Shakespeare wrote because he had the uncanny ability of keeping the audience fascinated from the time they sat down until the last line of the play. In every play he ever wrote, the opening scene promises either supernatural creatures or violence or teenage sex."