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All the world’s a billboard

Today, it’s hard not to know what’s going on in the world of movies, theatre and entertainment. Every day we are surrounded and bombarded with adverts for new films and plays: on buses, newspapers, clothes and buildings. But in a past age of great entertainment, how did they draw the crowds? The Elizabethan heyday saw play writing reach its height in early-modern England. The likes of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe dominated the entertainment scene, but with no billboards or other forms of modern advertising, they attracted their viewers through different means.

During this era of writing, the main difficulty associated with publicising your play wasn’t only lack of advertising means but several other reasons as well. Competition between playhouses meant that rivals would note down the content of the play before it had been put down and try to put something similar on. Censorship laws necessitated that a play with a plot containing controversial material could be cancelled. Outbreaks of the plague also caused cancellations and this could happen with very short notice. Therefore a system was introduced whereby flags would be used to publicize the next performance on the day.

However, this was not simply a flag with the name of the play on it. Flags could be used in various ways: if a white flag was flying that day the next play being performed would be a comedy, if it was a black flag it would be a tragedy, while a red flag indicated a historical play or a play associated with blood.

To a still largely illiterate population the flag system was the ideal solution for letting the public know what plays were on. It might not have provided the amount of information desired by us today but in a world of limited entertainment and limited literacy, it was all that was needed. Moreover, because there was such a high turnover of plays, with the Globe sometimes performing more than twenty in a month, it meant that it wasn’t possible to massively publicize a play.

So if you were living in the time of Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men and you felt like a bit of entertainment, then you could simply wander over to the Globe to see what flag was flying that day and if the genre took your fancy then perhaps you might have the pleasure of witnessing one of Shakespeare’s great works.