By Mark Cartwright
Elizabethan theatre, sometimes called English Renaissance theatre, refers to that style of performance plays which blossomed during the reign of Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603 CE) and which continued under her Stuart successors. Elizabethan theatre witnessed the first professional actors who belonged to touring troupes and who performed plays of blank verse with entertaining non-religious themes. The first purpose-built permanent theatre was established in London in 1576 CE and others quickly followed so that drama simply to entertain became a booming industry. Theatres showing plays daily led to permanent acting companies which did not have to tour and so could invest more time and money into wowing their audience of both sexes and all social classes. The most celebrated playwright of the period was William Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE) whose works were performed at the famous Globe Theatre in London and covered such diverse themes as history, romance, revenge, murder, comedy and tragedy.
Elizabeth I and the Arts
The Elizabethan age saw a boom in the arts in general but it was the performance arts that perhaps made the most lasting contribution to English and even world culture. The queen was herself an admirer of plays, performances, and spectacles which were frequently held at her royal residences. Elizabeth carefully managed her image as the Virgin Queen who had sacrificed her personal life to better concentrate on the good of her people. Theatre was, therefore, just one of the media she used to project her own glory and that of her family, the Tudors. The queen actively sponsored artists and playwrights.
Naturally, the Elizabethans did not invent theatre as plays have been performed ever since their invention by the ancient Greeks of the 6th century BCE. Medieval England had witnessed the performance of morality plays and mystery plays, there were even dramas performed by actors during religious ceremonies and holidays. There were also Masques, a type of mime where masked performers sang, danced, and recited poetry, wearing extravagant costumes, and stood before painted scenery. Finally, towns across England had long funded public shows, which involved musicians, acrobats, and jesters, and these continued even as theatre became popular.
The Elizabethan period saw these public performers become a professional body of entertainers. The first professional troupes of actors were sponsored by the queen, nobles, and anyone else who had the money for such entertainments. Plays were performed which, perhaps thanks to the English Reformation, were now entirely free from religious themes and not connected to public holidays or religious festivals. Secular plays presented a new challenge, though, and the influence of popular art on politics and public minds was recognised by Elizabeth, who banned performances of unlicensed plays in 1559 CE. In the 1570s CE, religious play cycles were also banned. The royal control of theatre continued in 1572 CE when only nobles were permitted to sponsor professional acting troupes. From 1574 CE all troupes had to be licensed, too.
The move away from divisive religious topics had led writers to explore other themes, and their imaginations knew no bounds. Historical topics were especially popular with the new playwrights in a period when a sense of English nationalism was developing as never before. This combined with a Humanist interest in Greek and Roman antiquity. Royal patronage of theatre would continue during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I of England (r. 1603-1625 CE) who funded three professional actor companies (aka playing companies).
Professional Actors and Theatres
The first professionally licensed troupe of actors belonged to Elizabeth’s court favourite Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (l. c. 1532-1588 CE). Called ‘Leicester’s Men’ they gained their license in 1574 CE and toured the country’s stately homes giving performances. Naturally, actors needed a suitable stage on which to impress and so the first purpose-built theatres soon arrived. In 1576 CE London received its very first purpose-built and permanent playhouse, founded by James Burbage (c. 1530-1597 CE), himself an actor, and simply known as the Theatre (although there were earlier adapted buildings with temporary scaffolding such as the 1567 CE Red Lion). Located on Holywell Street in Shoreditch, the Theatre was a wooden enclosed building with no roof in the centre, and it welcomed audiences of both courtiers and commoners. The Theatre was such a success that other theatres were built, starting with the Curtain. Burbage opened a second theatre in London, Blackfriars Theatre, by converting a disused Dominican monastery. There was also the Rose (1587 CE) and the Swan (1595 CE) as the theatre business positively boomed and Elizabeth’s encouragement of her nobles to stay at court and have residences at the capital guaranteed a ready audience. Other towns soon followed the fashion and acquired theatres, too; early adopters being Bath, Bristol, Norwich, and York. By the time of the Stuart kings, many theatres were offering a performance of a different play every day, typically in the afternoons, to a knowledgeable audience of men and women expecting to see novel entertainment. Even the most popular plays were only performed a handful of times each year as theatres strived to entertain regular theatre-goers.
Further, as theatres developed so actors and playwrights were freed from the obligations and restrictions that sponsorship by nobles brought. It was the Theatre, though, which was to become world-famous, especially after 1599 CE when it was relocated to the south bank of the River Thames and given a new name: the Globe Theatre.
The Globe Theatre opened for business in 1599 CE and was owned by Burbage’s sons and some members of the professional acting company known as Chamberlains’ Men. One of these investors was William Shakespeare, and he and other actors and playwrights shared half of the profits from the theatre while the other half went to pay secondary actors, musicians, costumes, and maintenance costs. Crucially, then, the establishment of theatres meant that previously travelling actors could now form a more solid financial base which allowed them to produce more plays and give them a much higher production value. Theatre companies could boast twelve or more permanent main actors and a number of bit-part players, boys and apprentices. Also on the staff were musicians, writers, artists, and copyists.
The Globe Theatre was made of wood, more or less circular in form, and open to the skies in the centre. Rising to a height of 12 metres (40 ft.) and measuring 24 metres (80 ft.) across, inside were three tiers of seating providing a capacity of around 2,000. The theatre got its name from the globe on its roof, which carried the legend in Latin of Shakespeare’s famous line ‘All the world’s a stage.’ The Globe’s own stage was rectangular, measured some 12 metres in length and was protected by a thatch roof. Around 12 actors could perform on the stage at any one time. Behind the stage was a gallery which could seat more viewers or be used as an important part of the play (e.g. Juliet’s balcony in Romeo and Juliet). The audience could be surprised by such technical tricks as lowering actors on wires or having them appear or disappear through a trapdoor in the stage floor.
In the second half of the 17th century CE, some important developments arrived. Women played women parts (previously boys had done this) and large flat painted scenes, often with perspective incorporated into them, were moved on sliding rails on and off stage. Another change was that now plays had extended runs with the same performance being repeated each day, a development that actors with short memories must have greatly welcomed. The pattern of performance plays was set and would remain in place right up to the present day.
William Shakespeare has become one of the most celebrated authors in any language. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 CE, it was not until 1592 CE that William became known in theatre circles. Two years later he joined Chamberlain’s Men and then, as mentioned above, became an important member of the Globe Theatre’s permanent staff, a position he held throughout his writing career. William produced on average two plays every year, writing 37 in all. The dating of Shakespeare’s works is problematic as none have surviving original manuscripts and so historians have looked to their content and other documentary evidence. The plays are usually divided into four groups and illustrate the broad scope of Elizabethan theatre in general. These categories are: comedies, romances, histories, and tragedies. The works, like many plays of the period, combine wordplay and in-joke references to contemporary politics with tales of love, dark deeds of revenge and murder, historical events, historical fiction, and a big dollop of jingoism.
Shakespeare’s first play is usually cited as Henry VI Part I, written around 1589 CE. His most popular plays include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1596 CE) which revolves around the wedding of the Greek hero Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyte, Henry V (1599 CE) which includes a fictionalised version of that king’s rousing speech at the Battle of Agincourt of 1415 CE, Hamlet (c. 1601 CE) which tells the revenge of the Danish prince of that name against his evil uncle, and Macbeth (1606 CE), titled after the Scottish king who descends into madness after embarking on a rampage of murder.
Other Playwrights and Actors
Under the Stuart kings, it became fashionable and profitable to print the scripts of plays, even if they were always originally written with performance in mind. Some 800 play scripts survive from the 16th and 17th century CE, although this is only a small proportion of those produced at the time. After Shakespeare, the next most celebrated Elizabethan playwright is Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593 CE). In 1587 CE his first play was performed, Tamburlaine the Great. The play was a smash hit and told the epic tale of Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire in central Asia (1370-1507 CE). Other successes followed such as The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage but, like many playwrights and poets of the period, Marlowe was prone to drinking bouts, and it was a brawl in a tavern that ended in his death. As Marlowe also worked as a spy for the government, some have speculated that his death was actually an assassination.
The third great playwright of the period was Ben Jonson (1572-1637 CE). Escaping an early career path as an apprentice bricklayer, Jonson’s first play, Isle of Dogs (1597 CE), was successful but got him into trouble with the authorities who regarded it as inciting rebellion. After a short term in prison, Jonson soon found himself back in confinement after he killed an actor in an argument. Out for a second time, Jonson concentrated on what he was good at and wrote a string of hit plays, many of which were performed at the Globe Theatre. Jonson’s other works included poetry, masques, and a huge body of literary criticism.
Accomplished actors, of course, made a name for themselves in the new genre. One famous figure was the comic actor Richard Tarlton (d. 1588 CE) who was also a court jester who made Elizabeth I titter until his jokes went too far and ridiculed some of her noble favourites. Multi-talented, Tarlton co-founded the Queen’s Men company and wrote many successful plays, his most popular being Seven Deadly Sins (1585 CE). Tarlton’s most famous character was a little Chaplinesque: a small man with baggy trousers and carrying a large stick.
Challenges and Legacy
The new theatre was not without its critics. Puritans, who were ever-more prominent in Elizabethan society from the 1590s CE, objected to such frivolous entertainments as plays. They considered their subject matter – especially plots with vengeance, murder, and romance – unsuitable for commoners and likely to corrupt their minds, much like some modern critics of violent cinema proclaim. In addition, Puritans thought of theatres as wholly undesirable places where only the idle, immoral, and criminal elements of society gathered.
Local residents were often not happy to have a theatre in their neighbourhood because of the noise and low class-associations with such a venue; this was one of the reasons why the Theatre was moved to become the Globe Theatre. Even some business owners deplored the theatres as their employees went to watch the plays which were usually held during the daytime and so working hours. This concern led to petitions being sent to mayors who then lobbied Members of Parliament to restrict the theatre performances. It also explains why the early theatres were built in city suburbs away from the direct jurisdiction of the mayors. Drama was very cheap (starting at 1 penny a ticket, about $1 today) and very popular, though, and so very difficult to repress even when the Puritans gained prominence in the mid-17th century CE and temporarily closed all places of public meeting from 1642 CE. In 1660 CE, with the return of the monarchists, theatres opened up again and acting companies were immediately reformed.
Another challenge was public health. When a new wave of the Black Death plague hit London in 1592 CE, all theatres were closed for a year. Many mayors sought to avoid public gatherings and even paid acting companies not to perform if a new outbreak of plague was present. Theatres, being wooden structures, were also susceptible to devastating fires. The Globe Theatre, for example, had to be rebuilt in 1614 CE when a cannon shot fired during a performance for dramatic effect set fire to the thatch roof.
Despite the threats, Elizabethan theatre seems to have quickly established itself as an important and lasting part of England’s popular and literary culture. As early as 1623 CE, for example, 36 of William Shakespeare’s plays were collected together in print in the First Folio. More editions would be printed throughout the 17th century CE and a first properly edited collection was published in 1709 CE. Shakespeare continues to be read across the world, of course, and his works continue to interest modern filmmakers. As fellow author Ben Johnson noted in his preface to First Folio, the star of Elizabethan theatre was “not of an age, but for all time” (Wagner, 275).
- Elton, G.R. England Under the Tudors. Routledge, 2018.
- Ferriby, David. The Tudors. Hodder Education, 2015.
- Guy, John. Tudor England. Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Morrill, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Phillips, Charles. The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Kings & Queens of Britain. Lorenz Books, 2006.
- Wagner, John A. Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Greenwood, 1999.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 06.12.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.