Elizabethan Theatre History

The second great age of theatre to follow the Greeks blossomed almost two thousand years later in England under Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558 until 1603.  Just as Greek theatre was at its greatest when Greek civilisation reached its peak, so Elizabethan England in the second half of the sixteenth century was a country full of life, energy and new ideas.

From the period of the miracle and morality plays in England, groups of professional actors had developed.  They were usually part of the households of rich and powerful men, and gave performances of short comedies and longer chronicle plays which told stories from English history.  These plays were often acted on platforms set up in the courtyards of pubs or inns.  This was where Elizabethan theatre began.

Portrait of Elizabeth I

The Elizabethan Stage

The first playhouse, named ‘The Theatre’, was built in London in 1576 by a carpenter and part-time actor named James Burbage.  His son Richard Burbage became the first great English actor.  A whole succession of playhouses followed, such as ‘The Curtain’, ‘The Rose’, ‘The Swan’, ‘The Globe’, ‘The Fortune’ and ‘The Hope’.  The only surviving picture that exists to show what they were like is a drawing of ‘The Swan’ done by a Dutchman on a visit to London.

All the Elizabethan theatres were built of wood in a hollow circle and the stage was located in the centre and where the spectators stood was open to the air.  The stage was a raised platform which extended out so that the audience could stand on three sides of it.  Built into the circular walls of the theatre were two or three galleries where the rest of the audiences could sit on benches or stools.

At the back of the stage was a wall with doors or curtains leading to the backstage area.  There was a gallery above used by musicians or for scenes such as the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.  Behind and above the stage were the dressing rooms and a tower containing machinery that was used to create stage effects, such as storms.


Elizabethan theatre: The Swan.

Elizabethan Actors

The theatres were run by professional managers who expected to make a profit, and the acting companies were composed of men who made their living from acting.  Some companies worked for salaries paid by managers, while others owned their own playhouses and shared the profits from their acting.  All the theatre companies had noble and powerful men as their patron.  Shakespeare belonged to the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’.  Elizabethan men who owned no land and had no master were treated as rogues and vagabonds.

There were no women in the theatre companies.  Boys played the roles of young women such as Juliet, and the comedians in the company acted the older women.  Actors had to be able to sing, dance and play musical instruments, as well as act, because music was an important part of Elizabethan theatre.

The costumes worn by the actors came mainly from discarded clothes given to them by their wealthy patrons.  These costumes would have seemed magnificent to the ordinary people watching the plays.  Of course, the costumes would all have been clothes of the period so, depending on the play, suitable extras were added – a breastplate and sword for a Roman, a turban for a Turk and so on.

The life of an actor was not easy.  Theatres were prohibited from the city of London itself, and had to be built on the south bank of the river, among the brothels and bear pits.  Playhouses often burned down, or were closed for long periods because of the plague or riots or freezing winters.  When this happened, the actors were forced to tour, performing in the courtyards of inns or, if they were fortunate, in the house of noblemen.

There was almost no scenery on the Elizabethan stage and the audiences were large and rowdy, eating and drinking as they watched the plays.  Elizabethan plays contained dozens of scenes which flowed rapidly  often jumping years in time and hundreds of miles in place.  The actors had only the power f language to help them, and they needed enormous physical energy and skilled voices to bring to life the great tragedies and comedies of the age.  We have diaries and letters of the time which describe how the famous actors Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage were able to move an audience to tears, and make them totally believe in the events and characters they created on stage.

Elizabethan and Jacobean costumes.

Elizabethan Plays

Above all, the Elizabethan period was a time of great plays which are still the heart of the theatre.  The first outstanding English playwright was Christopher Marlowe born in 1565, the same year as Shakespeare’s birth.  Marlowe began work in the theatre some years before Shakespeare and his influence was to prove vital.

Marlowe was a university graduate and a poet as well as a playwright.  He was the first to write plays in the flexible, powerful blank verse which became the language of the Elizabethan theatre.  His play, Dr Faustus, the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil, is a fascinating piece of theatre full of suburb dramatic poetry and still performed in theatres throughout the world.

Marlowe might have even equalled Shakespeare as a writer if he had lived long enough, but his life was short, extreme and violent.  A spy and an atheist, he made public statements declaring his own depravity and challenging the existence of God.  Some of his brief life was spent in prison, and he died in a pub brawl just before his thirtieth birthday, stabbed through the eye.

There were other playwrights of importance including Robert Greene and Thomas Kyd, both university men.  Then there was Ben Jonson, who began his working life as an apprentice to a bricklayer.  Jonson was a quarrelsome frustrated, outspoken man, often in trouble, and occasionally in prison.  However, the comedies he wrote made a lasting contribution to the era.  Jonson’s plays such as Volpone and Every Man in His Humour are savage, clever satires on human behaviour.  They ruthlessly reveal the stupidity and greed of human beings, and show how petty people can be.   Yet they are genuine comedies and their portrayal of human weakness are hilarious as well as savage.

Foremost of all writers was William Shakespeare who was born in Stratford in 1565, married there at eighteen, went to London and worked as an actor and playwright, retired to Stratford and died there in 1616.  That is just about all we know of his life.  What he left for us are some of the greatest plays ever written.

Shakespeare wrote for popular audience who paid good money to be entertained.  Many of the characters in his plays were actually written for particular actors in the company.  during his time as a playwright, he churned out plays at a rate of about one every nine months.  However, the triumph of his great plays is the way they conquer limitations.  Not only are they dramatically stunning, but they are also profound reflections on the very nature of being human.

For example, the conflict between ambition and duty that troubles Macbeth is a universal one, and his action in killing the king is a conscious crime against humanity, the kind of crime we have learnt a great deal about in the twentieth century.  Yet there is more to the play: it is also a study of guilt and madness.

In fact, Shakespeare’s great plays defy simple description because they are as complex and fascinating as human beings themselves.  Most of all, his plays are great dramas.  The language may be a problem when we are unfamiliar with it, but when we see the plays performed on stage we are exhilarated by the extraordinary glow of the scenes, the complexity of the characterisation and the power of the words.

The theatre which followed after Shakespeare was inevitably less powerful.  There were fine actors, but none as good as Alleyn and Burbage.  There were talented playwrights, but none to equal Shakespeare or Jonson.  Only one new theatre, ‘The Hope’, opened after 1600.

One outstanding writer did emerge in the early part of the seventeenth century and that was John Webster.  His two great revenge tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, are dark and violent, powerful pieces of theatre.  Their central characters are both women: intelligent, powerful, independent women who are capable of both great and terrible actions.

The whole English theatre came to an abrupt end in 1642 when the English Civil War began.  The playhouses were closed and acting was forbidden.  As long as Cromwell and his Puritans were in power, the theatres remained closed.

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