Theatre during the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe was coarse, intimate, and loud, far removed from the stuffy institution the modern American tends to envision. The periods of drama falling under the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I are called Elizabethan and Jacobian, respectively, and together form the English Renaissance period, during which, according to Martha Bellinger, author of A Short History of the Drama, theatre evolved rapidly, revolutionalizing English society.
However, to understand the development of English Renaissance theatre one must look back to the Middle Ages. Medieval drama mostly consisted of two types of plays: the morality play and the mystery play (Fletcher; Jokinen). Both were religious in nature and, according to historian and author Robert Huntington Fletcher, had their roots in Church services. The former was quite what its name suggests, teaching Christian principles through allegory, while the older mystery play consisted of direct reenactments of Biblical stories (Fletcher). According to Anniina Jokinen, who compiled the English literature website, Luminarium, the roots of Elizabethan drama can be traced to these two forms. By 1500, short plays performed for nobility and called interludes, had become popular; secular and light-hearted, they were notable change from the solemn Christian plays that preceded them (Fletcher; Jokinen). This important development marked a radical shift in the style of English drama: catalyzed by the infusion of new Reformation and Humanist values and philosophy, theatre rapidly became both more secular and political, intended to entertain rather than to teach (Jokinen). Historical plays and blank verse both trademarks of Shakespeare first appeared in the 1530s; early English tragedies were written in the 1560s, inspired by classical Greek and Latin drama (Jokinen).
In 1558, Elizabeth, a proponent of theatre (Jokinen), ascended the English throne. During her reign, which lasted until 1603, English drama flowered as never before. Initially, plays was performed either by innumerable small, traveling acting companies or companies associated with a noble patron (Bellinger; Clough). Performances were mostly given in temporary theatres, on stages set up at inns or inside great halls of well-to-do establishments (Narey, "Elizabethan Playhouses"; Spear). Wayne Narey, professor of English at Arkansas State University, notes that animal-baiting rings were common temporary sites as well. Managing this slew of competing companies proved problematic as what laws were made to regulate them were frequently ignored (Bellinger). Some of Elizabeth's attempts to bring order: the 1572 Act of the Punishment of Vagabonds which, according to Sarah Clough of Sheffield Theatres, required all performers to find a patron; royal patents issued by Elizabeth, which companies needed to have to have official permission to perform (Bellinger); a 1575 Code of Practice, which, according to Dr. Hilda Spear (Honorary Research Fellow and former Senior Lecturer at the University of Dundee), many acting companies evaded by simply moving outside London (Spear); and finally, the 1576 banning of all theatrical performances within London (Bellinger). These measures, which were only loosely enforced, had an ironic effect: theatres were quickly built on the other side of the Thames, just outside the city limits, which fostered competition between theatres and rapid growth. Actors gradually gained respect in society, and independent, professional companies gained success and displaced amateurs, travellers, and patronees (Bellinger; Clough; Spear).
From the two types of temporary stages grew the two types of permanent stages, "public," and "private" (Narey, "Elizabethan Playhouses"; Spear). Public theatres were usually roundish, open-air buildings, with a roof covering only the back of the stage. The stage was thrust into the center, surrounded by an open "yard" on three sides, with about three tiers of galleries or boxes along the walls. These theatres typically held up to three thousand audience members, most of whom were lower class and stood on the ground in the yard for prices as low as a penny.
Wealthier gentlemen sat in the boxes and paid significantly more. (Bellinger; Narey, "Elizabethan Playhouses"; Spear). Private theatres, on the other hand, were small, indoor establishments whose attendees were generally wealthier and/or more respectable. They usually held no more than seven hundred spectators (Narey, "Elizabethan Playhouses"; Spear). The first permanent playhouse in London, the Theatre, was constructed in 1576 by Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage (Narey, "Elizabethan Playhouses"); by the end of Elizabeth's reign there were ten more, including the Curtain, Blackfriars, the Fortune, the Hope, the Rose, the Swan, Newington Butts, Red Bull, and the famous Globe used by Shakespeare (Bellinger).
Theatre was immensely popular, in fact the most profitable writing profession of the time, with fifteen thousand people attending playhouses in England every week (Narey, "Sociopolitical Climate"). The most frequent theatergoers were of the lowest class politically and socially, and their antics and tastes influenced the subject matter of the plays they watched. Shakespeare experts Dr. William Allan Neilson, former professor of English at Harvard University, and Dr. Ashley Horace Thorndike, former professor of English at Columbia University, wrote that the audiences of Elizabethan theatre were appallingly credulous and ignorant, so brutal, childish, [. . .] yet set the standard of national greatness. [. . .] The drama mingles its sentiment and fancy with horrors and bloodshed; and no wonder, for poetry was no occupation of the cloister. [. . .] Crime, meanness, and sexual depravity often appear in the closest juxtaposition with imaginative idealism, intellectual freedom, and moral grandeur. (qtd. in Bellinger) Indeed, the plays of the period were violent, raucous, and coarse (Bellinger); the groundlings (those who stood in the yard) were crowded, noisy, and rude, often committing crimes and providing an ideal environment to spread disease (Bellinger; Clough; Spear); even the more respectable "gallants" were known to engage in indecent behavior; and the playwrights themselves lived impoverished, bohemian lifestyles. Thus the theatre community was considered dishonorable in every aspect, with church leaders and other dignitaries frequently publically denouncing it (Bellinger).
Stage, performance, writing, and acting practices were largely based on the structure of the theatres and the composition of their audience. Plays were usually held in the afternoon and lasted around two hours (Bellinger). Backdrops and settings on stage were scarcely used by theatres, who relied instead on the imagination of the audience; the playwright had to accomodate this. For example, the setting and time of day were indicated by dialogue and speeches (Narey, "Elizabethan Staging Conventions"; Spear). The playwright also had to be inventive in moving characters on and off the stage, as players almost always had multiple roles, and there was no curtain or other device available to conceal actors as they exited and entered (Spear). Sound effects and other special effects were common, but the most important tool to create imagery were the costumes, which were lavish and elaborate, as well as expensive (Bellinger; Joseph 83; Narey, "Elizabethan Staging Conventions"; Spear). The dialogue was not realistic, full of asides, soliloquies, and poetry (Narey, "Elizabethan Staging Conventions"), and the actors typically depended on loud, bombastic delivery to be effective (Bellinger; Joseph 1, 79, 141). In fact, B.L. Joseph of the University of Bristol, author of Elizabethan Acting, claims that the acting style of the time was essentially rhetoric (1, 79), and that "the Elizabethan playgoer was drawn to the theatre to enjoy [the actors'] grace of voice and action" (141). Furthermore, although there was no law forbidding it, women's roles were virtually always played by young boys, for the audience would not have been able to accept or even comprehend the notion of a woman on stage (Bellinger; Clough).
The legacy of the English Renaissance period of drama is quite evident, considering the immortal status and unparalleled popularity of the plays of Shakespeare. But the setting in which these works were first performed, the open-air Elizabethan theatre, was one of the most fascinating environments the world has ever seen.
- Bellinger, Martha Fletcher. "Elizabethan Playhouses, Actors, and Audiences." A Short History of the Theatre. New York: Henry Holt, 1927. 207-13. TheatreHistory.com. TheatreHistory.com, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- Clough, Sarah. "As You Like It in context." Sheffield Theatres Education Resource. Sheffield Theatres, 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- Fletcher, Robert Huntington. "Medieval Drama: An Introduction to Middle English Plays." A History of English Literature. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916. 85-91. Luminarium. Anniika Jokinen, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- Jokinen, Anniina. "Renaissance English Drama: From Medieval to Renaissance." Luminarium. Anniina Jokinen, 2 Aug 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- Joseph, B. L. Elizabethan Acting. London: Oxford UP, 1951. Questia. Web. 16 Feb. 2010. Narey, Wayne. "Elizabethan Playhouses." Luminarium. Anniina Jokinen, 2 Aug 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- . "Elizabethan Staging Conventions." Luminarium. Anniina Jokinen. 2 Aug 2006, Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- . "The Sociopolitical Climate in Elizabethan England." Luminarium. Anniina Jokinen, 2 Aug 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
- Spear, Hilda D. "The Elizabethan Theater." Cologne University. Oct. 1989. Guest lecture.