Elizabethan Theater: A Brief History

elizabethan theatreIn the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English theater blossomed in London. Elizabethan theater – or more properly, English Renaissance theater – flourished between the years of 1562 and 1642. (This spanned the reign of three monarchs, in fact, and not just that of Queen Elizabeth the First – hence the broader term is more accurate.) This is the time when William Shakespeare was writing and performing, along with other legendary playwrights of the era.

The era of early modern theater begins with “Gorboduc,” a play about civil war and succession to the throne of a kingdom. (These were topical and sensitive issues at the time, coming on the heels of the English Reformation brought about by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.) “Gorboduc”, which was written by both Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, is significant for being the first dramatic work to be written in blank verse. Blank verse is metric poetry that uses unrhymed iambic pentameter. An iamb is a chunk of a line that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There are five of them in each line of iambic pentameter blank verse. (The meter gives it poetic structure and makes it easier to memorize, as well.) As a natural extension of this writing, playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were also known for writing poetry, such as their well-known sonnets.

Within the early modern era when drama flourished, there are three periods named after each of the monarchs at the time. Elizabethan Theater only spans, properly, from 1562 to 1603. Jacobean Theater runs from 1603 to 1625. And Caroline Theater extends from 1625 to 1642.

The English Renaissance theatrical era came to an end in 1642, with the Puritanical parliament banned the performance of plays. During the interregnum, or this period between kings, public theater was not allowed by law. When Charles II returned to the throne, theater flourished in a new era dubbed the Restoration.

Venues: Inns and Theaters

The first plays of this era were not performed in permanent theaters – there were none at that time. Instead, shows were put on in the courtyards of inns by traveling troupes of actors. A permanent theater, The Red Lion, opened in 1567. It was on the outskirts of the city of London, and only hosted troupes of actors as they were passing through. Unfortunately, it did not succeed due to its remote location. It took until 1576 and the establishment of The Theatre in Shoreditch for the building boom to blossom. The Theatre would host a company of actors on a more permanent basis, as they performed different shows in repertory in the same location.  Other theaters soon followed, such as The Rose, The Swan, The Fortune, The Red Bull, and most famously, The Globe. All were located outside the city limits due to laws that restricted congregations and establishments like theaters in order to prevent the spread of the plague.

All the theaters had certain attributes in common. They were three stories tall and tended to be roughly circular. These buildings had an open space in the center, and the stage extended out into this area. Thus, three sides of the stage were open to view by the audience, and only the rear was used for entrances and exits. There were no roofs and plays were performed during the day so lights were not needed. The first theater with a roof was the Blackfriars Theatre. As such, it was among the first theaters to use artificial lighting during productions. These many different theaters offered thousands of Londoners each day the opportunity to see plays for sometimes as little as a penny.

The Play’s the Thing

Three main genres dominated the English Renaissance stage. These were comedy, tragedy, and history. (These can be facetiously categorized as plays where everybody gets married at the end, everybody dies at the end, and everybody already knows how it ends, respectively.)

Comedies include some of Shakespeare’s best known plays, like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” Ben Jonson’s “Every Man in his Humour” is another notable work. A later sub-genre called “city comedy” focused specifically on the hilarity and absurdity of life in London, and includes works like Thomas Middleton’s “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.” (It is the story of the unfortunate betrothal of Moll Yellowhammer to the scoundrel Sir Walter Whorehound, despite her love for Touchwood Junior. It ends happily with the young lovers married and Sir Walter in prison.)

Tragedies do not just end badly – they end badly due to a character’s flaws and choices. Think of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” or Thomas Kyd’s revenge-fueled “The Spanish Tragedy.”

Historical plays focused on periods of English or European history. “Edward II” (by Christopher Marlowe) or “Richard III” (by William Shakespeare). The events of these two plays had transpired some decades or centuries prior to their writing. Other historical events – such as the life of Julius Caesar – could also inspire works, like the play by the same name by Shakespeare.

Famous Playwrights

William Shakespeare still towers over the era as a literary giant. But other playwrights of the era are also significant talents in the history of the English language and drama. Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Heywood all stand out as writers with merit who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries. (Marlowe died young in a bar brawl, stabbed to death. Shakespeare’s Rosalind quotes an unfinished Marlowe poem in “As You Like It” as a tribute.) Writing plays was not at the time considered a lofty literary achievement. It was common entertainment for regular people, and the works were not oft published or publicized, even. In fact, the rights to the plays usually belonged to the theater company that had paid the writer, and not to the writer himself. About 600 plays from this era remain, although plenty more were written and performed.

Staging Shows

Each theater housed a troupe of performers. These actors performed different plays in repertory – that is, they performed a different show they knew each night. They seldom even performed the same show twice in one week.

As a result, costumes – although they were beautifully made – were not specific to the show. They tended to be fine contemporary clothing and were worn for all the different plays the company performed.

Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Shakespeare in Love” can recall one other important facet of acting troupes at the time. These companies of actors had no actresses – they were exclusively male. Actors were looked down upon in many ways as outcasts, rogues, and oddballs. Women appearing publicly on stage was deemed unseemly.

The roles of women were instead played by the men – especially young boys who could more readily look like maidens. In the movie, as mentioned, the character Viola masquerades as a boy in order to land the role of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play. Plot twists and events unfold, and she winds up beautifully playing the role of Juliet for one performance instead. (The Master of the Revels, Mr. Tilney, bursts in to arrest them as the actors take their bows. “That woman is a woman!” he exclaims.)

The End of an Era

In 1642, Civil War came to England. Royalists, who were loyal to the monarchy, included the theatrical establishment. Although acting troupes played to thousands of commoners every year, they also played private shows to the aristocracy and depended upon their patronage. The opposing forces, the religious Puritans, not only opposed the religious oppression of the monarchy but also the sinful indulgences it enjoyed, such as the theater.

In September 1642, the Parliament, now in control of the Puritans, passed a law banning the performance of plays. The law read:

Whereas the distressed Estate of Ireland, steeped in her own Blood, and the distracted Estate of England, threatened with a Cloud of Blood by a Civil War, call for all possible Means to appease and avert the Wrath of God, appearing in these Judgements; among which, Fasting and Prayer, having been often tried to be very effectual, having been lately and are still enjoined; and whereas Public Sports do not well agree with Public Calamities, nor Public Stage-plays with the Seasons of Humiliation, this being an Exercise of sad and pious Solemnity, and the other being Spectacles of Pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious Mirth and Levity: It is therefore thought fit, and Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, That, while these sad causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, and be forborn, instead of which are recommended to the People of this Land the profitable and seasonable considerations of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God, which probably may produce outward Peace and Prosperity, and bring again Times of Joy and Gladness to these Nations.

There was no specific date or time limit mentioned to the end of this supposedly temporary measure.

The Legacy

As previously mentioned, theater returned to England when the monarchy was restored. A new generation of playwrights explored their world and expressed it on stage during the period of the Restoration. But the works of the English Renaissance – especially those of Shakespeare and Jonson – continued to find popularity. However, their works were interpreted anew by this generation of performers and audiences. (There was even an adaptation of “King Lear” with a happy ending, which is an interesting exercise in creative writing.) These early modern theatrical works endured despite the meddling, and are popular to this day.