I. Introduction and Overview of Elizabethan Theatre


Elizabethan Theatre, also known as English Renaissance Theatre, was an era in English theatrical history characterized by its distinctively short time period and tumultous history and progression. The era, beginning in 1576, is named after the reigning monarch during its inception: Queen Elizabeth I. Often considered 'the "golden age" in English History, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I greatly influenced the emerging theatrical style.
elizabeth.jpg
Queen Elizabeth I

The Elizabethan Theatre offically began when a man named James Burbage began the development of 'The Theatre' in Shoreditch, London in 1576. (Alichin). Tensions between the Puritans and the theatre during this time, as well as outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague, led to a volatile existence for theatre in London as whole. In 1642, after a contentious censorship battle, a Puritan-ruled Parliament ordered all plays to be supressed and subsequently ended the era.

Although Elizabethan Theatre saw a hasty end just a short time after its inception, sixty-six years of cultural and societal influences led to the emergence and molding of an unprecedented theatrical style. Theaters, actors, and authors consumed the theatre scene of London, with stages popping up in areas such as Surrey and Shoreditch. One of the most influential playwrights of the world, William Shakespeare, lived out his career in the Elizabethan era.

Despite the turbulence seen by Elizabethan theatre, it was a time period flooded with artistic ability, influenced greatly by cultural, societal, and environmental factors. The names, faces, and stages of Elizabethan Era eventually shaped a large amount of modern-day theatre.


II. Main Influences of Elizabethan Theatre


A. Queen Elizabeth I

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, despite seeing great prosperity, was a tumultuous time. Elizabeth's father, King Henry VIII, ruled over England prior to her own reign
king henry viii.jpg
King Henry Viii
. During his time as king, the Roman Catholic Church was replaced by Protestantism, creating even greater rifts between the two practicing parties. Henry was a Catholic himself, but wanted a divorce from his first wife, Catherine -- something that was not legal under Catholic law (Hartford Stage). His request was denied by the Pope more than once. Eventually, Henry forced the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant the divorce and subsequently broke away from Catholicism, placing himself as the head of the Protestant church.

The Elizabethan era, and subsequently its theatre, saw the first time in history that the Monarch controlled both the spiritual and political aspects of society. The opposing ideologies clashed greatly, with the friction between Protestants and the Catholics being mirrored in the works of Elizabethan playwrights. Several plays, including a large portion of Shakespeare's work, spoke on the matter.


B. Religious Influence and Interference

As is the case with any time in theatrical history, Elizabethan Theatre was largely influenced by its surrounding cultural, societal, and environmental factors. The disdain of the increasingly secular nature of theatre by the Puritans was one of the most influential forces surrounding the Elizabethan Era. As tensions increased between Puritan officials and the theatrical society, plays were censored extensively for reasons such as heresy, profanity, and politics (National Endowment for the Arts). Queen Elizabeth, despite approving of the theatre herself, sought to please everyone by creating a balance. She implemented rules to address these concerns, such as prohibiting theatrical construction and production within city limits, forcing plays to the outskirts of London. These rules, however, were not widely followed and served only as a means of pacification for the Puritans.

C. Master of the Revels and the Lord Chamberlin

The Master of the Revels was a title that initially held little responsibility until the reign of Henry VIII. During his time as king, the position absorbed the responsibility of overseeing royal entertainment. Gradually, the duty of the Master of the Revels transformed to include play censorship. The censorship imposed on theatre by the Court of the Revels and, later on, the Lord Chamberlain, greatly influenced the stage production of the Elizabethan era. Costumes and production supplies that were deemed appropriate were provided by those in control of censorship, often leading to very modest stage designs (Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship). The simplicity in production shifted the viewers' attention heavily to the play's acting, creating an actor-centric focus, something we still see in modern theatre.


C. The Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague proved to be disastrous to the Elizabethan theatre as well. In 1593, theatres closed after an outbreak reached London, halting all theatrical progression. The Black Death struck again in 1603, killing 33,000 more people in England and again closing all theatres.



III. Prominent names in Elizabethan Theatre


The English Renaissance Theatre saw an emergence of playwrights, stage designers and actors who were revolutionaries for their time, laying the groundwork for modern theatre. James Burbage, for example, is not only responsible for the inception of one of the first permanent Elizabethan stages ('The Theatre' in Shoreditch, London -- 1576), but is also the father of Richard Burbage, the most well known actor of the Elizabethan Era.

Burbage
william shakespeare.jpg
William Shakespeare
was the leading actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company Shakespeare devoted most of his career to writing for, whose theatrical repertoire includes roles such as Richard III, Lear, Othello, and Hamlet (Banham). Shakespeare, whose career as a playwright defined the Elizabethan era and playwriting in general for years to come, began working under the rule of Queen Elizabeth. His company moved from 'The Theatre' to the Curtain Theatre in 1597, and then eventually built and opened the historic Globe Theatre in 1599.

Dr. John Dee, who served along James Burbage, is a revolutionary figure in Elizabethan theatre. His extensive knowledge of both Roman and Greek theatre, as well as his architectural knowledge, laid the groundwork for the first English amphitheaters. Dee is responsible for creating the plans for The Theatre.
Marlowe.jpg
Christopher Marlowe

The Elizabethan Era is responsible for the birth of some of the most influential playwrights in historical and modern-day theatre, namely individuals such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, and Francis Beaumont. Perhaps the most well-known of his time, Shakespeare was influenced greatly by the likes of the latter. Christopher Marlowe, especially, revolutionized playwriting through the use of blank verse and intense dramatization of his protagonists. His works include plays such as Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Tamburlaine the Great (The Marlowe Society). John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont worked together closely during their time as playwrights. They initially wrote for the Children of the Queen's Revels, later taking their talents to the King's Men. Fletcher himself is most known for his collaboration with Shakespeare on plays such as Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.





IV. The Evolution of Elizabethan Stages


A. Inn-yards

Stages in the Elizabethan era had humble beginnings. The very early days of the era saw performances that were held in private Inns, referred to as inn-yards. These spaces were often makeshift and dirty, seating up to 500 people at a time (Alchin). Actors would travel from town to town, performing at these inn-yards as they were the only standing stages in England at the time. The stage would be set up in a yard that was property of the
white-hart-inn--.png
White Hart Inn
inn. The plays performed at these inn-yards were very beneficial for the inn keepers themselves, but provided little or no monetary benefit for those performing. The actors who performed on these makeshift stages took to collection plates to fund their performance compensation, referred to at the time as 'bottling' (Banham). Historically noted inns converted to house these performances include the Saracen's Head in Islington, the Bull in Bishopgate and the Bel Savage in Lud Gate.

B. Amphitheaters

As the Elizabethan era progressed and became more popularized, the theatre saw the inception of amphitheaters, first introduced as a concept by James Burbage and executed largely, in part, by Dr. John Dee. The style was greatly influenced by the traditional Greek and Roman theatres, seating up to 3,000 people at a time. Dr. John Dee was highly educated and retained extensive knowledge in regards to both architecture and Roman theatre (Banham). His blueprints laid the groundwork for the first English amphitheater, The Theatre, built in 1576 in Shoreditch, London.


These production are
globe theater.jfif
The Globe Theatre, London
nas were the first purpose-built, open-air theatres in Elizabethan time. They greatly mirrored the Roman's amphitheater designs, as Burbage sought to legitimize the Elizabethan theatre through them. Due to the great respect held by the English for the Ancient Roman theatre, copying their design structure was a clear-cut way to achieve this. The construction of permanent theaters allowed Elizabethan acting troupes to stop travelling. Some of the more famous amphitheaters include The Theatre, The Boars Head, The Red Bull, and The Globe Theatre, in Bankside, Surrey.

C. Playhouses

When theatrical productions saw a decrease in sales during Winter, playhouses converted from old coaching inns or existing buildings were introduced. These playhouses served as a much more private, exclusive venue, seating only up to 500 people at a time (Alchin). Those who could afford the tickets were able to enjoy acting year-round as opposed to only during the warmer seasons. These stages served to greatly shield viewers and actors alike from low temperatures and extreme weather during the colder months. This change in venue allowed for actors to work year-round, thus beginning the inception of acting in England as a legitimate, sustainable career.

Playhouse seating was categorized by ticket price; the more comfortable the seating, the higher the price. Prior to playhouse construction, theatre entry traditionally cost between 1-2 pennies. The playhouses saw a new era of exclusivity, charging between 2 to 26 pennies depending on where an individual wanted to sit. This restricted most commoners from attending, beginning a tradition of theatre being entertainment for the well-off. Some of the first playhouses included The Gray's Inn, Whitehall, and the Salisbury Court Playhouse.



V. Dissolution of the Elizabethan Era


After years of tension between the Puritans and the theatre, the Elizabethan Era was abruptly brought to an end. 1642 saw the beginning of Civil War in England (Banham). As the two opposing forces existing in England came to a head and the Puritans gained control of Parliament, the theatre was shut down. On September 2nd, 1642, Parliament issued an ordinance effectively suppressing all plays. Two years later, on April 15th, 1644, the Globe Theater was destroyed by the Puritans. In 1647, even stricter procedures are placed on plays and, lastly, 1648 saw the order of all playhouses and theatres to be pulled down (Alchin). Consequences for participating in or viewing a play are enforced, effectively ending the Elizabethan era.

english civil war.jpg
English Civil War






Works Cited

Alchin, L.K. "Elizabethan History Theatre Timeline." Elizabethan Era. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-theatre-history-timeline.htm. Accessed 27 March 2017.
Alchin, L.K. "Elizabethan Theatres". Elizabethan Era. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-theatres.htm. Accessed 27 March 2017.
Banham, Martin. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge (England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.) Print.
Clark, Eva Turner. "Elizabethan Stage Scenery: More Elaborate Than Ordinarily Believed." Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/elizabethan-stage-scenery/. Accessed 27 March 2017.
Clunie, Aurelia. "Religion in Elizabethan England." Hartfard Stage. https://www.hartfordstage.org/stagenotes/hamlet/elizabethan-era. Accessed 17 April 2017.
Elizabethan Theater. "Shakespeare in American Communities." National Endowment For the Arts. http://www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org/education/elizabethan-theater. Accessed 27 March 2017.
The Lost Colony. "Elizabethan Era". PNC. 2017. http://thelostcolony.org/bringing-history-to-life/elizabethan-era/. Accessed 15 April 2017.
The Marlowe Society. 2002-2017. http://www.marlowe-society.org/. Accessed 17 April 2017.