Drama, romance, suspense, murder, ghosts, comedy, and kingdoms could all be had at an Elizabethan theater. The Elizabethan era was a period during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558-1603. “Often considered by many historians as England’s greatest monarch, Queen Elizabeth I ruled during an age that saw the expansion of Britain to North America through voyages of discovery by men such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. It witnessed the accomplishments of playwrights such as William Shakespeare and would change history by defeating the Spanish Armada” (Galli, Woods). England thrived under Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and the robust cities flurried with activity. There were great developments in art at the time and it was later considered the height of English renaissance. Life was full of work but there was leisure time as well. Entertainment was plentiful such as feasts and festivals, fairs, dance, music, art, sports, and hunting. Elizabethan theater was the most significant form of entertainment during the 16th and 17th century, it was a time that produced history and culture so rich that it is still remembered and relevant today. Elizabethan theater was a truly entertaining period that impacted all of society bringing out the good and bad of people and setting the stage for future theater.
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Before formal theaters, there were groups of wandering minstrels that would perform music and skip around the country. These groups, called troupes, traveled from city to city performing in places such as town squares, inn-yards, halls, and any place big enough to accommodate a large crowd. Generally, these wanderers were regarded as vagabonds or thieves and they were more of an irritant than entertainment. After Queen Elizabeth I took the throne she solved this problem with a law that acting troupes had to have a license and they needed to be working under a person that has high nobility. With this law in place actors couldn’t travel because they needed to be working under a person of high nobility in one area, and many actors stopped acting. In response to this problem, permanent stages popped up around England to accommodate these grounded actors.
Three types of theaters were prevalent during this time, inn-yards, amphitheaters, and playhouses. Inn-yards, the earliest sort of theaters, could hold about 500 people. An Inn-yard theatre, or sometimes called an Inn-theatre, was an inn, that often-sold food and alcohol, and had an inner courtyard with balconies that provided a site for the presentation of plays on a stage. The plays attracted more customers to the inn, so everyone shared in the profit. Amphitheaters, including the most well-known amphitheater “The globe” were open air venues like the roman coliseum. This type of arena could hold around one to three thousand audience members but were only usable in the summer months. Amphitheaters were all about making a profit, built cheap to seat as many people as possible. Playhouses were small, private halls that could hold up to 500 people. These venues were open to anyone who could pay, but it was more costly therefore drawing a more refined audience. “Playhouses helped the acting troupes considerably as playhouses allowed for an all year-round profession, not one restricted to the summer at the mercy of the English weather. Playhouses also allowed for luxury and comfort for courtiers and the nobility when watching a play, thus encouraging wealthy and powerful clientele” (Alchin).
Going to the theater was not considered to be a fancy affair. Plays were often crude and were seen at two o’clock in the afternoon. The poor people that attended were called groundlings and would pay one penny to stand in front of the stage. This group was known for being rowdy and would frequently yell, talk, and throw rotten produce at the actors if they were displeased. Rich people would even sit on the stage and make comments to the audience during the play. The most expensive seats in the theater were the top row in the back. “Rich people would want to have the most segregated and exclusive seats in the theater, away from the rowdy, poor people” (Mularski). The expectation was that there would be a new play to see every day. This kept many actors employed to meet the demand of the audience.
During this time period acting was thought to be tawdry for women so only men could act. Generally, the female characters were performed by young boys with high voices. White make-up used by young male Elizabethan actors was lead based and highly poisonous. “The young boy actors were therefore very unhealthy, had unpleasant facial skin diseases and a high proportion actually died of lead poisoning” (Alchin). There were two main acting groups; acting companies and boy’s choirs. All the actors needed to do more than just acting. Singing, fencing, dancing, clowning, and performing acrobatics are all things they needed to know how to do. Boys were usually put through education for acting, singing, grammar, and rhetoric. Men were paid more shillings per week than the boys. Actors had to work around difficult laws as well, the Sumptuary Laws stated that Elizabethans were prohibited to wear any clothing that was above their social standing, extremely restricting their performances of any play about kings, queens and nobility. Queen Elizabeth I so enjoyed this type of entertainment that a ‘Get out Clause’ was written into the Sumptuary Laws. The English Sumptuary Law of 1574 stated the following: “Note also that the meaning of this order is not to prohibit a servant from wearing any cognizance of his master, or henchmen, heralds, pursuivants at arms; runners at jousts, tourneys, or such martial feats, and such as wear apparel given them by the Queen, and such as shall have license from the Queen for the same.”
There were many controversies associated with Elizabethan theatre and the acting world during the Elizabethan Era. In general, acting and theatre was looked upon with reservations by the public as the acting world had acquired a mixed reputation of being fun but not very respectable. Mainly, however, were the Puritans and Church of England who thought of acting to be incredibly indecent and, in certain aspects, unsafe. The Church of England and the Puritans thought acting was indecent mainly because the plays themselves had questionable content. “Respectable people and officers of the Church frequently made complaints about the growing number of actors and shows. The plays were often lewd and profane, and the actors were immoral people” (Bellinger). Actors were so questionable that they would often be asked for their credentials, and always treated with suspicion.
Indeed, there were actual and real problems that existed, one being and perhaps the biggest, large crowds gathered together would spread bubonic plague. Bubonic plague, later named Black Death was pernicious. The Black Death is a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates when rodents live in highly populated, small areas. Fleas bite the rat and spread the disease to humans when the flea bites a person. Once infected the bacterium takes over all your organs and shuts them down, making for a quick death. There were three very serious outbreaks of the disease which led to the closure of all places of Elizabethan entertainment, including the Globe Theater. These occurred in 1593, 1603 and 1608. The impact of these closures was tremendous. There would have been no money coming into the theaters, and therefore no money going out to the actors. There was no way to know when it was safe to reopen and a constant fear of contracting Bubonic plague prevailed. Theaters also attracted opportunistic rabble such as pickpockets, thieves, brawlers, drunks, and harlots. Another complaint was, “Large crowds were ideal to discuss or spread topics of a subversive or rebellious nature” (Bradley). Additionally, theaters attracted workers and kept them from doing their jobs. A distinct problem for the Puritans was, “Boys in the acting companies acted out female roles and wore makeup and women’s clothing which was considered sacrilegious by some people” (Bellinger). Even though theater was loved by many there were some legitimate reasons that it was unfavorable.
Because of all these controversies the Parliament wanted to shut down the theater. This was a problem for Queen Elizabeth I considering that she had a great love for the theater. To placate parliament, she established rules and regulations that theaters had to follow, however enforcement of these rules were lenient. After Elizabeth’s death, her law that all actors needed to be licensed under nobles slowly receded. Now under King James I, with a new ruler comes changes, this caused actors to think they could get away with bad behavior and it emboldened them.
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The English Civil War broke out in 1642 between the Parliament and the Royalists and the Parliament closed the theaters on the grounds of preventing public disorder. The only other time that the theaters had closed was due to runs of the Bubonic Plague. The closing of the theaters in 1642 ended up remaining closed for 18 years before they were restored again.
After Charles II took the throne in 1660 there was a restoration of the theaters. “During this time in theater history, a significant turn took place regarding women’s role in theater. They were now permitted to become actresses, recognized playwrights, and could manage theaters” (Nestvold). Elizabethan theater is the jumping off point for all modern theater today, although now there are many differences. Modern actors and actresses are respected and paid well and going to the theater is now considered to be a sophisticated and elegant affair.
With the prosperous time of Queen Elizabeth I, there came theater, actors, entertainment, and contrasting ideas. Queen Elizabeth I very much liked the theater and supported the actors in developing their craft and permanent theaters. Although there were many obstacles the theater persevered and has influenced culture for more than five hundred years.
- Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Actors.” ELIZABETHAN ERA, 2017, www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-actors.htm.
- Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Amphitheater.” ELIZABETHAN ERA, 2017, www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-amphitheatre.htm.
- Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Inn-Yards.” ELIZABETHAN ERA, 2017, www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-inn-yards.htm.
- Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Playhouses.” ELIZABETHAN ERA, 2017, www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-playhouses.htm.
- Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Theatre.” ELIZABETHAN ERA, 2017, www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-theatre.htm.
- Barroll, J. Leeds, and Susan Zimmerman. Shakespeare Studies. Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 2000.
- Bellinger, Martha Fletcher. “ELIZABETHAN PLAYHOUSES, ACTORS, AND AUDIENCES.” Political and Social Satire of Aristophanes, 2002, www.theatrehistory.com/british/bellinger001.html.
- Bradley, David. From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre: Preparing the Play for the Stage. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Evans, G. Blakemore. Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama: the Theatre in Its Time. New Amsterdam, 1990.
- Galli, Mike, and Karen Woods. “Queen Elizabeth I of England.” Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, 10 Jan. 2018, departments.kings.edu/womens_history/elizabeth.html.
- Holmes, Martin Rivington. Elizabethan London. Cassell, 1969.
- Mularski, Jessica E. “Elizabethan Theater – Shakespeare Fun Facts.” Google Sites, 2003, sites.google.com/site/shakespearefunfact/elizabethan-theater.
- Nestvold, Ruth. “Women in the Theater after the Restoration.” The Aphra Behn Page, www.lit-arts.net/Behn/theater.htm.
- Rowse, Alfred Leslie. The Elizabethan Renaissance the Cultural Achievement. Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
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