"Shakespeare and His 
Critics" Logo with Ophelia - by Meredith Dillman

A Lecture on
Elizabethan Theatre

By Thomas Larque.

(A lecture originally given to BTEC in Performing Arts students
as part of their course in 2001)



This lecture is intended as a rapid introduction to Elizabethan Theatre, and the way that it was written and performed in the Elizabethan period itself.  This lecture was written for a BTEC in Performing Arts course, which I was invited to address as a specialist guest lecturer, and the lecture was a formal part of the students' course.  Since this lecture was originally intended to be spoken and not read it does not contain any detailed footnotes or references, and much of the information contained in the lecture is drawn from various books and authors (most of which are listed in the "Further Reading" section) as well as containing comments and opinions of my own.

This lecture is Copyright Thomas Larque, 2001 and 2005. See the copyright notice on http://shakespearean.org.uk for more details.


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Elizabethan Theatre

By Thomas Larque.


Return to the "Shakespeare and His Critics" Homepage


1. Drama Before Theatres

When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 there were no specially designed theatre buildings in England. Companies of actors toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, sometimes building stages and scenery for a particular series of performances, and sometimes simply using an unaltered hall or open space. There are records of actors performing in churches, in the great halls of Royal Palaces and other great houses, in Inn Yards, in Town Halls, in Town Squares and anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance. Acting companies were usually small and mobile. Records suggest that an average touring company consisted of five to eight players, often consisting of four adult men and a single boy to play all the female parts. Although we are mostly concerned with the larger companies that inhabited the large theatre buildings that were built later in Elizabeth’s reign, touring companies of this kind (using temporary acting spaces throughout the country) continued to perform throughout Elizabeth’s reign, and even the major companies could be forced to tour to the Provinces when Plague shut the London theatres or money was low.

Soon after Elizabeth came to the throne laws began to be passed to control wandering beggars and vagrants. These made criminals of any actors who toured and performed without the support of a member of the highest ranks of the nobility. Many actors were driven out of the profession or criminalised, while those who continued were forced to become officially servants to Lords and Ladies of the realm. Touring was increasingly discouraged and many of the remaining companies were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London. The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring - the Cross Keys, the Bull, the Bel Savage and the Bell were all originally built as inns. Some of the Inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses. The Red Lion in Stepney, in particular, had a rough auditorium with scaffolding galleries built around the stage area - a design that may have influenced the building of later purpose built theatres such as the Theatre and the Globe.


2. The First Theatre

The first purpose built Theatre building in England - originally and solely intended for performance - was called “The Theatre”, eventually giving its name to all such buildings. It was built in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester’s Players who were led by James Burbage - a carpenter turned actor. The design of the Theatre was based on that of bull baiting and bear baiting yards (where crowds of spectators watched animals torn to pieces for sport) which had sometimes been used by actors as convenient performance venues in the past. Not much is known about the design of the Theatre, but it appears to have been wooden and polygonal (with many straight sides making up a rough circle of walls) and may have had three galleries full of seating stacked one above another. The main area of the theatre was open to the sky, with a large yard for spectators to stand and watch the action if they could not afford a seat. In 1599 Burbage’s sons became involved in a dispute over the land on which the Theatre stood and solved their problems by secretly and suddenly tearing down the Theatre building and carrying away the timbers to build a new playhouse on the Bankside, which they named The Globe. By this time the Burbages had become members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, along with William Shakespeare, and the Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.

Although the Globe is the most famous Elizabethan Theatre, and the building which we will concentrate upon, there were many other theatres built during this period - each one different from the others in the way in which it was designed and built. The theatres fell into two main types, however, the “public” amphitheatre buildings (such as the Theatre, the Globe, the Curtain and the Swan) which were open to the air, and the smaller and more expensive “private” theatres (such as Blackfriars and the Cockpit) which were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today. The private theatres had a more exclusive audience since they charged considerably more - the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence, while public theatres like the Globe charged twopence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth’s death - which technically puts them beyond our consideration of Elizabethan Theatre - but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth’s reign and were used by Shakespeare’s Company - by this time the King’s Men - and other adult companies in the Jacobean period, so we will consider them in passing.


3. The Globe

The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 with a thatched roof above the galleries (covering the seats: the yard - where poorer spectators stood - was still open to the air). This roof caught fire in 1613 when cannon fired off during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII sent sparks into the thatch and the whole theatre burned to the ground. A second Globe was built with a tiled roof, and this was finally demolished in 1644 when all plays had been banned by the Roundhead Parliament during the Civil War. In modern times several replica Globe Theatres have been built around the world, including the new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, which was completed in 1997. Although the modern Globe Theatre is an inexact imitation of the real Globe - with many of its characteristics based on guesswork, and others altered to pass modern fire regulations and accommodate a modern audience (taller, fatter and expecting more luxurious surroundings than their Elizabethan ancestors) - the design, building and use of the new Globe has given much useful information about how an Elizabethan Theatre works and how it affects the performances of actors who use such a stage.

The size and exact shape of the original Globe can only really be guessed at, but surviving records about the Globe and other Elizabethan theatres (including some very rough drawings of the outside of the Globe in drawings of the city) together with archaeological examination of parts of the Globe’s remains (most of which are unfortunately buried under modern London buildings and cannot be examined) have allowed the people who built the modern Globe Theatre reconstruction to make what they hope is a faithful reproduction of the original theatre. The modern Globe is a hundred feet (30 metres) in diameter. Instead of being circular, as some early scholars believed it to be, the building is a polygon with 20 straight walls. There are three layers of seating in galleries on all sides of the stage except directly behind it. Directly in front of the stage is a large yard nearly 80 feet (24 metres) in diameter for the groundlings (standing spectators who pay a cheaper entry price than those who have seats). The stage itself is unusually wide by modern standards - 44 feet (13.2 metres) wide, 25 feet (7.5 metres) deep, and 5 feet (1.5 metres) high. There is roofing over the gallery seating and over the stage itself, the stage roof being held up by two huge pillars that stand on the stage - obstructing the view of audience members from various angles - but the yard is open to the air. Behind the stage there is a curtained “discovery space” - a small room behind a curtain - which allows characters to be suddenly revealed by opening the curtain (as Ferdinand and Miranda are suddenly revealed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, playing chess). There are two other entrances in the upstage wall, on the left and right. Behind the entrances is the tiring house, for actors to dress, prepare and wait offstage. There is a balcony above the stage which was sometimes used in the performance (it was probably Juliet’s balcony in Romeo and Juliet), sometimes housed the theatre musicians and was sometimes used for more audience seating. There is a trapdoor in the centre of the stage and the Elizabethans had simple machinery to allow ghosts, devils and similar characters to be raised up through the trapdoor and gods and spirits to be lowered from the “heavens” in the stage roof.

Visiting the reconstructed Globe is a magical experience, but it is important to remember that it does not exactly resemble the conditions of the original theatre. The modern Globe can hold 1500 spectators: the original Globe (which had smaller and less comfortable visitors) packed twice as many people into the same space. Modern fire regulations force the modern Globe to have four six foot wide entrances. The original Globe had only two narrow doorways. Similarly the modern Directors did not like the original positioning of the two obstructive stage pillars and insisted that they should be further back on the stage and closer together than the architects, builders and historians thought they really should have been. The modern reconstructed stage is designed to allow two columns of soldiers to march abreast in front of the stage pillars. The pillars in the original theatre were probably further apart and much closer to the front of the stage, restricting the number of actors passing in front of the pillars and causing more frequent obstructions to audience sightlines.


4. The Players

The number and type of actor involved in Elizabethan Theatre varied from one performance to the next, but there were invariably many more parts than actors. The London companies with their fixed theatres tended to use many more actors than the touring companies we considered earlier. In a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, a spectator remembered that he had seen “about fifteen” actors perform the play. There are 40 named roles in Julius Caesar along with an unspecified number of extra “Plebeians” and “Senators, Guards, Attendants etc.” all played by members of the fifteen strong cast. Elizabethan Theatre, therefore, demanded that an actor be able to play numerous roles and make it obvious to the audience by changes in his acting style and costume that he was a new person each time. When the same character came on disguised (as, for example, many of Shakespeare’s female characters disguise themselves as boys) speeches had to be included making it very clear that this was the same character in a new costume, and not a completely new character.

All of the actors in an Elizabethan Theatre company were male. There were laws in England against women acting onstage and English travellers abroad were amused and amazed by the strange customs of Continental European countries that allowed women to play female roles - at least one Englishman recorded his surprise at finding that the female actors were as good at playing female parts as the male actors back home. One woman - Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse - was arrested in the Jacobean period for singing and playing instruments onstage during a performance of a play about her life (Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl) and some suggest that she may actually have been illegally playing herself in the performance, and women sometimes took part in Court Masques (a very stylised and spectacular sort of performance for the Court, usually dominated by singing and dancing), but otherwise English women had no part in the performance of Elizabethan plays. The male actors who played female parts have traditionally been described as “Boy Actors”, but there is now an academic controversy about exactly how old these actors would have been. Some academics are convinced that very young actors could not possibly have played such important, complex and emotionally difficult parts as Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights wrote for women, and argue that references to “men” playing women’s parts prove that these actors were in fact fully grown adults. My friend Dave Kathman, however, has researched this issue and points out that whenever we know or can guess the age of an actor who was known to be playing a female part in a particular performance, that actor was a teenager - most between the ages of roughly fourteen to nineteen. Because of differences in diet and upbringing, boys’ voices broke much later in the Elizabethan period than they do now, which made it possible for boys to play women’s parts convincingly for much longer than some modern scholars assume possible.

The rehearsal and performance schedule that Elizabethan Players followed was intense and demanding. Unlike modern theatres, where a successful play can run for years at a time, Elizabethan theatres normally performed six different plays in their six day week, and a particularly successful play might only be repeated once a month or so. There were exceptions to this rule, such as Middleton’s immensely successful Jacobean play A Game At Chess which played for nine days in a row before being banned for political reasons, but runs of this kind were reserved for plays which were an immense success and were viewed as extremely unusual. In a typical season Henslowe’s Company performed thirty-eight different plays, twenty-one of which were entirely new and seventeen of which had been performed in previous years. The Elizabethan actor did not have much time, therefore, to prepare for each new play, and must have had to learn lines and prepare his blocking largely on his own and in his spare time - probably helped by the tendency of writers to have particular actors in mind for each part, and to write roles which were suited to the particular strengths and habits of individual actors. There were few formal rehearsals for each play and no equivalent of the modern Director (although presumably the writer, theatre managers, and the most important actors - who owned shares in the theatre company - would have given some direction to other actors). Instead of being given full scripts, each actor had a written “part”, a long scroll with nothing more than his own lines and minimal cue lines (the lines spoken by another actor just before his own) to tell him when to speak - this saved on the labourious task of copying out the full play repeatedly by hand. There was a bookholder or prompter who held a complete script and who helped actors who had forgotten their lines. The bookholder usually also had a “plot” or a brief summary of the play, scene by scene, listing the various entrances and exits and telling which characters and properties were required upon the stage at any one time. Surviving plots have a square hole to allow them to be hung upon a peg in the playhouse.

We know little more about most Elizabethan actors than their name, when this has happened to survive on theatrical records, in cast lists, or elsewhere - but there were a few star actors who have left a more detailed reputation behind them. The two most famous Elizabethan actors normally played tragic and romantic heroes. They were Edward Alleyn, lead actor of the Admiral’s Men, and Richard Burbage who was the lead actor in Shakespeare’s Company (belonging at various times to Leicester, Lord Strange, the Lord Chamberlain and finally becoming - in the Jacobean period - the King’s Men). Alleyn was probably the most famous Elizabethan actor, who was best known for his performances in Christopher Marlowe’s plays - playing Tamburlaine a shepherd who became a mighty military leader and conquered vast swathes of territory, Doctor Faustus who made a pact with the devil, and Barabas the villainous Jew in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Alleyn made so much money from his acting and his share in the theatre company to which he belonged that he was able to buy the Manor of Dulwich on his retirement (costing 10,000 - an unbelievably huge sum of money at the time) and established Dulwich College, where the papers of his father-in-law, the famous theatre manager Philip Henslowe, were stored - the most important cache of theatrical documents to have survived the Elizabethan period. Richard Burbage is now probably better known than Edward Alleyn because of his connection with Shakespeare and he originated most of Shakespeare’s famous lead roles including Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Henry V, King Lear and others. It is suggested that the contradictions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the lead character is apparently a young student at the beginning of the play but is referred to as “fat” and aged thirty towards the end of the play, were particularly added to suit the middle-aged and portly figure of Burbage himself. Burbage also became wealthy on the profits of his profession, although not nearly so well off as Alleyn. Both were admired and remembered by numerous Elizabethan writers. The other actors to become household names were the Clowns or Fools, and we will consider them later.

The income of actors varied enormously according to their position in the Company, and the type of Company to which they belonged. The least well paid actors were the boys, who were apprenticed to adult actors and whose small wage (the Admiral’s Men paid one boy player three shillings a week) was paid to their masters. In return they were given board and lodging and a very meagre allowance to spend on themselves. Next lowest in the acting hierarchy were the hired men, adult actors who were paid a fixed wage for each working day. Actors in Henslowe’s London Company received ten shillings a week, but those performing in smaller companies or touring outside London could receive half that. The most important actors in a theatre company, however, were taken on as sharers - owning a particular portion of the theatre company or its theatre building and subsequently earning a proportion of the Company’s profits from every performance. Shakespeare earned enough from his share in the Globe Theatre to buy the second most expensive house in his home village of Stratford and to invest in lands and property, and he was also able to buy himself a coat of arms and the right to refer to himself as a Gentleman (an important step up the social ladder in class conscious Elizabethan times).


5. The Playwrights

During the Middle Ages nobody is known who could be referred to as a professional English playwright. Pageants and Church plays were often written by members of the Clergy and the writers of plays for touring companies were largely anonymous and few of their works have survived. In the Tudor period, and a little before it, men who earned their living as writers and poets began to be recognisably connected with plays. The earliest professional playwright of whom we know may have been Henry Medwall who wrote a Morality Play and an Interlude, that survive, for performance in the house of his master, John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. John Heywood, during the reign of Henry VIII, wrote a large number of Interludes for performance at the Court, but when Elizabeth’s reign began most plays were still written by people we would regard as amateurs or occasional playwrights. The increasing professionalism of the acting companies, however, meant that they increasingly needed to employ professional dramatists to provide them with the large and continually changing repertory that they required. The first wave of professional playwrights were mostly University educated men who earned a living from their pens. These men were incredulous and envious when subsequently confronted by less well educated playwrights - such as Shakespeare, the son of a glover, who seems to have learned his skills as a member of the acting profession and became a writer without being educated in the great Universities, who became rich through his connection with the theatre while many of the better qualified University playwrights lived and died in poverty, given only a few pounds for each of their plays. Shakespeare earned money as a Sharer in the Theatre Company (given a proportion of the Theatre’s profits for every production rather than just a wage), a position that he probably gained largely because of his acting background.

The form which Elizabethan plays took was still developing at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabethan Universities studied Greek and Roman plays in the original language, and the students sometimes performed them within the University. During Elizabeth’s reign translations of these Greek and Roman plays became widely available and began to have a heavy influence upon English playwrights. Greek and Roman Plays were largely divided into two genres, Comedy and Tragedy. The first full length English Comedy, written in about 1553, was Ralph Roister Doister - written by Nicholas Udall, former headmaster of Eton - in which Ralph, a character based on the Roman Dramatist Plautus’ stereotypical Braggart, pursues a widow who is betrothed to an absent sea captain, until the widow finally drives him off with the help of her maids armed with mops and pails. The first full length English Tragedy was Gorboduc - written in 1561 by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville - which tells the story of a mythical English King in a style in imitation of the Roman Dramatist Seneca, complete with choruses and long rhetorical speeches. Gorboduc also influenced the later creation of a peculiarly English dramatic genre, not based on Classical examples, the Chronicle or History play which was neither Comedy nor Tragedy, but told the story of a genuine Historical period - usually the reign of a particular English Monarch. It is not known which was the first English History play, but early examples included Shakespeare’s Henry VI (eventually a trilogy of plays) and Marlowe’s Edward II. Originally English Tragedies and Comedies tended to be written in close imitation of Greek and Roman models and much was made of the Classical rules of writing plays - rules which Renaissance writers took from Aristotle’s Poetics and expanded upon. These rules included the assumption that Tragedy and Comedy should never mix and that a play should take place according to the Unities of Time and Place - meaning that the stage should represent a single place and all of the play’s action should take place within a single fictional day at most. Fortunately English playwrights increasingly rejected the restrictions of slavishly following Classical models and began to write Tragedies and Comedies in a much looser and more relaxed style. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, for example, a bloodthirsty tale of murder and revenge, generally ignored the Classical rules and strongly influenced many subsequent Elizabethan plays including Shakespeare’s early Titus Andronicus and his later Hamlet (it is even suspected that Thomas Kyd may have been the author of an early Hamlet play that existed before Shakespeare’s). It also became traditional for comic characters to appear in even the most serious of Tragedies, like the comic gravedigger in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

At the same time that the genres of English plays were becoming fixed and accepted, a particular form of dramatic poetry was discovered to be ideal for dramatic composition. This was blank verse - first used in Gorboduc. Blank verse was usually unrhymed (except for occasional couplets in significant places) and used ten syllables a line divided into five iambic feet of alternately unstressed and stressed syllables. The main advantage of blank verse was that despite being regular and poetical it could be made to sound very much like natural English speech. Early blank verse was very regular, with all sentences end-stopped (finishing exactly at the end of the blank verse line) and with very little variation in the stresses and pauses in the lines. As time passed Marlowe, Shakespeare and other dramatists began to use blank verse in a much more flexible and inventive manner - allowing sentences to run from one line into the next and finish wherever in the line was necessary, breaking the blank verse rules when it suited them to allow extra syllables in the line or irregular stresses and pauses. Generally speaking the later a blank verse play was written the more natural its language sounds. Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists often used a mixture of blank verse and prose, usually giving the unstructured prose (following no poetical rules and without line endings) to their comical or rustic characters or those who for some other reason were considered more casual in their speech than the significant or serious characters who routinely spoke verse. The majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were written in blank verse after Gorboduc, but some were written in other forms, such as prose or rhyming couplets.


6. Politics and Religion

Elizabeth began her reign in a fast changing and dangerous period for the English nation. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken off from the Catholic Church and established the Protestant Church of England. After the death of Henry and his sickly son Edward the throne had passed on to Elizabeth’s older sister Mary, a Catholic - who had brought England back into the Church of Rome, and had married the firmly Catholic King of Spain. When Mary died without children the Protestant Elizabeth inherited the throne and England became a Protestant Nation once more. Each stage in this process involved bloody trials and executions of those following the wrong religion - and Elizabeth had to consider the fact that a large proportion of her population had been or still was Catholic. While some Catholics continued their religion secretly and otherwise supported Elizabeth, others were openly rebellious. Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope who encouraged all Catholic Kings and subjects to work to assassinate Elizabeth and overthrow her regime. Elizabeth managed to resist the Northern Rebellion - where Catholic Lords and subjects in the North rose up against her - and escaped a number of planned assassination attempts. She also fought off the Spanish Armada, an invasion force blessed by the Pope.

In times such as these, plays, which gathered huge crowds and exposed them to a particular view of the world - which could be an excellent form of propaganda - were viewed with a great deal of concern. This is hardly surprising since a single performance at a playhouse could attract 3000 spectators when the population of London was only 200,000. This meant that one and a half percent of the London population were gathered in one place and exposed to the same influence at every performance - enough people to begin a riot or even a rebellion. To protect against these threats, the Elizabethan authorities imposed a range of laws and systems to ensure that they could control just about every word that was spoken onstage. The official in charge of this control was the Lord Chamberlain, but most of the real work was carried out by his subordinate, the Master of the Revels. Before the performance of any play, the script had to be submitted to the Revels Office for checking and the Master of the Revels made any alterations in the script that he felt necessary - making sure that the play remained morally and politically safe and did not trespass into religious matters or use inappropriate blasphemies. The punishments for writers whose works were felt to be seditious or offensive could be extreme, including imprisonment, torture and mutilation - but in fact the Elizabethan Censors were more lenient than is sometimes suggested and did not come down heavily on many actors or dramatists during this period.

One of the major incidents of suppression during the Elizabethan period was prompted by the production of Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs. The exact content of this play is not known, as it was ruthlessly suppressed and never printed, but it has been suggested that it may have been a satirical attack on Elizabeth’s courtiers. After the play had been performed in 1597, the players - Pembroke’s Men - and the playwright Ben Jonson were arrested and imprisoned while Thomas Nashe fled to Yarmouth. Nashe’s house was searched for papers and Jonson was questioned and then secretly imprisoned with two informers who encouraged him to betray himself to them. The Privy Council was so outraged by the performance that it went as far as to ban all plays in London and its surroundings for much of the rest of the year. After having failed to incriminate himself, however, Jonson was released and his imprisonment did not damage his future reputation or prospects in any significant way.

Another major scandal involved Shakespeare’s Richard II, a performance of which was specially commissioned by followers of the Earl of Essex, who - unknown to the Players - were planning to stir up support in London for a rebellion against Elizabeth the following day. The Earl, who had lost the Queen’s favour and been discredited, led a small band of armed followers through London with the intention of capturing the Queen, but they were not supported by the London populace and the rebellion failed. The reason for choosing the play was that it showed the decline and fall of Richard II, a weak King closely connected to corrupt favourites, who was overthrown by a rebellion led by the Earl of Bolingbroke who had the King murdered and took his crown. Elizabeth was vastly upset by the rebellion and particularly commented upon the attempts to compare her to the corrupt and successfully overthrown Richard II of the play. “I am Richard II, know you not that?” she told Francis Bacon and complained “This tragedy has been played forty times in open streets and houses”. Augustine Phillips, one of the leading actors of Shakespeare’s Company, was called in and interrogated about the actors’ role in the affair, but he maintained that they had known nothing about any seditious intent and that they had simply been encouraged to reprise an old play - so old that they didn’t expect much of an audience - and had been paid ten shillings over the ordinary to perform it. The authorities treated the actors leniently and no punishment seems to have been forthcoming. On the day before Essex was executed Shakespeare’s Company, perhaps as a sign of forgiveness, was invited to perform before the Queen.

More typical of the censorship of Elizabethan plays was the suppression of Sir Thomas More - a play which was written and then amended by a large group of different playwrights, possibly including Shakespeare - who may have written scenes in his own handwriting in the manuscript. It was an odd choice of a subject for a play, since Thomas More was a Catholic Martyr who had been executed by Elizabeth’s father for opposing his divorce and establishment of the Church of England. The Master of the Revels disliked many of the scenes within the play and sent it back repeatedly for alterations - particularly to a scene in which More talked with poor rioters, which was seen as particularly dangerous in its presentation of More himself and its dangerous sympathy with rebellious poor people who opposed the Tudor regime. Despite many such alterations the play was never considered acceptable and so was never granted a licence to be performed or published. We know the play only because the original manuscript survives.


7. Costume, Scenery and Effects

Some modern companies consider the Elizabethan performance style to have been very close to what we now call Minimalism. Companies like the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express claim to be closer to the original Elizabethan performance style because they perform in modern dress, with no scenery and few props, and without using modern lighting, sound or stage effects. Although Minimalist performances of this kind may be closer to the Elizabethan originals than, for example, the spectacular Victorian performances of Shakespeare’s plays (with detailed painted backdrops and archaeologically correct costumes and stage designs, and sometimes even real horses, real boats and real canals) they are still very far from Elizabethan performances. In reality the Elizabethans used far more sophisticated props, costumes and stage effects than is sometimes assumed.

Elizabethan costuming seems to have been a strange combination of what was (for the Elizabethans) modern dress, and costumes which - while not being genuinely historically or culturally accurate - had a historical or foreign flavour. A famous picture of a performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (one of the few pictures of Elizabethan actors at work) shows Titus in a breastplate and a supposedly historical garment, very loosely based on the Roman toga, while one of his guards (in a play set in Roman times) wears the familiar armour of an Elizabethan soldier and another wears a foreign looking, possibly Turkish influenced, suit of armour. Many of the authentic Elizabethan garments owned by a Theatre Company had been passed onto them, secondhand, by members of the nobility. Strict laws were in force about what materials and types of clothes could be worn by members of each social class - laws which the actors were allowed to break onstage - so it would be immediately obvious to the Elizabethan audience that actors wearing particular types of clothes were playing people of particular backgrounds and types. Extensive make-up was almost certainly used, particularly for the boys playing female parts and with dark make-up on the face and hands for actors playing “blackamoors” or “Turks”. There were also conventions for playing a number of roles - some of which we know from printed play scripts. Mad women, like Ophelia, wore their hair loose and mad people of both sexes had disordered clothing. Night scenes were often signalled by characters wearing nightdresses (even the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in his nightgown, when Hamlet is talking with his Mother in her chamber).

The Elizabethans did not use fixed scenery or painted backdrops of the sort that became popular in the Victorian period, but those who claim that the Elizabethans performed on a completely bare stage are wrong. A wide variety of furniture and props were brought onstage to set the scene as necessary - ranging from simple beds, tables, chairs and thrones to whole trees, grassy banks, prop dragons, an unpleasant looking cave to represent the mouth of hell, and so forth. Such props often played a major part in the play, as in The Spanish Tragedy where a man is spectacularly hanged by the neck from an arbour, apparently a complex wooden frame with a bench and leaves - a scene illustrated in a published copy of the play.

Death brought out a particular ingenuity in Elizabethan actors and they apparently used copious quantities of animal blood, fake heads and tables with holes in to stage decapitations (an illustration of an Elizabethan conjuring trick shows a table with two holes in it, one boy sitting hidden under the table with only his - apparently decapitated - head above it another lying on the top of the table with his - apparently missing - head hidden below it: tricks of this kind were almost certainly used on the Elizabethan stage). Heads, hands, eyes, tongues and limbs were dramatically cut off onstage, and probably involved some sort of blood-drenched stage trick.

A number of other simple special effects were used. Real cannons and pistols (loaded with powder but no bullet) were fired off when ceremonial salutes or battles were required. Thunder was imitated by rolling large metal cannon balls backstage or by drumming, while lightning was imitated by fireworks set off in the “heavens” above the stage. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale calls for a man to be pursued across the stage by a bear and there is much academic argument about whether a real (tame) bear would have been used or whether it would have been a man in a bear costume (probably a real bear skin). Some plays bring dogs onstage, although it has been suggested that Shakespeare only once used a dog in his plays because the animal proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

One thing that Elizabethan theatres almost completely lacked was lighting effects. In the outdoor theatres, like the Globe, plays were performed from two o’clock until about four or four thirty in the afternoon (these were the times fixed by law, but plays may sometimes have run for longer) in order to take advantage of the best daylight (earlier or later performances would have cast distracting shadows onto the stage). Evening performances, without daylight, were impossible. In the hall theatres, on the other hand, the stages were lit by candlelight - which forced them to hold occasional, probably musical, breaks while the candles were trimmed and tended or replaced as they burned down. Elizabethan actors carried flaming torches to indicate that a scene was taking place at night, but this would have made little difference to the actual lighting of the stage, and spectators simply had to use their imagination. The nearest that the Elizabethans came to lighting effects were fireworks, used to imitate lightening or magical effects - the devils in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus apparently cavorted around the stage with squibs, small exploding fireworks, held in their mouths.


8. Performance Techniques

We know very little, unfortunately, about how Elizabethan actors actually played their roles. Performances probably ran continuously without any sort of interval or Act Breaks. Occasionally music may have been played between Acts or certain scenes, but scholars think this was quite unusual except in the hall playhouses, where candles had to be trimmed and replaced between Acts. We do not even know how long Elizabethan plays usually ran. The law (mentioned above) expected plays to last between two and two and a half hours, and Shakespeare talks about “the two hours traffic of our stage” in Romeo and Juliet, but some plays - such as Hamlet, which in modern times runs for more than four hours - seem much too long to have been performed in such a short time. It is possible that the scripts which have been passed down to us are the playwright’s first draft and that they would have been cut considerably for performance. It is also possible that Elizabethan actors performed at a much faster speed than modern actors without so many pauses and without speaking slowly for emphasis. What props and scenery there were in the Elizabethan Theatre were probably carried on and off while the scenes continued, which means that there would have been no need to wait for scene changes - something which could double the length of a spectacular Victorian performance.

Some idea of the sort of hand gestures that an Elizabethan actor may have used may have been preserved in a peculiar book called Chirologia or the Naturall Language of the Hand. This was supposed to explain hand gestures used to show emotions or give emphasis in normal conversation rather than in stage performance, but if gestures of this kind were used offstage then they were almost certainly used on it as well. Some of the gestures seem very odd and extravagant to modern eyes, but may well have seemed perfectly natural to an Elizabethan.

Another aspect of Elizabethan performance that we know a little about was the use of clowns or fools. Shakespeare complains in Hamlet about the fact that the fool often spoke a great deal that was not included in his script, and in the early Elizabethan period especially it seems to have been normal for the fool to include a great deal of improvised repartee and jokes in his performance, especially responding to hecklers in the audience. At the end of the play the Elizabethan actors often danced, and sometimes the fool and other comic actors would perform a jig - which could be anything from a simple ballad to a quite complicated musical play, normally a farce involving adultery and other bawdy topics. Some time was apparently put aside for the fool to respond to challenges from the audience - with spectators inventing rhymes and challenging the fool to complete them, asking riddles and questions and demanding witty answers, or simply arguing and criticising the fool so that he could respond. One of the famous clown Tarlton’s jokes, for example, was given in response to a woman in the audience threatening to cuff him. She should only reverse the spelling of the word, he told her, and she could have her will immediately. It has been suggested that the first fool in Shakespeare’s company - William Kempe - was famous for improvisational humour of this kind and for rejecting Shakespeare’s scripts in order to make his own jests, and that his replacement Robert Armin may have been more of an actor and less of an improvisational comedian, respecting the words that Shakespeare had set down for him.

Performances by modern actors at the reconstructed Globe have given us some insight into aspects of performance on a stage of this kind which may help us to reconstruct the behaviour of Elizabethan actors, but may sometimes be misleading - since the modern Globe actors are a 21st Century company performing for 21st Century audiences. Modern Globe actors have found the Globe to be an excellent performing space which actors find very appealing, but it is also very different from the modern stages that they are used to and requires a very different style of performance to make use of the theatres strengths and alleviate its weaknesses.

Companies performing on the Globe stage have to take into account the strange positioning of the audience. The Globe seating almost completely surrounds the stage, with audience members at the extreme ends of the circle almost behind the upstage corners of the stage and looking at the action from the back forwards - and with the views of all parts of the audience occasionally blocked by the obtrusive stage pillars. The modern Globe Directors have found that, as a result, they need to keep their actors in constant motion. They also need to have actors facing in as many different directions as possible during a scene. When I went to see King Lear this Summer I was surprised to find that despite sitting in the worst position, at the most extreme upstage left corner of the stage, behind the actors, I was always able to see at least one actor’s face throughout the performance and was therefore included in the play’s action and not frustrated by seeing only backs. The actors also found that even when conversing privately the Globe stage encouraged them to stand at a distance from one another, in a long diagonal, rather than standing close together as they would on a more intimate modern stage. Similarly while modern stages encourage actors giving soliloquies to step to downstage centre and address the audience, the more powerful positions on the Globe stage turned out to be in the front corners of the stage rather than downstage centre, or best of all upstage centre - which turned out to be the most powerful position on the stage. Before performing on the stage it had been assumed that the actors would need to use big voices and broad gestures, but they found that clarity of speech and movement was more important than volume or size, and much more subtle acting was possible. The acoustics of the stage (once all of the genuine oak had been installed) turned out to be excellent, although actors tended to misjudge the effect of their own voices at first and were tricked into shouting when they didn’t need to.

Oddly, when casting male actors to play the female role of Princess Katherine in Henry V, the Globe casting directors felt that teenage actors’ voices didn’t carry well in the Globe space and selected an actor in his early twenties. The historical records seem to show that the same view was not held in Shakespeare’s day since Dave Kathman’s research suggests that teenage boy actors were the norm. The modern Globe staff were very satisfied by audience reactions to the cross-dressing boy actor, however. Some failed to realise that the actor was male and apart from knowing laughs at lines about being a woman, the audience seemed able to suspend its disbelief and view the character as a normal and convincing female even when the actor was not.

Naturally, the set up of the Globe encourages intimacy with the audience and it has been found that Globe audiences are enthusiastic to take part in the production in ways that the actors sometimes find distracting. This may in part be explained by the atmosphere of the Globe itself - the Globe’s Artistic Director actively encouraged audiences to shout back at the actors before the first performance was given - but it is also probably explained by the great visibility of the Globe audience. With no modern stage lighting to enhance the actors and put the audience into darkness, Globe audience members can see each other exactly as well as they can see the performers and the Groundlings in particular are near enough to the stage to be able to touch the actors if they wanted to and the front row of the Groundlings routinely lean their arms and heads onto the front of the stage itself. The Groundlings are also forced to stand for two or three hours without much movement, which encourages short attention spans and a desire to take action rather than remain completely immobile. This means that the Groundlings frequently shout up at the actors or hiss the villains and cheer the goodies. During King Lear the audience were quick to offer their advice when Edmund (Gloucester’s bastard son) asked himself which of Lear’s competing daughters he should accept as his lover. Elizabethan audiences seem to have been very responsive in this way - as their interactions with the Fool suggests - and were particularly well known for hurling nut shells and fruit when they disliked an actor or a performance. The Elizabethan audience was still more distracted, however, since beer and food were being sold and consumed throughout the performance, prostitutes were actively soliciting for trade, and pickpockets were busy stealing goods as the play progressed.

It is important to remember, however, that the opinions of modern actors may bear little relationship to the way in which Elizabethan actors viewed their stage and gave their performances. One hint that Elizabethan audiences may have viewed plays very differently gave us the origin of the word “audience” itself. The Elizabethans did not speak of going to see a play, they went to hear one - and it is possible that in the densely crowded theatre - obstructed by the pillars and the extravagant headgear that richer members of the audience were wearing - the Elizabethan audience was more concerned to hear the words spoken than to be able to see the action. This idea is given extra weight by the fact that in the public outdoor theatres, like the Globe, the most expensive seats were not the ones with the best views (in fact the best view is to be had by the Groundlings, standing directly in front of the stage), but those which were most easily seen by other audience members. The most expensive seating was in the Lord’s box or balcony behind the stage - looking at the action from behind - and otherwise the higher the seats the more an audience member had to pay (a seat in the Lord’s Room cost one shilling or twelve pence, a seat in a Gentleman’s Room cost sixpence, a seat in the galleries cost twopence and it cost only a penny to stand in the pit) . Some Elizabethan documents suggest that the reason for this range of prices was the richer patron’s desire to be as far from the stink of the Groundlings as possible.

9. Further Reading

The one book suggested by the BTEC syllabus is The Shakespearean Stage by Andrew Gurr, and this gives a very detailed description of Elizabethan theatre and performance. I would also suggest that you look at Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan if you want to find out a bit more about the reconstructed Globe and the way in which the modern actors and directors responded to it.
Some of the other books that I used to write this lecture were:

The Development of the English Playhouse by Richard Leacroft.
Shakespeare’s Stage by A.M. Nagler.
Shakespeare’s England edited by Sidney Lee (Vol. 2 has chapters on Actors and Playhouses)
The Design of the Globe by the Bankside Globe Project.
This Wooden ‘O’ by Barry Day.
Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Gurr.

If you want to read some Elizabethan plays then some of the more interesting scripts include the following (unfortunately many of the best Renaissance plays were Jacobean, so do not appear here):

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.
Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.
Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.
Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Richard III by William Shakespeare.
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.
Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe.
The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd.
Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson - the version set in Italy, the other was Jacobean.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker.
A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood.
King Leir (Anonymous) - the play on which Shakespeare based his own Jacobean King Lear.
Arden of Faversham (Anonymous).

It is best when you are first reading Renaissance plays to try and find editions with plenty of notes and glossaries to explain what you are reading. The Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays have particularly detailed and interesting notes and introductions.


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