Introduction to Theatre during the Renaissance

The rebirth of the theatre in Europe took on at least two directions. The first direction was based upon the recreation of the past in a movement we call Neoclassicism. Theatre arts under this era resembled the perspective paintings of the time. Theatre like the other arts needed to follow the rules of the ancients as interpreted by the moderns.

The other direction of the theatre was more focused upon the words and scenarios of the Elizabethans and Spaniards. The theatre of England was the most prolific in the works of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlow and others. Spanish Theatre resembled Elizabethan theatre in its presentation but relied more upon religious subject and medieval conventions rather than upset the strong religious influence of the church and government. Theatre was here to stay for the most part and would continue to grow into new forms as the countries it would reside in would change their political, moral, and social beliefs and would be influenced by others.

The principal countries and their approaches are listed below;

  • Italy

    • Commedia dell’Arte

    • The Neoclassic Era

  • England

    • Elizabethan Drama

  • Spain

    • The Spanish Golden Age

  • France

    • The Neoclassical Era


Italian theatre

Renaissance Italian theater developed in the courts of the nobility in settings that differed radically from those of the past. The invention of perspective painting in the 14th and 15th centuries led to painted scenery that attempted to create the illusion of reality. The most influential theatrical work of the Renaissance was the Second Book of Architecture, by Sebastiano Serlio (1545; Eng. trans., 1611), which proposed three basic perspective scenes–tragic, comic, and satiric–to correspond with the work performed. The scenes consisted of a painted backdrop and three pairs of angled side-wings– freestanding units that masked the space on either side of the stage.

    Serlio’s scenes were permanent, but as court productions became more elaborate it became necessary to change scenery during a performance. Movable scenery evolved over a 200-year period and was a major innovation of the Renaissance theater.

    The first practical system was introduced about 1600. Known as flat-wing and groove, it consisted of a series of flats–canvas -covered frames on which scenery was painted–set in grooves on the stage floor. Flats could be pulled offstage to reveal a second set. The major disadvantages of this arrangement were the number of stagehands required and the difficulty of coordinating changes. This problem was solved in 1645 by Giacomo Torelli (1608-78) with the chariot-and-pole system. Flats were mounted on poles that passed through slots in the floor to rolling wagons, or “chariots,” beneath the stage. These, in turn, were attached to winches by a system of ropes and pulleys. Changes of scenery became so fascinating that they were frequently made during a performance for no dramatic reason.

Monumental scenic design was made possible in the 17th century by the use of multiple perspective. Although sets still fostered the illusion of reality, they created the illusion that the world of the stage was of a larger scale than that of the audience, thereby reinforcing the sense of distance between stage and auditorium. The mythical and allegorical content of the plays was aided by complex machinery, especially flying apparatus such as chariots and “cloud machines.” Grandiose Italianate design reached its peak with the Bibiena family, whose designs were popular throughout 18th-century Europe.

    Renaissance architects attempted to re-create Greek and Roman theaters, but because their information was often ambiguous or incomplete, the result was a new style of theater architecture. Serlio adapted the Roman form to rectangular palace halls, but no building specifically designed as a theater was constructed until the 1530s. The oldest surviving Renaissance theater is Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico.

    The major development in Renaissance theater architecture was the proscenium arch–a curved or rectangular frame enclosing the stage–which is found in many modern theaters. The first theater to use the proscenium arch was the Teatro Farnese (1619) in Parma, Italy, designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti (1546-1636). The proscenium arch masks the offstage space and aids scenic illusion by separating the stage and auditorium; the audience must look through the opening onto the stage. The U-shaped seating area for the audience in the Teatro Farnese also influenced theater design and is now a common feature of European theaters and Opera Houses. The Teatro Farnese was the first theater designed for the use of movable scenery and one of the first to use a curtain in front of the proscenium arch. Its steeply banked seating tiers held an audience of 3,500, who came to see the fabulous spectacles that only a theater of this size and complexity could mount: not only opera, ballet, and drama, but–on the spacious orchestra floor separating the audience from the stage–extravaganzas and ceremonials of all kinds.


The Commedia dell’arte

The origins of Commedia dell’Arte are not clear. Historians have several theories. Yet, all agree that commedia emerged during the Renaissance in Tuscany, Italy around 1545 and continued until the middle of the eighteenth century. One popular theory is that commedia is traced back to the Roman farce, Atellan., of the 3 century BC. Fabulae atellanae were short, largely improvised plays based on everyday situations and mythology. Many times one character would mime as another narrated. It had four principle characters, each with a fixed costume and mask: Pappos, a silly old man, Bucco, a comic know-it-all, Maccus, the fool, and Dossenus, a sly hunchback. Therefore, many historians link this to the vecchi and the two zanni, Pulcinella one of them, of commedia.

Other scholars trace Commedia to the takeoffs of he comedies of Plautus and Terence or the Italian commedia erudita (learned comedy performed by amateurs). Plautus used varied poetic meters, witty jokes, and thrived on farce. Terence introduced more complex plots and combined more than one story line. Then, of course, there are the fairs, marketplaces and the famous Carnival in Rome and Venice where street performers prevailed. No theory has been proven or refuted. More than likely Commedia dell’Arte was developed by result of a conglomeration of many influences. No matter the source, by 1600 commedia had spread throughout Europe, becoming a popular for of entertainment loved by all classes of societies.

Elizabethan Drama

The Immortal Bard

The Elizabethan Age in England showered the world with a burst of brilliant playwrights. Four of the most well-known of early Elizabethan playwrights were John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, and Christopher Marlowe. John Lyly’s most famous work is “Endimion, Man in Moon.” Thomas Kyd is the author of “Spanish Tragedy.” Robert Greene is best known for “Friar Bacon Friar Bungay.” Many people think that Christopher Marlowe was the greatest of early Elizabethan writers. His most well-known play is “Doctor Faustus.” This play is about a man named Faustus who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power on earth. Christopher Marlowe was born shortly before William Shakespeare. He was supposed to be a shoemaker. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered him a scholarship to Cambridge University, but Christopher avoided becoming shoemaker to enter the theater. He started writing plays for an acting company called the Admiral’s Men. His major literary works were tragedies, as lots of Elizabethan dramas were. Other than “Doctor Faustus”, his other two greatest works were “Tamburlaine” and “Jew of Malta.” Marlowe’s major literary achievements are the use of refined blank verse, spiritual drama, dramatic action, and the Rennaisance hero. He loved learning and hated ignorance. This was apparent in many of his literary works. Marlowe was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, even though records show that Marlowe was not gentleman. Christopher Marlowe’s roommate accused him of atheism and treason, which were crimes in that time. Records show that he was involved in two tavern brawls. In one of the brawls, a man lost his life. In the other brawl, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye. He died three days later. Conspiracy has been suspected about his death. Marlowe, Lyly, Kyd, Greene are known as the University Wits. They defined the London Theater.

William Shakespeare wrote in the middle of the Elizabethan Period, and he is the most famous writer in the era; maybe the greatest of all time. His plays have very good plots, characterization, and backgrounds. Other than tragedy, which was the most common drama of the time, Shakespeare wrote great comedies, tragicomedies, and histories. His characters come alive, and they are admired and even envied by people. His plots are full of action. “Hamlet” was the most popular of his tragedies. Shakespeare’s most successful comedy was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Perhaps his most famous tragicomedy was “The Tempest”. “Richard III” and Henry V” are two of Shakespeare’s histories that have been made into motion pictures. Shakespeare combined the best aspects of Elizabethan drama with classic drama. This enriched his imagination and humor. The age of Shakespeare was a great time in English history.

There are many important events that occurred during the Elizabethan Period. In approximately 1477, Caxton set up a printing press, and he printed the first books in England. Around 1500, “Everyman”, a morality play, was written and performed. In 1533, John Heywood’s “The Play of the Weather” was performed. A poetry collection called “Tottle’s Miscellany” was published in 1557. This work included Wyatt and Surrey’s sonnets. Besides drama, the sonnet is the epitome of literature in the Elizabethan period. In 1564, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born. “The Theatre”, the first permanent structure for plays in England, was constructed in 1576. Christopher Marlowe directed his first play, “Tamburlaine”, in 1587. In 1590, Shakespeare directed his first play, “The Comedy of Errors.” Christopher Marlowe wrote “The Jew of Malta”a year later. He was killed in 1593. Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” in 1597. In 1599, the Globe Theater was constructed. Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” in 1605. He died in 1616.

Another very important aspect of Elizabethan Drama were the audiences. The audiences were always large and very excited at plays. The common people payed an equivalent to one penny to sit in the front fo the theater. Unless it was raining, these people had the best seats in the theater. The audience would participate in the play by cheering, hissing, or even throwing rotten vegetables. The audience would know that plays were about to be performed by a flag that rose over the theater.

The theater played an important role in this era. Without theaters, there would be nowhere for the play to be performed. There were two types of theaters: indoor and outdoor. Outdoor theaters were public theaters. “The Theatre” is an example of an outdoor theater. Indoor theaters were private theaters. Elizabethan Actors were all male. Females were not allowed to act in the theater. All female parts were played by men whose voices had not changed yet. Actors had to have good memories, strong voices, and the ability to fence. Actors also had to have the ability to sing and dance. The costumes that the actors wore were very elaborate, but not historic. Many special effects were used in the theater. Death scenes were very gory and realistic. To show an eye falling out, a grape would fall to the floor. Animal organs were used to show scenes where organs fell out of actors’ bodies.

The stage was the center of the theater. It had several levels. The lowest level of the stage was used for a number of things. Devils, ghosts, graves, and ditched are a few of them. The second level was the main stage. This is where the most important scenes were. The third level of the stage was a balcony. It was used for a number of things such as mountains or city walls. The fourth level of the stage was a series of pullys where angels, birds, and thunderbolts could be sent down from the main stage. The highest level was a room where the musicians were. There is one aspect of Elizabethan Drama that still remains a mystery. Vocabulary in the Elizabethan Era was very different than it is now. Modern historians are not sure about all of the word meanings. This is why some of the phrases used are hard to understand. Elizabethan Drama is a very important addition to the literature world and also to England. Drama is part of England’s heritage, and helps make them who they are.

Elizabethan Drama

(to be continued)



About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
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