Elizabethan Theatres

Two kinds:

  • Outdoor or “public”

  • Indoor or “private”

Both were open to anyone who could pay, but the private theatres cost more, were smaller, and had a more select audience.

Nine Public playhouses were built between 1576 and 1642.The three most important – were all outside the city limits of London:

The Globe (1599)

The Fortune (1600)

The Swan (?)

General features of public playhouses:

  • Varied in size – largest seated 2-3,000.

  • Varying shapes: round, rectagonal, octagonal

  • Had a “pit” or “yard” – where the “groundlings” were – un-roofed space, surrounding the stage on three sides, enclosed by three tiers of roofed galleries. The yard cost less (general admission), the Gallery cost more. There were probably some private galleries.

  • The stage was raised, 4-6 feet, extending to the center of the yard.

  • A “Tiring house” at the rear of the raised platform – where the actors would wait and change.

  • The stage was roofed – called “the heavens“—supported by columns. Flying was common, with cranes and ropes.

  • Traps in the floor, for fire, smoke, other effects.

  • Two doors in the tiring house—represented widely different locations (France or England, for instance).

  • A hut above the Tiring House, for equipment and machinery.

  • Flag on top of hut – to signal performance day.

  • Musicians’ gallery, below hut, third level.

  • Perhaps: Two playing levels, uppar and lower; maybe a third. Audience may have sat on 2nd level..

  • Perhaps: a discovery space (probably between the two doors, portable or permanent, 1 or 3 curtains thrusting out.

Indoor / Private Theatres

Less is known about the Elizabethan indoor theatres.

  • Smaller, roofed.

  • Troupes did shows in winter when it was too cold to be outside – suggesting that the staging was probably similar.

  • 1576 – Blackfriar’s – a former monastery – was the first one – closed by 1584.

  • The New Blackfriar’s opened in 1596 by James Burbage. Their company, the King’s Men, used it after 1610 as their winter performance area.

  • Children’s troupes had been popular for a while until 1610.

  • By the time of Shakespeare (1595?), actors had achieved a satisfactory level of financial and social stability.

  • By 1642, there were six private theatres in London.

  • Private theatre rose in popularity from 1610 to 1642. Public theatres were used only during the five warm months.

  • Size: about ¼ – ½ of the seating capacity of the public theatres.

  • Spectators sat in the pit or in galleries or private boxes. The stages were probably similar.


Acting Troupes: (review from earlier)

Most troupes worked on a sharing plan – risk and profits shared. Democratic, self-governing,

Some troupes or members of troupes owned theatre buildings—they were know as “householders.”

Stagehands hired “hirelings” for a salary.

Troupes were all male, men or young boys playing women’s roles, some specialized in particular types of roles.

Richard Tarleton, William Kemp, and Robert Armin – clowns

Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn – tragedians.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Between 1590 and 1613, he wrote 38 plays (although, for some, the authorship is still in doubt), some written with others (John Fletcher, for instance).

Histories: (English history, like Marlowe’s Chronicle plays) such as Henry IV, V, VI, VIII, Richard II, Richard III

Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – generally considered to be his greatest works

Comedies: Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors

Little known about his life:

  • Actor and shareholder in Lord Chamberlain’s Company (Later the King’s Men) by 1595.

  • After 1599, a shareholder at the Globe Theatre.

  • Actor, playwright, and sometimes director.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

General characteristics of the plays:

    1. Early point of attack
    2. Several lines of action (subplots), independent at first, then somehow merge together – unity in apparent diversity (King Lear is a perfect example).
    3. Large number and variety of incidents; mixing of tears and laughter; gentle and violent passions
    4. Time and space used freely – a sense of ongoing life behind the scenes
    5. Large range and number of characters; 30 is common; rich and poor, all individuals.
    6. Varied language: elegant, ribald, witty, prosaic; all to enhance character and action
    7. Subjects from many sources (mythology, history, legend, fiction, plays) but reworked to become his own.

A fluid and flexible production style is needed:

Small props, small set pieces maybe

Costumes important – they were usually contemporary, except for supernatural characters and conventional costumes (for Turks, Spaniards, animals), and with the addition of drapery to suggest periods (Romans wearing toga-like sash).

Shakespeare’s plays seem to be accepted as the most dramatically effective – he attempted all popular forms and subjects.

But his reputation during his lifetime was lower than Jonson or Fletcher of Beaumont. His fame grew in the late 17th century and reached its peak in the 19th. Has leveled now.

Survival of his plays depended on fellow actors (i.e.: Henry Condell and John Heminges) – Original edition of his plays was in 1623, called the First Folio.

His four greatest tragedies: Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello


Shakespeare’s Contemporaries:

Ben Jonson (1572-1637): Considered the best after Shakespeare, but thought he was better.

Perhaps the most influential of his time.

An actor turned playwright.

Followed “the rules” more, but altered them.

Wrote many “masques”—more than anyone else.

In 1616 was made England’s “poet laureate.”

In 1616, his plays were published – something usually reserved for poets.

His plays were limited in scope: purpose to reform human behavior, concentrated on foibles of contemporary types.

More harshly moralistic that Shakespeare.

Called “comedy of humors”—

The four bodily “humors” – since classical times, the four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – health was thought to depend on them—extended in Elizabethan times to human psychology – the eccentricities of human behavior attributed to them.

Johnson wrote mostly comedies such as Every Man in his Humor (1598.)

His two tragedies Valpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), were respected, but popular failures.

Less celebrated contemporaries:

George Chapman, John Marston, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton

Characteristics of their plays:

      • early point of attack

      • chronological organization

      • basic unit is short scene,

      • non-illusionistic, developing action

      • serious and comic tones

      • moral order emphasized (man can make choices but is ultimately responsible to forcer greater than himself)

      • struggle between good and evil (but less obviously than medieval).

Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists:

“Jacobean” comes from James I, King after Elizabeth’s death, reigned from 1603-1625.

“Caroline” refers to Charles I, reigned 1625-1642.

After 1610, a significant change in English drama, which set the standard for tragedies between 1610 and 1642:

More technical proficiency than Shakespeare, but subjects shocking rather than profound.

Subject matter – went from penetrating questions to thrill of exciting stories.

Tragicomedy increases in popularity.

Technical skill increases: exposition more adroit, fewer episodes, built complications into startling climaxes, alternated quiet and tumultuous scenes.

John Fletcher (1579-1625):

One of his plays has a brother and sister incest – but the moral problem is resolved when it turns out they’re not really related.

John Webster (c. 1580-1630):

The White Devil 1609-1612)

The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14) – insane Prince Ferdinand.

Modern scholars say he is closest to Shakespeare, but flawed by obscure action, always secondary to characterization. Characters surrounded by corruption and receive no new insight – lack Shakespeare’s sense of affirmation.

John Ford (1586-c. 1639):

Exemplifies the decadence of Jacobean / Caroline drama .

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629-1633)

Sympathetic treatment of brother / sister lovers.

Essentially good characters caught up in abnormal situations

Illuminates evil by associating it with ordinary people – makes him of special interest to modern critics.


The Stuart Court Masque (256)

James I and Charles I were from the house / family of Stuart (whereas Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were Tudors); therefore, the masques were done in the courts of Stuart monarchs.

Masques were allegorical stories intended to compliment individuals or occasions. Scripts were a pretext for spectacle (similar to the intermezzi). Professional actors played roles; but it was three dances that were central to the masques, Much money was spent on them.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was an Englishman who studied at Florence and brought almost all of the ideas about Italianate staging to England court theatres.

Significance of the masques:

    1. used Italianate staging
    2. Puritans associated them with the monachary –

So when the Puritan Revolution of 1642 came around, Charles I was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, and all the theatres were closed.

We will examine some aspects of the theatre that returned after the monarchy was restored (called Restoration Theatre) after we take a look at Spanish theatre during the renaissance.

(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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