The Renaissance Theater in Northern Europe


At the dawn of the sixteenth century, humanism gradually gained popularity among educated townspeople and court circles in Northern Europe. At court, the fashion for Antiquity left its mark on spectacles and in the dramatic interludes that were regularly performed at banquets and other entertainments, as they had already done several generations earlier in Italy. At the same time religious mystery plays continued, but the impact of the Protestant Reformation discouraged their staging. In Germany the falloff in production of the mystery cycles that Protestantism caused encouraged development of other dramatic forms, including village farces and polemical plays designed to popularize either Protestant or Catholic sympathies. The traditional Fastnachtspiele, or Shrove Tuesday plays staged before the onset of Lent, continued under both Lutheran and Catholic auspices and became a new vehicle for moralistic teaching. A new feature of the sixteenth-century theater in Northern Europe was its increasing professionalism. As in Italy, the mid-sixteenth century in the north of the continent saw the rise of small traveling theatrical troupes who made their way through the country to stage short farces and comic interludes. In the largest cities of the region such as Paris and London, the increasingly professional nature of the theater came to inspire new permanent theaters with repertory companies that aimed to entertain a broad swath of the urban population. In Paris, the commercial theater took on a new importance as the religious mystery cycles were forbidden by an edict of the city’s parliament in 1548. In England, the mystery cycles survived somewhat longer, but their popularity waned under the new teachings of the Reformation. The foundation of the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris in 1548 and the slightly later appearance of professional theaters in London satisfied the demands of city people for entertainment. The commercial theaters also quickened the development of a reservoir of national dramatic literature in these countries that was aimed at a truly popular urban audience. In both England and France the Golden Age of national theater lay ahead in the early seventeenth century, but a number of admirable plays appeared even in the years before 1600. In the productions that were mounted for these new commercial theaters, playwrights used the knowledge of Antiquity they had acquired from Renaissance sources. At the same time, commercial pressures caused them to address their plays to as broad an audience as possible. As a consequence, the imitation of Antiquity that dominated much of sixteenth-century Italian drama was not as extensive in the new commercial theaters of London and Paris. Playwrights tailored their productions to fit popular tastes, and the evidence of rising attendance shows that in both countries they proved more than astute in satisfying audience demands.


The medieval custom of staging elaborate royal entries into cities throughout a monarch’s realm continued unabated in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Northern Europe. The taste for spectacle, imposing processions, and solemn rituals connected with these ceremonies grew and reflected the tastes of the Renaissance for the ancient world. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the burgeoning knowledge of ancient history in Italy inspired new entries there that were staged in imitation of the imperial triumphs of ancient Rome. In 1326, the despot Castruccio Castracane entered his subject town of Lucca like a Roman emperor driving a chariot and prisoners through the streets. A century later, the trend to style the entrance of Italian rulers into their towns as Roman triumphs had grown even more complex. Italian Renaissance entries now often elaborately melded Christian and ancient imagery together, such as in the entrance of Borso D’Este into the town of Reggio around 1450. A figure dressed like the town’s patron saint bore the keys of the city atop a heavenly cloud. Angels and cherubs claimed the keys and presented them to Borso. A pageant wagon crowned by an empty throne approached to bear the duke into the town, while figures representing the classical virtues showed the benefits that accrued from the duke’s rule. The procession concluded in front of the town’s cathedral, where Borso d’Este reviewed again the classical and Christian characters that had marched in the procession from atop a golden throne. Finally three angels swooped down from a nearby building and presented the duke with a palm of victory. Spectacles like these grew increasingly commonplace in Italy toward the end of the fifteenth century, their popularity fueled, in part, by the poetry of Petrarch. In his poetic Triumphs, the fourteenth-century humanist had celebrated the myths and victorious imagery of ancient Rome in a series of poems that showed the conquests of the figure of Love by the figures of Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. The poems were popular, and by 1500 they inspired a number of artistic portrayals that, in turn, shaped the taste for the entry’s pageantry.

Northern European Changes.

As the fashion for antique imagery spread to Northern Europe after 1500, royal entries were transformed into events similar to those being undertaken at the time in Italy. While the taste for the new classically styled triumphal entries was theatrical, it produced subtle, yet important shifts, particularly in France, that underscored the new grand role that kings expected to play in the governing of their realms. In the fifteenth century monarchs had paused along the route of the entry to observe symbolic tableaux and to listen to short dramatic interludes staged by local townspeople. These short dramas had often been pointed, with messages that underscored local liberties and the limits of royal authority over the town. For cities that had recently evidenced signs of a rebellious spirit, the tableaux and short dramas had often been used to remind the king to practice justice tempered with clemency. As the taste for classical spectacle grew more elaborate after 1500, these dramatic elements were crowded out of the entry in favor of processions that took on ever more the nature of a juggernaut. The key symbol of the new entries celebrated in sixteenth-century Northern Europe was the triumphal arches or, in many cases, a series of triumphal arches through which marched a panoply of elaborately decorated pageant wagons, Roman gladiators and centurions, bound captives, and classically clad figures of the Virtues. The scope of the celebrations that surrounded the entry itself grew similarly grand, with ancillary spectacles and entertainments surrounding the festivities and lengthening the time needed to undertake a royal entry to days, and in some cases, weeks. In these later Renaissance entries, particularly those that occurred around the mid-sixteenth century in France, traditional religious imagery was downplayed in favor of new classical symbols. Slightly later, chivalric elements played an important role as well in the spectacles. The new style of entry developed most definitely in France, and entries elsewhere did not always take on the same level of fantastic elaboration. In England, the rituals continued to be relatively small and traditional until the accession of the Stuart kings in the early seventeenth century. But in most places the tendency to eliminate medieval street theater from the festivities developed, and for the entry to become a mute, yet imposing testimony to the central authority of the monarch.

Religious Drama.

Religious dramas along the lines of the great mystery and morality plays of the later Middle Agessurvived in Renaissance Europe. In France, an edict of the Parliament of Paris forbade the performance of the great mystery cycles in the city in 1548. The action was precipitated both by Protestant attacks upon the theological errors the cycles contained and because of a growing sentiment among Catholics that the plays were an inappropriate vehicle for conveying religious truths. Despite the moves in Paris against the plays, mysteries continued to be performed in some parts of the country. As new forms of drama competed against these cycles, though, the mystery cycles’ audience became increasingly circumscribed to the poor and largely uneducated rural population. In Germany, the fate of the mystery cycles, there known as Passion Plays, was largely similar. Although these great productions lasted in Catholic regions into the seventeenth century, they disappeared in the new Protestant territories. By the mid-seventeenth century Passion Plays had increasingly become a kind of Catholic “folk art,” confined to largely rural regions throughout the countryside. In England, no state action was taken against the mystery cycles until the years of Elizabeth I’s reign (r. 1558–1603). It is difficult to gauge just exactly when most of the plays ceased to be performed in England, given the sketchy nature of the documentation. In the northern English town of York, the great medieval cycle was last performed in 1569, and abandoned the following year after an abortive rebellion by pro-Catholic earls in the region. Chester’s play was performed until 1575. By this time, though, the evidence suggests that many of the cycles had already disappeared.

Polemical Drama and Lent.

At the same time, new kinds of religious drama proliferated in Northern Europe. In Protestant Germany, the traditional vehicle of the interlude, a short dramatic sketch performed at banquets and other entertainments, became ripe for polemical condemnation of the Catholic Church. Short Protestant interludes performed on feast days in the cities attempted to popularize the Reformation and to teach its new doctrines to the people. These Protestant polemical plays were quite long-lived, surviving in some Lutheran regions into the mid-seventeenth century. Protestants imitated the custom in England, where similar kinds of sketches promoted the Reformation among urban populations. The religious issues of the time also left their mark on the traditional Fastnachtspiel or “Shrove Tuesday Plays,” which had long heralded the onset of Lent. Journeymen members of the guilds, who were enjoined to be celibate and forbidden to marry, had originated this form of drama. In Nuremberg, where the genre became particularly popular, the plays became a way for guildsmen to let off steam in the revelries that occurred before Lent. Filled with lewd language and salacious imagery, the Fastnachtspiel turned the normal sexual and moral conventions of urban life upside down. By the mid-sixteenth century, the moralizing of Nuremberg’s Protestant reformers had clearly exerted an influence upon these productions. In the many Shrovetide plays that he wrote to be performed in his hometown, the accomplished poet Hans Sachs (1494–1576) transformed traditional carnival lewdness into mild horseplay, and he used his short dramas to teach proper bourgeois values.

(to be continued)



About sooteris kyritsis

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