The Elizabethan era was the time in which Queen Elizabeth
the First ruled over England. It began in the mid-16th century and lasted until
the very early 17th century. The Elizabethan theatre was the beginning of the
theatre as a true art form instead of a means of quick entertainment. It grew
in complexity and depth until it became the major art form of the late 16th
century. Theatre started out as simple skits consisting of one dimensional characters
a plot, or morality plays that warned of the dangers of sinning. Elizabethan
theatre began its life inside of inns, courts, and courtyards of the wealthy. Most
actors wondered from town to town.
Queen Elizabeth had a very dramatic impact on theatres
during her reign. She was very well educated and had a respect for the art form.
Her support brought legitimacy to the theatre as a form of literature and to
acting as a profession before this actors were viewed as vagabonds that had the
potential to spread the plague. The biggest proof of a paradigm shift in the
world of theatre was the establishment of playhouses. Before these stages were
constructed acting troupes had to perform in courtyards and inn where there was
no guarantee of financial stability. With permanent buildings they could charge
admission and have a more stable flow of customers. Elizabeth’s influence also
caused noblemen to start sponsoring acting troupes which caused their
reputation to soar rapidly bringing farther prestige to the craft. The Queen
herself had her own acting troupe called the Queens Men founded in 1583. The 12
man crew were picked from other successful troupes to form one of the greatest
troupes of that time. They performed mainly for courts and very wealthy high
society and enjoyed the most prestige of any troupe.
One of the first playhouses were unsuccessful and
ended up shutting done before becoming popular. This playhouse, known as the
Red Lion opened in 1567 and didn’t last a year before shutting down. Later two
other succesfull playhouses open. The first being the Theatre and the second
being the Curtain Theatre. The Elizabethan Theatre truly becoming popular in
1576 when a man by the name of James Burbage built the first successful
playhouse, the Theater in Shoreditch, London. The second succesful playhouse,
the Curtain Theatre, was built in 1577 and was located only 200 yards away from
the Theatre. Not much is known about the Curtain Theatre but it was most likely
owned by a man named Harry Lanman. Both the Theatre and the Curtain Theatre had
to be built outside city limits due to suppression from local authorities. According
to scholar David Kathman “Elizabethan theater history says that an attempt by
the London authorities to suppress playing in the mid-1570s — specifically a
1574 Common Council order that placed many restrictions on playing — drove the
players out of the city to the suburbs, where they built open-air playhouses
such as the Theatre and the Curtain and subsequently thrived.” Kathman goes
onto say explain why suppression of plays only started in the mid to late 16th
century, “One obvious reason was that it simply had not been popular enough
before then to be worth the authorities’ time. The sixteenth century was a time
of rapid population growth for London, which helped it become a world-class
city but also brought many problems, including increased crime, unemployment,
homelessness, and plague outbreaks.” (Kathman, 2009)
James Burdage was an entrepreneur and actor in the
late 16th century. He saw the value of the Elizabethan plays and first built the
Theatre which was later torn down, moved and turned into the Globe. He joined
the Leicester’s Men which was run by Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of
Leicester’s and later became the head in 1574. When he built the Theatre it
shared a similar design to Roman amphitheaters with some changes to the set up.
The Theatre allowed for special affects to occur with things like cannons, trap
doors, fireworks, and smoke to enhance the immersion of the story. There were
many theatre troupes that performed at the Theatre most notably being William Shakespeare
with the Chamberlain’s Men. After operating for 22 years the Theatre closed
down in 1598 due to legal disputes. Later it was rebuilt across a nearby river
and renamed as the Globe theatre.
With the increased popularity of The Theatre soon
other successful playhouses were built, most notably the Rose that was built in
1587, the Swan that was built in 1595, the Globe that was built in 1599, and
the Hope built in 1605. The Rose was built by Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley
not much is known about who performed during its first few years but in 1592
Edward Alleyn and his group started performing there. The Swan was built in
1595 and was built by Francis Langley. Out of all of the London theatre’s was
said to be the most impressive and aesthetically pleasing and was described as
having a Roman look. Due to having many forms of entertainment alongside plays
the Swan was able to stay in business until around 1632.
The Rose and the Theatre along with all the other
playhouses fell under hard times from June of 1592 to May of 1594 the reason
for this was the bubonic plague that required theatres to be closed the
majority of the time. There were two other major instances of plague in London.
The first being in 1603 once again causing all theatres to shut down had more
than 33,000 casualties. The plague once again came back to London in 1608 again
causing theatres to shut down.
The most famous of the Elizabethan theatres was the
Globe theatre. The Globe theatre was most known for William Shakespeare and his
theatre troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men. The Globe could house up to 3,000 people
per show with most of their audience being wealthy upper and lower middle class.
The price of admission was one penny or about the price of a loaf of bread that
one penny would get you a place to stand of the ground in front of the stage
also known as the yard. A seating position cost two pennies and the upper galleries
cost upwards of six pence. The Globe theatre burned down in 1613 due to a canon
catching the building on fire. Though it was soon rebuilt in the same spot with
funding from the wealthy and from the crown which further cements the vast
popularity of the theatre in the early 17th century.
Due to the lack of electricity most performances
happened in broad daylight to allow audience members to see. Flags were
displayed as a form of advertising for theatres to allow the public to know
when a play was being performed and were often color coded for different genres.
Many of the audience members were rowdy and directly involved with the plays
themselves creating a very unique atmosphere for the show. Due to the noise at
the beginning of the play most often a side character would start out with some
form of monologue or intro that indicated the beginning of the show but was not
William Shakespeare wrote many of the plays for the Chamberlin’s
Men and his plays appealed to the masses much more than most other playwrights.
He was able to accurately portray many different types of characters in a very
relatable way. His insights into people and literature made him widely popular.
Though during the Elizebathan era his most published and most popular plays
were his histories, Henry IV Part I and Richard III were by far his most
popular plays. William Shakespeare was widely popular, but he didn’t stand out
very much from his contemporaries. It wasn’t until the late 17 century almost
65 years after hs death that his other plays started picking up more momentum
causing him to stand out.
Play writing was not a very lucrative business in the
16th century but the craft still managed to produce some hugely popular
figures. Though William Shakespeare is to this day the most well-known
playwright, he was not the only very popular one. Other well respected
playwrights include Christopher Marlow, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. Christopher
Marlow was born in 1564 and graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in
1587. While Marlow’s playwriting only lasted for 6 years until he died in 1593,
his work was very impressive with his most notable play being Tamburlaine the
Great. The play describes a 14th century Mongol conqueror named
Tamburlaine and his bloody struggle to power. According to literary scholar Andrew
Gurr “Marlowe’s own attitude to his popular audiences was, of course,
challengingly dismissive. The Prologue to I Tamburlaine invites the audience to
View but his picture in this tragic glass, and then applaud his fortunes as you
please.” (Gurr, Playgoing 86-91) Francis Beaumont was born in 1585. He
enrolled into Broadgates Collage in 1597 but left without a degree. He later
joined London’s Temple. The poem Salmacis and Hermaphroditus was written in
1602 and is often attributed to him as his work. He then collaborated with John
Fletcher on many humorous and dramatic writings. John Fletcher was born in
1579, he began to work with Francis Beaumont in 1607 and eventually became the chief
playwright for the King’s Men.
The Elizabethan era was ended with the death of Queen
Elizabeth in 1603and with her death caused a major changes such as the
disbandment of the Queens Men but many Elizabethan theatres persisted after her
death due to the next monarch after her, King James the First, also having a
love of the theatre. King James even sponsored the Chamberlain’s Men renaming
them to the Kings Men in 1603. King James the First changed how plays were
performed by making performing in courts and royal gatherings far more
lucrative then playing for the public. Kind James later Died in 1625 and was succeeded
by King Charles the first.
Not everyone approved of the theatre’s however. A
powerful minority group call the puritans were very against the theatres in
London. In loose terms a puritan was a group who adhered to a plain and simple version
of the church. The puritans hated the theatres and the crowds they attracted.
The believed that they lead to immoral activities and a life of sin. In 1642
the puritans were elected to parliament and due to conflicts with King Charles
a civil war started. The direct result of this was the closing of all theatres,
marking the end of the Elizabethan theatre. The Globe was later torn down by
the puritans in 1644. The Elizabethan theatre spanned from 1562 to 1642 and
brought about the many changes to the lives of the wealthy and common people
alike. It was a major and dramatic change in the entertainment industry for
England as a whole and is still the basis of storytelling in modern times.