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Elizabethan theatre

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Elizabethan theatre is a general term covering the plays written and performed publicly in England during the reign (1558 - 1603) of Queen Elizabeth I. The term can be used more broadly to also include theatre of Elizabeth's immediate successors, James I and Charles I up to the mid seventeenth century.

Elizabethan theater derived from several sources. A crucial source was the mystery plays that were part of religious festivals in England and other parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. The mystery plays were complex retelling of biblical stories, originally performed in churches but later becoming more linked to the secular celebrations that grew up around religious festivals. Other sources include the morality plays that evolved out of the mysteries, the Commedia dell'arte and the elaborate masques frequently presented at court.

Companies of players attached to households of leading noblemen and performing in various locations existed before Elizabeth's reign. These became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage. The tours of these players gradually replaced the performances or the mystery and morality plays by local players, and a 1572 law eliminated the remaining companies lacking formal patronage by labelling them as vagabonds. At court as well, the performance of masques by courtiers and other amateurs, apparently common in the early years of Elizabeth, was replaced by the professional companies with noble patrons, who grew in number and quality during her reign.

The local government of London was generally hostile to public performances, but its hostility was overmatched by the Queen's taste for plays and the Privy Council's support. Theatres sprang up in suburbs accessible to city dwellers but not directly controlled by the London corporation. The companies maintained the pretence that their public performances were mere rehearsals for the frequent performances before the Queen, but while the latter did grant prestige, the former were the real source of the income professional players required.


The stage on which Elizabethan plays were performed was essentially a platform surrounded on three sides by the audience, only the rear being open for entrances, exits, and seating for musicians to accompany the frequent songs. Theatres built specially for plays, of which there were several by 1600, had an upper level which could be used as a balcony, as in Romeo and Juliet, or as a position for an actor to harangue a crowd as in Julius Caesar.

One distinctive feature of the companies was that they included only males. Female parts were played by adolescent boys in women's costume.


The growing population of London, the growing wealth of its people, and their fondness for spectacle produced a dramatic literature of remarkable variety, quality, and extent. Although most of the plays written for the Elizabethan stage have been lost, over 600 remain extant.

The men (no woman, so far as is known, wrote for the stage in this era) who wrote these plays were primarily self-made men from modest backgrounds. Some of them had educations at either Oxford or Cambridge, but more did not. The university men often considered those without formal education to be, "upstart crows", as Robert Greene designated William Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare was an actor, the majority do not seem to have been performers, and no major author who came on to the scene after 1600 is known to have supplemented his income by acting.

They were not men who fit modern images of poets or intellectuals. Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl; Ben Jonson killed a man in a fight. Several probably were soldiers.

They were poorly paid for their labors. Once a play was sold to a company, the author received no further benefits from either performance or publication. Many supplemented their income writing pamphlets; in spite of this most who did not die young died poor.


The rising Puritan movement was hostile to the theatres. Due in part to the origin of drama in pagan religious rites of Athens, the Puritans considered theater to be sinful. When the Puritan movement came to power in the English Civil War, it ordered the closing of all theatres in 1642. By the time that the Restoration re-opened the theatres, the old masters were dead and there were no replacements. For 50 years, drama had been the highest form of literature in English, and the Elizabethan writers had gained a reputation through much of Europe, as attested in Don Quixote and elsewhere, as the finest dramatists since the Roman Empire. After the closing of 1642, English literature adopted the novel as its major form for storytelling, and no plays of real significance would be written in English until Irishmen such as George Bernard Shaw, John Synge[?] and Oscar Wilde revived the art more then two centuries later.

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