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The Elizabethan era varied greatly from the world we live in things like theater, lifestyle, clothing, the role of women, class structure and positions of power have all changed dramatically.


The Shakespearean theaters were very different from the ones today. The public theaters where circular buildings with a courtyard in the middle that had no roof. The penny seats, where located in the Yard (Pit) “I hadn?t minded the people in the yard.” (trease 61). For a higher fee others would sit in the covered balconies. These theaters would hold about 3000 people. A rectangular stage came out into the middle of the pit. The stage was partly covered by a roof. At the back of the stage there was a area that was curtained called the “Discovery Place”. This was used as a room actors could go to and be “discovered” they may be asleep, dead etc. When they where found the curtain was pulled up to reveal them. Above the discovery place there was the balcony. There may also have been a heaven (trap door in balcony) and hell (trap door in the stage).

There were also small, indoor theaters which held about 700 people. All the audience was seated, artificial lighting may have been used . The audience tended to be of a higher class because the seats where more expensive. The type of plays performed in a private theater differed form those performed in the public theaters.


In the 16th century the normal diet consisted of wheat, barley, oats etc. Fresh meat was eaten rarely. Butchers would only be found in large towns, the selection would have been small and the charge would be high. Milk, butter and cheese where all expensive and the poor people probably never tasted them. Fish was only available near the coast. The contrast in diet between the rich and the poor was extreme. The rich used forks and knives where the poor ate with there hands. Meat was often served at special occasions. The queen?s banquets often served the more exotic dishes “?Dishes left over from the banquet-roast peacock and swan, buttered oranges, tansy, and “snow,” which was mostly cream, sugar, and white of egg?”(trease 120). Wine was often served with dinner.

People would have arrived at the queens banquet in grand carriages pulled by horses “I felt, rather then heard, the coming of the horsemen.” (trease 21). The main way to travel was by horseback or by foot. Boats where also used. “There was nothing to which I could tie my boat.”(trease 132) Travelers would often where high boots to prevent getting sores on their legs.

Clothing varied depending on class a peasant man would wear at least a tunic or shirt, and breeches of some kind. He would also wear a laced-up jerkin (vest) with/without sleeves, and some kind of hat with a biggins (a small cap that ties under the chin) underneath. All but the poorest would have cloth hosen (stockings) and shoes. A peasant would have a cape in cold weather. At his belt would be a small knife for eating. His clothing would probably have holes or patches on it. These were working clothes, no time was given to upkeep.

A peasant woman wore a long-sleeved shift (like a nightgown) under everything and at least two skirts over that, with the upper skirt, usually newer than the underskirts. She had an apron on over the skirts to keep them clean if she was doing work. She wore a tight fitting bodice, which usually laced on over the shift. It had removable sleeves. All woman had their hair covered by some sort of hat, such as a biggins, or muffin cap (a circular fabric gathered into a band), and the hair itself was usually braided or bundled up out of the way. There was no short hair. Women wore knee-length hosen and some kind of shoes. She had the household keys and a basket to carry things bought at morning market. In cold weather she would wear a shawl or cape.

The Upper-middle class men would quite often be gentry or nobility, with his own horse and lands. He might also be a high-ranking servant in a nobleman’s household, a rich merchant or highly skilled craftsman of some kind. He would have his own servants, the Upper-middle class man would dress quite well. Over his shirt, he wore a close-fitting doublet. He wore breeches on his lower half which were decorated. His hosen reached all the way up his legs and were sometimes knitted instead of sewn. Knitted hosen, however, were very expensive, because they were hand-knitted, usually out of silk, and cost more then five pounds a pair. That was a large sum for those days, perhaps the equivalent of $200 today. His shoes were decorated. He wore either a flat cap or a tall crowned hat with feathers. Men of this class were likely to go clean shaven, or they were well trimmed. Many of the older gentlemen wore knee-length coats called “Surcoates” or “Great Goats,” These coats were worn over doublets as an outer garment. The surcoates resembled a modern choir robe with a collar of velvet or fur. A pouch and dagger hung from his belt and he might have a fine gold chain around his neck. His appearance was sometimes little different from that of a nobleman.

The Upper-middle class lady’s chemise (like a T-shirt) was almost always high-necked and made out of delicate fabric, such as, imported cotton or even silk. A married lady wore her chemise closed down the front and a single lady wore hers open. Over the chemise, she corset, bum-roll (used to support the weight of the skirts), and petticoats, just like the noble ladies. Her corset was less tight, and her bum-roll was smaller. The overskirt was full and pleated, it might be split up the front to display the underskirt. She sometimes wore a Spanish great coat over her gown. She had embroidery decorating the edges, and they might also be beaded or jeweled. She wore the household keys at her belt. She might also have a fine feather fan. Jewelry would include gold and silver chains, strings of glass beads, semi-precious stones, or small pearls. Ruffs are the most distinctive item of Elizabethan apparel. “She came sweeping down to her chair in the front row, her immense hooped skirt rising and falling on her hips, her stiff ruff framing her face, her whole body bright with jewels and powered pearl?”(trease 274). They began as small ruffles on the neck of smocks and shirts, and by the end of the century they had become independent garments of incredible complexity, size, and cost. Two technological advances led to this: the invention of lace making, and of starch. At the beginning of Elizabeth?s reign, ruffs were small, generally no more than two inches in depth, and worn as a high, close collar. Later in the century they grew wider and flatter and spread open to a vast fan shaped collar, supported with a framework to stand up in the back. The usual fabrics for ruffs were linen and or lace. They needed to be heavily starched in order to hold their shapes.


Women had no rights, their class was determined solely by the class of their father or husband. Women where not allowed to work, act etc. “?that?s the finish of my career?it had never occurred to me that kit was a girl disguised?Whoever heard of a girl acting?it seems silly?why shouldn?t woman act woman?s parts?”(trease 83-84). They where often forced in to unwanted, arranged marriages at a young age to men much older then themselves “??you?re young? said Shakespeare?thirteen. Nearly as old as Juliet?I don?t want to marry anybody?all he wants is to lay his hands on my estate. That?s why he tried to fix a formal public engagement before I was old enough to realize how serious it all was?” (trease 114-117)


The Elizabethan social world was based on a concept known as The Great Chain Of Being. This was the idea that everyone had their own, God-ordained position in society. The top of the chain was God, directly below God was the Queen and everyone else was below her, in descending degrees of importance. The social order is often broken into peasants, middle class, and nobles.

Peasants were the agricultural laborers and their families. They usually lived their entire lives in one small village, working the land owned by the nobleman of the area. People also categorized here would be the Jewish who had to were a yellow ring around their necks.

Middle class people were the artisans, servants, and small merchants. The wealthy middle class were the prosperous merchants, the highly skilled artisans, and the servants of nobles. They were the one social class with the ambition to climb the social ladder. There were legal restrictions on what they could wear, called Sumptuary laws (fines for people who wore clothing above their station)

Nobles were the earls, countesses, etc. Who comprised “high society”. Since they were often in attendance on the Queen, their clothing reflected their wealth and their respect for her position.

The highest person, and therefore the best dressed, was her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I. The queen?s clothing reached an unprecedented level of artifice. One reason for this was simple propaganda. Her claim to the throne was uneasy, and needed to be shored up. One of the ways she did this was to represent herself as beyond human. “?Elizabeth seemed to me like a distant, unapproachable, and almost immortal goddess?” (trease 84)


Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558 and reigned until her death in 1603. Her reign is often called the Golden Age of England because it was a time of great achievement and prosperity.

Elizabeth succeeded in furthering England’s interests in the face of foreign threats and religious unrest. Highlights of her reign include avoiding war with the powerful Roman Catholic nations of Europe; English navy?s defeated of the Spanish Armada.

The English court became a center for writers, musicians, and scholars. English literature thrived during this period, with people like, William Shakespeare writing his drama and poetry.

Elizabeth never married. After Elizabeth?s reign ended the Irish rebelled, the Earl of Essex lead a rebellion against the government, and the economy faltered. She was succeeded by James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots.

This era was a wonderful time though different from today it is important to look back upon in order to understand our world today.


Adams, John. The Globe Playhouse. Its Design and Equipment. New York: Barns & Noble Inc., 1942.

Barsis, Max. The Common Man Through the Centuries. A Book of Costume Drawings. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.

Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe In The Renaissance. Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1994.

Regan, Geoffrey. Living Through History. Elizabethan England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1990

Trease, Geoffrey. Cue For Treason. A tale of Shakespearean England. Copp Clark Pitman.

Leed, Drea. Elizabethan Costuming Page.

Leed, Drea. A Tangled Weaving: The Social Status of Clothing in Early Modern Venice.

Ren Faire: Costumes. REC California Faire

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