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Elizabethan Theater Essay, Research Paper


THESIS: Elizabethan Drama changed literature and theater into what it is today.

I. History of Elizabethan Theater

a. forming of theater

1. medieval church

2. mystery and morality

b. actors

1. rogues and thieves

2. acting guilds

II. Influences and people

a. commanding actors

1. Shakespeare

2. Burbage

b. other

1. wars of the roses (other historical influences)

2. laws restricting theater

III. The theaters

a. prices

1. seating

2. stage

b. the theater and the globe

1. locations and characteristics

2. Burbage and other accomplishment

Elizabethan Drama

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England underwent a dramatic change in priorities. The importance of art and literature became highly prevalent. The impact of the Elizabethan drama and style still influences culture. It changed altered it into what it modern literature and theater is today.

The Elizabethan Age began during the last twenty years of Elizabeth I?s reign (Lace, 71). Elizabeth loved the arts and England had increased in wealth and internal peace (Lace, 71). Elizabethan drama placed its roots in the medieval church (Lace, 71). Since all services were held in Latin, a language common people did not speak, priests acted out the stories of the bible to teach (Lace, 71). Beginning in church behind the alter, plays grew more popular as more people wanted to see them (Lace, 71). When there were not enough priests to fill the roles, commoners were given parts. Eventually, the common people took over the plays and the church became less involved (Lace, 72). The biblical plays transformed into mystery and morality plays. Morality plays were more serious and meant to teach people the difference between right and wrong (Lace, 78). Mystery plays, while still teaching morals, were the more entertaining plays. Both were highly religious. The actors of the time led an ambiguous life. In the first half of the 16th century they were seen as little better than thieves; some, in fact, were thieves (Lace, 73). While some actors were performing others would go through the crowds and pick pocket (Lace, 74). Touring companies were small, usually less than ten people (Lace, 74). Actors traveled by wagon and slept in or under them (Lace, 74). Almost no women were actors, women?s parts were played by younger boys (Lace, 74).

Elizabethan theater was strongly influenced by individuals and events – It also was an influence on the people themselves. Although there were many outstanding actors and playwrights, only a few are acknowledged for their affect in molding early theater. When Christopher Marlowe, the most famous

playwright in his time (Lace, 79), died, William Shakespeare was his successor. Shakespeare decided drama was to be his career after seeing the Queen?s Players during a visit to his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon in 1587 (Lace, 79). By the time of Marlowe?s death, Shakespeare was already well known for his three part ?Henry VI? in 1592 (Lace, 79). His plays ?Love?s Labour?s Lost? and ?Romeo and Juliet?, both in 1594, were performed and he became the most outstanding playwright of his time (Lace, 79). Before Elizabeth?s reign was over, ?Richard II?, ?Julius Caesar?, ?Henry V?, and ?Hamlet? had been performed (Lace, 79). James Burbage was the second most influential actor of the Elizabethan period, but not only for his acting talent. Burbage built the first ever public playhouse in England, opening in 1576 (Unknown, 218). Burbage financed the building of ?The Theater? alone, a well off man but was still considered a rogue. Actors were not the only influence on theater. When Mary Tudor decided the throne was rightfully hers, the War of the Roses ensued (Lace, 73). Because of the War of the Roses, many nobles, that employed actors, were killed (Lace, 73). This forced actors to form their own troupes (Lace, 73). In 1572, parliament passed the Poor Laws, making it a criminal offense to be a vagabond (Lace, 75). This reduced the number of acting companies and required them to be licensed by the government (Lace, 75). Companies already sponsored by nobles were given licenses (Lace, 75). This made gaining legal status an important step for the acting profession (Lace, 75). Informal protection was now backed up by the law, this was useful to the increasing hostility of city officials towards plays and actors (Lace, 75).

The cornerstone of Elizabethan Drama were, in fact, the theater houses themselves. At ?The Theater? the price of admission was a penny, this entitled one to stand on the ground around the stage (Lace, 77). The poorest and most boisterous were looked down upon by the more well off, who called them groundlings (Lace, 77). The next higher were low galleries that cost another penny, and prices go up the higher you go (Lace, 77). The highest gallery were private rooms, but not the most expensive (Lace, 77). The most expensive were on the stage itself. These people often disturbed the performance by talking, playing cards, or showing off new clothing (Lace, 77). The theaters were built much like the court yards the actors were used to (Lace, 76). The building was circular and the stage extended out so that the

audience almost surrounded it (Lace, 76). Scenery was limited but special effects were now possible (Lace, 76). Actors could pop up through trap doors or be lowered from above from a room known as ?heaven? (Lace, 76). At the rear of the stage there were two doors used for both scenery and actors (Lace, 76). Backstage were rooms for storage, ?tiring rooms? (where actors got attired, dressed) and the green room where actors waited for their cues to go onstage (Lace, 76). ?The Theatre? was an immediate success with both upper and middle classes (Lace, 77). Middle-class merchants, mostly puritans, disliked plays but apprentices often snuck away from work to watch them (Lace, 77). The audience was mostly male. Going to a public play, even if escorted, was considered not respectable for women (Lace, 77). Only lowest class women and the greatest nobles enjoyed plays by themselves (Lace, 77). Upper class women and the greatest nobles enjoyed plays, but the actors came and performed in private halls (Lace, 77). The Globe was the most famous of all the Elizabethan theaters (Lace, 77). In 1594, Burbage?s lease had run out on ?The Theatre? and the landlord wanted to raise rent (Lace, 77). They argued for years. Finally Burbage tore down ?The Theatre? and transported the lumber across the Thames to Southwark and built The Globe (Lace, 77). The new theater was occupied by the newly formed Lord Chamberlain?s Players, founded by Elizabeth?s cousin, Lord Hudson (Lace, 77). This most famous troupe included Shakespeare and James Burbage?s son Richard, considered the best actor of the time (Lace, 77). Opened to the public in 1599 with Shakespeare?s ?Henry V? (Lace, 78). Some historians believe Shakespeare played the part of chorus saying:

?But pardon gentles all,

The flat arraised spirits that hath dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object can this cockpit hold

The vastly [vast] field of France? Or may we cram

With in this wooden O the very casques [helmets]

That did affright the air at [the Battle of] Agincourt? (Lace, 78).

All the minor details and trifle ways that shaped the style of the Elizabethan era are the same that changes the style of modern times. Unknown to the innovators of their time, their contributions to the theater they lived for are still recognized and appreciated. Had it not been for these noble few literature and theater would not quite be the art form it is today.


Lace, William W. Elizabethan England. San Diego, Ca. Lucent Books, 1995.

Boas, Fredrick S. An Introduction to Tudor Drama. Oxford, Eng. Clarendon Press, 1977.

?The English Theater.? Cultural Atlas of the Renaissance, p218.

Arnold Edward., ed Prentive Hall Literature. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: PrenticeHall, 1989.

Internet. http://www.springfield.k12.il.us/schools/springfield/eliz/costumes.html.

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