The Golden Age of Theatre History & Facts

Elizabethan Theatre very distinct from any kind of theatre that existed in England until that point of time. We also saw how Shakespeare made use of this peculiar phenomenon which had emerged in Elizabethan England. Elizabethan Theatre, in particular, refers to the kind of theatre which existed in England from 1562 to 1642. We may also note that this did not, this was not limited to Queen Elizabeth's reign alone but particular kind of theatre gets named as Elizabethan Theatre even after the death of the Queen. Theatre during Elizabethan times, it was a focal point of all kinds of entertainment.

In fact this, this is seen as the most sophisticated and the most popular form of entertainment that prevailed in England from the Elizabethan times onwards. Also, this is not to say that this had wide acceptance but at the same time there were a lot of problems, lot of dilemma about whether to continue with this form of entertainment or not. The church was against it, the Puritans were against it. The London government thought it was not a safe kind of entertainment to pursue. However, we see that the Elizabethan drama dominated England during the sixteenth and even into the seventeenth century.
The Golden Age of Theatre History & Facts
There were three different kinds of genres that dominated mainly comedies, histories and tragedies. We also saw how these distinctions were being made during Shakespeare's times as well. During this time it is very important to note that play going was a fairly inexpensive thing to do. So many of the people, they used to gather, they used to crowd near the theatres to watch a play or two. There was another ironical thing about Elizabethan Theatre that made it very special and also of historical importance.

In fact, it was almost like a double-edged sword, like it was loved by the Queen and the Privy Council and it was the favourite of The Court. We also find many of these playwrights being supported by the Court; we find that Shakespeare himself enjoyed a lot of patronage and lot of support from Queen Elizabeth herself. But at the same time, these playhouses and drama, in general, was hated to the core by the Puritans and also by the London government because they thought this could be another case of law and order or they also thought that the people crowding at the theatre could make London another breeding ground for diseases. If you remember the plagues continued to attack until about early seventeenth century.

How are these venues getting shaped and refined during the Elizabethan times? 

We find the transition from the street to a building and this is made possible only from the Elizabethan times onwards. If we look at how earlier plays were being staged, we used to see in some of the earlier sessions that the plays used to be staged almost anywhere. In fact, there was no fixed theatre in England and initially most of the plays were staged in certain temporary acting spaces we saw in the case of the Mystery and Morality plays which were being staged in the church first and then into the town squares and also there were moving wagons which took actors from one location to the other where people used to crowd at particular points. So we also saw how the Interludes made its way into the Court sphere, into manor houses, into private wealthy audiences so on. So there is a transition which takes place quite gradually and we almost find this shift completing a full cycle during the Elizabethan times. From the Elizabethan times onwards, we find the idea of a fixed theatre becoming a reality.

Most of these theatres were situated in London and even when there were certain laws which kind of curtailed the, the activities of drama we find that the theatre does not move much away from the city but they just stayed somewhere around the city so that it remained accessible to the common people and also in that sense it continued to be the centre of London's amusement and entertainment activities. There were two kinds of theatres which were getting built once the transition was complete in terms of a physical structure. They were either open to the sky with a central open yard in the centre or they were enclosed playhouses as we mostly see in contemporary times.

Facts about globe theatre during elizabethan times

So, there were basically three kinds of theatres that existed, inn-yards, open-air amphitheatres and play-houses. So these are some of the major names that dominated England and particularly London. The surrounding areas and we are seeing a little more in detail of these playhouses in general and to give you some historical facts. The Theatre was the first theatre building to be built in England. This was in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester's players and it was led by James Burbage who also happened to be a very famous actor of those times. In fact, he was also a very close friend and acquaintance of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is said to have begun his acting career with Burbage. The theatre which was initially named as The Theatre, it was later pulled down and rebuilt as The Globe in 1599. The Globe as we know, it remains very central to Shakespeare's dramatic career throughout. If we take a quick look at these different kinds of theatres, they were initially these inn-yards as the name suggested; they were built adjacent to the inns or taverns which existed in England.

In fact, taverns and inns were quite popular in London during that time and some historians even feel that it was the main reason of law and order discord in London because the taverns, whereas the name would suggest, there was a lot of drinking, there used to happen a lot of fighting so it was almost a kind of place where all the ‘bad guys of the town’ got together to spend an evening. So this was where the this was how the inn-yards looked like. The plays used to be staged in an almost a make-shift kind of an arrangement.

This was an elaborate structure in the sense that it could house about 500 people at the same time. It was affordable for a common man. It was not in a formal setting. It was more or less casual which also made it quite endearing to the crowd which gathered over there. These are some of the prominent inn-yard spaces - The Red Bull, Cross Keys, Bell Savage and the Red Lion And moving on, these are the open air amphitheatres with structures. We can see that it is an elaborate structure. This also has come to represent the most common form of Elizabethan Theatre, the prominent ones were The Theatre, The Globe and the Swan and this was very elaborate and huge in the sense that it could house about 1500 to 3000 people at the same time.

It was built as a three-storeyed structure as we can see in this graphical representation. This is also about 10 meters in diameter. So this was in fact, it was not always built in the centre of the town and in order to escape all kinds of rules and regulations which were being imposed by the London government, it used to be in the outskirts of the city. This in fact, if we do a quick survey of Elizabethan literature, if we do a quick survey of Elizabethan drama, this perhaps is the most prominent image that would come to our mind. Also these different parts and different structures of the theatre we would be taking a look at in detail shortly. Globe was perhaps the most famous and it continues to be the most famous and the best known of all Elizabethan Theatres. Shakespeare in fact used to describe this as a “wooden ‘o’” given the structure in which it was built. This is how the structure of the theatre used to be like. This is, in fact, a picture which was projected from the later times.

This structure was mainly wooden and polygonal and there was an unroofed central yard right at the centre - and this was also the place where the set of people known as groundlings used to sit. We would be taking a look at them shortly. The theatre structure was surrounded by tiers of covered galleries as we can notice over here, there were also seats for different classes of people; according to these seatings, hierarchy, the payment everything differed as well. It is generally said that one could even get a padded seat for an extra payment.

The stage was, in fact, a very large platform which projected from the tiring house into the yard - and this place where the common people are found to be sitting, that was considered as the yard. The tiring-house was more or less like a storage house where the actors could get dressed, where their costumes were being stored etc. So this is how the structure looked like. A more detailed look at the most prominent theatre of those times, The Globe, the purpose of the flag we shall be taking a look at very shortly. These were the different structures and in fact, most of these representations were also paintings and graphic representations from a later period and as we know there was no way in which one could get a very accurate reproduction or a picture of those times. But depending on many historical conjectures this representation is said to be fairly accurate.

Who were the groundlings whom we notice sitting right in front of the yard in this open structure?

This was in fact, the place where the poor audience could sit by just paying a penny. They were generally known as groundlings because of reference to them in a play Hamlet by Shakespeare. This was more like a pit in front of the stage. There were no seating arrangements given for them. They had to just stand and watch the play. This also was considered as an unruly kind of the crowd and it was mainly because of them that the London government did not want to encourage the playhouses or the staging of the plays much. This, the grounding, the groundling crowd was also a very cheerful lot. They used to cheer the hero; they used to boo the bad guys so they made the theatre plays very lively and sometimes quite to the discontent of the other upper class viewers as well.

In fact, very often they also could get very restless because they, whenever the profound things were being said or whenever the play continued to be inverse, ruminating in philosophical discussions, they could get very restless. In fact, this is why we see a lot of other things being built into Shakespeare's plays particularly and we find him including a lot of bawdy and dirty jokes in his play to attract the commoners and keep them engaged. There are also sword fights and many such engaging things that Shakespeare used to include just for the purpose of catering to the taste of these groundlings. Also, recently we may note there is a lot of work also being done on the kind of audience they were and the kind of things they forced the playwrights to bring on stage.

What kinds of Playhouses?

The third kind was known as Playhouses and they were also private houses and quite expensive. They could house about 500 people at the same time. They were also enclosed which made much difference to the way in which plays were getting staged then. So, since these were not open in the centre, plays could be staged during night and winter as well. Because of the other structure, as we saw earlier in terms of Globe, major playhouses such as Globe, the open air amphitheatre space made it quite inconvenient to stage plays during a bad weather or even when there was no sunlight.

So this in that sense was more inclusive but however, since it always catered to a private upper-class audience it did not have the kind of popularity that Shakespeare's typical amphitheatrical ambience had. If we try to look at the statistics, there were about 27 playhouses in Elizabethan London and this is the projected map of Elizabethan London from those times. We can also notice that there is this river Thames which divides the city into two parts the other part of London was also known as Southwark and in fact, in Southwark, it is generally noted that London's laws did not apply in Southwark much.

So in that sense this, the area surrounding Southwark was also seen as an area where a lot of taverns existed and there was also gambling, prostitution and certain very cruel games such as bear baiting, cockfighting. So it is also said that Shakespeare did not enjoy bear baiting much in his place we do find talking against these some predominant kinds of amusements which were also inflicting a lot of cruelty on animals. So having said that, these were some of the major playhouses we can begin to see over here, The Globe, The Swan, The Hope, The Rose and we also find that The Theatre. The Curtain they were quite outside, quite in the outskirts of the city, The Fortune we find over here and also most of the playhouses, most of the inn-yards that we discussed; we find all of them getting in and around the city of London. We also find that they were not really placed in the centre of the city; they were along the river banks or somewhere in the outskirts perhaps to, not to run into any problems with the London government.

What were the performances of those times like? 

The shows were advertised, just like they are in the contemporary. The way to announce the play was through the flag which was projected at the top of the theatre. This was done in such a way that even the ones who reside across the river could see it. A white flag indicated that it's a comedy, a red flag for history plays and a black one for tragedy. So they could see the flag well in advance and decide whether they wanted to watch the play or not. Also, the plays were mostly staged only during daytime and this was primarily due to two major reasons. Even when the playhouses were an enclosed space there were no provisions for lights and candles were pretty expensive during those times; and also the government also did not want the shows to go on later into the night due to disciplinary reasons and law and order issues. And stage curtains were also not getting used then - and just like, if you have watched a play in the contemporary you would know that right at the outset there is a curtain which is being moved.

So here, in the Elizabethan times, there was no provision made for stage curtains. There were very few stage props also getting used and also the scene changes were indicated verbally. It was just announced by either a voiceover or by a character who showed up on stage. So there were no elaborate stage arrangements. And incidentally, costumes were the most expensive things that a theatrical production owned. The companies were quite possessive about their costumes, guarding them and guiding them which is which why a separate tiring house or attiring house was built into almost all theatrical structures.

The costumes were very elaborate, very rich except that, the people used to come even to just watch those their favourite actors on stage with elaborate costumes and The stage was also projected in a particular way. This ensured a closer intimacy between actors and audience and the stage was also called as thrust stage if you noticed it in the graphics that we had displayed earlier. This also made much sense for certain scenes of a soliloquy which most of the Shakespearean plays had - so it that it almost felt as if the actor was directly conversing with the audience and it made a lot of impact on the dramatic craft as well. Because of this open roof, staging a play had many more challenges than it has in the contemporary because the actors had to deal with many distractions.

It is the weather, noise, the unruly crowd - there was no way in which all of these things could be managed. In fact, if we compare it to the contemporary time's theatre was not seen as a sacrosanct space.  One could make noise over there. One could exhibit unruly kind of behaviour. There was no one to manage the crowd; so, the actors had to, in many ways, brave these very difficult, these very different and difficult situations there. Interestingly there were no women on stage. So this could be, this could come as a historical curiosity since most of the plays had very central women characters in the play.

How did they manage that? 

Most of the times young, adolescent boys were made to play the role of a female on stage and in fact bringing a female on to the stage in front of so many strange men, it was even illegal in Elizabethan England. So nobody wanted to go against the law. You remember, in the movie which was made out of Shakespeare's life, Shakespeare in Love, there we see that the main character, the main female protagonist masking herself even to come for a kind of an audition. So, in fact, it is said that even historically during those times there were a few women who used to come and attend these plays and they could not really come freely like the audience in the men and many of them are said to have masked themselves so that nobody would know who they were. So, this was a kind of situation for women during those times. It was, they could neither act nor were they free to go and watch the play so one could also begin to perhaps understand why there is a very stark absence of women playwrights during Elizabethan England.

This irony becomes all the more significant because the monarch was a female herself. In spite of that, we do not find that kind of freedom being given to the women of that time because many of the things were already institutionalized and that England to come a long way because before they could engage with female artists in a public space. Contrary to the many depictions in modern cinema or in the modern stage, one could infer that there was perhaps little or no kissing or any scenes of physical intimacy during the Elizabethan stage because all of this was considered quite immoral and bawdy. Now from Shakespeare’s plays and the other plays of the times we can easily imply that love scenes were mostly verbal. There was no amount of physicality, was possible or could have been tolerated.

The theatre was always under the scrutiny of the government or of the Puritans so the playwrights and the actors also, always took, always took much care to ensure that in no way, they offended the sensibilities of Elizabethan England. Some of the peculiar features of this Elizabethan theatre, it would sound. Some of the peculiar features of this Elizabethan drama included, that the actors were the stakeholders and not the playwright, not the playwrights or the ones who owned this playhouse. There is this concept of the box office which has lived to the contemporary as we know. The spectators had to drop a penny in the box kept in front of the theatre. So now you know from where this idea and concept of the box office emerged. So the set of people, the owners who shared the profit were also known as the housekeepers. We also noted in the previous section that Shakespeare also was one of the shareholders of the prominent theatres there. So in Elizabethan times, in fact, it was not just the emergence of theatre, we also see the growth of an acting culture. We can see that it is in Elizabethan England that the birth of the acting profession, the birth of acting as a profession takes place.

Earlier it was mostly amateur actors. If we go back a little in time and recall the previous lectures, initially it was the clergy who acted and then as it moved into the .. Initially it was a clergy who came as actors and later on when drama became under the control of the guilds and the townsmen we find such amateur men from the craft guilds coming on as actors and it is not a professional kind of activity at all then. But by the end of the sixteenth century, we begin to note a very stark difference in the way the action is being perceived and also a certain professionalization not just of acting but also of art, in general, begins to happen.

So in the sixteenth century, we find most of these actors being patronized by powerful and wealthy nobles and we also find that they are heavily encouraged and funded by these powerful figures in London. And, with the emergence of theatre companies, we also find the actors enjoying a lot of protection against the threat of Puritans, against the threat of censorship which was coming from the London government and also threats of closure. This was primarily due to the fear of infection of plague So the, in a certain way we can say that the actors were quite ‘covered’ because of this patronage. They had a steady wage.

They also, these patrons also ensured that they could get enough for their livelihood even when the plays were not getting staged on a daily basis. So, but this stability incidentally was only for the actors. So whatever we had been talking about - the emergence of Elizabethan theatre and the prominence of the Elizabethan actors - it only implied the actors and not the playwrights. This professionalism and this financial stability and even the protection from the patrons, it was mainly only for the actors and not for the playwrights. In fact, during those times, even successful dramatists could not remain financially secure.

There were many who were living in poverty, many who were continuously under the threat of financial insecurity; and here also we find that Shakespeare rises much above all of them and significantly he is the only dramatist who enjoyed a similar kind of popularity and a similar kind of financial security and perhaps way above all the actors put together from the Elizabethan times. This brings us again to the initial point we began within the discussions about the Elizabethan period, discussions about Shakespeare in general.

As and when we note that Shakespeare's life is an exception to the rule, this brings us back to some of the original comments that we made right at the outset of our discussion on Shakespeare that he is perhaps the only one who survived into posterity in spite of the age dying out in terms of culture, its literature, its lifestyle so on and so forth. So with this, we come to an end of this lecture and we have noted how Elizabethan Theater developed as a supreme form of art and in the following sections, we will also continue to look at the other forms of art and other forms of literature which were predominant in Elizabethan times. We shall also be devoting a little more time to the prose and poetry that developed in the Elizabethan times.
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