The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Elizabethan theatre

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, until the closure of public theaters in 1642, with the onset of the Civil War.



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 retellings of legends based on biblical themes, 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 "University drama" that attempted to recreate Greek tragedy. Later, in the 17th century, the Commedia dell'arte and the elaborate masques frequently presented at court came to play roles in the shaping of public theater.

Temporary companies of players attached to households of leading noblemen and performing seasonally in various locations existed before the reign of Elizabeth I. 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, especially in Southwark, accessible across the Thames to city dwellers, but not 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. Until the reign of Charles II, 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 many did not. The university men often looked down on those writers who lacked education. Although William 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 an apparent tavern brawl, Shakespeare had associates in the London underworld and supplemented his income with money-lending, while Ben Jonson killed an actor in a duel. Several probably were soldiers.

The writers 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, which the Puritans considered to be sinful for several reasons. The most commonly cited reason was that young men dressed up in female costume to play female roles. Theatres were located in the same parts of the city in which brothels and other forms of vice proliferated. When the Puritan faction of Parliament gained control over the city of London at the beginning of the English Civil War, it ordered the closing of all theatres in 1642 — though this was largely because the stage was being used to promote opposing political views. By the the time that restored monarchy re-opened the theatres in 1660, the English King and many writers had spent years in France and were influenced by the flourishing French theatre of Louis XIV, especially in tragedy. However, Restoration audiences had no enthusiasm for structurally simple, well-shaped comedies such as those of Molière, but demanded bustling, crowded multi-plot action and fast comedic pace, and the Elizabethan features of multitude of scenes, multitude of characters, and melange of genres lived on in Restoration comedy. The Elizabethan classics were the mainstay of the Restoration repertory, although many of the tragedies were adapted to conform to the new taste.

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, the late 17th-century extravaganza of Restoration comedy was the only drama of real significance in English until Irishmen such as George Bernard Shaw, John Synge and Oscar Wilde revived the art more than two centuries later.

List of playwrights

List of players

Other significant people

List of playhouses

External link

  • Shakespeare and the Globe from Encyclopaedia Britannica; a more comprehensive resource on the theatre of this period than its name suggests

Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46