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Thanks to the reconstruction of the iconic Globe theatre, and the success of blockbuster films like Shakespeare in Love, most people assume that public playhouses were a common sight in England’s towns and cities throughout the Elizabethan period.

Yet, according to Dr Tara Hamling of the history department and Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, this simply wasn’t the case. “The first commercial public playhouse wasn’t actually built until 1567 – almost ten years into Elizabeth’s reign,” she says. “And while these dedicated spaces for the performance of plays must have offered exciting new leisure opportunities in the capital, when it comes to explaining how people across the country experienced drama, performance and pageantry during the 16th century, they are only part of the story.”

Mystery and miracle plays formed the bulk of early Elizabethan drama – as they had done for centuries. These plays, which dramatised the Bible and the lives of saints, were closely linked to the Catholic church calendar and were performed at specific times of the year, coinciding with church feast days.

Decorated pageant wagons were pulled around a city or town, stopping off at key locations to perform in outside spaces for the public. Over the course of a day, players would enact the whole Bible, beginning in the morning with the creation, and ending in the evening with the last judgment. The events were huge social occasions accompanied by great spectacle and music, which communicated the scripture to a wider audience while providing opportunities for traders to sell their wares.

However, Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic church and the subsequent establishment of the English church under Elizabeth I in 1559 spelled the beginning of the end for these essentially Catholic performances, which were identified as one of the ‘corruptions’ of the rejected Roman Catholic religion. Religious reformers did their best to stamp the genre out altogether throughout Elizabeth’s reign, and seem to have more or less succeeded by the end of the 16th century. The virtual disappearance of religious-themed dramas created a vacuum – one that was soon filled by the tragedies, comedies and history plays we now associate with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

This new breed of drama was performed by professional actors who toured the country, putting on plays wherever they could find work – from taverns and guildhalls, churches and churchyards, to private households before audiences of lords and dignitaries.

Chronicle plays dramatising England’s history, such as John Bale’s King John, a vehemently anti-Catholic piece, offered a popular alternative to the biblical dramas of the early 16th century, and were not dependent on the church calendar.

Plays were often staged at inns. These were important forerunners to the permanent playhouses, and often featured balconies – overlooking an inn yard – and a temporary gate set up to collect an entrance fee.

Not all towns and cities welcomed touring companies, however, and in an attempt to prevent gatherings of unruly crowds and the spread of disease, some civic authorities paid touring companies to move on before they got the chance to perform.

The volume of players touring the country during the 16th century makes it highly probable that they would have provided William Shakespeare, born in 1564, with his first taste of theatre in his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon. We know, for example, that there were at least 30 visits by touring companies to the town between 1568 and 1597.

However, life was to become increasingly hard for these wandering troupes of travelling players during Elizabeth’s reign after a royal proclamation in 1559 called for the licensing of plays for performance. A later act in 1572 restricted the movements of touring players further by labelling all those without a noble patron as vagabonds who were to “be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about”. The Elizabethan authorities regarded travelling actors of no fixed abode with extreme suspicion. Their misgivings were only increased by the fact that performers could attract large audiences – often in taverns and inns – which were in turn viewed as a threat to the security of the realm.

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