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.
Alongside the plays staged by touring companies in inns, guildhalls and even churches were civic entertainments performed in the streets, often prompted by a royal visit. During their visits to towns and cities across the kingdom – known as royal entries – the monarch often stopped along the way to watch pageants and plays, and sometimes provided the starring role in entertainments.
While inn yards and guildhalls continued to be used during the 1560s and 1570s, the proliferation of purpose-built playhouses in London was to change the face of drama in the later Elizabethan period.
More a shrewd business enterprise than an appreciation of the arts, the first playhouse – the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567 – was the brainchild of a grocer who erected scaffolding in the grounds of a farmhouse. Soon other businessmen were following suit, and nine more dedicated playhouses appeared in the outskirts of London between 1575 and 1578. Their location in the seedier areas of the city, among bear baiting and brothels, conveniently placed them beyond the control of the city’s authorities.
Hamling concludes: “If we want to know where Elizabethan drama happened, it is clear that a range of different locations and spaces were used for performance, some of which can still be visited today.”
The Globe, London
Where Shakespeare’s theatre burned to the ground
Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, the reconstructed Globe theatre is one of London’s most famous landmarks and the venue most closely associated with Shakespeare’s plays. Like most permanent playhouses of the time, the Globe was a tall, open-roofed, roughly circular structure with a cover over part of the stage and a roof around the edge of the building to protect the galleries from the elements.
Plays invariably took place in the afternoon with actors performing on a raised stage and the audience standing in the space around the stage or seated in the galleries, according to class.
Shakespeare was one of four shareholders in the Globe and historians believe that two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written in 1599, the year in which the Globe opened. However, tragedy struck in 1613 when, during a performance of Henry VIII , wadding from a stage cannon ignited the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground. The building was rebuilt the following year, this time with a tiled roof. Shakespeare died in 1616 but his company of players, The King’s Men, remained at the Globe until 1642 when the English parliament issued an ordinance suppressing all stage plays in theatres, as civil war broke out across the country. No longer of use, the building was demolished in 1644 to make way for tenements. Work to rebuild the structure began in 1993 and the new Globe theatre, standing just a few metres from its original location, reopened to the public three and a half years later.
Visitors to the reconstructed Globe can enjoy an exhibition, as well as watch Shakespeare’s plays performed by modern-day touring companies. (S 020 7902 1400 www.shakespearesglobe.com)
The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace, London
Where players performed before royalty
Royal entertainment was not solely restricted to royal entries and open-air performances while on a progress around the country. Monarchs would often employ companies of players to entertain them at court – and the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace is a wonderful example of spaces used for such festivities. We know that Shakespeare’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream there before James VI and I on New Year’s Day 1604.
The hall was also used regularly as a theatre during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in 1572 a stage was erected against the screen, with an adjoining chamber serving as a dressing room for the players; the Great Watching Chamber was reportedly used for rehearsals. The Great Hall appears to have continued its role as a part-time theatre well after the establishment of permanent playhouses, and its final performance is recorded as taking place on 18 October 1731, although the stage was not finally cleared away until 1798.
Hampton Court Palace itself was built in around 1514 for Henry VIII’s one-time favourite Cardinal Wolsey. In 1529, as Wolsey fell from grace, the king claimed the palace for himself, adding the present Great Hall between 1532 and 1535. The space is often described as the last medieval great hall of the English monarchy, with its magnificent hammerbeam roof and sumptuous wall hangings. It is open to the public. (S 0844 482 7777 www.hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace/)
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Where Mary Queen of Scots made her extravagant royal entry
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile has long been associated with official royal entries and often saw street theatre meet royal performance in a triumphant celebration of the monarch.
On 2 September 1561, Mary Queen of Scots and her royal party set out on a royal entry into Edinburgh, travelling from Holyrood House along the Royal Mile to the sound of cannon fire. The party was met first on Castle Hill by 50 young men dressed up like fantastic blackamoors, a fairly common feature of Renaissance pageants symbolising exotic forces of disorder, which had to be tamed by the authority of a Christian ruler.
With crowds filling the streets, Mary continued her procession, borne aloft by 16 ‘honest’ men of the town and followed by a cart containing child singers and musicians. The party made several stops along the way to witness a particular pageant or staged tableau. At the first stop was a wooden archway, decorated “with fine colours”, where the queen paused to listen to the singing of “certain bairns in the maist heavenly wise”. Upon a scenery cloud, under the arch, was a young boy about six years old who, according to the Domestic Annals of Scotland, “descended down as it had been ane angel, and deliver it to her hieness the keys of the town, together with ane Bible and ane Psalm-buik coverit with fine purpour velvet”.
Royal entries across Europe were important public relations opportunities for the crown, as well as excellent examples of street theatre and other forms of lavish entertainment in which the monarch was expected to participate. Edinburgh’s Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood House and is thought to be the city’s oldest street. (www.edinburgh-royalmile.com)
The article 'Elizabethan drama' was published in partnership with BBC History magazine.