Elizabethan drama was the dominant art form that flourished during and a little after the reign of Elizabeth I, who was Queen of England from 1558 to 1603. Before, drama consisted of simple morality plays and interludes, which were skits performed at the banquets of the Queen’s father Henry VIII or at public schools at Eton. The Elizabethan era saw the birth of plays that were far more morally complex, vital and diverse.
As with the interludes, the earliest Elizabethan plays were put on for university students. They were modelled after the comedies of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence and the tragedies of Seneca.
The First Playhouses and First Playwrights
In 1576, James Burbage, an actor and theatre-builder, built the first successful English playhouse in London on land he had leased in Shoreditch. It was simply called The Theatre and was supported by young playwrights from Cambridge and Oxford Universities. These young men became known as the University Wits and included Thomas Kyd, Robert Green, John Lyly, Thomas Nash and George Peele. The play The Spanish Tragedy, written by Kyd, was the template for the gory “tragedy of blood,” plays that became wildly popular. Another theatre called The Curtain had to be built to accommodate the overflow audiences. The technical name for such as theatre was an easer.
Burbage also had a house in Blackfriars which had a roof. Because of this, it was used for plays during the winter. Burbage’s son Richard was an even more famous actor and performed just about every major role in William Shakespeare’s plays. He was lauded for his roles in the tragedies. The only thing that stopped the plays was the plague, and the theatres were dark from June, 1592 to April, 1594.
The Audience and Actors
Elizabethan theatre itself was notoriously raucous. People, most of whom stood throughout the play, talked back to the actors as if they were real people. Hints of this can be discerned even in Shakespeare’s plays. It is true that adolescent boy actors played female roles, and the performances were held in the afternoon because there was no artificial light. There was also no scenery to speak of, and the costumes let the audience know the social status of the characters. Because sumptuary laws restricted what a person could wear according to their class, actors were licensed to wear clothing above their station.
More and more theatres grew up around London and eventually attracted Shakespeare, who wrote some of the greatest plays in world literature. His plays continue to cast a shadow over all other plays of the era and quite possibly all other plays that came after his.
But Shakespeare was not the first great playwright of the Elizabethan age. That would be Christopher Marlowe. Many scholars believe that Marlowe might have rivalled Shakespeare had he not been murdered when he was 29 years old in a fight over a tavern bill in 1593. He was the first to change the conventions of the early Elizabethan plays with his tales of overreachers like the title character of Tamburlaine the Great, Dr. Faustus and Barabas in The Jew of Malta, men whose will to power provided the engines for the plays. Marlowe used blank, or unrhymed verse in a new, dynamic way that changed the very psychology of dramaturgy.
In the meantime, Peele and Lyly were writing light comedies and fantasies such as Endymion. These plays were performed at court, which were not only patrons but protected the companies from the wrath of the Puritans, who found theatre sinful. One of the companies who performed at court, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had Shakespeare as a member.
This company became the King’s Men under the patronage of James I.
The Globe Theatre
The Puritan reaction against the stage was such that the players had to set up theatres outside the London city limits on the south side of the Thames, but attending plays remained popular among non-Puritans. The most famous of these theatres, which became the Lord Chamberlain’s Men home, was the Globe Theatre. It was established in 1599 and was actually a new iteration of The Theatre, which Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert had moved and reassembled. In between the closing of The Theatre and the opening of The Globe, the Chamberlain’s Men performed at The Curtain.
The Globe premiered some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. It’s very design influenced the design of other theatres, but unfortunately The Globe was destroyed in a fire during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, which was his final play and of such inferior quality that some scholars don’t believe it was written by him at all. The Globe was rebuilt in 1614 and remained standing until 1644 when it was demolished to make room for housing.
Historians believe that the flowering of Elizabethan drama was due in part to the burst of patriotic confidence and national identity that erupted after England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. This was a fleet of ships assembled by Philip II of Spain to conquer England. The conquest failed through a combination of hubris, bad weather, English ingenuity and some help from the Dutch.
It might not be a coincidence that Shakespeare began to contribute in earnest to Elizabethan dramaturgy around 1588, when he was 24, though he’d arrived in London from his home in Stratford on Avon around 1585 to seek work as an actor. As a playwright, he gave Marlowe’s blank verse more range, flexibility and subtlety. He responded to the patriotic mood of the country with his History plays. Besides these plays, of course, were his magnificent comedies and tragedies.
Late Elizabethan Drama
Ben Jonson was a friend of Shakespeare and considered his chief rival after the death of Marlowe. However, Jonson followed the strict classical form that was a hallmark of ancient Latin drama. His plays include Vulpine, or the Fox and The Alchemist. Other dramatists of the late Elizabethan period, which continued after her death, included John Webster, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Richard Burbage also acted in the plays of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher as well as Shakespeare.
By 1600, three years before Elizabeth died, the robustness of Elizabethan drama began to fade. After Shakespeare’s retirement after 1612 and his death in 1616, Elizabethan drama was no more.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Elizabethan Theatre" https://englishhistory.net/shakespeare/elizabethan-theatre/, February 10, 2017