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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last Update: November 16, 2007

The Elizabethan Theatre

Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 12

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

Elizabethan Theatres

Two kinds:

Both were open to anyone who could pay, but the private theatres cost more, were smaller, and had a more select audience.

Nine Public playhouses were built between 1576 and 1642.The three most important – were all outside the city limits of London:

The Globe (1599)

The Fortune (1600)

The Swan (?)

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General features of public playhouses:

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Indoor / Private Theatres

Less is known about the Elizabethan indoor theatres.

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Acting Troupes: (review from earlier)

Most troupes worked on a sharing plan – risk and profits shared. Democratic, self-governing,

Some troupes or members of troupes owned theatre buildings—they were know as "householders."

Stagehands hired "hirelings" for a salary.

Troupes were all male, men or young boys playing women’s roles, some specialized in particular types of roles.

Richard Tarleton, William Kemp, and Robert Armin – clowns

Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn – tragedians.

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Between 1590 and 1613, he wrote 38 plays (although, for some, the authorship is still in doubt), some written with others (John Fletcher, for instance).

Histories: (English history, like Marlowe’s Chronicle plays) such as Henry IV, V, VI, VIII, Richard II, Richard III

Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – generally considered to be his greatest works

Comedies: Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors

Little known about his life:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

General characteristics of the plays:

    1. Early point of attack
    2. Several lines of action (subplots), independent at first, then somehow merge together – unity in apparent diversity (King Lear  is a perfect example).
    3. Large number and variety of incidents; mixing of tears and laughter; gentle and violent passions
    4. Time and space used freely – a sense of ongoing life behind the scenes
    5. Large range and number of characters; 30 is common; rich and poor, all individuals.
    6. Varied language: elegant, ribald, witty, prosaic; all to enhance character and action
    7. Subjects from many sources (mythology, history, legend, fiction, plays) but reworked to become his own.

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A fluid and flexible production style is needed:

Small props, small set pieces maybe

Costumes important – they were usually contemporary, except for supernatural characters and conventional costumes (for Turks, Spaniards, animals), and with the addition of drapery to suggest periods (Romans wearing toga-like sash).

Shakespeare’s plays seem to be accepted as the most dramatically effective – he attempted all popular forms and subjects.

But his reputation during his lifetime was lower than Jonson or Fletcher of Beaumont. His fame grew in the late 17th century and reached its peak in the 19th. Has leveled now.

Survival of his plays depended on fellow actors (i.e.: Henry Condell and John Heminges) – Original edition of his plays was in 1623, called the First Folio.

His four greatest tragedies: Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello

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Shakespeare’s Contemporaries:

Ben Jonson (1572-1637): Considered the best after Shakespeare, but thought he was better.

Perhaps the most influential of his time.

An actor turned playwright.

Followed "the rules" more, but altered them.

Wrote many "masques"—more than anyone else.

In 1616 was made England’s "poet laureate."

In 1616, his plays were published – something usually reserved for poets.

His plays were limited in scope: purpose to reform human behavior, concentrated on foibles of contemporary types.

More harshly moralistic that Shakespeare.

Called "comedy of humors"—

The four bodily "humors" – since classical times, the four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – health was thought to depend on them—extended in Elizabethan times to human psychology – the eccentricities of human behavior attributed to them.

Johnson wrote mostly comedies such as Every Man in his Humor (1598.)

His two tragedies Valpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), were respected, but popular failures.

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Less celebrated contemporaries:

George Chapman, John Marston, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton

Characteristics of their plays:

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Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists:

"Jacobean" comes from James I, King after Elizabeth’s death, reigned from 1603-1625.

"Caroline" refers to Charles I, reigned 1625-1642.

After 1610, a significant change in English drama, which set the standard for tragedies between 1610 and 1642:

More technical proficiency than Shakespeare, but subjects shocking rather than profound.

Subject matter – went from penetrating questions to thrill of exciting stories.

Tragicomedy increases in popularity.

Technical skill increases: exposition more adroit, fewer episodes, built complications into startling climaxes, alternated quiet and tumultuous scenes.

John Fletcher (1579-1625) (273):

One of his plays has a brother and sister incest – but the moral problem is resolved when it turns out they’re not really related.

John Webster (c. 1580-1630) (273):

The White Devil  (1609-1612)

The Duchess of Malfi  (1613-14) – insane Prince Ferdinand.

Modern scholars say he is closest to Shakespeare, but flawed by obscure action, always secondary to characterization. Characters surrounded by corruption and receive no new insight – lack Shakespeare’s sense of affirmation.

John Ford (1586-c. 1639):

Exemplifies the decadence of Jacobean / Caroline drama .

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629-1633)

Sympathetic treatment of brother / sister lovers.

Essentially good characters caught up in abnormal situations

Illuminates evil by associating it with ordinary people – makes him of special interest to modern critics.

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The Stuart Court Masque

James I and Charles I were from the house / family of Stuart (whereas Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were Tudors); therefore, the masques were done in the courts of Stuart monarchs.

Masques were allegorical stories intended to compliment individuals or occasions. Scripts were a pretext for spectacle (similar to the intermezzi). Professional actors played roles; but it was three dances that were central to the masques, Much money was spent on them.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was an Englishman who studied at Florence and brought almost all of the ideas about Italianate staging to England court theatres.

Significance of the masques:

    1. used Italianate staging
    2. Puritans associated them with the monarchy –

So when the Puritan Revolution of 1642 came around, Charles I was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protectorate, and all the theatres were closed.

We will examine some aspects of the theatre that returned after the monarchy was restored (called Restoration Theatre) after we take a look at Spanish theatre during the renaissance.


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You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


Spanish Theatre During the Renaissance



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Page last updated : November 16, 2007