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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

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

Last update: November 16, 2007

Theatre from the Medieval to the Elizabethan Periods (England)


Resource: Various, Wilson/Goldfarb

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

Theatre's Transition in Europe

The theatre’s transition from the medieval to the Renaissance was more readily apparent in England than in Italy or France ... in those countries, the shift from medievalism to Neoclassicism / Renaissance seemed much more abrupt . We can see much more apparent gradual changes – with the English theatre showing characteristics of medievalism and the Renaissance simultaneously, and occurring over a couple centuries.

The Renaissance did not seem to have much of an influence till the late 15th century (1400’s) because of wars and internal strife.

Influences on Elizabethan Drama:

The Renaissance / Neoclassical was less binding than in the rest of Europe.

The classics gradually went to England, and some of the early English Renaissance plays reflect that influence.

Ralph Roister Doister – by Nicholas Udall, a headmaster at Eton Academy (1505-1556).

Plot – about a boastful coward -- Indebted to Plautus’s The Braggart Warrior – foolishness of boastful coward and his courtship of a widow Advanced dramatic construction

Gammer Gurton’s Needle – written at Cambridge University, by Mr. "S." (some believe Thomas Sackville) between 1552 and 1563.

Plot – two households disagree /misunderstand about the loss of a needle. Fuses subject matter and characters similar to medieval farce with the techniques of Roman comedy.


Inns of Court – residences and training for lawyers produced plays for self and important guests, like schools.

Gorbuduc – Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton – 1561 – the "first English Tragedy" – with a "political" statement to make (about leaving the order of succession of the throne unknown – support for Elizabeth’s reign) -- Queen Elizabeth attended.

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Forces Shaping English Drama from Medievalism to Elizabethan:

  1. Religious and political controversies.

Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Puritans,

Elizabeth became queen in 1558, died 1603. She outlawed religious drama (her father was Henry VIII, who in 1534 separated from the Catholic Church to form the Anglican Church, or Church of England, with the English monarch as the head of the church – Catholic / Protestant disputes followed and were rampant, and Elizabeth the Queen wanted no religious dissension) – therefore, there was a rapid development of secular drama as a result.

In 1588, the Spanish Armada was defeated (ironically partly because of the weather); and thus there was a time of peace, domestic calm (?) and the gradual supremacy of English, rather than Spanish, influence as a major world power.


  1. Medieval Influences: dramas and interludes

Before, during, and after Elizabethan theatre – a sometimes bizarre mixture of classics and native drama (of "sophisticated" and "simple" theatre).

  1. Acting became a legal profession in the 1570’s.

The English theatre was directly under the control of the government. Acting companies had to have a license, requiring the patronage of a noble. Provincial troupes were deprived of legal status, so theatre was concentrated around London.

The merchant class disliked theatre (most were part of growing Puritan population), while the aristocracy liked it.

Till 1608, theatre buildings were illegal in the city limits of London, the center of theatre, so theatres were built outside of the city limits.

The first – by James Burbage, head of the first important troupe, the Earl of Leicester’s Men, licensed in 1574 – called "The Theatre."

Despite opposition, by 1580, two companies or more were playing around London.

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University Wits

Acting companies needed new plays. Some of these new plays came from The University Wits – an informal group of scholars applying classical standards to the needs of a vigorous contemporary stage.

Robert Green (1558-1592)

Thomas Kyd (1558-1594)The Spanish Tragedy – c. 1587.Most popular play of the 1500’s.

John Lyly (c. 1554-1606) – prose comedies

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) – Dr. Faustus, Edward II

The University Wits all helped develop:

elegant prose

romantic comedies

complex protagonists

humanism and neoclassicism combined

blank verse – iambic pentameter, not rhymed (called a "couplet" if rhymed)


Marlowe – the most critically acclaimed of the four – Cambridge educated.

    1. focus is on the protagonist; episodic story illuminating his complex motivations
    2. development of the "chronicle" play – History Play – (i.e.: Edward II) – rearranging, telescoping, and altering events to create a causal sense...
    3. helped perfect blank verse

Iambic pentameter, no rhyme. "Couplets" were rhymed.

Tamburlaine parts I&II, 1587 & 1588

Dr. Faustus c. 1588

Edward II c. 1592

Marlowe died in a fight at 29.

Other "University Wits":

John Lyly (c. 1554-1606) and Robert Greene (1558-1592).

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The Theatre buildings / structures:

Public theatre emerged with lack of religious and political subjects.

A need for more plays.

By 1604, with James I and the beginning of the Stuart reign, all troupes were licensed to members of royal families. Before that, when Elizabeth came to power in 1558, gentlemen could maintain a group of actors – otherwise, they were considered to be vagabonds.

A license was required to perform plays. But local authorities (many of the Puritans) found ways to keep troupes from performing.

By 1597, the Crown agreed to limit the number of troupes, but took a firmer support of those it sanctioned.

Pre-Shakespearean Acting Troupes:

Many before 1570’s, but little known about them. Noblemen probably paid a fixed yearly sum, and they probably did additional public performances for extra money.

By 1570, government decrees mad acting more secure, daily performances stimulated building permanent theatres and assembling larger companies.

First important troupe: Earl of Leicester’s Men, licensed in 1574, headed by James Burbage – builder of the first theatre in London.

Lord Chamberlain’s Men – with the Burbage family, Shakespeare’s troupe.

A plague of 1592-3 forced many troupes to dissolve or combine.

In 1603, Lord Chamberlain’s Men became the King’s Men, until 1642.

Actors were paid by the court, yearly fee plus other expenses.

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.

Large repertories: a different bill each day.

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Elizabethan Acting Style

The actual style is not known.

Some scholars argue that acting was formal:

Some scholars argue that acting was more realistic:

In either case, vocal quality and flexibility were necessary.

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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...


The Next Section: Elizabethan, Shakespeare, etc.



This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007