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The Origins of Elizabethan Theatre

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Elizabethan theatre, or English Renaissance theatre, was derived from medieval theatre traditions. Many of these traditions involved mystery plays - plays that retold stories from the Bible. Chester Mystery plays, for example, were a cycle of forty-eight plays which were performed year-round, covering stories starting from the creation to the Last Judgement. These plays were performed on moveable wagons so that the actors could move from town to town to perform these plays - as seen in the picture below. Morality plays on good and evil also developed as a result of these mystery plays.

Commedia dell'arte, an Italian style of comedic and improvisational acting, also influenced Elizabethan theatre - through the use of stock characters, masks, and themes such as adultery and old age.

Professional actors were hired to play for the households of nobility. The touring companies of these actors eventually replaced the mystery and morality plays by local actors. In 1572, a law eliminated the remaining companies lacking formal patronage by labelling them vagabonds.

It should be noted that all actors were male. Until the reign of Charles II, female parts were played by adolescent boy players in women's costume.

The first notable theatre was a building called "the Theatre" and was developed by James Burbage in 1576. Other new buildings were built soon afterwards: the Curtain Theatre (1577), the Rose (1587), the the Swan (1595), the Globe (1599), the Fortune (1600), and the Red Bull (1604).

While all these theatres had their distinct characteristics, for the most part Elizabethan theatres have this common shape: the public theatres would be three stories high, and built around an open space at the centre. This open space was usually polygonal in natural to give an overall rounded effect. The most expensive seats would be the ones right behind the stage - these were the people who were there to "see and be seen" by the other audience members.

The early theatres were vulnerable to fire because they were built of timber, lath, plaster and thatched roofs. The Globe Theatre, the famous London theatre where the plays of Shakespeare were performed starting in 1599, had burned down in 1613. A modern-day reproduction of the Globe theatre has been built in England:


Early in 1599, Shakespeare, who had been acting with the Lord Chamberlain's Men since 1594, became a chief shareholder in the company, and by doing so he helped to establish a uniquely successful form of commercial theatre for the actors of his time. This investment gave Shakespeare and the other leading actors both a share in the company's profits and a share in their playhouse. This would explain Shakespeare's capacity to own such a large estate such as New Place!

The below image is a sketch of The Swan Theatre and is what one of the typical theatres at that time would look like:

References: Swan Theatre sketch - public domain, Chester mystery plays - image from Book of Days by Robert Chamber

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Last Updated At Dec 07, 2012
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