English Renaissance theatre, also known as early modern English theatre, or (commonly) as
Elizabethan theatre, refers to the theatre of England between 1562 and 1642. This is the style of
the plays of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
It was called this to honor the queen, Queen Elizabeth I. the queen loved art, music, drama, and
poetry. She was a patron of the arts; a patron is a rich citizen of high rank who backed an acting
company. She liked Shakespeares plays and protected him.
Theatrical life was largely centred just outside London, as the theatre was banned inside the city
itself, but plays were performed by touring companies all over England.
English companies even toured and performed English plays abroad, e.g. in Germany and in
The period starts before the establishment of the first permanent theatres. Initially two types of
location were used for performing plays, the courtyards of inns and the Inns of Court such as the
Inner Temple. These venues continued to be used even after permanent theatres were established.
The men (no women were professional dramatists in this era) who wrote these plays were primarily
self-made men from modest backgrounds. Some of them were educated at either Oxford or
Cambridge, but many were not. Although William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were actors, the
majority do not seem to have been performers, and no major author who came on to the scene after
1600 is known to have supplemented his income by acting.
Genres: Genres of the period included
The history play, which depicted English or European history. Shakespeare's plays about the lives
of kings, such as Richard III and Henry V, belong to this category, as do Christopher Marlowe's
Edward II and George Peele's Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First. History plays dealt with
more recent events
Tragedy was an amazingly popular genre. Marlowe's tragedies were exceptionally popular, such as
Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. The audiences particularly liked revenge dramas, such as
Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. The four tragedies considered to be Shakespeare's greatest
(Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth) were composed during this period, as well as many
others (see Shakespearean tragedy).
Comedies were common, too. A subgenre developed in this period was the city comedy, which
deals satirically with life in London after the fashion of Roman New Comedy. Examples are
Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday and Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
Though marginalised, the older genres like pastoral (The Faithful Shepherdess, 1608), and even the
morality play (Four Plays in One, ca. 1608-13) could exert influences. After about 1610, the new
hybrid subgenre of the tragicomedy enjoyed an efflorescence, as did the masque throughout the
reigns of the first two Stuart kings, James I and Charles I.
Features of Elizabethan theatre:
1 pace: Plays were performed quickly - not garbling and rushing off the stage but without the long
breaks to change scenes. Actors would have had to use their voices and bodies expressively to
convey mood and meaning
2 time of performance: Plays were performed in the afternoon as there was no lighting for night
3 stages: Stages were round or polygonal and open to the sky although there was usually a canopy
over the stage.
Two doors at the back of the stage lead to the dressing rooms.
There were no curtains, the audience could see everything.
4 Costumes: were likely to be fashionable and contemporary (at the time) Usually donated by rich
They were used to indicate the characters status or profession.
Was symbolic of a characters morality White = purity, Black = evil, and Red = violence, blood
5 Special effects were a part of the performances. In particular, a bladder filled with pigs blood was
used (concealed under a tunic) if someone was to be stabbed and could therefore bleed.
Fireworks were also used to replicate lightning and give fights on stage more emphasis.
6 stage directions Shakespeare gave many of the stage directions in the actual text of his plays.
7 Acting Style Actors had to capture and hold the attention of the audience, therefore their actions
and gestures needed to be a lot larger than what we see today.
The audience was also very close to the actors on the stage - this was particularly the case at The
Globe theatre, where the groundlings were directly in front of the stage
8 Language and Delivery Shakespeare wrote in these styles:
iambic pentameter (10 syllables to the line, with 5 strong and 5 weak beats). This mirrors a heartbeat.
Blank verse, Rhyming verse
Some of the text is in prose. In order to make sense, the text should be read to the punctuation, not to
the end of a line.
The speech should not sound like you are performing poetry - it should seem as natural speech.
9 Audience The groundlings paid a small entry fee and stood for the duration of the performance in
front of the stage.
Wealthy people bought seats in the galleries or sat on the stage itself.
10 Female Actors Women were not permitted to act so female roles were played by young boys
whose voices had not yet broken.
The Globe Theater:
It was built in 1599 In Southwark (near London). Shakespeare was a part owner. It was burned
down in 1613, rebuilt in 1614 and torn down in 1644 by the Puritans.
End of English Renaissance theatre:
The rising Puritan movement was hostile toward theatre, as they felt that "entertainment" was sinful.
Politically, playwrights and actors were clients of the monarchy and aristocracy, and most supported
the Royalist cause. The Puritan faction, long powerful in London, gained control of the city early in
the First English Civil War, and on 2 September 1642, the Parliament, pushed by the
Parliamentarian party, under Puritan influence, banned the staging of plays in the London theatres
though it did not, contrary to what is commonly stated, order the closure, let alone the destruction,
of the theatres themselves