The Modern Globe Theatre
The Stage

The Elizabethan Globe Theatre

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)




Theatres and Theatre Companies

     The late sixteenth and early seventeenth century (1590-1615) in England was a period when there was a variety of literary activity going on: lyrics, epics, satires, jest-books, sermons, sonnets, essays all abounded. But it is usual to see this age as the great age of the English drama. It is drama with which William Shakespeare (1564-1516), and indeed Elizabethan writers in general, are now most associated. The Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre was the first fully professional theatre in England, in the sense of professional actors performing in purpose-built theatres.
     In the later sixteenth century a popular, medieval tradition of English drama was fused with a rediscovery and imitation of classical drama to produce, for the first time, a commercial theatre. The richer households of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England customarily included minstrels and other entertainers among their numerous servants. The playing of Interludes at feasts in great halls encouraged the development of small troupes. Protected by the livery of a noble patron, these players avoided the stringent penalties inflicted on rogues and vagabonds in Tudor England. There was prestige to be gained for the Lord of an impressive acting troupe because the companies proclaimed the munificence of their patrons as well as their own special skills. Courtiers and Crown officials began to patronize company of players. The Earl of Oxford had his own players by 1547, and he had numerous successors: William Shakespeare was one of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men). Buildings were used or adapted as theatres to which players could travel, as they do with the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. They performed before visiting dignitaries in the great halls of their patrons' homes, toured the provinces in his livery and aspired to the honour of playing at the Queen's Court. Performance in London was more likely to catch the eye of the Lord Chamberlain, and so it was to London that companies gravitated, playing in inn-yards like the Saracen's Head, the Red Lion and the Boar's Head. The next stage was the erection of special purpose-built theatres with their own resident actors. William Shakespeare was a boy of twelve when in 1576 the first purpose-built theatre in England was opened. It was built by an actor, James Burbage, whose son Richard became the leading actor in Shakespeare's plays. James Burbage was a former member of a strolling band of players, the Leicester's Men, who enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Leicester. He first tested the potential profitability of a purpose-built playhouse. James Burbage called his first public theatre simply "The Theatre" (1576); it was opened near the site of Liverpool Street Station in London. Half a dozen more theatres were built in the London Suburbs by the end of the century. "The Theatre" was the first of a long line of metropolitan playhouses that were the focus of the professional theatre in its heyday: the Curtain, the Red Bull, the Fortune north of the city, and, south of the Thames, the Rose, the Swan, Shakespeare's Globe (1599), the Hope. In 1574 Leicester's Men (1559-1588) became the first company of actors to be granted a royal patent, entitling them to act their plays throughout the country. Although briefly (1583-1594) the Queen herself became the nominal patron of a her own company, Queen Elizabeth's Men, in 1583.
     The theatre owner would claim his share of the takings but the companies were artistically independent. The custom was for senior members to become sharers, in the risks as well in the profits. Buying and dealing in such shares was hazardous, since London's theatres were threatened by competition, by hostile authorities and by the recurrent plague epidemics. Prudence and good fortune brought riches to some sharers. The Lord Chamberlain's Men probably included six actor-sharers, four hired men and two boys apprenticed to a sharer. The Lord Chamberlain's Men gained advantage over all their rivals, when they moved to the Globe in 1599.
     For the first time the actors owned their own theatre. The development of the professional drama in Elizabethan times would have been impossible without the protection and encouragement of the Queen and her Privy Council. She needed companies of trained actors to supply the requirements of court entertainment. But all during her reign and for many years afterwards the "common players" had to advance their profession in the teeth of the most determined opposition from city authorities throughout the realm and especially in London who had the strongest objections to this burgeoning activity on grounds of public order, morality, and religion. This new public professional theatre was almost crippled by the controls it was forced to operate under. The Queen, the Church, and the City were all watchful for the least sign of plays and players straying beyond permitted limits, and censorship was extremely tight. But the theatre flourished, and the demand for new plays was continuous.
      The London theatres were public playhouses, with seating crammed into galleries round a central yard with cheap standing space. Not until the King's Men began to use the Blackfriars Theatre from 1608 can one sense a move away from popular, City entertainment to a private, court-centered art-form. For the Elizabethan theatre was popular - the cries of aldermen and preachers against theatres and their associated rogues and harlots are evidence enough.
     Villagers enjoyed plays no less than their city cousins: by 1577 an earthwork in Walshan-le-Willows (Suffolk) was adapted with "a fayre round place of earth made of purpose for the use of stage playes". There is also the testimony of a Journal kept by Captain Keeling of the Dragon on an East Indies voyage. He noted on 5 September 1607 that "we gave the tragedie of Hamlet", on the 30th that "my companions acted Kinge Richard the Second", and on 1 October that he "had Hamlet acted abord me: which I permitt to keepe my people from idleness and unlawfull games, or sleepe". The image of two of Shakespeare's masterpieces being acted out off the coast of Sierra Leone is one of the most remarkable vignettes of a remarkable age.


1. What was the most popular artistic expression in the Elizabethan time?
2. Outline the development of the the companies of actors and the purpose-built playhouses during the Elizabethan and Jacobean age.
3. Name the most important companies of actors of the Elizabethan age.
4. Who began to patronize company of actors?
5. Were there any theatres at the beginning of the Elizabethan age?
6. Who opposed the common players? Why?
7. Who built "The Theatre? When?
8. Did the actors own their own theatre?
9. What were the common characteristics of London theatres?
10. Can you give examples of the popularity enjoyed by theatres and plays in the Elizabethan age?


Early English Tragedy

      The Elizabethan and Jacobean age is usually seen as the great age of the English drama, and in particular, as the great age of the Englsih tragedy. This can be explained through the relationship that can be posited between the writing of great tragedies and the social and economic conditions which were prevalent in England at the time of Elizabeth and James I. In the history of Renaissance English tragedy the following three stages can be outlined:
- imitations of Seneca;
- translations:
- imitations of Greek and Latin plays;

Three further subdivisions may be noted:

- the treatment of secular subjects in the style of the familiar sacred plays;
- the close imitation of classical models;
- the blending f those two modes into a form of tragedy at once artistic and popular.

Senecan Tragedy

     The theatre was the point of closest contact between Humanism and popular taste. Early Elizabethan tragedy was Senecan tragedy. The Humanist interest in the Latin and Greek classics produced a new kind of English tragedy. There was nothing that could be called tragedy in English drama before the classical influence made itself felt. Grammar Schools and Universities had trained their students in rhetoric with the aid of Seneca and Terence. The favourite classical writer of tragedies among English Humanists was Seneca, the Stoic Roman, whose nine tragedies, never meant to be acted, adapted the old Greek myths to produce violent yet sombre treatments of murder, cruelty, and lust. They were translated into English by Jasper Heywood, John Studley and others in the mid-sixteenth century. Certainly, Seneca was one of the classical authors that no cultured Elizabethan could have omitted from their education. His plays were translated, adapted and imitated, and English writers clearly admired them, and numbered Seneca among the great authors of classical times. Jasper Heywood's translation of Senecan tragedies in 1560, particularly Thyestes and Agamennon, which dealt with revenge and bloodsoaked family histories, influenced the structure of English tragedy and exherted a fascination on all the Elizabethans. There are certain stylistic and structural dramatic devices which Elizabethan playwrights, including William Shakespeare, used, which may well have been learned from Seneca's tragedies. In the Senecan type of tragedy we find some elements and features typical of the early Elizabethan tragedies. They are:

1. The five-act structure of the play;
2. the use of long rhetorical and bombastic speeches;
3. dramatic devices such as asides, monologues, soliloquies;
4. the sharp one-line exchanges in the dialogue between characters (called "stichomythia);
5. the fondness for the presence of the conventional character of the "Ghost";
6. a foul crime committed before the play begins;
7. the violent and sexual nature of the crime;
8. the private revenge and violence theme;
9. family honour;
10. the delay; 11. murders and further violence;
12. melodramatic situations;
13. stories of ghosts, revenge and savage passions, interwoven with sententious moralizing and Stoic philosophy.
14. Sulphurish flames (the torment of the classical underworld, familiar to the stage ghost of the Senecan tradition, representing the purgatorial fire).

     The raw Senecan influence found its way into the bloodstream of English drama, forming part of a developing tradition of tragedies whose plots hinge on political power, forbidden sexuality, family honour and private revenge. Shakespeare's Hamlet embraced deliberately and wholeheartedly a set of theatrical conventions which the audience would understand as being in the tradition of English Senecan revenge drama. Definition of "Tragedy" and Classical themes in the Native Way      Aristotle's definition of tragedy in his Poetics concerns the noble hero with the fatal flaw (hamartia), whose reversal of fortunes (peripeteia) is brought about by some moment of recognition (anagnoris) and whose fate arouses pity and fear, and suggests some kind of spiritual cleansing (catharsis). However, in the early seventeenth century tragedy was not a single clearly-defined entity with rigid boundaries but a term which referred to a variety of plays. The very term "tragedy" is one which was used in a variety of ways by Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, and the instability of generic boundaries which allowed for a free merging of tragedy and satire is a basic feature of the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age.      The earliest English tragedies are both Senecan and English, in the sense that the English playwrights try to handle classical themes in the native way. These attempts may be seen in the following playwrights and their works:

- Richard Edward's Damon and Pythias (probably acted 1564),
- John Pickeryng's New Interlude of Vice containing the History of Horestes (printed in 1567);
- R. B's Apius and Virginia (printed in 1575) and
- Thomas Preston's Cambises (licensed 1569-70).

     These are typical of a group of plays produced in the 1560s and 1570s and still popular in Shakespeare's day. A large number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were based on famous stories from the past; very few had entirely original plots. Thomas Preston's Cambises approximate to the Senecan model, but have nothing classical about them except the names. Attempts are made to copy Seneca's stichomytia (i. e. dialogue of alternate single lines) ("Damon and Pythias"), and Preston mentions Seneca in the prologue. The playwrights above are as realistic as later melodramas, and endeavour to present visibly hangings and stabbings and flayings. The early English playwrights accepted the bloody traditions of the miracle plays and handed on to the theatres a physical realism which was evidently in accord with popular taste. Horestes combines history with morals, the prompter of evil being the "Vice". This historical-morality was the kind of development followed by plays.

Tragedy and the Morality Play

Modern scholars have documented the debts which the Elizabethan playwrights and Shakespeare himself owed to the morality tradition and the Everyman type of story. The morality plays of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, plays such as Everyman (ca. 1500) and Mankind (c. 1465), told a story which plotted a man's progression through a series of situations designed to test his moral strength. The story is that of an ordinary man who starts out in comparative innocence, and is then confronted by the representatives of various virtues and vices: he is tempted by the vices and admonished by the virtues, but ends up falling into sin, only to be redeemed in the end by heavenly grace. The everyday ethical choices which an individual faces are dramatized in the context of a cosmic struggle between the powers of heaven and hell, in which the prize is the soul of man. The two essential features of the story are the idea of temptation, and the idea of a metaphorical journey towards self-knowledge. The protagonist moves from innocence to experience, and the story, in its emphasis on eventual redemption, celebrates the optimism of the Christian message. The morality play is also a didactic kind of theatre.
     The morality structure as subject to a series of variations in the Elizabethan age. One of the greatest plays of Elizabethan reign was Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which took the structure of the morality play and turned it on its head, telling the story of a man whose journey into sin leads him eventually to the point of no return. The structure of the morality play was infinitely adaptable, so the morality play became integrated with political allegory and satire. The stories of Renaissance drama generate questions of how an individual relates to the structures of authority - earthly and heavenly, theological and political, of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Such problems were explored relentlessly by the drama of the period, a drama springing from a theatre which itself existed in an ambiguous relationship with the power structure of its time.

     The Elizabethan Conception of Order

The world picture which the Middle Ages inherited was that of an ordered universe arranged in a fixed system of hierarchies but modified by man's sin and the hope of his redemption. The general medieval picture of the world survived in outline into the Elizabethan age, but its existence was by then precarious. There had been Machiavelli, to whom the idea a universe divinely ordered throughout was repugnant. However, According to the scholar E. M. W. Tillyard, "Those ... who take their notion of the Elizabethan age principally from the drama will find it difficult to agree that its world picture was ruled by a general conception of order, for at first sight that drama is anything but orderly." But the idea of order was taken for granted in the collective mind of the people and must have been common to all Elizabethans. The conception of law or order as harmony was present in non-didactic writings of the age. Shakespeare's conception of order is the best known (Ulysses's speech on "degree" in Troilus and Cressida). In this passage we find cosmic and domestic elements. The sun, the king, primogeniture; the war of the planets is echoed by the war of the elements and by civil war on earth; the homely brotherhoods or guilds in cities are found along with an oblique reference to creation out of the confusion of chaos. Here is a picture of immense and varied activity, constantly threatened with dissolution, and yet preserved from it by a superior unifying power. The notion of cosmic order pervades the entire Faerie Queene. The Elizabethans believed in an ideal order animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong. To an Elizabethan chaos meant the cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the law of nature to cease functioning. The Elizabethan picture of universal order was represented by the metaphor of the Great Chain of Being, which served to express the unimaginable plenitude of God's creation, its unfaltering order, and its ultimate unity. The chain of being stretched from the foot of God's throne to the meanest of inanimate objects.

Tragedy and Usurpation

      Another favourite narrative of English Renaissance drama was the story of the usurper, or the story of "killing the king", as it is told in William Shakespeare's plays (Richard II, Richard III, but also Julius Caesar, Macbeth), and Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (1592). The usurper is the man who challenges established authority on a grand scale. Unlike the revenger, whose motive is usually the righting of a perceived personal wrong, the usurper does not stop at revenge, but wants to displace the original authority completely and replace it by himself. He may be motivated by the desire to avenge personal injustice; or he may have the wider interests of the kingdom at heart; or he may be driven by pure ambition and self-interest; or by any combination of all these elements. His usurpation may be carried out by stealth and guile or by waging war to achieve his ends. The story of the usurper typically involves more than just matters of individual personalities: the story is about the state of the nation as much as about the individual, and the damage done to the whole country by the action of a few men is recurrent theme. The issues raised by the story of the usurper involve, inevitably, questions of the relationship between the individual and the office he holds, and also the claims of an ideal order (- when a king appeals to divine sanction in support of his rule ) - compared to the demands of "realpolitik" ( practical politics based on the realities and necessities of life, rather than moral or ethical ideas).

Tragedy and Revenge

     The story of the revenger was one of the most popular stories of the Renaissance and early Elizabethan tragedy. Seneca helped the popularity of revenge as a theme and subject in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The main characteristics of the revenge tragedy can be described as follows. In the typical revenge play, an initial crime is committed, either early on in the play itself or before the play begins. For various reasons the usual processes of law and justice are unavailable to avenge that crime, and so an individual, working outside the law, sees it as his duty to exact a private revenge on the criminal, who is often politically very powerful. The play narrates the protagonist's attempts to avenge the crime. This may involve a period of doubt, in which the protagonist decides whether or not to go ahead with the revenge, and it may also involve some complex plotting as the central hero decides to take revenge in an apt or fitting way (Hamlet). By deciding to take revenge, the revenger places himself outside the normal moral order of things, and often becomes more and more isolated as the play progresses. At its most extreme, this isolation becomes madness. The revenger may die in the act of committing the revenge or is sentenced to death immediately afterwards. This does not always happen. Other typical features of the revenge tragedy are: - the setting, which is usually in a European Catholic court;
- the appearance of a ghost, often in order to charge the hero with the duty of revenge;
- the revenger is often a malcontent-figure, an alienated commentator on the society mirrored in the play, sceptical and satirical and having an especially close relationship with the audience by means of asides and soliloquies;
- the original crime which is to be avenged is nearly always sexual or violent and very often both;
- nearly always the crime has been perpetrated against a member of the revenger's family. - there is an inherent tension in the revenge story between the demands of the narrative and the demands of conventional morality;
- the revenger's point of view usually dominates the play;
- the readers are made to feel that the protagonist has a valid motive for revenge;
- the very nature of the story encourages the audience to want the revenge plot to go ahead.

     The fact that the pleasure of the revenge story demands that the revenge plot should go ahead to the end does not mean that revenge plays dramatized a current Elizabethan assumption that private revenge was morally justifiable. On the contrary, Church, State and conventional morality insisted that private revenge was not to be tolerated. Authorities were clear on this point. According to Christian orthodoxy which posits a world ordered by Divine Providence, revenge is a sin and a blasphemy, endangering the soul of the revenger.      The basic revenge story structure illustrated above may be subject to any number of variations. The outcome may turn out to be comic rather than tragic, and the tone may end up as being ironic rather than serious. The story itself may be displaced and varied in a number of ways; it may also be relegated to a sub-plot.

Sackville and Norton: The Tragedy of Gorboduc

     The earliest English tragedy, The Tragedy of Gorboduc (as it was called in the first edition in 1565), or the Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex (as it was called in the second edition, ca. 1570), was written by Thomas Sackville (1536-1608) and Thomas Norton (1532-1584), who were two members of Parliament. The tragedy was acted before Queen Elizabeth at the Inner Temple in 1562.

     Gorboduc is a tale of a divided kingdom, civil war, and the awful consequences of split authority in a state, which takes its plot from that mythical region of early English history which the Tudor chroniclers regarded as fact and which Spenser occasionally used in The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare drew on in King Lear. Though Senecan in manner, the play has an English theme, and its main motive, of the dangers that follow an unsettled succession, would be of topical interest in Elizabeth's reign.      Gorboduc is divided into five acts: it follows the classical manner in avoiding violence on the stage; both writers employed blank verse, not before attempeted in drama. According to the critic David Daiches, the tragedy is written in "wooden blank verse. It is sententious, rhetorical, and supremely dull. Though historically important as the first English play in blank verse, and as an attempt at a purely "regular" form of tragedy which proved to have no real future in England, it is a play which nobody today would read for pleasure." With its long, heavy blank verse speeches, and its complete absence of action on the stage, Gorboduc could appeal only to a learned audience. In the 1560s imitations of Gorboduc were produced. Jocasta, written by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh, was presented at Gray's Inn in 1566. In 1567-68 five writers, one of whom was Robert Gilmot, presented at the Inner Temple a tragedy with a plot taken from the Decameron, Gismond of Salerne in Love. In 1588 the Gray's Inn Gentlemen acted before the Queen The Misfortunes of Arthur, whose chief author was Thomas Hughes. There are five acts, each with its preliminary dumb show, and the whole concludes with an Epilogue, which at least proves that the great verse instrument of English drama was being shaped and polished. The matter of the play was drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth, the manner from Seneca's Thyestes.

Machiavelli and Elizabethan Theatre.

     Seneca was the most important classical writer of tragedies that influenced the Elizabethan theatre together with Machiavelli. Among the modern writers Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), author of The Prince, was repeatedly referred to in Elizabethan drama. For most Elizabethans, Machiavelli was simply a monster, an advocate of murder and treachery, the cynical atheist who introduces Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Shakespeare followed Marlowe in preparing the character of the ambitious villain to "set the murderous Machiavel to school" (Henry VI Part 3, Act III, Scene 2, l. 193). While Machiavelli was abused in public, he was studied in private for his effectual truth. His realism influenced Bacon and Raleigh. Though neither formulated a coherent philosophy of politics, they were both of them students of the naked element of power, as well as legally minded Elizabethans. For Machiavel and Machiavellianism,- writes W. R. Elton, - whose influence on Shakespeare's England has been demonstrated, worldly politics were shaped not by the City of God but by the will, desire, cunning, virtù, and energy of man. Machiavelli's anti-Aristotelian separation of politics from ethics proposes a behavioural study of "policy", power, and reason of state. Among Elizabethan playwrights, it is Shakespeare who apparently provides the most numerous instances of "policy" in the Machiavellian sense, e.g. in Timon of Athens where "policy" is said to sit "above conscience" (Act III, Scene 2, l. 86). Machiavellian "reason of state", the relativistic view that the interests of the state supersede principles of morality, was a recognized political notion of the later sixteenth century. Some plays of the 1590s show the characteristic signs of Senecan-Italian influence. "After the establishment of public theatres, writers of tragedies and chronicles tended to appeal to popular audiences and to disregard the classical authorities dear to the gentlemen of the universities and the Inns of Court. English tragedy moved away from the frozen dignity of Gorboduc towards the warm humanity of the best old miracle plays. Neverheless, from Senecan models it derived not only its persistent defects of sensational horror and insistent declamation, but some recognition of the necessity for dignity of person, loftiness of utterance, and real, though not mechanical, unity and coherence."

Early English Comedies: Udall's "Ralph Roister Doister" and Stevenson's Gammer Gurton's Needle (1553?)

When Seneca's "Ten Tragedies" (1559-81) started the broad stream of Elizabethan translations, the time was ripe for a neo-classical drama in English. The earliest extant memorial in English of the revived study of Roman comedy is a translation of the Andria, entitled Terens in Englysh, printed by John Rastell about 1520. The humanists' emphasis on rhetoric and classical studies meant that drama was often encouraged in the schools, both to help with the boys' elocution and to bring alive the comedies of Plautus and Terence. Plays in English for schoolboys followed, and the tradition of school drama is seen at its most entertaining in a work by the sometime headmaster of Eton and Westminster Nicholas Udall (1505-56) who took the bold step of writing an entirely English comedy on classical models. The first notable effort in comedy, the school play of Ralph Roister Doister (performed by the Westminster boys perhaps in 1553-54) was made by Nicholas Udall.
     But Humanism in the theatre was obliged since its beginning to come to terms with popular custom; in effect, there was no other practical experience of how a play ought to be given. Udall's Ralph Roister Doister shows one side of this process. There was a period of adjustment between learning and custom until 1580s, when the drama approached the freedom of maturity with the University wits. Udall was evidently a man of versatile powers, but unfortunately he survives mainly in his sole work Ralph Roister Doister, a lively piece in rhyming doggerel couplets structured round the five acts and various scenes of a Latin comedy. Within this framework, he adjusted figures borrowed from Roman comedy. In imitation of Plautus and Terence, Udall substituted for the loosely knit structure of the English morality or debate an organic plot. Udall based the contrasting characters of a boastful lover (Ralph Roister Doister) who courts Dame Custance, a lady of some fortune already engaged to Gawin Godluck, and a flattering parasite (Matthew Merrygreek) on the plays of Terence, particularly Eunuchus, and Plautus's Miles Gloriousus, adding to his classical model such homely figures as the servants Meg Mumblecrust and Tib Talkpace. More importantly, the plot is carried forward by suspense and intrigue. Ralph Roister Doister has genuine life as an English comedy, and does not live merely historically.

     Another academic comedy was Gammer Gurton's Needle (1533?) probably written by a leading spirit at Cambridge William Stevenson. This celebrated piece was written some time after 1550 and was not published until 1575. It is of enduring interest as the earliest university play in English which has come down to us. The golden period of academic drama dates from the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Cambridge in 1564. In 1566 the Queen visited Oxford.

Dramatic Language

The language used by the great Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights in their plays was poetry, not prose. Marlowe and Shakespeare showed considerable skill in creating, manipulating and refining the "blank verse" (unrhymed iambic pentameter), Marlowe's "mighty line", whose flexible form was able to accomodate a variety of English speech rhythms. It was first used for a play by Sackville and Norton in Gorboduc, and then became the standard verse for Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who made it a most subtle and flexible dramatic instrument.

William Shakespeare's Predecessors: The University Wits

The majority of dramatists active in London when Shakespeare began his playing career in the late 1580s were university men: John Lyly (1554-1609), Robert Greene (1558-92), Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), George Peele (1556-96), Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), Thomas Lodge (1558-1625). Of the non-university dramatists the most important was Thomas Kyd (1559-94), son of a London scrivener. There were no other actor-dramatists of note besides Shakespeare. Anthony Munday (1560-1633), a lesser light, began to write for the stage in the mid 1590s, followed by Ben Jonson, who was recorded as a common player in 1597. The "university wits" infused a new richness in poetry, subjects and passions into the popular drama; they made the public plays literary without making them academic. It is sometimes said that the deaths of Greene, Marlowe, and Kyd in the early 1590s - all of them young when they died - left the playwriting field free for Shakespeare to occupy. He learned his trade among that remarkable group of dramatists, the "university wits", and as he forged his own profoundly original drama their influence never lessened.


     These academic plays acted by gentlemen of the Inns of Court did something for the drama. They set a standard of lofty effort and they established blank verse as the medium. But the Senecan material of Hamlet and the major Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies passed through the popular Spanish Tragedy of Thomas Kyd, with its clamorous ghost and its public violent revenges. It was Thomas Kyd and a little after him the subtler, nobler Marlowe, who solved the problem of combining the vigour of the native English tradition with the ambition in style and arrangement of Senecan tragedy. They gained the approval of the people as a whole and aroused an excited enthusiasm. Mingling the themes of love, conspiracy, murder, and revenge, Thomas Kyd found a way of adapting some of the main elements of Senecan tragedy. The Spanish Tragedy, probably first produced in the early 1580s, is the first, and in its own melodramatic way the most powerful, of the series of revenge plays which so captured the Elizabethan and the Jacobean imagination. Thomas Kyd took as a foundation three conventional devices borrowed from Seneca. One was the ghost, another the theme of revenge for the murder of a relative, and the third was a liberal use of stage declamation and soliloquy. Elizabethan Playwrights at the turn of the Century.      William Shakespeare's great contemporaries and fellow dramatists at the turn of the century were Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632), George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), John Marston (1576-1634), Thomas Heywood (c. 1574-1641), and Ben Jonson (1572/3-1637). Not one of these had the same exclusive commitment to writing for the theatre that Shakespeare had. Shakespeare and Jonson are often correctly seen as antithetical spirits. Many times Jonson was critical of Shakespeare's imperfect standards in his art and his want of learning, though he said he "loved the man" and wrote that Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time". If these two major figures in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are antithetical, it could be said that they are complementary.
     Shakespeare was succeeded as chief dramatist of the King's Men by John Fletcher (1597-1625), with whom he collaborated briefly in his last plays, Henry VIII(1613), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) and the lost Cordenio (c.1612). Fletcher preferred collaborative work, writing first with Francis Beaumont (c.1584-1616), and then with Philip Massinger (1583-1640). Other playwrights of the period were John Webster (c.1580-c.1634), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), John Ford (1586-1639) and Cyril Tourneur (c.1580-1626).
     From the opening of the Theatre in 1576 to the closing of all theatres in 1642 is sixty-six years, during which the professional companies, equally at home in the big public open air theatres, the more refined "private" theatres, and in the courts of three successive monarchs, performed plays by generations of dramatists which taken together comprise one of the greatest achievements of English literature and one of the wonders of world drama, William Shakespeare's plays.


1. What are the stages that can be outlined in the history of the Renaissance English tragedy?
2. Who was the favourite classical writer of tragedies among English Huma nists?
3. How does Aristotle define "tragedy"?
4. What are the characteristics of the earliest English tragedies?
5. Can we say that Elizabethan playwrights were influenced by the Morality
tradition? Substantiate.
6. What was the Elizabethan conception of order?
7. What was the tragedy of usurpation?
8. What was the revenge tragedy? What were its typical elements?
9. What was the earliest English tragedy? Who wrote it?
10. How was Machiavelli
considered by the Elizabethans?
11. What were the first English comedies?
Who wrote them? What were they based on?
12. Who were the University Wits? Can you name them?
13. Who was Thomas Kyd? What is he famous for?
14. Who were the Elizabethan playwrights at the turn of the century?

This background is based on the following works: M. Mangan, A Preface to Shakespeare's Tragedies, Longman, 1993; D.M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth. England under the Late Tudors 1547-1603, Longman, 1992; The Oxford Illustrated History of Literature, Edited by Pat Rogers, Oxford University Press, 1990; The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1992.


     Until James Burbage built the Theatre in 1576, Elizabethan players had no permanent home. They were accustomed to act on a variety of stages. They gave private performances in the great halls of noblemen's houses or in one of the Queen's palaces, or the Inns of Court, and they acted in public in Town Halls and inn yards, or in any place where they could erect a stage and collect a crowd. The stage used by travelling players was simple - a platform of boards resting on trestles (1) or barrels, with a curtained booth (2) at the back where the actors could change their costumes or wait for the cue for entrance. The evolution from this kind of stage to the eleboration of the Fortune has been well traced in a series of reconstructions by C. Walter Hodges in The Globe Restored, 1953, some of whose drawings are here reproduced. [...]

     Unfortunately the Elizabethan Age is very inadequately illustrated. Many interesting details of life in town and country in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are preserved in the miniatures of illustrated manuscripts. [...] Most of the woodcuts and engravings in books are crude and amateur, and few artists painted good landscapes. Nor did any English artist leave a picture of the inside of an Elizabethan theatre. Modern reconstructions of the Elizabethan stage are thus largely guesswork, based upon such evidence as survives. This evidence is of three kinds: (a) the Swan drawing; (b) stage directions in early texts and casual references in books and letters; and (c) the contracts for building the Fortune Theatre in 1600 and the Hope in 1612 - both in the Henslowe Papers. [...]

     The Elizabethan playhouse was small. The external dimensions were only 80 by 80 feet; and of the interior are of 55 by 55 feet, left between the galleries, the stage occupied almost half. Even by modern standards, the size of the stage is considerable. Unfortunately the contract is vague about the stage itself; all details are "prefigured in a plot (or plan) thereof drawn" - and the plot has perished. The [Fortune] contract says nothing about doors, or upper stage; nor does it mention the size or the location of the "tiring house". A tiring-house was the place the actors changed their attire, and presumably it was at the rear of the stage; but there is endless controversy about its size, arrangement, and relation to the rest of the acting area. One notable attemp to reconstruct the stage and its appearance is shown in J. C. Adams' model. Adams claimed that the whole back section from roof to floor was the tiring area; that behind the stage proper there was an inner stage, concealed by a curtain when in no use, of the same depth as the galleries (which he called Study); an upper stage also concealed by a curtain (which he called Chamber); an upmost area normally used by mucicians but available on occasion for a lookout or the like. [...]

     Such are some of the problems to be considered in any reconstruction of the Elizabethan stage. In the Fortune contract the playhouse was to be square, but the few pictures that remain of the outside of other theatres show that they were circular or octogonal. Within the outer walls there were three tiers of galleries, looking down on the stage and the yard where the poorer spectators stood. The stage itself, technically known as an "apron stage", (3) jutted out (4) into the yard, so that when the house was full the players were surrounded on three sides. Over the stage the "shadow" or roof protected the players from the rain. The structure of the stage considerably affected the form of Elizabethan plays. In the modern theatre the actor is separated from his audience by a curtain which conceals or reveals the whole stage. Moreover, he acts in bright light before spectators hidden in a darkened auditorium. On the apron stage the actor came forward in daylight into the midst (5) of his audience. He and they were thus, as it were, fused into a common experience. The device of soliloquy was not, as on the modern stage, embarrassingly artificial, but a quite natural communication as a character explains his thoughts and intentions to those immediately before him. As there was no need for him to shout, the greatest subtlety of voice, gesture, and expression was possible. Nor needed he to speak slowly; in that small auditorium every word could easily be heard, and the spectators were eager and trained listeners. Apparently there was no scenery apart from an occasional property gate, (6) tree, or the like, and plays were acted in daylight. The Elizabethan actor was thus without the lighting, scenery, sound effects, and other realistic or symbolic adjuncts (7) of the modern stage. In their place he gained his effects by a direct assault on the emotions and the imagination of the spectators. Poetry was thus a natural medium for dramatic speech, especially at exalted moments, and a good actor could carry his audience with him by the emotional force of rhetoric. The action was continuous. A scene ended when all the actors had gone off the stage and a new set of characters came on. There was thus a quick continuity of performance with no break in the illusion. As there was no scenery, so there was no limit to the number of scenes. Usually the exact locality of the scene was unimportant. When it was necessary Shakespeare showed it in the dialogue. "What country, friends, is this?" Viola asks. "This is Illyria, lady," the sea captain answers. But for the most part a simple property (8) or garment (9) was sufficient. Chairs or stools showed indoor scenes; a man wearing riding-boots (10) was a messenger; a king wearing his armour was on the field of battle; a watchman (11) carrying a lantern (12) indicated the streets of a city at night. The most important difference between the modern and the Elizabethan theatre is that on the public stages there was no curtain to divide the stage from the auditorium. Such arrangements are simple, but not crude. All drama implies an acceptance of conventions and a use of the imagination, and properties can easily replace scenery. The properties were many and varied. [...] There was some attempt at realistic presentation. When characters were stabbed they bled, as Caesar is made to bleed in Julius Caesar. In the play of Arden of Feversham there was a fog, which must have been represented somehow. The stage machinery was, however, crude and irritating to the artistic sense of Ben Jonson, who sneered at it in the prologue to the revised version of Every Man in His Humour: [...].

    On the other hand costumes were sometimes lavish and imposing. When in 1601 the Admiral's Men produced a play of Cardinal Wolsey they bought "two pile velvet of carnadine at twenty and six". The bill for material alone came to 21 in money of the day. An inventory of costumes in the Henslowe Papers, probably of the same date as the inventory of properties, lists eighty-four garments of various kinds, most of them magnificent, such as "a short velvet cloak embroidered with gold and gold spangles", "a crimson robe striped with gold, faced with ermine", " a cardinal's gown".[...]
     There seems to have been little attempt at historical accuracy; the Romans in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus wore doublets, (13) cloaks, and large hats; Cleopatra was tight-laced in a "busk". [...] On the other hand, when portraying recent events the players sometimes took special care over the costuming. [...] There was an elaborate system of trumpet calls; sennets,(14) tuckets, (15) alarums, (16) retreats, (17) flourishes, (18) appear frequently in stage directions. No king enters or goes out without a flourish. On the modern stages these trumpet calls are usually half-hearted: on the Elizabethan they had a considerable psychological effect. [...]

     The Elizabethan actor was a busy man, constantly rehearsing new plays. He had little time for long, elaborate, and exhausting preparations; but he belonged to a team and the trained actors at this time were so clever that, given a story, they could make the play as they went along. The Elizabethan acting Company was a permanent "fellowship of players", and they worked on the share system. Since the actors were partners in the concern, the Company remained constant. There were ten to fifteen regular sharers, and in addition some hired men and boys learning the business who ultimately might rise to be sharers. [...]

     The importance of the Company system is considerable. Nowadays a director assmbles actors suitable for a particular play, and he can draw from a vast reservoir of all kinds and types. If he needs an actor who specializes in taking the part of a chimpanzee, he will find several available. Shakespeare had to write for his Company as it existed. He could not therefore produce characters for which the company had no physical representative. On the other hand he made use of the peculiarities of the actors and it is noticeable how certain physical types recur. [...]

G. B. Harrison, Introducing Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1985.)

1. trestles: removable supporting structure for a table.
2. booth: small enclosed box-like space that a person can go into
3. apron stage: a stage or part of stage in front of the proscenium arch, projecting to a greater or lesser extent into the auditorium; part of a stage in a theatre that is in front of the curtain and beside the area in which people who are watching the performance sit.
4. jutted out: projected or protruded from the main body. 5. into the midst: in the middle.
6. property gate: a barrier used to close an opening made for entrance to a building or a piece of land owned by someone.
7. adjuncts: things joined, added or connected, but subordinate and not essential parts, to a larger or more important thing.
8. property: something which is owned by someone.
9. garment: a piece of clothing.
10. riding-boots: high boots worn in riding by messengers travelling on horsback.
11. watchman: guard.
12. lantern: a light enclosed in a container which has a handle for holding it.
13. doublets: short tight jackets worn by men of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.
14. sennets: trumpet or woodwind announcements of a ceremonial entrance or exit.
15. tuckets: short airs played on trumpets.
16. alarums: alarms.
17. retreats: signals for retreats.
18. flourishes: trumpet calls, airs played on trumpets or the like.

1. Read the extracts above taken from G. B. Harrison, Introducing Shakespeare, and complete the table below by quoting from the text references which describe the Elizabethan playhouse and the way in which plays were performed, both in Elizabethan and modern theatre, when mentioned. Juxtapose the quotations concerning modern theatre, and complete according to your own knowledge of modern theatre and staging.

 The Playhouse and their form      
 Interior area      
 Stage used by travelling players      
 Elizabethan Stage Proper      
 Inner Stage      
 Upper Stage      
 Scenery devices      
 Stage machinery      
 Indoor scenes      
 Street signs of a city at night      
 Trumpet calls      
 Medium for dramatic speech