A look at the Elizabethan Age, from which Shakespeare and the lot hailed, in terms of the Nature of the Universe, Government & Religion, Education, the Public Playhouse, the Elizabethan audience, the Actors, the History of the Globe Theater, Elizabethan Costume, the Puritans and Elizabethan Authors.
The Nature of the Universe
Although the Elizabethan age was one of great learning and expansion, the people of this time were still very superstitious. Most people believed that the sun went round the earth.
They were taught that this was a divinely ordered scheme of things, and that -in England- God had instituted a Church and ordained a Monarchy for the right government of the land and populace. They also believed that all elements of the universe were connected through the “chain of being”. According to this concept the entire universe was a system of carefully arranged ranks which were evident whenever man chose to look. If any of these elements were out of God’s designed order chaos would follow. Knowing this helps the modern reader understand some of the more bizarre events and even mythical characters so often included in Elizabethan plays.
The Government and Religion
The reigning monarch (Queen Elizabeth I) and her counselors and ministers governed the country (a population of about five million) from London, although fewer than half a million people inhabited the capital city. In the rest of the country, law and order were maintained by the landowners and enforced by their deputies. The average man – and his wife had no vote.
At this time, England was a Christian country. All children were baptized, soon after they were born, into the Church of England; they were taught the essentials of the Christian faith, and instructed in their duty to God and to human kind. Marriages were performed, and funerals conducted, only by the licensed clergy and in accordance with the churches rites and ceremonies. Attendance at divine services was compulsory; absences (without good medical reason) could be punished by fines. In this ways authorities were able to keep some check on the populace – recording births, marriages, and deaths; being alert to any religious non-conformities, which could be politically dangerous.
School education reinforced the Church’s teaching. From the age of four, boys might attend “petty school” to learn the basics of reading and righting along with a few prayers; some schools also introduced work with numbers. At the age of seven, boys were ready for grammar school (if his father was willing and able to pay the fees). Here, a thorough grounding in Latin grammar was followed by translation work and the study of Roman / Greek authors, paying attention as much to style as to matter. The arts of fine writing were introduced at an early age.
Very few students proceeded to university; only cleaver scholarship boys and the sons of noblemen could afford it.
Girls stayed at home and learned domestic and social skills – cooking sewing and perhaps music. The fortunate might learn to read and write. At the start of the 16th century the English had a very poor opinion of their own language: there was little serious writing in English, and hardly any literature. Latin was the language of international scholarship, and England admired the eloquence of the Romans. They made many translations, and in this way they extended the resources of their own language, increasing its vocabulary and stretching its grammatical structures. French, Italian and Spanish works were also translated, and – for the first time – there were English versions of the bible (the Old King James). By the end of the century English was a language to be proud of: it was rich in synonyms, capable of infinite variety and subtlety, and ready for all kinds of word play – especially for the puns, which Shakespeare’s English is renowned for.
The Public Playhouse
In 1576, the first specially built theatre in the country came into existence in Finsbury Fields. It was simply called “THE THEATRE” and was built by James Burbage.
The theatre was a great success both artistically and commercially because James Burbage had the brilliant idea of charging an entrance fee to the building, before anyone had seen the play. Soon new theatres were springing up elsewhere in London all outside the city boundaries and particularly on the south bank of the Thames.
The Curtain in 1577
The Rose in 1587,
The Swan in 1595 and most famous of all
The Globe in 1598.
To the small theatre building Londoners came flocking to see the latest plays. As all the public playhouses were unroofed, plays could only run during good weather. A flag would be flown on the top of the building to signify if the play would run that afternoon.
Entrance fees were graded to ensure all classes could enjoy the plays. The theatres architectural design included a raised platform-stage, with an open space for standing spectators on 3 sides. Cheaper tickets got one into this area known as the ‘yard or pit’ where the ‘groundlings’ stood in their hundreds. Around the yard were 2 or 3 galleries which had benches, these seats were occupied by middle classes while the upper class sat in boxes on the stage. The upper class went to the theatre to be seen as much as they went to actually see the play.
Behind the platform-stage was a wall, with doors or a curtained doorway, which led backstage. This wall supported a gallery for actors. Over the stage itself was a canopy, known as the ‘heavens’. It was supported on pillars and the ceiling was painted blue with gold stars. The gallery or raised areas behind the stage, was often used as an acting area (e.g. in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet is supposed to be upstairs on her balcony and Romeo down below in the gardens).
Historians are unsure but they think there was an inner stage as well, which was hidden behind a curtain on the main stage. When the curtain was raised the inner stage could show another scene.There was little or no scenery on the stage, so the audience knew that if all the actors left the stage the next scene was to take place in a different place. There were trapdoors on the main stage through which spirits and ghosts could rise up. There was also a trap in the roof through which people could be lowered. Because there was no scenery to be changed, one scene followed another very quickly and the audience had to imagine the change of setting. In Macbeth, for example, Act I scene 3 is set on an open field. It is followed directly by scene 4, which is set in a palace. The creation of a “set design” was up to the imagination of the audience.
The Elizabethan audience
The audience was a mixed one. In the gallery were lords and ladies who knew all about classical theatre and were educated. In the pit (the flat area between the gallery walls) tradesmen, soldiers, sailors, servants, mechanics and apprentices stood. These people were called “groundlings”. This section of the audience was often very noisy and if the play did not hold their attention, they would talk and shout and sometimes drown out the actors. The audience also used to eat and drink throughout the performance, which caused a great deal of noise. However, the fact that these are the audiences who stood throughout the performances of Shakespeare’s plays in all weathers proves that they could and did appreciate good theatre and playwriting, and were not altogether ignorant. In fact Shakespeare’s plays show an incredible insight to many different topics such as history, astronomy and botany
ü No woman on stage, only men and boys
ü Boys: especially selected for their slight build and light voices – to play female roles.
ü Older actors trained the new/ young actors.
ü The comedians of the company would play the older female roles
ü All were dances singers and could play musical instruments.
ü Performed dances with a sung dialogue.
ü The clowns / fools improvised their parts.
The History of the Globe Theatre
It was in the Globe that many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.
Two brothers, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, who owned its predecessor, “The Theatre”, built The Globe Theatre in 1599. They were members of a company of actors called “THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN’S MEN” who included Shakespeare. It was the most successful of all the acting companies and performed plays at the royal residences before Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I.
King James I eventually adopted it as his own company and gave it the title “THE KING’S MEN”
The reason behind building the new theatre was that in 1598, the lease on “The Theatre” was due to expire because of an increase in rent. The Burbage brothers decided to demolish the building piece-by piece, ship the pieces across the Thames River to Southwark on the south bank, and rebuild it there.
The reconstruction was completed in 1599 and was renamed The Globe. The shares of the new building were divided among the Burbage brothers and William Shakespeare, who had been one of the leading players of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. His acting company continued to perform at The Globe.
The exact physical structure of the Globe is not known, although scholars are fairly sure of some details because of drawings from the period. The theatre itself was a closed wooden structure with an open courtyard where the stage stood. Tiered galleries around the open area accommodated the wealthier patrons and those who could afford seats; the galleries had a thatched roof coated with a fire protestant, which offered little protection from weather. The lower class-‘the groundlings’ stood in the open-air area around the stage during the performance of a play. This area was called the pit and it left them completely unprotected from the weather. The space under and behind the stage was used for special effects, storage, and costume changes. The entire structure was not very big by modern standards yet it is thought to have been capable of accommodating a crowd of about 2000 – 3000.
In 1613, the roof was accidentally set on fire by a cannon during a performance of Henry VIII. The entire theatre burned in about an hour. The Globe was rebuilt a year later, with a tiled roof and a more circular shape. In 1644, 30 years after it was rebuilt it was torn down.
In September 1999, a reconstructed Globe Theatre officially opened in London; 500 years after the first plays were performed in the original theatre.
“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” – Polonius, Hamlet.
The costumes used for performance in public playhouses were made from the finest fabrics and looked rich and luxurious. Any part of the costume was likely to be decorated with braid, embroidery, pinking, sashes, or puffing, or it might be encrusted with pearls, jewels’ or spangles or trimmed with lace or artificial flowers. English dress during this period reflected the vitality and high points of this period the upper class dressed more for display than for comfort.
Men’s clothes like that of women, was gorgeous with colour and ornamentation. The many parts of the male attire contributed to the ornate and colourful effects of the ensemble. Men wore hats even indoors. Feathers and jewels were normal ornaments. Masculine hairstyles varied greatly. Sometimes the hair was cut closely at the sides, but it could also have been brushed up and held with gum (gel), or it might be curled all over the head. A small flat cap like a beret with a narrow brim continued to be worn by craftsmen and many citizens of London. Men frequently outshone the women in complexity of costume and the variety of cuts the contemporary fashion provided.
The feminine garment usually consisted of at least two parts: bodice and skirt (known as kirtle or petticoat). A triangular piece known as a “stomacher” formed the front section of the bodice and was joined to the bodice proper at the sides by ties and hooks or pins.
Many of these grand costumes were old clothes that had once belonged to the noble patrons of an acting company. However, they would have looked very grand to the audience who was made up of all sorts of people. Another thing to remember about costume at this time was not what we call period costume. In other words, the actor who was playing Cleopatra would have worn a dress in the style of Elizabethan dress, not in the style of dress when Cleopatra was alive. The actors wore contemporary costume, not period costume.
However, one or two characters were given parts of a costume which would distinguish them to the audience e.g. a Turk always had a turban on his head, a Roman soldier would have on some armour and so on.
The puritans objected to the actors, play and theatre believing them to encourage immorality.
More and more quarrels began to break out between the puritan parliament and King James
I and eventually civil war broke out in 1642 and theatres were closed and acting forbidden.
For the next 18 years no productions were performed and many actors joined the army or
went in search of other means of livelihood.
Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593)
Lived a violent, short life – died in a fight in a bar when he was 30.
His main contributions to drama: 1. Developed the use of blank verse as a great form of writing.
2. Created heroes who were men of passion and energy, instead of the lifeless heroes of previous
Drama. His plays: Tamburlaine; Dr. Faustus; The Jew of Malta; Edward II
Thomas Kyd (1558 -1595)
Spent time in jail. Died in poverty when he was only 36. Wrote many ‘revenge’ plays – ghosts coming back to punish the living for their past sins. His plays were generally very violent. E.g. The Spanish Tragedy
Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637)
Along with Shakespeare and Marlowe, Jonson is one of the most important dramatists of this period. Like Shakespeare, he lived a relatively long life and wrote plays right up until the closing of the theatres in 1642. He also wrote masques for court productions and plays for child actors to perform at the private house theatres. Some of his plays: Volpone; Bartholomew Fair; The Alchemist
Robert Greene (1558 -1592)
He finished university in 1588, after deserting his wife and spending all her money. He died at 34 after living a fairly wild life. He wrote a novel called Pandosto, and a romantic comedy called “The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
He was born in Stadford-on-Avon in 1516 and was educated there. At 18, he married Ann Hathaway, a woman 8 years older than himself. They had 3 children. When his children were very young, in about 1585, he seems to have deserted them and wife and disappeared. There are no records of his activities again until about 1592, when his name is mentioned in connection with the theatre in and around London. We know that he acted and wrote many plays and that he was a part owner of the Globe Theatre and Blackfriars.
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