Elizabethan Theatre

Mark Fox

By Society of London Theatre & UKT

Shakespeare Wm Drooshout PorLIFE Photo Collection

Elizabethan theatre was considered the Golden Age and saw the development of William Shakespeare as Britain’s National playwright. His surviving 37 plays are still regularly produced and studied all over the world.   

The Thames below Westminster (about 1871) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London

In June 2020 it was announced that builders had uncovered remains of The Red Lion, which was the first ever English playhouse built next to a drinking establishment in Whitechapel, 1567.  Strict licensing laws in the City of London meant that such establishments had to site themselves outside their jurisdiction.  The most famous theatres were constructed south of the River Thames, where a blind eye was turned to the raucous nature of Elizabethan entertainment tastes which included bear-baiting!

In 1576, James Burbage built The Theatre in Shoreditch.  This was a much larger venue showing the successful growth of the theatre industry and the foundations were discovered in 2008.

We know from records that when The Theatre was demolished its timbers were transported over the river to be used in building The Globe.  It was built by Burbage's sons and became the main production house for Shakespeare's plays.  Opening in 1599, it burnt down in 1613.

From drawings and the various remains found we know that the theatre buildings were round or octagonal with a high covered stage, surrounded by a yard for standing patrons, and an outer series of galleries and boxes for wealthier members of the audience.

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The theatres had their own companies of all male professional actors and playwrights paid for by patronage.  Plays would be performed in contemporary costume with limited props, and with a great deal of interaction with the audience.

Lit Shakespeare Romeo And JulietLIFE Photo Collection

The only reason so many of Shakespeare's plays survived is that they were printed after his death.  Most of the period's writings are lost although the best plays by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd still receive occasional revivals.

Written in verse and older English, the plays are generally seen as 'difficult' when studied at school but immediately come to life when seen in performance, especially when modern parallels are highlighted by setting and costume.

Lit Shakespeare MacbethLIFE Photo Collection

From the Golden Era into the Jacobean...click to find out more about Court Masques and the infamous plays of Ben Jonson.

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