You are on page 1of 4

The Performance Aspect of Theatre during the Elizabethan and Modern Era

All the worlds a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.
While reading William Shakespeares works, it is quite evident that for him life and stage were not
only connected, but were really, inextricable concepts. He believed that performance was the
primary aspect of a play. One can see why this was the case in an age in which plays were most
often seen much earlier than they were read, the reason being that printing mechanisms were at
their nascent stage. The text and the performance of a play were not different entities, in fact for
Shakespeare, the space, the stage itself influenced his composition of the text. Perhaps this is one
of the reasons he was and still is considered to be the greatest playwright in the English language.
Theatre, the art form has evolved and changed greatly ever since Plato and Aristotle defined it,
and yet has retained some essential characteristics. Some critics say that modern performances
are probably closer to performances in Shakespeare's day than performances in 1890 were.
Elizabethan theatre and the name of William Shakespeare are inextricably bound together, yet
there were others writing plays at the same time such as the highly successfully Christopher
Marlowe. Unfortunately he died at a comparatively young age due to a knife fight in Deptford.
Gary Taylor in his essay
Shakespeare Plays on Renaissance Stages
asserts: Shakespeare was
writing not only for himself but for a particular acting company, and against their chief commercial
rivals. This was the case for most of the playwrights in sixteenth century England. Therefore
playwrighting was a substantially more social process than it is now. This is indicative in the fact
that the earliest editions of Shakespeares plays specified the company that performed them, but
not the author. The written texts of plays, in the modern age are expected to provide every detail
on the performance aspect, such as entrances, exits and costumes, speech and song attributions;
whereas Shakespeares original texts dont supply a lot of this necessary information,
demonstrating that he often relied on his actors to bring their own knowledge to the text. The
performance was paramount.
The first proper theatre as we know it was the Theatre, built at Shoreditch in 1576. Before this
time plays were performed in the courtyard of inns, or sometimes, in the houses of noblemen.
After the Theatre, further open air playhouses opened in the London area, including the Rose
(1587), and the Hope (1613). The most famous playhouse was the Globe (1599) built by the
company in which Shakespeare had a stake. These theatres could hold several thousand people;
most standing in the open pit before the stage, though rich nobles could watch the play from a
chair set on the side of the stage itself, or right at the back of the audience on an elevated
platform. It is exactly the opposite in modern day theatres, where the front seats closest to the
stage are the most expensive and the rear ones are the cheapest on account of not having a good
enough view of the stage.
Theatre-going was not an elite form of entertainment as it is now. An average person would not
be able to afford a ticket to a play. Back then theatre wasnt really given a higher status. It was in
fact an activity for the masses called the groundlings in which the rich sat for occasionally and
got seats away from the raucous audience. Huge crowds were not unheard of. The audience used
to be a lively one, permitted to talk, and even eat while a performance was going on. They were

also very expressive in their dislike or like of the actors. Sometimes they even threw food (rotten
produce mostly) if they dislike the play. Now most theatres dont allow that and the audience may
be hushed or asked to keep quiet and not move out of respect for the play. Watching a play during
the Elizabethan era was the modern equivalent of going to see a rock concert.
Another striking feature of Elizabethan drama is that no women performed in the plays. Female
roles were performed by young boys, and these roles were given to the most recent, and
consequently, least experienced actors in the company. It is interesting to note that the roles
Shakespeare created for women quite often resemble the roles he created for boys. One can even
say that he regarded the two identities as interchangeable. Therefore we see many women
characters disguising themselves as men, and doing so quite successfully, like Rosalind in As You
Like It and Portia in Merchant of Venice. One wonders why the reverse men disguised as women
are rare characters in his plays.
Props and scenery were minimal and even sometimes non-existent. Therefore the movements and
gestures made by the actors were extremely exaggerated to the point of being comical and they
also spelt out the intricate details of the play. There was more emphasis on verbal scene painting
rather than making elaborate scenes. Acting wasnt a highly-paid job in the Elizabethan era, and
actors were considered to be vagabonds who travelled in carts looking for audiences who will pay
to watch them perform. Now, acting is a highly respected AND a highly paid-for profession.
Similar to now, costumes were extremely important, maybe a little more back then, as props and
production were minimal. Costumes were indicative of gender, social status, wealth. Therefore
they were meticulously chosen and designed.
When one thinks of theatre musicals, images of Broadway, and of performers decked up in fine
brightly coloured clothing, dancing and singing on stage come to mind, and one doesnt think of
William Shakespeare at all. But in fact, several of Shakespeares plays in fact did include multiple
songs and were performed, even though much of their original compositions are lost. Musical
theatre, the art of telling stories either through or with songs, dates back to the ancient India's
Natya Shastra, or at least to the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage
comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th Century B.C. And the Romans are credited with
inventing the tap dancing shoe: the theatres were so large that the actors stuck metal pieces to
their shoes so that the audience could hear their steps.
It was usual in Tudor drama to include at least one song in every play, but Shakespeare
re-invented the way that music was used in theatre. Shakespeare alludes to or includes the text of
well over five hundred songs in his works. He didnt insert songs simply for the aim of
entertainment or relief from the plotline, but as a dramatic device which is intrinsic to the story
line and in support of his overall dramatic goals for the work. Not just vocal, but instrumental
music was also an integral part of Shakespeares plays. Songs and dances, not always composed
for the occasion and linked to the plot and the atmosphere of a play, were inserted into plays, and
were very welcomed by and popular among Elizabethan audiences.
The main difference between 21st century and 16th century theatres is electronics. Theatre
performances were held in the afternoon, because, of course, there was no artificial lighting.
Although there were indoor theatres like the Blackfriars during the sixteenth century which lit the
actors by candlelight, they ran the risk of catching fire as the stage would primarily be made of

wood. Our theatres have many powerful electric lights, controlled by computer, so a variety of
effects are possible. Industrialization has given modern day theatre the ability to amplify voices
electronically and add sound effects and music which are played through speakers. In the 16th
century, actors had to project their voices and enunciate very clearly. Even though projection is
still a necessary skill in actors today, it was much more important during the Elizabethan age as
they were expected to be heard by every part of the audience which could go up to 2000 in
number. They performed in open air, without microphones, and had to not only speak over the
sounds of nature, such as strong wind, etc, but also over the audience noises who sat on the three
sides of the stage, since it was an open air stage. Sound effects and music had to be created right
there in the theatre. It was a sound effect which started the fire which burned down the first
Globe Theatre. A canon fired during a performance of Henry VIII caught the roof on fire and the
building burned to the ground. The site of the theatre was rediscovered in the 20th century and a
reconstruction built near the spot.
One would wonder how, if men were acting womens roles, how did they sing womens songs.
This was solved by what are called countertenors in classical music terms. A countertenor is a type
of male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female voice range. They were
mostly very young boys. It was common during the renaissance for the actors to be trained in
singing as well.
Shakespeare used music as a way of enhancing his comedies. The Shakespeare plays As
You Like It
Twelfth Night
contain six songs each. Sometimes, singing is the sole reason for the existence
of a character in the play, which is similar to the function of the chorus in the modern musical
such as the two anonymous pages in As You Like It. Elizabethan Theatre musicians were usually
situated in a section of the 'Lords Rooms'. The 'Lords Rooms' were situated in a gallery
immediately above stage wall and facing the backs of the actors. The orchestra consisted of
instruments such as lute, derived from the Arabic
(a precursor to the guitar), the viola de
gamba (modern day viola), recorders, trombones, organ, harps, and percussion was normally just
various types of bells and drums. Today, a full orchestra is a grand thing to behold, with different
sections of horns, brass, strings, percussion and various types of instruments within each section.
Present day music is a lot more formalized. Also, another advantage of technology allows musical
tracks to be pre-recorded which can be played to accompany the singer, though most plays still
prefer to use a live orchestra.
Today a playwright writes for several reasons, but primarily because he desires to write. As
theatre now competes with television, films, the internet, it is not a mainstream source of
entertainment anymore, and therefore contemporary playwrights do not attain the same level of
fame or renown as the others who came several centuries before them. Theatre has transformed
from being a source of entertainment for the masses to an art form for the elite class.


1. "Elizabethan Music." ELIZABETHAN MUSIC. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

2. "Elizabethan Theatre." Elizabethan Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
3. "History of Musical Theatre." Musical Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
4. "Music in Shakespeare's Plays." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct.
2013. <>.