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General Characteristics of the Renaissance

"Renaissance" literally means "rebirth." It refers especially to the rebirth of learning that
began in Italy in the fourteenth century, spread to the north, including England, by the
sixteenth century, and ended in the north in the mid-seventeenth century (earlier in Italy).
During this period, there was an enormous renewal of interest in and study of classical
antiquity.

Yet the Renaissance was more than a "rebirth." It was also an age of new discoveries, both
geographical (exploration of the New World) and intellectual. Both kinds of discovery
resulted in changes of tremendous import for Western civilization. In science, for example,
Copernicus (1473-1543) attempted to prove that the sun rather than the earth was at the center
of the planetary system, thus radically altering the cosmic world view that had dominated
antiquity and the Middle Ages. In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged and
ultimately caused the division of one of the major institutions that had united Europe
throughout the Middle Ages--the Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers often thought of
themselves as ushering in the modern age, as distinct from the ancient and medieval eras.

Study of the Renaissance might well center on five interrelated issues. First, although
Renaissance thinkers often tried to associate themselves with classical antiquity and to
dissociate themselves from the Middle Ages, important continuities with their recent past,
such as belief in the Great Chain of Being, were still much in evidence. Second, during this
period, certain significant political changes were taking place. Third, some of the noblest
ideals of the period were best expressed by the movement known as Humanism. Fourth, and
connected to Humanist ideals, was the literary doctrine of "imitation," important for its ideas
about how literary works should be created. Finally, what later probably became an even more
far-reaching influence, both on literary creation and on modern life in general, was the
religious movement known as the Reformation.

Renaissance thinkers strongly associated themselves with the values of classical antiquity,
particularly as expressed in the newly rediscovered classics of literature, history, and moral
philosophy. Conversely, they tended to dissociate themselves from works written in the
Middle Ages, a historical period they looked upon rather negatively. According to them, the
Middle Ages were set in the "middle" of two much more valuable historical periods, antiquity
and their own. Nevertheless, as modern scholars have noted, extremely important continuities
with the previous age still existed.

The Great Chain of Being

Among the most important of the continuities with the Classical period was the
concept of the Great Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in the
universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a
chain vertically extended. ("Hierarchical" refers to an order based on a series of higher and
lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object's "place" depended on the relative proportion of
"spirit" and "matter" it contained--the less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it
stood. At the bottom, for example, stood various types of inanimate objects, such as metals,
stones, and the four elements (earth, water, air, fire). Higher up were various members of the
vegetative class, like trees and flowers. Then came animals; then humans; and then angels. At
the very top was God. Then within each of these large groups, there were other hierarchies.
For example, among metals, gold was the noblest and stood highest; lead had less "spirit" and

(Alchemy was based on the belief that lead could be changed to gold through an infusion of "spirit. in Shakespeare's King Lear. exalted human beings as capable of rising to the level of the angels through philosophical contemplation. on many levels." with characteristics corresponding to the four elements. it was believed that between the segments themselves." which held that different segments of the chain reflected other segments. Finally. Renaissance thinkers viewed a human being as a microcosm (literally. and to depart from one's proper place was to betray one's nature. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers. (Illness occurred when there was an imbalance or "disorder" among the humours. for example. suggesting that the age may have been experiencing some growing discomfort with traditional hierarchies.more matter and so stood lower. Thus the hierarchical organization of the mental faculties was also thought of as reflecting the hierarchical order within the family." Though Renaissance writers seemed to be quite on the side of "order. the simultaneous disorder in family relationships and in the state (child ruling parent. that is. air. When things were properly ordered. there was continuity (shellfish were lowest among animals and shaded into the vegetative class. suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations. animals. just as a king ruled his subjects. and the forces of nature. Lear even equates his loss of reason to "a tempest in my mind. to attempt to go above one's proper place. in a work entitled On the Dignity of Man. in fact. there was universal interdependence. Also. they most resembled plants).) "Correspondences" existed everywhere. The implication was that civil rebellion caused the chain to be broken. was to court disaster. the macrocosm. In the other direction. it was correspondingly reflected in other realms. Marlowe's drama. the parent ruled the child. For example. because without locomotion. when they did not exist in proper proportion to each other. According to the chain of being concept. humans. water. the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola. has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard. Political Implications of the Chain of Being The fear of "disorder" was not merely philosophical--it had significant political ramifications.") The various species of plants. for example. This was implicit in the doctrine of "correspondences. just as the world was composed of four "elements" (earth. were pictured as placed between the beasts and the angels. fire). and according to the doctrine of correspondences. and the sun governed the planets. as Eve did when she was tempted by Satan. a "little world") that reflected the structure of the world as a whole. For example. this . for it helped to reinforce their authority. Besides universal orderliness. reason ruled the emotions. all existing things have their precise place and function in the universe." the theme of "disorder" is much in evidence. To act against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions--was to descend to the level of the beasts. Human beings. the state. subject ruling king) is reflected in the disorder of Lear's mind (the loss of reason) as well as in the disorder of nature (the raging storm). Yet Renaissance writers at times showed ambivalence towards such a rigidly organized universe. A major example was the title character of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. For example. and angels were similarly ranked from low to high within their respective segments. some Renaissance writers were fascinated by the thought of going beyond boundaries set by the chain of being. Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. so too was the human body composed of four substances called "humours. The proscription against trying to rise beyond one's place was of course useful to political rulers. But when disorder was present in one realm.

Italy saw the rise of the territorial city-state often headed by wealthy oligarchic families. perhaps. and personal aspiration (as personified by Doctor Faustus) were valued. it was suggested that the sin was of cosmic proportions: civil disorders were often accompanied by meteoric disturbances in the heavens. Of course. great value had often been attached to the life of contemplation and religious devotion. For the most part. the highest cultural values were usually associated with active involvement in public life. In the terms used in the Renaissance itself. The concept of the "Renaissance Man" refers to an individual who. the medieval form of political organization. individual aspiration was not the major concern of Renaissance Humanists. spiritual life associated with the Middle Ages. there is nevertheless truth to the idea that Renaissance Humanists placed great emphasis upon the dignity of man and upon the expanded possibilities of human life in this world. were thought to be disorderly heavenly bodies. perhaps the most important value the Humanists extracted from their studies of classical literature. and in service to the state. as well as Francis Bacon. Oversimplified as it is. In the Renaissance. like Erasmus. in moral. It was the intellectual movement known as Humanism that may have expressed most fully the values of the Renaissance and made a lasting contribution to our own culture. (Before Halley's theory about periodic orbits. the King was also the head of the Anglican Church. were Churchmen. breadth of knowledge. individual achievement. and military action. political. as in Machiavelli's Prince or Shakespeare's Henry V.) In Shakespeare. and moral philosophy was the social nature of humanity. "I have taken all knowledge to be my province. in fact." (And in England. . with the character and behavior of rulers.) The need for strong political rule was in fact very significant. It is no wonder then that much Renaissance literature is concerned with the ideals of kingship. (Such figures included Leonardo Da Vinci and John Milton. some of the most important Humanists.") Nevertheless. who had declared. for the Renaissance had brought an end for the most part to feudalism. Other ideals and values that were represented in the literature were even more significant. comets. at least wherever rulers claimed to rule by "Divine Right. possesses knowledge of and skill in many subject areas. away from the world (though this ideal applied to only a small number of people). Overall.would have dire consequences in other realms. in consciously attempting to revive the thought and culture of classical antiquity. was the establishment of effective central government. not only in the north but in the south as well. Humanism A common oversimplification of Humanism suggests that it gave renewed emphasis to life in this world instead of to the otherworldly. It was a sin against God. as well as meteors. Northern Europe saw the rise of national monarchies headed by kings. it also suggested that there was ideal behavior that was appropriate to their place in the order of things. who focused rather on teaching people how to participate in and rule a society (though only the nobility and some members of the middle class were included in this ideal). especially in England and France. Humanism represented a shift from the "contemplative life" to the "active life. it regarded human beings as social creatures who could create meaningful lives only in association with other social beings. Not only did the chain of being concept provide a rationale for the authority of such rulers. Also. the traditional religious values coexisted with the new secular values. in addition to participating actively in the affairs of public life. history." In the Middle Ages. The major political accomplishment of the Renaissance.

the theoretical emphasis of Renaissance literary critics was less on the "imitation" that meant "mirroring life" and more on the "imitation" that meant "following predecessors. The Reformation had significant political ramifications." the goal was not to create something entirely new. learning from them. however. it was the task of the writer to translate for present readers the moral vision of the past. for example. Protestants believed that . Many Catholics like Erasmus wanted to reform the Church from within.) In the early sixteenth century. For them. In fact. Even more important were the dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy." In contrast to our own emphasis on "originality. and they were to do this by "imitating" great works. Nevertheless." Of the two senses in which the term had traditionally been used. the sort depicted. was the literary doctrine of "imitation. it was not the predominant practice of many of the greatest writers. Just as Renaissance Humanists rejected medieval learning. despite the fact that there were a great many comments by critics about "imitation" in this sense. adapting them to a Christian perspective and milieu. but did not have as many classical models to work from. and therefore "imitation" in the mimetic sense was more often the common practice. the faithful depiction of human behavior-- what Shakespeare called holding the mirror up to nature--was paramount. by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. contemporary critics believed that the great literary works expressing definitive moral values had already been written in classical antiquity. Europe at this time experienced a golden age of theater. Protestantism broke up the institution that had for so long unified all Europe under the Pope (though there were also national struggles with the Papacy that had little to do with Protestantism). the Reformation seemed to reject the medieval form of Christianity. To a great extent. Among the most important tenets of Protestantism was the rejection of the Pope as spiritual leader. A closely related Protestant doctrine was the rejection of the authority of the Church and its priests to mediate between human beings and God. mastering the best models. "Imitation" Another concept derived from the classical past (though it was present in the Middle Ages too). (Writers of the Middle Ages also practiced "imitation" in this sense. the Protestant Reformation was a movement that had profound implications. The doctrine of "imitation" of ancient authors did have one very important effect: since it recommended not only the imitation of specific classical writers. Luther's disagreements with Church policy ultimately led him to challenge some of the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. as it developed during the Renaissance. led by great dramatists such as Shakespeare. Theoretically.) Of course Renaissance literary critics made it clear that such "imitation" was to be neither mechanical nor complete: writers were to capture the spirit of the originals. the German monk Martin Luther reacted against Church corruption. (It should be noted. However. but specifically for literary history. hence they were known as Protestants. which in turn led him and his followers to break away from the Catholic Church in protest. but also the imitation of classical genres. then. The Protestant Reformation Finally. then using them for their own purposes. there was a revival of significant literary forms. not only for the modern world in general. Among the most popular that were derived from antiquity were epic and satire. that both Catholics and Protestants were Humanists. though often with different emphases. for it split Europe into Protestant and Catholic countries which often went to war with each other during this period.

it could only be achieved through faith in God's grace. Acting companies were usually small and mobile. Although we are mostly concerned with the larger companies that inhabited the large theatre buildings that were built later in Elizabeth’s reign. often consisting of four adult men and a single boy to play all the female parts. There are records of actors performing in churches. only through a direct personal relationship with God--achieved by reading the Bible--could the believer be granted such. in Inn Yards. had a rough auditorium with scaffolding galleries built around the stage area . 2. and in fact the disagreement among the many Christian sects may be precisely what distinguishes Renaissance from Medieval religion. and even the major companies could be forced to tour to the Provinces when Plague shut the London theatres or money was low.the Cross Keys. (Early Protestantism's emphasis on human depravity distinguishes it sharply from Renaissance Humanism. individual connection with God spawned the modern emphasis on individualism in those cultures affected by Protestantism. in Town Squares and anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance. while those who continued were forced to become officially servants to Lords and Ladies of the realm. The First Theatre . touring companies of this kind (using temporary acting spaces throughout the country) continued to perform throughout Elizabeth’s reign. some Protestants also believed that after the Fall of Adam in Eden. Some of the Inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses. Touring was increasingly discouraged and many of the remaining companies were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London. See: http://academic. in the great halls of Royal Palaces and other great houses. in particular. there is a good deal of ambivalence regarding many of the Protestant positions. Many actors were driven out of the profession or criminalised.) Humans therefore are incapable of contributing to their salvation. These made criminals of any actors who toured and performed without the support of a member of the highest ranks of the nobility. On the other hand. the Bull.brooklyn. sometimes building stages and scenery for a particular series of performances.cuny. the Bel Savage and the Bell were all originally built as inns. Companies of actors toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces. Records suggest that an average touring company consisted of five to eight players. The Red Lion in Stepney.edu/english/ Early modern theatre 1. Drama Before Theatres When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 there were no specially designed theatre buildings in England. Overall. The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring . Soon after Elizabeth came to the throne laws began to be passed to control wandering beggars and vagrants.the Church as an institution could not grant salvation. in Town Halls.a design that may have influenced the building of later purpose built theatres such as the Theatre and the Globe. Many scholars argue that this emphasis on a personal. human nature was totally corrupted as far as human spiritual capabilities were concerned. and sometimes simply using an unaltered hall or open space. for instance through good deeds.

The theatres fell into two main types. with a large yard for spectators to stand and watch the action if they could not afford a seat. In modern times several replica Globe Theatres have been built around the world.was called “The Theatre”. In 1599 Burbage’s sons became involved in a dispute over the land on which the Theatre stood and solved their problems by secretly and suddenly tearing down the Theatre building and carrying away the timbers to build a new playhouse on the Bankside. This roof caught fire in 1613 when cannon fired off during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII sent sparks into the thatch and the whole theatre burned to the ground. the Globe.originally and solely intended for performance . the “public” amphitheatre buildings (such as the Theatre. Not much is known about the design of the Theatre. which they named The Globe. It was built in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester’s Players who were led by James Burbage . A second Globe was built with a tiled roof. however.but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth’s reign and were used by Shakespeare’s Company .each one different from the others in the way in which it was designed and built. The Globe The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 with a thatched roof above the galleries (covering the seats: the yard . The design of the Theatre was based on that of bull baiting and bear baiting yards (where crowds of spectators watched animals torn to pieces for sport) which had sometimes been used by actors as convenient performance venues in the past. the Curtain and the Swan) which were open to the air. 3. eventually giving its name to all such buildings. The main area of the theatre was open to the sky. including the new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.and other adult companies in the Jacobean period. so we will consider them in passing. and the smaller and more expensive “private” theatres (such as Blackfriars and the Cockpit) which were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth’s death . and the Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. .a carpenter turned actor. along with William Shakespeare.with many of its characteristics based on guesswork. which was completed in 1997. and the building which we will concentrate upon.where poorer spectators stood .was still open to the air). The private theatres had a more exclusive audience since they charged considerably more .by this time the King’s Men . and others altered to pass modern fire regulations and accommodate a modern audience (taller. and this was finally demolished in 1644 when all plays had been banned by the Roundhead Parliament during the Civil War. building and use of the new Globe has given much useful information about how an Elizabethan Theatre works and how it affects the performances of actors who use such a stage.the design. Although the Globe is the most famous Elizabethan Theatre. while public theatres like the Globe charged twopence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. By this time the Burbages had become members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company.The first purpose built Theatre building in England . but it appears to have been wooden and polygonal (with many straight sides making up a rough circle of walls) and may have had three galleries full of seating stacked one above another.which technically puts them beyond our consideration of Elizabethan Theatre . there were many other theatres built during this period . fatter and expecting more luxurious surroundings than their Elizabethan ancestors) .the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence. Although the modern Globe Theatre is an inexact imitation of the real Globe .

25 feet (7. Guards. The modern Globe can hold 1500 spectators: the original Globe (which had smaller and less comfortable visitors) packed twice as many people into the same space. The stage itself is unusually wide by modern standards . demanded that an actor be able to play numerous roles and make it obvious to the audience by changes in his acting style and costume that he was a new person . the building is a polygon with 20 straight walls. Behind the entrances is the tiring house.5 metres) deep. Attendants etc.5 metres) high. on the left and right. There are two other entrances in the upstage wall. There are 40 named roles in Julius Caesar along with an unspecified number of extra “Plebeians” and “Senators.which allows characters to be suddenly revealed by opening the curtain (as Ferdinand and Miranda are suddenly revealed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. restricting the number of actors passing in front of the pillars and causing more frequent obstructions to audience sightlines. prepare and wait offstage. In a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. for example.obstructing the view of audience members from various angles . as some early scholars believed it to be. The original Globe had only two narrow doorways. the stage roof being held up by two huge pillars that stand on the stage . for actors to dress.” all played by members of the fifteen strong cast. The Players The number and type of actor involved in Elizabethan Theatre varied from one performance to the next. but there were invariably many more parts than actors. Instead of being circular. Visiting the reconstructed Globe is a magical experience. There is a trapdoor in the centre of the stage and the Elizabethans had simple machinery to allow ghosts. Directly in front of the stage is a large yard nearly 80 feet (24 metres) in diameter for the groundlings (standing spectators who pay a cheaper entry price than those who have seats). Modern fire regulations force the modern Globe to have four six foot wide entrances. a spectator remembered that he had seen “about fifteen” actors perform the play. and 5 feet (1. The modern Globe is a hundred feet (30 metres) in diameter. Similarly the modern Directors did not like the original positioning of the two obstructive stage pillars and insisted that they should be further back on the stage and closer together than the architects. Behind the stage there is a curtained “discovery space” .but the yard is open to the air.2 metres) wide. but surviving records about the Globe and other Elizabethan theatres (including some very rough drawings of the outside of the Globe in drawings of the city) together with archaeological examination of parts of the Globe’s remains (most of which are unfortunately buried under modern London buildings and cannot be examined) have allowed the people who built the modern Globe Theatre reconstruction to make what they hope is a faithful reproduction of the original theatre. The London companies with their fixed theatres tended to use many more actors than the touring companies we considered earlier. sometimes housed the theatre musicians and was sometimes used for more audience seating. but it is important to remember that it does not exactly resemble the conditions of the original theatre. builders and historians thought they really should have been. Elizabethan Theatre. playing chess).44 feet (13. The pillars in the original theatre were probably further apart and much closer to the front of the stage. There is a balcony above the stage which was sometimes used in the performance (it was probably Juliet’s balcony in Romeo and Juliet). devils and similar characters to be raised up through the trapdoor and gods and spirits to be lowered from the “heavens” in the stage roof. There are three layers of seating in galleries on all sides of the stage except directly behind it. There is roofing over the gallery seating and over the stage itself. 4. The modern reconstructed stage is designed to allow two columns of soldiers to march abreast in front of the stage pillars. therefore.a small room behind a curtain .The size and exact shape of the original Globe can only really be guessed at.

but otherwise English women had no part in the performance of Elizabethan plays. The Elizabethan actor did not have much time. My friend Dave Kathman. Instead of being given full scripts. There were exceptions to this rule. for example. boys’ voices broke much later in the Elizabethan period than they do now. which made it possible for boys to play women’s parts convincingly for much longer than some modern scholars assume possible.Mary Frith. twenty-one of which were entirely new and seventeen of which had been performed in previous years. Elizabethan theatres normally performed six different plays in their six day week. theatre managers. There were laws in England against women acting onstage and English travellers abroad were amused and amazed by the strange customs of Continental European countries that allowed women to play female roles - at least one Englishman recorded his surprise at finding that the female actors were as good at playing female parts as the male actors back home. many of Shakespeare’s female characters disguise themselves as boys) speeches had to be included making it very clear that this was the same character in a new costume. a long scroll with nothing more than his own lines and minimal cue lines (the lines spoken by another actor just before his own) to tell him when to speak . Some academics are convinced that very young actors could not possibly have played such important. The bookholder usually also had a “plot” or a brief summary of the play. All of the actors in an Elizabethan Theatre company were male. There was a bookholder or prompter who held a complete script and who helped actors who had forgotten their lines. One woman . to prepare for each new play. In a typical season Henslowe’s Company performed thirty-eight different plays. listing the various entrances and exits . therefore. usually dominated by singing and dancing). and argue that references to “men” playing women’s parts prove that these actors were in fact fully grown adults.each time. Because of differences in diet and upbringing. Unlike modern theatres. and to write roles which were suited to the particular strengths and habits of individual actors.was arrested in the Jacobean period for singing and playing instruments onstage during a performance of a play about her life (Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl) and some suggest that she may actually have been illegally playing herself in the performance. that actor was a teenager - most between the ages of roughly fourteen to nineteen. complex and emotionally difficult parts as Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights wrote for women. The rehearsal and performance schedule that Elizabethan Players followed was intense and demanding. and not a completely new character. where a successful play can run for years at a time. scene by scene. The male actors who played female parts have traditionally been described as “Boy Actors”. When the same character came on disguised (as. has researched this issue and points out that whenever we know or can guess the age of an actor who was known to be playing a female part in a particular performance. and women sometimes took part in Court Masques (a very stylised and spectacular sort of performance for the Court.who owned shares in the theatre company .would have given some direction to other actors). but runs of this kind were reserved for plays which were an immense success and were viewed as extremely unusual.this saved on the labourious task of copying out the full play repeatedly by hand. There were few formal rehearsals for each play and no equivalent of the modern Director (although presumably the writer. but there is now an academic controversy about exactly how old these actors would have been. and the most important actors . such as Middleton’s immensely successful Jacobean play A Game At Chess which played for nine days in a row before being banned for political reasons. and must have had to learn lines and prepare his blocking largely on his own and in his spare time .probably helped by the tendency of writers to have particular actors in mind for each part. and a particularly successful play might only be repeated once a month or so. however. each actor had a written “part”. better known as Moll Cutpurse .

the King’s Men). adult actors who were paid a fixed wage for each working day. The least well paid actors were the boys. when this has happened to survive on theatrical records. We know little more about most Elizabethan actors than their name. Surviving plots have a square hole to allow them to be hung upon a peg in the playhouse. or elsewhere .000 . were taken on as sharers .in the Jacobean period .playing Tamburlaine a shepherd who became a mighty military leader and conquered vast swathes of territory. Alleyn was probably the most famous Elizabethan actor. They were Edward Alleyn. Hamlet. were stored . and Richard Burbage who was the lead actor in Shakespeare’s Company (belonging at various times to Leicester. where the lead character is apparently a young student at the beginning of the play but is referred to as “fat” and aged thirty towards the end of the play. who were apprenticed to adult actors and whose small wage (the Admiral’s Men paid one boy player three shillings a week) was paid to their masters. 5. Actors in Henslowe’s London Company received ten shillings a week. Richard III. Next lowest in the acting hierarchy were the hired men. King Lear and others. Shakespeare earned enough from his share in the Globe Theatre to buy the second most expensive house in his home village of Stratford and to invest in lands and property.the most important cache of theatrical documents to have survived the Elizabethan period. and he was also able to buy himself a coat of arms and the right to refer to himself as a Gentleman (an important step up the social ladder in class conscious Elizabethan times). Both were admired and remembered by numerous Elizabethan writers. and Barabas the villainous Jew in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Doctor Faustus who made a pact with the devil. the Lord Chamberlain and finally becoming .owning a particular portion of the theatre company or its theatre building and subsequently earning a proportion of the Company’s profits from every performance. The two most famous Elizabethan actors normally played tragic and romantic heroes. the famous theatre manager Philip Henslowe. Richard Burbage is now probably better known than Edward Alleyn because of his connection with Shakespeare and he originated most of Shakespeare’s famous lead roles including Romeo. The other actors to become household names were the Clowns or Fools. in cast lists. It is suggested that the contradictions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.but there were a few star actors who have left a more detailed reputation behind them. Pageants and Church plays were often written by members of the Clergy and the writers of plays for touring companies were largely anonymous and few of their works have . Lord Strange.an unbelievably huge sum of money at the time) and established Dulwich College. Henry V. The most important actors in a theatre company. where the papers of his father-in-law.and telling which characters and properties were required upon the stage at any one time. were particularly added to suit the middle-aged and portly figure of Burbage himself. In return they were given board and lodging and a very meagre allowance to spend on themselves. although not nearly so well off as Alleyn. who was best known for his performances in Christopher Marlowe’s plays . however. The income of actors varied enormously according to their position in the Company. and we will consider them later. Alleyn made so much money from his acting and his share in the theatre company to which he belonged that he was able to buy the Manor of Dulwich on his retirement (costing £10. Burbage also became wealthy on the profits of his profession. but those performing in smaller companies or touring outside London could receive half that. and the type of Company to which they belonged. Othello. lead actor of the Admiral’s Men. The Playwrights During the Middle Ages nobody is known who could be referred to as a professional English playwright.

and a little before it. for example. Greek and Roman Plays were largely divided into two genres. These men were incredulous and envious when subsequently confronted by less well educated playwrights - such as Shakespeare. complete with choruses and long rhetorical speeches. The earliest professional playwright of whom we know may have been Henry Medwall who wrote a Morality Play and an Interlude. a position that he probably gained largely because of his acting background. The first full length English Tragedy was Gorboduc . The first wave of professional playwrights were mostly University educated men who earned a living from their pens.in which Ralph. Originally English Tragedies and Comedies tended to be written in close imitation of Greek and Roman models and much was made of the Classical rules of writing plays . but when Elizabeth’s reign began most plays were still written by people we would regard as amateurs or occasional playwrights. During Elizabeth’s reign translations of these Greek and Roman plays became widely available and began to have a heavy influence upon English playwrights. Elizabethan Universities studied Greek and Roman plays in the original language. but told the story of a genuine Historical period . who became rich through his connection with the theatre while many of the better qualified University playwrights lived and died in poverty. John Heywood.written in 1561 by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville . Archbishop of Canterbury. The first full length English Comedy. pursues a widow who is betrothed to an absent sea captain. who seems to have learned his skills as a member of the acting profession and became a writer without being educated in the great Universities. and the students sometimes performed them within the University. The form which Elizabethan plays took was still developing at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. for performance in the house of his master.meaning that the stage should represent a single place and all of the play’s action should take place within a single fictional day at most. a character based on the Roman Dramatist Plautus’ stereotypical Braggart. written in about 1553. Gorboduc also influenced the later creation of a peculiarly English dramatic genre. Fortunately English playwrights increasingly rejected the restrictions of slavishly following Classical models and began to write Tragedies and Comedies in a much looser and more relaxed style. the Chronicle or History play which was neither Comedy nor Tragedy. . John Morton. Shakespeare earned money as a Sharer in the Theatre Company (given a proportion of the Theatre’s profits for every production rather than just a wage). during the reign of Henry VIII. not based on Classical examples.rules which Renaissance writers took from Aristotle’s Poetics and expanded upon. until the widow finally drives him off with the help of her maids armed with mops and pails. Comedy and Tragedy. It also became traditional for comic characters to appear in even the most serious of Tragedies. given only a few pounds for each of their plays. former headmaster of Eton . wrote a large number of Interludes for performance at the Court. that survive. meant that they increasingly needed to employ professional dramatists to provide them with the large and continually changing repertory that they required. was Ralph Roister Doister . the son of a glover. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.written by Nicholas Udall. generally ignored the Classical rules and strongly influenced many subsequent Elizabethan plays including Shakespeare’s early Titus Andronicus and his later Hamlet (it is even suspected that Thomas Kyd may have been the author of an early Hamlet play that existed before Shakespeare’s). a bloodthirsty tale of murder and revenge.usually the reign of a particular English Monarch. It is not known which was the first English History play.survived. These rules included the assumption that Tragedy and Comedy should never mix and that a play should take place according to the Unities of Time and Place .which tells the story of a mythical English King in a style in imitation of the Roman Dramatist Seneca. In the Tudor period. The increasing professionalism of the acting companies. however. men who earned their living as writers and poets began to be recognisably connected with plays. but early examples included Shakespeare’s Henry VI (eventually a trilogy of plays) and Marlowe’s Edward II.

Elizabeth’s father. This is hardly surprising since a single performance at a playhouse could attract 3000 spectators when the population of London was only 200. but most of the real work . but some were written in other forms. usually giving the unstructured prose (following no poetical rules and without line endings) to their comical or rustic characters or those who for some other reason were considered more casual in their speech than the significant or serious characters who routinely spoke verse. In times such as these. plays. had broken off from the Catholic Church and established the Protestant Church of England. The main advantage of blank verse was that despite being regular and poetical it could be made to sound very much like natural English speech. an invasion force blessed by the Pope.which could be an excellent form of propaganda . Henry VIII.and escaped a number of planned assassination attempts.were viewed with a great deal of concern. a particular form of dramatic poetry was discovered to be ideal for dramatic composition. Blank verse was usually unrhymed (except for occasional couplets in significant places) and used ten syllables a line divided into five iambic feet of alternately unstressed and stressed syllables.like the comic gravedigger in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. and had married the firmly Catholic King of Spain.and Elizabeth had to consider the fact that a large proportion of her population had been or still was Catholic. She also fought off the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope who encouraged all Catholic Kings and subjects to work to assassinate Elizabeth and overthrow her regime. Shakespeare and other dramatists began to use blank verse in a much more flexible and inventive manner . such as prose or rhyming couplets. To protect against these threats. a Catholic .allowing sentences to run from one line into the next and finish wherever in the line was necessary. This was blank verse .first used in Gorboduc. Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists often used a mixture of blank verse and prose. The official in charge of this control was the Lord Chamberlain. breaking the blank verse rules when it suited them to allow extra syllables in the line or irregular stresses and pauses. After the death of Henry and his sickly son Edward the throne had passed on to Elizabeth’s older sister Mary.enough people to begin a riot or even a rebellion. 6. At the same time that the genres of English plays were becoming fixed and accepted. others were openly rebellious. which gathered huge crowds and exposed them to a particular view of the world . Early blank verse was very regular.000. The majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were written in blank verse after Gorboduc.who had brought England back into the Church of Rome. Elizabeth managed to resist the Northern Rebellion . This meant that one and a half percent of the London population were gathered in one place and exposed to the same influence at every performance . When Mary died without children the Protestant Elizabeth inherited the throne and England became a Protestant Nation once more. While some Catholics continued their religion secretly and otherwise supported Elizabeth. Each stage in this process involved bloody trials and executions of those following the wrong religion . Generally speaking the later a blank verse play was written the more natural its language sounds. As time passed Marlowe.where Catholic Lords and subjects in the North rose up against her . the Elizabethan authorities imposed a range of laws and systems to ensure that they could control just about every word that was spoken onstage. Politics and Religion Elizabeth began her reign in a fast changing and dangerous period for the English nation. with all sentences end-stopped (finishing exactly at the end of the blank verse line) and with very little variation in the stresses and pauses in the lines.

but in fact the Elizabethan Censors were more lenient than is sometimes suggested and did not come down heavily on many actors or dramatists during this period. was called in and interrogated about the actors’ role in the affair.so old that they didn’t expect much of an audience . but he maintained that they had known nothing about any seditious intent and that they had simply been encouraged to reprise an old play . was invited to perform before the Queen. however. Elizabeth was vastly upset by the rebellion and particularly commented upon the attempts to compare her to the corrupt and successfully overthrown Richard II of the play. On the day before Essex was executed Shakespeare’s Company. the Master of the Revels. which was seen as particularly dangerous in its presentation of More himself and its dangerous sympathy with rebellious poor people who . Another major scandal involved Shakespeare’s Richard II. More typical of the censorship of Elizabethan plays was the suppression of Sir Thomas More . perhaps as a sign of forgiveness. Before the performance of any play. Augustine Phillips. but it has been suggested that it may have been a satirical attack on Elizabeth’s courtiers.unknown to the Players - were planning to stir up support in London for a rebellion against Elizabeth the following day. One of the major incidents of suppression during the Elizabethan period was prompted by the production of Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs.and had been paid ten shillings over the ordinary to perform it. including imprisonment.and the playwright Ben Jonson were arrested and imprisoned while Thomas Nashe fled to Yarmouth. since Thomas More was a Catholic Martyr who had been executed by Elizabeth’s father for opposing his divorce and establishment of the Church of England. possibly including Shakespeare . It was an odd choice of a subject for a play. The punishments for writers whose works were felt to be seditious or offensive could be extreme. The Earl. led a small band of armed followers through London with the intention of capturing the Queen. know you not that?” she told Francis Bacon and complained “This tragedy has been played forty times in open streets and houses”. who . the script had to be submitted to the Revels Office for checking and the Master of the Revels made any alterations in the script that he felt necessary . The exact content of this play is not known.particularly to a scene in which More talked with poor rioters. The Privy Council was so outraged by the performance that it went as far as to ban all plays in London and its surroundings for much of the rest of the year. Jonson was released and his imprisonment did not damage his future reputation or prospects in any significant way.was carried out by his subordinate. a performance of which was specially commissioned by followers of the Earl of Essex. The Master of the Revels disliked many of the scenes within the play and sent it back repeatedly for alterations . The reason for choosing the play was that it showed the decline and fall of Richard II. After having failed to incriminate himself. who had lost the Queen’s favour and been discredited.a play which was written and then amended by a large group of different playwrights. Nashe’s house was searched for papers and Jonson was questioned and then secretly imprisoned with two informers who encouraged him to betray himself to them. torture and mutilation .making sure that the play remained morally and politically safe and did not trespass into religious matters or use inappropriate blasphemies. but they were not supported by the London populace and the rebellion failed. “I am Richard II. one of the leading actors of Shakespeare’s Company.who may have written scenes in his own handwriting in the manuscript. who was overthrown by a rebellion led by the Earl of Bolingbroke who had the King murdered and took his crown. the players .Pembroke’s Men . as it was ruthlessly suppressed and never printed. a weak King closely connected to corrupt favourites. After the play had been performed in 1597. The authorities treated the actors leniently and no punishment seems to have been forthcoming.

Such props often played a major part in the play. costumes and stage effects than is sometimes assumed. while one of his guards (in a play set in Roman times) wears the familiar armour of an Elizabethan soldier and another wears a foreign looking. for example. A famous picture of a performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (one of the few pictures of Elizabethan actors at work) shows Titus in a breastplate and a supposedly historical garment. Although Minimalist performances of this kind may be closer to the Elizabethan originals than.so it would be immediately obvious to the Elizabethan audience that actors wearing particular types of clothes were playing people of particular backgrounds and types. fake heads and tables with holes in to stage decapitations (an illustration of an Elizabethan conjuring trick shows a table with two holes in it. and without using modern lighting. very loosely based on the Roman toga. real boats and real canals) they are still very far from Elizabethan performances. chairs and thrones to whole trees.head above it another . as in The Spanish Tragedy where a man is spectacularly hanged by the neck from an arbour.opposed the Tudor regime. when Hamlet is talking with his Mother in her chamber). and costumes which . Costume.apparently decapitated . and sometimes even real horses.a scene illustrated in a published copy of the play. Night scenes were often signalled by characters wearing nightdresses (even the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in his nightgown.had a historical or foreign flavour. but those who claim that the Elizabethans performed on a completely bare stage are wrong. Extensive make-up was almost certainly used.laws which the actors were allowed to break onstage . Death brought out a particular ingenuity in Elizabethan actors and they apparently used copious quantities of animal blood. sound or stage effects. There were also conventions for playing a number of roles .some of which we know from printed play scripts. one boy sitting hidden under the table with only his . Mad women. particularly for the boys playing female parts and with dark make-up on the face and hands for actors playing “blackamoors” or “Turks”. suit of armour. wore their hair loose and mad people of both sexes had disordered clothing. The Elizabethans did not use fixed scenery or painted backdrops of the sort that became popular in the Victorian period. possibly Turkish influenced. like Ophelia. grassy banks. and so forth. the spectacular Victorian performances of Shakespeare’s plays (with detailed painted backdrops and archaeologically correct costumes and stage designs. tables. Many of the authentic Elizabethan garments owned by a Theatre Company had been passed onto them. Elizabethan costuming seems to have been a strange combination of what was (for the Elizabethans) modern dress. A wide variety of furniture and props were brought onstage to set the scene as necessary .ranging from simple beds. with no scenery and few props. Companies like the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express claim to be closer to the original Elizabethan performance style because they perform in modern dress. apparently a complex wooden frame with a bench and leaves . 7. an unpleasant looking cave to represent the mouth of hell. by members of the nobility. Strict laws were in force about what materials and types of clothes could be worn by members of each social class . secondhand. We know the play only because the original manuscript survives.while not being genuinely historically or culturally accurate . Despite many such alterations the play was never considered acceptable and so was never granted a licence to be performed or published. In reality the Elizabethans used far more sophisticated props. Scenery and Effects Some modern companies consider the Elizabethan performance style to have been very close to what we now call Minimalism. prop dragons.

Occasionally music may have been played between Acts or certain scenes. It is possible that the scripts which have been passed down to us are the playwright’s first draft and that they would have been cut considerably for performance. Thunder was imitated by rolling large metal cannon balls backstage or by drumming.seem much too long to have been performed in such a short time. about how Elizabethan actors actually played their roles. like the Globe. on the other hand. Performances probably ran continuously without any sort of interval or Act Breaks. hands. while lightning was imitated by fireworks set off in the “heavens” above the stage. the stages were lit by candlelight . One thing that Elizabethan theatres almost completely lacked was lighting effects. were impossible. where candles had to be trimmed and replaced between Acts.apparently missing .lying on the top of the table with his . Real cannons and pistols (loaded with powder but no bullet) were fired off when ceremonial salutes or battles were required. tongues and limbs were dramatically cut off onstage. eyes. plays were performed from two o’clock until about four or four thirty in the afternoon (these were the times fixed by law. used to imitate lightening or magical effects .which forced them to hold occasional.the devils in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus apparently cavorted around the stage with squibs. although it has been suggested that Shakespeare only once used a dog in his plays because the animal proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Some plays bring dogs onstage.such as Hamlet. Evening performances. The nearest that the Elizabethans came to lighting effects were fireworks. without daylight. and probably involved some sort of blood- drenched stage trick. unfortunately. held in their mouths. but some plays . What props and scenery there were in the Elizabethan Theatre were probably carried on and off while the scenes continued. The law (mentioned above) expected plays to last between two and two and a half hours. which means that there would have been no need to wait for scene changes . A number of other simple special effects were used. In the outdoor theatres. but this would have made little difference to the actual lighting of the stage. Performance Techniques We know very little. 8. probably musical. but plays may sometimes have run for longer) in order to take advantage of the best daylight (earlier or later performances would have cast distracting shadows onto the stage). and Shakespeare talks about “the two hours traffic of our stage” in Romeo and Juliet. but scholars think this was quite unusual except in the hall playhouses. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale calls for a man to be pursued across the stage by a bear and there is much academic argument about whether a real (tame) bear would have been used or whether it would have been a man in a bear costume (probably a real bear skin).something which could double the length of a spectacular Victorian performance. It is also possible that Elizabethan actors performed at a much faster speed than modern actors without so many pauses and without speaking slowly for emphasis. small exploding fireworks. Some idea of the sort of hand gestures that an Elizabethan actor may have used may have been preserved in a peculiar book called Chirologia or the Naturall Language of the Hand. In the hall theatres. Heads. We do not even know how long Elizabethan plays usually ran. and spectators simply had to use their imagination. which in modern times runs for more than four hours .head hidden below it: tricks of this kind were almost certainly used on the Elizabethan stage). . Elizabethan actors carried flaming torches to indicate that a scene was taking place at night. breaks while the candles were trimmed and tended or replaced as they burned down.

Modern Globe actors have found the Globe to be an excellent performing space which actors find very appealing. in a long diagonal. was given in response to a woman in the audience threatening to cuff him. and sometimes the fool and other comic actors would perform a jig . Some time was apparently put aside for the fool to respond to challenges from the audience . but it is also very different from the modern stages that they are used to and requires a very different style of performance to make use of the theatres strengths and alleviate its weaknesses. and in the early Elizabethan period especially it seems to have been normal for the fool to include a great deal of improvised repartee and jokes in his performance.which turned out to be the most powerful position on the stage. at the most extreme upstage left corner of the stage.since the modern Globe actors are a 21st Century company performing for 21st Century audiences. Another aspect of Elizabethan performance that we know a little about was the use of clowns or fools. they need to keep their actors in constant motion. One of the famous clown Tarlton’s jokes. Companies performing on the Globe stage have to take into account the strange positioning of the audience. for example. I was always able to see at least one actor’s face throughout the performance and was therefore included in the play’s action and not frustrated by seeing only backs. rather than standing close together as they would on a more intimate modern stage. Similarly while modern stages encourage actors giving soliloquies to step to downstage centre and address the audience. Shakespeare complains in Hamlet about the fact that the fool often spoke a great deal that was not included in his script. Before . asking riddles and questions and demanding witty answers. behind the actors.William Kempe . They also need to have actors facing in as many different directions as possible during a scene. he told her. normally a farce involving adultery and other bawdy topics. Some of the gestures seem very odd and extravagant to modern eyes.and with the views of all parts of the audience occasionally blocked by the obtrusive stage pillars. especially responding to hecklers in the audience.which could be anything from a simple ballad to a quite complicated musical play.was famous for improvisational humour of this kind and for rejecting Shakespeare’s scripts in order to make his own jests. but may sometimes be misleading . It has been suggested that the first fool in Shakespeare’s company . The Globe seating almost completely surrounds the stage.This was supposed to explain hand gestures used to show emotions or give emphasis in normal conversation rather than in stage performance. with audience members at the extreme ends of the circle almost behind the upstage corners of the stage and looking at the action from the back forwards . The modern Globe Directors have found that. but may well have seemed perfectly natural to an Elizabethan. but if gestures of this kind were used offstage then they were almost certainly used on it as well. or simply arguing and criticising the fool so that he could respond. When I went to see King Lear this Summer I was surprised to find that despite sitting in the worst position. as a result.with spectators inventing rhymes and challenging the fool to complete them. respecting the words that Shakespeare had set down for him. or best of all upstage centre . She should only reverse the spelling of the word. the more powerful positions on the Globe stage turned out to be in the front corners of the stage rather than downstage centre. and that his replacement Robert Armin may have been more of an actor and less of an improvisational comedian. At the end of the play the Elizabethan actors often danced. The actors also found that even when conversing privately the Globe stage encouraged them to stand at a distance from one another. and she could have her will immediately. Performances by modern actors at the reconstructed Globe have given us some insight into aspects of performance on a stage of this kind which may help us to reconstruct the behaviour of Elizabethan actors.

This means that the Groundlings frequently shout up at the actors or hiss the villains and cheer the goodies. however. but those which were most easily seen by other audience members. that the opinions of modern actors may bear little relationship to the way in which Elizabethan actors viewed their stage and gave their performances. The historical records seem to show that the same view was not held in Shakespeare’s day since Dave Kathman’s research suggests that teenage boy actors were the norm. Oddly. and pickpockets were busy stealing goods as the play progressed. however.as their interactions with the Fool suggests . the set up of the Globe encourages intimacy with the audience and it has been found that Globe audiences are enthusiastic to take part in the production in ways that the actors sometimes find distracting.the Elizabethan audience was more concerned to hear the words spoken than to be able to see the action. This idea is given extra weight by the fact that in the public outdoor theatres. although actors tended to misjudge the effect of their own voices at first and were tricked into shouting when they didn’t need to. This may in part be explained by the atmosphere of the Globe itself .but it is also probably explained by the great visibility of the Globe audience. which encourages short attention spans and a desire to take action rather than remain completely immobile. the most expensive seats were not the ones with the best views (in fact the best view is to be had by the Groundlings. The Groundlings are also forced to stand for two or three hours without much movement.and were particularly well known for hurling nut shells and fruit when they disliked an actor or a performance.the Globe’s Artistic Director actively encouraged audiences to shout back at the actors before the first performance was given . but they found that clarity of speech and movement was more important than volume or size. since beer and food were being sold and consumed throughout the performance. Globe audience members can see each other exactly as well as they can see the performers and the Groundlings in particular are near enough to the stage to be able to touch the actors if they wanted to and the front row of the Groundlings routinely lean their arms and heads onto the front of the stage itself. the Globe casting directors felt that teenage actors’ voices didn’t carry well in the Globe space and selected an actor in his early twenties. prostitutes were actively soliciting for trade. One hint that Elizabethan audiences may have viewed plays very differently gave us the origin of the word “audience” itself. It is important to remember.performing on the stage it had been assumed that the actors would need to use big voices and broad gestures.and it is possible that in the densely crowded theatre - obstructed by the pillars and the extravagant headgear that richer members of the audience were wearing . Naturally. standing directly in front of the stage). The Elizabethans did not speak of going to see a play.looking at the action . however. The modern Globe staff were very satisfied by audience reactions to the cross-dressing boy actor. The most expensive seating was in the Lord’s box or balcony behind the stage . the audience seemed able to suspend its disbelief and view the character as a normal and convincing female even when the actor was not. During King Lear the audience were quick to offer their advice when Edmund (Gloucester’s bastard son) asked himself which of Lear’s competing daughters he should accept as his lover. and much more subtle acting was possible. With no modern stage lighting to enhance the actors and put the audience into darkness. The Elizabethan audience was still more distracted. The acoustics of the stage (once all of the genuine oak had been installed) turned out to be excellent. they went to hear one . Some failed to realise that the actor was male and apart from knowing laughs at lines about being a woman. like the Globe. when casting male actors to play the female role of Princess Katherine in Henry V. Elizabethan audiences seem to have been very responsive in this way .

uk/elizthea1.org. Some Elizabethan documents suggest that the reason for this range of prices was the richer patron’s desire to be as far from the stink of the Groundlings as possible. See http://shakespearean.htm .from behind . a seat in a Gentleman’s Room cost sixpence. a seat in the galleries cost twopence and it cost only a penny to stand in the pit) .and otherwise the higher the seats the more an audience member had to pay (a seat in the Lord’s Room cost one shilling or twelve pence.