This article was first published in the May 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Thanks to the reconstruction of the iconic Globe theatre, and the success of blockbuster films like Shakespeare in Love, most people assume that public playhouses were a common sight in England’s towns and cities throughout the Elizabethan period.
Yet, according to Dr Tara Hamling of the history department and Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, this simply wasn’t the case. “The first commercial public playhouse wasn’t actually built until 1567 – almost ten years into Elizabeth’s reign,” she says. “And while these dedicated spaces for the performance of plays must have offered exciting new leisure opportunities in the capital, when it comes to explaining how people across the country experienced drama, performance and pageantry during the 16th century, they are only part of the story.”
Mystery and miracle plays formed the bulk of early Elizabethan drama – as they had done for centuries. These plays, which dramatised the Bible and the lives of saints, were closely linked to the Catholic church calendar and were performed at specific times of the year, coinciding with church feast days.
Decorated pageant wagons were pulled around a city or town, stopping off at key locations to perform in outside spaces for the public. Over the course of a day, players would enact the whole Bible, beginning in the morning with the creation, and ending in the evening with the last judgment. The events were huge social occasions accompanied by great spectacle and music, which communicated the scripture to a wider audience while providing opportunities for traders to sell their wares.
However, Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic church and the subsequent establishment of the English church under Elizabeth I in 1559 spelled the beginning of the end for these essentially Catholic performances, which were identified as one of the ‘corruptions’ of the rejected Roman Catholic religion. Religious reformers did their best to stamp the genre out altogether throughout Elizabeth’s reign, and seem to have more or less succeeded by the end of the 16th century. The virtual disappearance of religious-themed dramas created a vacuum – one that was soon filled by the tragedies, comedies and history plays we now associate with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
This new breed of drama was performed by professional actors who toured the country, putting on plays wherever they could find work – from taverns and guildhalls, churches and churchyards, to private households before audiences of lords and dignitaries.
Chronicle plays dramatising England’s history, such as John Bale’s King John, a vehemently anti-Catholic piece, offered a popular alternative to the biblical dramas of the early 16th century, and were not dependent on the church calendar.
Plays were often staged at inns. These were important forerunners to the permanent playhouses, and often featured balconies – overlooking an inn yard – and a temporary gate set up to collect an entrance fee.
Not all towns and cities welcomed touring companies, however, and in an attempt to prevent gatherings of unruly crowds and the spread of disease, some civic authorities paid touring companies to move on before they got the chance to perform.
The volume of players touring the country during the 16th century makes it highly probable that they would have provided William Shakespeare, born in 1564, with his first taste of theatre in his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon. We know, for example, that there were at least 30 visits by touring companies to the town between 1568 and 1597.
However, life was to become increasingly hard for these wandering troupes of travelling players during Elizabeth’s reign after a royal proclamation in 1559 called for the licensing of plays for performance. A later act in 1572 restricted the movements of touring players further by labelling all those without a noble patron as vagabonds who were to “be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about”. The Elizabethan authorities regarded travelling actors of no fixed abode with extreme suspicion. Their misgivings were only increased by the fact that performers could attract large audiences – often in taverns and inns – which were in turn viewed as a threat to the security of the realm.
Alongside the plays staged by touring companies in inns, guildhalls and even churches were civic entertainments performed in the streets, often prompted by a royal visit. During their visits to towns and cities across the kingdom – known as royal entries – the monarch often stopped along the way to watch pageants and plays, and sometimes provided the starring role in entertainments.
While inn yards and guildhalls continued to be used during the 1560s and 1570s, the proliferation of purpose-built playhouses in London was to change the face of drama in the later Elizabethan period.
More a shrewd business enterprise than an appreciation of the arts, the first playhouse – the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567 – was the brainchild of a grocer who erected scaffolding in the grounds of a farmhouse. Soon other businessmen were following suit, and nine more dedicated playhouses appeared in the outskirts of London between 1575 and 1578. Their location in the seedier areas of the city, among bear baiting and brothels, conveniently placed them beyond the control of the city’s authorities.
Hamling concludes: “If we want to know where Elizabethan drama happened, it is clear that a range of different locations and spaces were used for performance, some of which can still be visited today.”
9 places associated with the evolution of Elizabethan drama
All Saints Pavement, York, Yorkshire
Where 50 plays were performed in a day
Mystery plays, performed by the city’s different craft guilds, took place in York from the mid-14th century and were commonly performed at Corpus Christi, a religious holiday that fell in mid-summer. The performances were events of great colour and spectacle and were a popular way of communicating the scripture to a wider audience, most of whom could not read.
There is only one known surviving copy of text for York’s mystery plays and this contains over 14,000 lines of rhyming verse as well as some 300 speaking/singing parts and roles for other performers. Fifty plays made up the text – and 50 wagons of actors, pulled by men not animals, would have trundled through the busy streets, stopping at designated stations on the way.
By the end of the 14th century, there were 12 different locations in York at which players would stop and perform all 50 plays over the course of a day before moving on to the next stop on the city tour. Performances started at around 4am and could continue until midnight.
Many of the designated stations along the route were placed at street junctions, and some even had tiered seating specially erected for the occasion. The last of the 12 venues in York was the bustling All Saints Pavement, once the commercial hub of the city, used for markets, fairs, proclamations and executions. It was from here, after the final performance and subsequent celebrations, that the wagons returned to their housings until the Corpus Christi holiday came round again the next year.
All Saints church, outside which the plays were performed, is still open to the public and its stained glass window depicts the biblical themes of no fewer than eight of the mystery plays once performed in York. Mystery plays were actually revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain and they continue to be performed every four years in various locations across the city. The next performance is scheduled for the summer of 2012 in the city’s Museum Gardens.
Perran Round, Perranzabuloe, Cornwall
Where travelling players performed suppressed scriptural plays
It seems that, despite the suppression of mystery plays during the Elizabethan period, in Cornwall they somehow managed to survive longer than elsewhere in the country. There are two possible reasons for this: they were performed in Cornish, and therefore could not be policed as thoroughly; Cornwall’s distance from London may also have kept these performances away from the beady eyes of the central authorities.
Perran Round, also known as St Piran’s Round, is a raised circular earthwork thought to have once been an enclosed farmstead, but which was used as an open-air theatre during the medieval period. It is thought scriptural plays were performed here until the 1590s.
Cornish mystery plays of the type probably performed at Perran Round are referred to in Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall in 1602. Carew states that, in order to perform the Cornish scriptural plays “they raise an earthen amphitheatre in some open field”. This suggests that, where existing sites such as Perran Round did not exist, hill-and-ditch theatres were constructed expressly for the purpose and could be used again.
Perran Round, which is 130 feet in diameter and surrounded by a six-feet-deep ditch, is still used for open-air performances and can be accessed on foot.
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Where Mary Queen of Scots made her extravagant royal entry
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile has long been associated with official royal entries and often saw street theatre meet royal performance in a triumphant celebration of the monarch.
On 2 September 1561, Mary Queen of Scots and her royal party set out on a royal entry into Edinburgh, travelling from Holyrood House along the Royal Mile to the sound of cannon fire. The party was met first on Castle Hill by 50 young men dressed up like fantastic blackamoors, a fairly common feature of Renaissance pageants symbolising exotic forces of disorder, which had to be tamed by the authority of a Christian ruler.
With crowds filling the streets, Mary continued her procession, borne aloft by 16 ‘honest’ men of the town and followed by a cart containing child singers and musicians. The party made several stops along the way to witness a particular pageant or staged tableau. At the first stop was a wooden archway, decorated “with fine colours”, where the queen paused to listen to the singing of “certain bairns in the maist heavenly wise”. Upon a scenery cloud, under the arch, was a young boy about six years old who, according to the Domestic Annals of Scotland, “descended down as it had been ane angel, and deliver it to her hieness the keys of the town, together with ane Bible and ane Psalm-buik coverit with fine purpour velvet”.
Royal entries across Europe were important public relations opportunities for the crown, as well as excellent examples of street theatre and other forms of lavish entertainment in which the monarch was expected to participate. Edinburgh’s Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood House and is thought to be the city’s oldest street.
The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace, London
Where players performed before royalty
Royal entertainment was not solely restricted to royal entries and open-air performances while on a progress around the country. Monarchs would often employ companies of players to entertain them at court – and the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace is a wonderful example of spaces used for such festivities. We know that Shakespeare’s company performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream there before James VI and I on New Year’s Day 1604.
The hall was also used regularly as a theatre during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in 1572 a stage was erected against the screen, with an adjoining chamber serving as a dressing room for the players; the Great Watching Chamber was reportedly used for rehearsals. The Great Hall appears to have continued its role as a part-time theatre well after the establishment of permanent playhouses, and its final performance is recorded as taking place on 18 October 1731, although the stage was not finally cleared away until 1798.
Hampton Court Palace itself was built in around 1514 for Henry VIII’s one-time favourite Cardinal Wolsey. In 1529, as Wolsey fell from grace, the king claimed the palace for himself, adding the present Great Hall between 1532 and 1535. The space is often described as the last medieval great hall of the English monarchy, with its magnificent hammerbeam roof and sumptuous wall hangings. It is open to the public.
Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
Where Robert Dudley wooed Elizabeth I through drama
The entertainments laid on for Queen Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle in July 1575 are a fine example of the often highly politicised nature of courtly entertainment.On this occasion, the queen was visiting Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to whom she had bestowed Kenilworth Castle in 1563; Elizabeth stayed for 19 days, her longest sojourn in a courtier’s house during any of her progresses.
Plays, fireworks over the lake, lavish masques and dancing were all laid on for the royal party and dramatic performances celebrated the presence of the monarch while attempting to influence her policies – Dudley at the time was campaigning for a marriage to the queen, as well as a militant Protestant foreign policy.
Sources tell us that the plays performed were mainly on the theme of marriage, including the enactment of a pretend folk wedding during which a 35-year-old virgin marries, as well as other performances of a classical nature on the subject of love. Dudley was using theatre to bring the queen around to his way of thinking.
Some of the performances, however, were censored before they made it to the stage and the queen appointed officers to screen the plays prior to the performance to ensure they were appropriate. Any that were not deemed so were axed from the next day’s timetable – this must have been frustrating for the playwright.
Despite escaping destruction during the English Civil War, Kenilworth Castle gradually fell into dilapidation, but much of the building’s shell remains, including a reconstruction of the magnificent Elizabethan Garden created by Dudley for the queen’s visit in 1575.
Chirk Castle, Wrexham
Where Welsh nobility were entertained at lavish banquets
In-house entertainment for the upper classes was another popular avenue for theatre throughout, and beyond, the Elizabethan period. We have evidence for such entertainment taking place at Chirk Castle in 1634 when Sir Thomas Middleton apparently laid on an extravagant masque.
Banquet entertainment involved participation from guests who would dress in extravagant costumes, becoming part of the entertainment itself. It was seen as the total artistic experience, combining poetry, music, dance and plays with elaborate scenery and dress.
Such entertainment, which certainly didn’t come cheap, was organised by the lord or lady of the house and was hugely extravagant and indulgent, focusing on eating, drinking and generally making merry. Travelling troupes of players could also provide the theatre, demonstrating how street performance was adapted to private households.
Chirk Castle, which was completed in 1310, is the only Welsh castle from the reign of Edward I to be lived in today. The building and gardens are open to the public and are owned by the National Trust.
George Inn, Southwark, London
Where the public may have gathered for rowdy performances
Prior to the building of dedicated playhouses, plays were sometimes staged in public halls, aristocrats’ private houses, or royal palaces. Yet more often they were put on in taverns and inn yards.
Later Elizabethan open-air public theatres were almost certainly modelled on inn yards, featuring balconies that overlooked the stage, an open space in the centre and a stage to one side. The George Inn is London’s last remaining galleried inn and was possibly
a venue for plays during the Elizabethan period. Evidence suggests that at least six similar London inns were sites for performances during the second half of the 16th century, although these no longer survive.
Inn performances could be raucous affairs and contributed to the general belief that acting was a shady career. One famous affray took place in 1583 at a Norwich inn when two actors pounced on a man who refused to pay and set upon him with the swords they were using in the performance, leading to the fatal stabbing of the assaulted man’s companion.
Inn yard venues did not cease operation once the first purpose-built theatres appeared; they remained in use and constituted an important aspect of Elizabethan drama. The George Inn is now a National Trust property and can be visited by the public.
The Guildhall, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
Where William Shakespeare had his first taste of theatre
Guildhalls, Moot Halls and common halls were other popular locations for travelling players and Stratford’s Guildhall, built in 1417 as a two-storey feast-hall for the town’s Guild of the Holy Cross, would almost certainly have been a location for performances by visiting players. These would have been laid on by some of the leading names in contemporary theatre, and keen playgoers would have known, and followed, the key actors of the time, much like today’s celebrities.
Shakespeare himself grew up in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon and, as befitted the son of a leading townsman, attended the Stratford Grammar School between the ages of 7 and 14 – it is generally believed that he was educated in the room above the Guildhall.
Shakespeare, who probably left for London in around 1586/7, is now buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. The Guildhall now forms part of King Edward VI School. It is not open
to the public, but out-of-hours visits can be arranged by contacting the school directly.
The Globe, London
Where Shakespeare’s theatre burned to the ground
Situated on the south bank of the Thames, in the suburb of Southwark, the reconstructed Globe theatre is one of London’s most famous landmarks and the venue most closely associated with Shakespeare’s plays. Like most permanent playhouses of the time, the Globe was a tall, open-roofed, roughly circular structure with a cover over part of the stage and a roof around the edge of the building to protect the galleries from the elements.
Plays invariably took place in the afternoon with actors performing on a raised stage and the audience standing in the space around the stage or seated in the galleries, according to class.
Shakespeare was one of four shareholders in the Globe and historians believe that two of his plays, Henry V and Julius Caesar, were almost certainly written in 1599, the year in which the Globe opened. However, tragedy struck in 1613 when, during a performance of Henry VIII, wadding from a stage cannon ignited the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground. The building was rebuilt the following year, this time with a tiled roof.
Shakespeare died in 1616 but his company of players, The King’s Men, remained at the Globe until 1642 when the English parliament issued an ordinance suppressing all stage plays in theatres, as civil war broke out across the country. No longer of use, the building was demolished in 1644 to make way for tenements. Work to rebuild the structure began in 1993 and the new Globe theatre, standing just a few metres from its original location, reopened to the public three and a half years later.
Visitors to the reconstructed Globe can enjoy an exhibition, as well as watch Shakespeare’s plays performed by modern-day touring companies.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Dr Tara Hamling of the history department and Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.