Renaissance Theatre: England

Under the Reign of
Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) - King James I of England (1603-1625)
King Charles I (1625-1649)


         Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition: Chapter 13, pages 282 - 292.

English Renaissance...
         Christopher Marlowe. Doctor Faustus.
         William Shakespeare. Hamlet
         William Shakespeare. Richard III
         William Shakespeare. Taming of the Shrew

         The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
         In Search of Shakepseare
         Shakespeare's Globe Online: A site dedicated to the reconstruction of the Globe.
         The Internet Shakespeare Editions
         Shakespeare's Life and Times
         Mr William Shakespeare and the Internet

1. What are the two major roots of English drama?

  1. Through the study, adaption and performance of Classical Greek and Roman Drama at the English Colleges and Universities and...
  2. Through the plays written and performed by the professional acting troupes. Thomas Preston's (1537-1598) A Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed full of Pleasant Mirth, Containing the Life of Cambyses, King of Persia... (1561), written for a small professional acting company, mixes "real" characters like King Cambyses with allagorical characters such as Shame, Diligence, Common's Cry, Cruelty, and Murder.

2. What is the importance of Gorboduc ?

Gorboduc (1561) is considered the first "true" English tragedy. The playwrights, two university students: Thomas Sacksville (1536-1608) and Thomas Norton (1532-1584), drew both their characters and plot from English history (legend). Gorboduc, like much of the work of Marlowe and Shakespeare, was written in blank verse -- unrhymed iambic pentameter -- verse of five feet per line, with the stress on the first beat of each foot.

Christopher Marlowe

3. Who was the major pre-Shakespearean playwright?

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).

    What type of dramas did he write?

Historical tragedies.

4. What is the title of his most often revived work?

Doctor Faustus (1589).

5. Who is the major Elizabethan playwright?

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564-1616). In addition to being a playwright, he was also an actor, a shareholder in the King's Men and a householder in the Globe (theatre). The official Shakespeare canon contains thirty-eight plays: the thirty-six works included in the First Folio (1623) and two plays, Pericles (1609) and Two Noble Kinsmen (1634), which appear only in quartos editions. Most drama critics believe Shakespeare was the greatest playwright in the English language. He also holds the title of the most often produced playwright in the academic theatre.

6. What are the three groups into which his plays are divided?

Tragedies (11 scripts), Comedies (16 titles) and History plays (9 plays). The three groups were established by the publishers of the First Folio in 1623.

7. Give an example of one of his tragedies?

Romeo and Juliet (1594-95), Hamlet (1600-01), Othello (1602), King Lear (1606) Macbeth (1606).

    What is generally considered his greatest tragedy?

Poster for Hamlet
Hamlet: the story of a young prince whose father, the King, is murdered by his uncle. It includes what is probably the most famous soliloquy from dramatic literature: "To be, or not to be, that is the question..." (Act III, Sc 1).

Richard Burton's performance of the soliloquy from the 1964 staging at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
According to director John Gielgud: "This is a Hamlet acted in rehearsal clothes, stripped of all extraneous trappings, unencumbered by a reconstruction of any particular historical period. This performance is conceived as a final run-through,...a full rehearsal of the text and action played straight through without interruption from the director."


Taming of the Shrew (1594), Merchant of Venice (1595-96). As You Like It (1599).

A Commedia interpretation of the "Wooing Scene" from the Taming of the Shrew
As performed by American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, 1976

    History plays?

Poster for Richard III
The Richard and Henry plays. Richard II (1594-95), Richard III (1592-93), Henry IV: parts 1 and 2 (1597-98), Henry V (1599), Henry VI: parts 1 through 3 (1591-92), and Henry VIII (1613). The plots and characters for the history plays are drawn from The War of the Roses (1455-1485): the conflict between the house of York and the house of Lancaster over which family was the rightful heir to the English throne.

8. What was the difference between his farcical comedies,

His farcical comedies, like Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599), place most of their emphasis on physical comedy. Merry Wives is also the only Shakespearean play set in Elizabethan England.

    His serious comedies, and his

His serious comedies, such as The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure (1601-04), are serious dramas with a happy ending.

    Romantic comedies?

His romantic comedies, like Twelth Night (1600-01) and As You Like It, are those which are set in a fairy-tale world.

9. Why is the Merchant of Venice a dark comedy?

Because Antonio, the merchant of Venice, does not lose his pound of flesh.

9a. Did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare?

The authorship of Shakespeare's work was first questioned during the 19th century when the adulation of Shakespeare as "The Greatest Intellect of All Time," known as Bardolatry, became widespread. Shakespeare's lack of education, his humble beginnings, his obscure life seemed incompatiable with his body of work and his reputation as a genius. Obviously his plays had to be written by a college educated man, aquainted with court life. More than 70 historical figures have been nominated as the true author of the Shakespeare's canon, some more seriously than others. However, only four have attracted a significant number of followers:
  1. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626),
  2. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593),
  3. Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford, and
  4. William Stanley (1561-1642), 6th Earl of Derby.
Anonymous, the 2011 film directed by Roland Emmerich which opened October 28th, is built on the premise that the plays credited to William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Most theatre professors and all Shakespearean scholars believe that the plays credited to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare, the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon.

10. List four basic production problems encountered when an educational theatre attempts to stage a Shakespearean drama.

  1. They are long. The running time for Hamlet is a little over four hours,
  2. They require large, mostly male casts,
  3. Many of the major roles are difficult, usually beyond the scope of a college student, and
  4. The language is difficult to understand, and speak.

The cover page of
Mr. William Shakespeares
Comedies, Histories & Tragedies

known as
The First Folio,
Published 1623
11. What is the difference between a quartos and a folio?
The quartos were small books (5"x6") which contained a single play. Nineteen scripts were published in quartos editions between 1594 and 1622. The folio was a large book (8.5"x13") which included a collection of 36 scripts.

12. What is the difference between a good quartos and a bad quartos?

The good quartos were those authorized publications based on the prompt books (scripts) held by the acting company. The bad quartos were those un-authorized publications based on the faulty memory of an un-happy actor who was no longer a member of the troupe. There were bad, or corrupt, versions of only 6 of of the 19 plays published between 1594 and 1622.

13. When was the First Folio published?

One thousand copies of the First Folio were printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. The cost for this large and very heavy book was £1, approximately $200 in 2010 currency. The current value of a first edition of the First Folio in good condition is between $15 and $20 million.

    How many plays did it contain?

Thirty six, including eighteen plays which had not been previously published. Pericles (1609), which was printed in a quartos edition was not included in the First Folio.

14. What was the difference between a private and a public theatre?

Private theatres were the small (capacity: 700), expensive (6d) indoor playhouses. The public theatres were the large (capacity: 3000), less expensive (1d) open air playhouses. In 1600 five public theatres -- the Globe, the Curtain, the Fortune, the Rose. and the Swan -- operated just outside the city of London.

15. What was the name of the first professional English playhouse?

16th Century Carrier Inn
The Theatre. "Theatre" was not a term generally used to identify an English playhouse. When the second playhouse opened, it was known simply as the Curtain, not the Curtain Theatre. Before the construction of the Theatre, acting companies performed in the courtyard of public "carrier inns" These inns were two or three storied structures which surrounded an open courtyard.

16. When was it built?


    By whom?

James Burbage (c. 1530-1597), joiner turned actor, member of the Earl of Leicester's Men (1559-1588), and the father of Richard Burbage (c. 1567-1619), the leading actor of and a shareholder in the King's Men.

17. Why was it not built in the city of London?

Because the city fathers would not permit the construction of a professional theatre within the city limits. Public playhouses were built either in the suburbs north and east of the city, or just south of the Thames River in area known as Bankside. Actors were considered, just a little above rouges and vagabonds.

18. What was the relationship between the Theatre and the Globe?

The Globe was built from the timbers of the Theatre. The Theatre was built on rented land. When the lease ran out, the landlord, Giles Allen, threatened to destory the structure. Richard Burbage and his acting company, dismantled the Theatre, took it through the city of London, and rebuilt it south of the Thames River in Bankside. When it reopened in 1599 it was renamed the Globe. From a contemporary source, in Elizabethan English:
divers ... persons, to the number of twelve ... armed themselves ... and throwing downe the sayd Theater in verye outragious, ‘violent and riotous sort ... did then alsoe in most forcible and ryotous manner take and carrye awaye from thence all the wood and timber thereof unto the Bancksyde in the parishe of St Marye Overyes, and there erected a newe playehowse with the sayd timber and woode.

This theatre burned on June 28, 1613 during a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, and was rebuilt in 1614. The second Globe, along with every other English playhouse was closed in 1642. It was dismantled in 1644. A small portion of the original site was excavated in the fall of 1989. The third Globe, built about 200 yards from the original site opened in June 1997. See the the New Globe Web site for more information on this reconstruction.

A Satellite View of Bankside
Point (B) is the location of the New Globe which opened in 1997. Point (D) is the location of the original Globe which was built in 1599, burned in 1642, was rebuilt and then dismantled in 1644.

Site of the Original Globe
The site of the 1989 excavation of the original Globe was in the parking lot behind the historical Anchor Terrace apartments (D). The image on the right indicates the probable location of the original Globe.

An artist's interpretation of the 1599 Globe

19. What did the Globe look like?

The Globe was a 20 (or 24) sided structure which closely resembled a circle. There was a courtyard (also known as the yard or pit) in the center surrounded by two or three levels of balconies (or galleries). The stage (or forestage) was backed against one of the sides and jutted into the center of the courtyard. See the illustration on page 286.

20. What are the primary sources of information on the layout of an Elizabethan theatre?

There are four:
  1. The stage directions in the texts of Elizabethan plays.
  2. Philip Henslowe's contract for the construction of the Fortune. The ground plan on page 289 is based on this document.
  3. A Dutch visitor's sketch of the Swan. See the illustration on page 288.
  4. The 1989 archaeological excavation of a small portion of the historical site of the Globe.

The Globe

21. What was the yard or pit ?

The courtyard (8), where the audience stood to watch a performance.

    The forestage?

That part of the stage where most of the action occurred. This 28' by 43' platform (6) jutted into the center of the pit. The dimensions are based on Philip Henslow's construction contract for the Fortune.

    The inner below?

The curtained discovery area (7) (a small "stage") at the rear of the forestage.

    The inner above?

The upper discovery area (4) above the inner below on the second level.

    The heavens?

The roof (2) over the forestage.

22. Who were the groundlings?

The poorest members of the audience who paid 1 penny to stand in the pit. The wealthy paid an additional penny for the right to sit in the galleries.

23. What did it mean when a flag was flown over the theatre?

The flag (1) indicated that there would be a performance that afternoon.
An artist's concept of Blackfrairs

24. What type of theatre was Blackfrairs?

An indoor private theatre. Blackfriars was built into a large (101' x 46') room in what had originally been a Dominican Monastery.

    Where was it located?

Within the walled city of London.

25. Why was Blackfrairs under the control of the King?

Between 1535 and 1540, King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth's father, who had already broken with the Roman Catholic church, dissolved the English monasteries and transferred their property to the crown.

26. When did it become the winter home of the King's Men?

1610. Between 1610 and 1642, Blackfriars was their winter home and the Globe was their summer residence.

27. Why was it necessary for an Elizabethan acting company to have a patron?

So they would not be a "rogue or vagabond." Acting in Elizabethan England was not an acceptable occupation, therefore, if an actor was not a servant to a noble or royal family (the patron) he could be classed as a "rogue or vagabond" under the Tudor Poor Law and could be whipped "through the streets" (first offence), lose part of an ear (second offence), or put to death (third offence).

King James I
Patron of the King's Men

28. Who were the King's Men?

The leading English acting company. between 1603 and 1642. Before becoming the King's Men, the company was under the patronage of Lord Hunsdon (Lord Hunsdon's Men) who in 1585 became the Lord Chamberlain (Lord Chamberlain's Men).

29. Who was the leading actor of the company? Richard Burbage.

     The resident playwright? William Shakespeare.

     The patron? King James I.

30. In which theatre did they perform? The Globe.

31. What was the economic organization of an Elizabethan acting company?

An Elizabethan acting company was a stock company in both the theatrical and economic sense of the term. A theatrical stock company cast all of its shows from within its resident company of actors.

32. What was the difference between a shareholder,

The shareholder held an economic interest in the acting company, and would share in its profits or losses. On a good day, a performance of a new script would generate gross gate recepits of approximately 3 pounds. After the expenses were paid, the remaining moneys would be divided between the shareholders. Around 1600, a share (10 percent interest) in a successful acting company was worth about 70 pounds.

     a house holder,

The house holder held an economic interest in the theatre in which the acting company performed, and would share in the house's profit or loss. Shakespere earned between £200 and £250 per year from his 1/10 interest in the Globe.

     and a hireling?

The hireling was an actor (musician, stage manager, wardrobe keeper, prompter or stage hand) employed by the acting company. He was paid between 5 and 10 shillings per week. Approximately half of his wages would be spent on food.

33. What was the cost of living in Elizabethan England?

A male journeyman laborer earned about 2s6d per week plus food and drink. 5 shillings if he had to provide his own food. A live in maid was paid 10d a week A house rented for approximately 11s6d and food cost between 2s6d and 5s. The value of the three denominations of English currency-- 12d (penny) = 1s (shilling). 20s = £1 (pound).

34. Were women allowed in an Elizabethan acting company? No

35. If not, who played the women's roles?

Women's parts were played by young boys (age 10 to 20) who were apprenticed to individual actors in the company. They traditionally received room and board plus 3 shillings per week.

36. How did this affect the Elizabethan playwrights?

Elizabethan playwrights included very few women in the casts of their plays. For example, Hamlet' s cast includes 27 men, and 2 women; King Lear : 20 men and 3 women; Macbeth : 21 men and 6 women; and Romeo and Juliet: 17 men and 4 women.

37. Who was the gatherer?

The most trusted member of the company.

    What did he do?

He collected the penny general admission from the audience as they entered the theatre. The same penny would purchase 24oz of bread, one pound of beef or mutton, or 2/3 gallon of beer.

38. Who closed the theatres in 1642? Why?

Parliament. All English professional theatres were closed in 1642 by order of Parliament to "appease and avert the wrath of God."

39. What did Charles II do upon the death of his father, King Charles I?

When King Charles was arrested, tried and executed for treason in 1649, his son, Charles II fled first to Scotland and then France.

40. Who was Oliver Cromwell? What title did he hold?

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) led the Parlimentary forces to victory over the supporters of King Charles during the English Civil War (1642-1649). He was the "Lord General" of the English Commonwealth, ruling under the authority of Parliment until 1653 when he disbanded Parliment, and appointed himself the "Lord Protector of England," a title he held till his death in 1658. He was succeeded by his son Richard, whose inept rule brought about the downfall of the Commonwealth and the return of Charles II from France.

41. When was the English crown restored to Charles II?


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Last updated: November 2, 2011
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