A Short Essay on the Elizabethan Stage and its Language

Essay, 1983

18 Pages, Grade: 3,0



Some Introductory Remarks about the Dramatic Traditions of the Elizabethan Stage

Part One
1. The Control of the Stage
2. The Playhouses
3. Boy Companies and Adult Companies

Part Two
1. The Functions of Dramatic Art: some Shakespearean
2. Three Methods of trying to Find out how Actors might
have behaved on an Elizabethan Stage
3. Soliloquies in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language . 12

Final Observation: The Audiences


Some Introductory Remarks about the Dramatic Traditions of the Elizabethan Stage

The Elizabethan drama owed its development to two influential traditions: namely firstly to humanism as it was represented by the comedies written by Terence and Plautus and secondly to the English tradition of the English miracle and morality plays.

From the Latin comedies the Elizabethan drama adopted both formal innovations and new material as regards contents. To the newly adopted dramatic elements belonged the clear division into acts and scenes, the introduction of the actors who are to speak a prologue or an epilogue and new types of characters like the parasite, the miles gloriosus (the boastful knight), the shrewd and witty servant, the obstinate father who is deceived in the end, the ardent lover, and the girl disguised as a man.

As regards contents new motifs and themes like confusion, secret love affairs, separated families that happily reunite after having experienced many adventurous encounters, the unexpected reappearance of children who were believed to be lost were adopted from the plays written by Plautus.

From the English mystery plays the Elizabethan drama eagerly borrowed the tendency to mingle or contrast the sublime with the grotesque, aristocratic seriousness with popular comic elements. The allegorical character of Vice that was also named Iniquity, Folly, Haphazard, Merry Report etc. was elaborated upon extensively in the morality plays. Since Shakespeare developed the Falstaff character in his plays “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “King Henry IV”, parts one and two, and “King Henry VI”, part one, scholars have sometimes argued that Falstaff represents the logical elaboration of the devil and vice allegories taken from the morality plays. I would be inclined to think that it is questionable to assume that Shakespeare intended to make audiences believe that the Falstaff character is more villainous than for example Richard III. Falstaff, in my opinion, seems to represent the popular character that is boastful, gluttonous, witty. But that does not mean that there are no aristocratic characters who share similar qualities with Falstaff.

Other dramatic traditions that influenced the English Renaissance were the Italian Commedia dell’Arte and for example the comedies written by John Lyly (1554-1606) and Ben Jonson (1572-1637).1

Part One

1. The Control of the Stage

Normally the king or the queen, the Lord Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels and his officers were responsible for controlling the actors, the stage and the plays. The closure of the theatres, however, was enforced and decided by a puritan minded parliament in 1642. For political and religious reasons the monarch would sometimes suppress the performance of certain plays. One example illustrating such a monarchical decision was the Proclamation by Queen Elizabeth I on May 16th, 1559. The document starts as follows:

“Forasmuche as the tyme wherein common Interludes in the Englishe tongue are wont usually to be played, is now past untyll AllHallontyde, and that also some that haue ben of late used, are not conuenient in any good ordred Christian Common weale to be suffered. The Quenes Maiestie doth straightly forbyd al maner Interludes to be playde eyther openly or priuately, except the same be notified beforde hande, and licenced within any Citie or towne corporate, by the Maior or other chiefe officers of the same, and within any shyre, by suche as shalbe Lieuetenaunts for the Qeenes Maiestie in the same shyre, or by two of the Justices of peax inhabyting within that part of the shire where any shalbe played. [...]”2

In the opposite case the monarch could also expressly protect any good acting company. Thus James I protected the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by letters patent which was issued on May 19th, 1603. Since I am inclined to believe that it is an important document, I make no apology to quote it at length. The letters patent is entitled “Commissio specialis pro Laurencio Fletcher & Willelmo Shackespeare et aliis” and is being continued as follows:

“Iames by the grace of god &c. To all Iustices, Maiors, Sheriffes, Constables, hedborows, and other our Officers and louinge Subiectes greetinge. Knowe yee that Wee of our speciall grace, certeine knowledge, & mere motion haue licenced and aucthorized and by theises presentes doe licence and aucthorize theise our Servauntes Lawrence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustyne Phillippes, Iohn Heninges, Henrie Condell, William Sly, Robert Amyn, Richard Cowly, and the rest of theire Associates freely to use and exercise the Arte and faculty of playinge Comedies, Tragedies, histories, Enterludes, morals, pastorals, Stageplaies, and Such other like as theie haue already studied or hereafter shall use or studie, aswell for the recreation of our lovinge Subjectes, as for our Solace and pleasure when wee shall thincke good to see them, during our pleasure. And the said Commedies, tragedies, histories, Enterludes, Morralles, Pastoralls, Stageplayes, and such like to shewe and exercise publiquely to theire best Commoditie, when the infection of the plague shall decrease, as well within theire nowe vsuall howse called the Globe within our County of Surrey, as alsoe within anie towne halls or Moute halls or other cenveniente places within the liberties and freedome of anie other Cittie, vniversitie, towne, or Boroughe whatsoever within our said Realmes and dominions. Willinge and Commaundinge you and everie of you, as you tender our pleasure, not onelie to permit and suffer them herein without anie your lettes hindrances or molestacions during our said pleasure, but alsoe to be aidinge and assistinge to them, yf anie wronge be to them offered, And to allowe them such former curtesies as hath bene given to men of theire place and qualittie, and alsoe what further favour you shall shewe to theise our Servauntes for our sake wee shall take kindlie at your handies. In wytness whereof &c. witnesse our selfe at Westminster the nyntenth day of May per breve de priuato sigillo & c.”3

Henceforth the company of which Shakespeare was a member was called “The King’s Men”.

The relationship between the Lord Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels was such that the Lord Chamberlain exercised the general oversight. The general censorship of plays was also in the hands of the latter. The Master of the Revels directed his permanent officials to “obtain stuffs from mercers or from the Wardrobe itself, and ornaments from the Jewel House and the Mint; to engage architects, carpenters, painters, tailors and embroiderers; to superintend the actual performances in the banqueting-hall or the tilt-yard, and attempt to preserve the costly and elaborate pageants from the rifling of the guests; and have the custody of dresses, visors, and properties; and finally to render accounts and obtain payment for expenses from the Exchequer.”4

2. The Playhouses

In the 16th century the old medieval stage of Place-and-scaffolds had become obsolete and the pageant-wagons that were used for the performance of mystery plays like the Corpus Christi cycle could only be seen in secular contexts until the early 17th century.

The old and crude booth stage that was “a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels” had been preserved throughout the centuries. This type of stage could be surrounded by spectators on three sides and was usually set up in market-places. The booth proper was made of simple horizontally and vertically arranged posts from which curtains were hung and served as a tiring-house (dressing-room). The advantage of this stage was that it could be easily set up, dismantled and transferred from one place to another.5

The animal baiting houses that were located on the south bank of the Thames provided stationary venues for public entertainment in the 16th century. Baiting houses were wooden amphitheatres consisting of two superimposed galleries and had a round pit of some 60 feet in diameter. Whether such baiting houses were also used for the performance of theatrical plays is not clear, but the physical resemblance of baiting houses and some of the public playhouses was striking.6

Another kind of playhouse was the inn. The inn-yard provided a good place for acting. A booth-stage was set up against one side of the yard. The audience surrounded the stage on three sides and additional spectators watched the performance from seats in windows and galleries.

The most prominent was the Boar’s Head lying to the east of Aldgate outwith the city walls. The Bull’s Inn lay inside the city walls and the Queen’s Men were licensed to play there since 1583. The Cross Keys Inn was also situated within the city walls and was used by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the winter of 1594/95.7

Since the governors of the City were hostile to plays being performed within the city walls for hygienic and political reasons, they took steps to banish the theatrical activities to the south bank of the Thames, where the theatres, baiting houses and brothels might prosper.

The main object for the city governors was to keep the entertainment districts out of their jurisdiction. Thus by 1596 and 1600 all playing at inns was prohibited except for specially licensed companies.8

Apart from the inns, it was customary to distinguish between public and private playhouses. The public playhouses were large, round outdoor theatres and the private ones were smaller, rectangular indoor theatres. Public playhouses like the Globe or the Swan could offer space to as many as 3.000 spectators, whereas in the Blackfriars indoor theatre only 700 playgoers could be accommodated. The round public playhouses, specifically the Theatre (built in 1576), The Swan (1595), the first Globe (1599-1613), the second Globe (1614) and The Hope (1614) were about the same size. The first Globe was constructed of the dismantled timbers of the Theatre, the very first built playhouse.9

The most important architectural element of such a playhouse was the apronstage that projected into the yard. The stage measured about 43 feet in width and 27 feet in depth (ca. 8:5). The frame of the playhouse consisted of three galleries superimposed one above the other. At the back of the stage was a tiring-house projecting one foot or two feet from the playhouse frame. The de Witt drawing of the Swan playhouse made in 1596 shows that the tiring-house was equipped in the first story with two large, double-hung doors opening out upon the stage. In the second story a row of six windows indicated the openings of boxes of a Lord’s room. Two Corinthian columns supported the ‘heavens’ or the ‘shadow’ at the level of the third story. Above the stage cover was a hut that housed suspension-gear for trundling down gods, four-poster beds or thrones. The stage was provided with a trapdoor that could be used as a grave or as an entrance to a vault etc.10

The discovery space was usually an open tiring-house doorway within which curtains or in front of which hangings had been fitted up. The discovery space served for hiding sleeping Falstaff in 1 King Henry IV or for housing Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess in The Tempest.

The upper station was generally the space at the front of one of the boxes of the tiring-house gallery over the stage. In some plays it could be used to represent a window or the walls of a town or castle.

The Elizabethan music room was generally one of the boxes of the second story gallery over the stage. Act intervals or inter-act music was not customary at first but was introduced from about 1609 when the King’s Men were performing in the Blackfriars and the Globe. In the public playhouses the audiences might only listen to the sound of trumpets and drums. But in the Blackfriars, for example, boy companies were expected by the turn of the century to sing, play recorders and wind instruments between acts and before and after the play. Music was the private playhouse equivalent of the jigs and knockabout farces with which the public playhouses began and ended their afternoon’s entertainment.11

The most expensive seats in the public playhouses were in the Lord Rooms adjacent the the stage. In the private playhouses the most expensive seats were the boxes flanking the stage. The closer the spectator sat to the stage or even on the periphery of the stage in a private playhouse like the Blackfriars the more the playgoer was expected to pay, whereas with the public theatres the reverse was true.12

3. Boy Companies and Adult Companies

The history of the leading acting companies was characterized by the fact that there were constant dissolutions and new formations. Sometimes an actor of an acting company would sell his share back to the financial director and join a rival acting company. Times of pestilence and plague also had repercussions on the fate of acting companies.

In 1572 an act was passed stipulating that actors performing in England and London were obliged to seek the patronage of one of the members of the high nobility. If actors could not prove that they were protected by a nobleman, they ran the risk of falling into the category of a vagabond. The act of 1572 described vagabonds as ‘jugglers, pedlars, tynkers and petye chapmen, fencers, bearewardes, common players of enterludes, and minstrels, not belonging to any baron of this realm, or towards any other honorable personage of greater degree.’13

The idea behind the act was once again the experiment of treating vagabondage with an increased severity. “The summary whipping by individual magistrates was abolished except for children. An adult offender was to be committed to gaol until the next quarter sessions, and then, unless he could find a master to take him for a year’s service, to be whipped and branded as a rogue by boring through the ear. On a second offence he was to be adjudged a felon, unless he could secure service for two years, and a third offence was to be treated as a felony without benefit of clergy.”14

In 1604 the high nobility lost the old privilege of protecting acting companies. These enjoyed then the direct patronage of James I.

Among the leading acting companies were for example Leicester’s Men who performed plays at The Theatre since 1576. Queen Elizabeth’s Men were influential until the 1590ies and used to play both at court and at London’s inns. In 1594 Shakespeare and Richard Burbage joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men sponsored by Henry Hunsdon. In 1604 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were granted the name of the king and performed plays at The Blackfriars in the winter and at The Globe in the summer. Prince Henry’s Men played at The Fortune and Queen Anne’s Men at The Curtain.

From the financial point of view, acting companies worked like joint-stock companies. The aggregate capital was split up into 10 shares of which each shareholder possessed one or two. Shares could be resold or bequeathed. One of the shareholders acted as managing director. In the case of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men these duties were carried out by John Heminge, who later became the coeditor of the Folio Edition in 1623. Profits and expenses were proportionally divided by the amount of shares being held.15

But the economic history of the acting companies was not as simple as has been reported so far. When the King’s Men took over responsibility for The Blackfriars in 1608, “the freehold belonged to Richard Burbage, who leased out the playhouse in seventh, keeping one fraction for himself, and allotting the rest to his brother, to the representative of a former tenant, and to four of the players.”16

As the time progressed, however, the rights under the leases both at The Blackfriars and at The Globe were alienated to persons who were not actors at all. In 1635 three sharers brought the state of things of the King’s Men before the notice of the Lord Chamberlain, who petitioned that the ordinary members of the acting company might also be permitted to purchase fractions of the leases.

In a record known as Sharers Papers it was then stipulated that the so-called housekeepers were entitled to receive a full moiety of all takings from the galleries and boxes in both houses and from the tiring-house door of The Globe. “The sharers had the other moiety, together with the takings at the outer doors. If a man was a sharer as well as a housekeeper, he claimed under both heads. The outgoings were also apportioned, and in the view of the sharers, most unfairly. The housekeepers only had to pay the rent and the cost of the repairs. The sharers had to find hired men and boys, and to meet all charges for apparel, poets, music, lights, and so forth.”17

Philip Henslow (who died in 1616), the owner of The Rose, a financier of miscellaneous business activities and the banker of his acting company, The Admiral’s Men, advanced various amounts of money to his acting company for properties and apparel and for the writing of new plays. Sometimes he also advanced the money needed for the payment of the fee demanded by the Master of the Revels for the licensing of a new play.18

As already indicated, the acting companies were often forced to hire boys who would play the children’s and women’s parts. According to the classical tradition women could only rarely be seen on Elizabethan stages until the 1660ies. Until 1608 only boy companies consisting of the boy choristers of St. Paul’s and of the Chapel Royal at Windsor were allowed to perform plays at The Blackfriars. The boys were educated in singing, dancing, acting, and in languages. In 1599 the sons of James Burbage leased The Blackfriars to the Children of the Chapel (since 1603 to the Children of the Queen’s Revel) who performed plays there once or twice a week until 1608 when the boy companies became unprofitable. After finishing their careers as choristers, the best boys were generally hired by the adult companies.19


1 Cf. Ina Schabert: Shakespeare-Handbuch. Stuttgart (Kröner) 1978, 2nd edition, pp. 41-78.

2 M. Görlach: Einführung ins Frühneuenglische. Heidelberg (Quelle & Meyer) 1978, p. 289, Text 38.

3 E. K. Chambers: The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford (At the Clarendon Press) 1923, rev. 1945, Vol. II, Book III, XIII, xx, pp. 208f.

4 Ibidem, Vol. I, Book I, III, p. 72.

5 Cf. R. Hosley: The Playhouses and the Stage, in: K. Muir; S. Schoenbaum (Ed.): A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge 1976, 2nd edition, pp. 15f.

6 Ibidem, pp. 16f.

7 Ibidem, p. 17 and I. Schabert, op. cit., p. 87.

8 Cf. A. Gurr: The Elizabethan Stage and Acting, in: B. Ford (Ed.): The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. 2. The Age of Shakespeare. Harmondsworth 1982, p. 251.

9 R. Hosley: op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 20-27.

10 Cf. ibidem, pp. 23f.

11 Cf. Gurr, p. 256.

12 Cf. Gurr, p. 253.

13 Quoted from Chambers, Vol. I, Book II, IX, p.279.

14 Ibidem, p. 280.

15 Cf. Schabert, op. cit., p. 116f.

16 Chambers, Vol. I, Book II, XI, p.357.

17 Chambers, Vol. I, Book II, XI, p. 357f.

18 Ibidem, pp. 358-362.

19 Cf. Schabert, pp. 117f.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


A Short Essay on the Elizabethan Stage and its Language
Bielefeld University  (Sprachenzentrum)
Elizabethan Language
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
dramatic traditions, the control of the stage, typology of playhouses, boy companies and adult companies, the functions of dramatic art, actors' behaviour on stage, soliloquies, behaviour of audiences
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Dr. phil. Volker Beckmann (Author), 1983, A Short Essay on the Elizabethan Stage and its Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/456291


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