Elizabethan Theatre


Good morning everyone. Welcome again to the course The History of
English Language and Literature. In today’s session we will continue to look
at some of the aspects which made Elizabethan Theatre very distinct from any kind of theatre
that existed in England until that point of time. In the previous session we also saw how Shakespeare
made use of this peculiar phenomenon which had emerged in Elizabethan England and we
ended the previous session looking at how Shakespeare particularly made use of special
theatrical effects and special theatrical illusions. So here we go, taking a look at what Elizabethan
Theatre was and how it was framed. Elizabethan Theatre in particular refers to
the kind of theatre which existed in England from 1562 to 1642. And this, we may also note that this did not,
this was not limited to Queen Elizabeth’s reign alone but particular kind of theatre
gets named as Elizabethan Theatre even after the death of the Queen. And theatre during Elizabethan times, it was
a focal point of all kinds of entertainment. In fact this, this is seen as the most sophisticated
and the most popular form of entertainment that prevailed in England from the Elizabethan
times onwards. And also this is not to say that this had
wide acceptance but at the same time there were lot of problems, lot of dilemma about whether
to continue with this form of entertainment or not. The church was against it, the puritans were
against it. The London government thought it was not a
safe kind of entertainment to pursue. However we see that the Elizabethan drama dominated England during the sixteenth and
even into the seventeenth century. And there were three different kinds of genres
that dominated mainly comedies, histories and tragedies. We also saw how these distinctions were being
made during Shakespeare’s times as well. And during this time it is very important
to note that play-going was a fairly inexpensive thing to do. So many of the people, they used to gather,
they used to crowd near the theatres to watch a play or two. And there was another ironical thing about
Elizabethan Theatre that made it very special and also of historical importance. In fact, it was almost like a double- edged
sword, like it was loved by the Queen and the Privy Council and it was the favorite
of The Court. We also find many of these playwrights being
supported by the Court; we find that Shakespeare himself enjoyed a lot of patronage and lot
of support from Queen Elizabeth herself. But at the same time, these playhouses and drama in general was hated
to the core by the puritans and also by the London government because they thought this
could be another case of law and order or they also thought that the people crowding
at the theatre could make London another breeding ground
for diseases. If you remember the plagues continued to attack
until about early seventeenth century. And how are these venues getting shaped and
refined during the Elizabethan times? We find the transition from the street to a building and this is made
possible only from the Elizabethan times onwards. If we look at how earlier plays were being staged,
we used to see in some of the earlier sessions that the plays used to be staged almost anywhere. In fact there was no fixed theatre in England
and initially most of the plays were staged in certain temporary acting spaces we saw
in the case of the Mystery and Morality plays which were being staged in the church first
and then into the town squares and also there were moving wagons which took actors from
one location to the other where people used to crowd at particular points. So we also saw how the Interludes made its way into the Court sphere, into manor
houses, into private wealthy audiences so on. So there is a transition which takes place
quite gradually and we almost find this shift completing a full cycle during the Elizabethan
times. From the Elizabethan times onwards, we find the idea of a fixed theatre becoming a reality. And most of these theatres were situated in
London and even when there were certain laws which kind of curtailed the, the activities
of drama we find that the theatre does not move much away from the city but they just
stayed somewhere around the city so that it remained accessible to the common people and
also in that sense it continued to be the center of London’s amusement and entertainment activities. And there were two kinds of theatres which
were getting built once the transition was complete in terms of a physical structure. They were either open to the sky with a central
open yard in the center or they were enclosed playhouses as we mostly see in contemporary
times. So, there were basically three kinds of theatres that existed, inn-yards, open air amphitheatres and play-houses. So these are some of the major names that
dominated England and particularly London and the surrounding areas and we are seeing
a little more in detail of these playhouses in general
and to give you some historical facts. The Theatre was the first theatre building
to be built in England. This was in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester’s
players and it was led by James Burbage who also happened to be a very famous actor of
those times. In fact he was also a very close friend and
acquaintance of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is said to have begun his acting
career with Burbage. And the theatre which was initially named
as The Theatre, it was later pulled down and rebuilt as The Globe in 1599 and the Globe as we know, it remains very central
to Shakespeare’s dramatic career throughout. And if we take a quick look at these different
kinds of theatres, they were initially these inn-yards as the name suggested; they were
built adjacent to the inns or taverns which existed in England. In fact taverns and inns were quite popular
in London during that time and some historians even feel that it was the main reason of law and order discord in London because
the taverns, where as the name would suggest, there was lot of drinking, there used to happen
a lot of fighting so it was almost a kind of place where all the ‘bad guys of the
town’ got together to spend an evening. So this was where the, this was how the inn-yards looked like. The plays used to be staged in an almost a
make-shift kind of an arrangement and this was an elaborate structure in the
sense that it could house about 500 people at the same time. It was affordable for common man. It was not in a formal setting. It was more or less casual which also made it quite endearing to the
crowd which gathered over there. And these are some of the prominent inn-yard
spaces – The Red Bull, Cross Keys, Bell Savage and the Red Lion. And moving on, these are the open air amphitheatres with
structures. We can see that it is an elaborate structure. This also has come to represent the most common
form of Elizabethan Theatre, the prominent ones were The Theatre, The Globe and the Swan
and this was very elaborate and huge in the sense that it could house about 1500 to 3000
people at the same time. It was built as a three-storeyed structure
as we can see in this graphical representation and this is also about 10 meters in diameter. So this was in fact, it was not always built
in the center of the town and in order to escape all kinds of rules and regulations
which were being imposed by the London government, it used to be in the outskirts of the city. And this in fact, if we do a quick survey
of Elizabethan literature, if we do a quick survey of Elizabethan drama, this perhaps
is the most prominent image that would come to our mind. And also these different parts and different
structures of the theatre we would be taking a look at in detail shortly. And Globe was perhaps the most famous and it continues
to be the most famous and the best known of all Elizabethan Theatres. And Shakespeare in fact used to describe this
as a “wooden ‘o’” given the structure in which it was built. And this is how the structure of the theatre
used to be like. This is in fact a picture which was projected
from the later times. And this structure was mainly wooden and polygonal
and there was an unroofed central central yard right at the center – and this
was also the place where set of people known as groundlings used to sit. We would be taking a look at them shortly. And the theatre structure was surrounded by
tiers of covered galleries as we can notice over here, there were also seats for different
classes of people; according to these seatings, hierarchy, the payment everything differed
as well. And it is generally said that one could even get a padded seat
for an extra payment. And the stage was in fact a very large platform
which projected from the tiring house into the yard – and this place where the common
people are found to be sitting, that was considered as the yard. And the tiring house was a more or less like
a storage house where the actors could get dressed, where their costumes were being stored etc. So this is how the structure looked like. And a more detailed look at the most prominent
theatre of those times, The Globe, the purpose of the flag we shall be taking a look at very
shortly. These were the different structures and in
fact, most of these representations were also paintings and graphic representations from a later period and as we know there was
no way in which one could get a very accurate reproduction or a picture of those times. But depending on many historical conjectures
this representation is said to be fairly accurate. And who were the groundlings whom we notice
sitting right in front of the yard in this open structure? This was in fact, the place where the poor
audience could sit by just paying a penny. They were generally known as groundlings because
of reference to them in a play Hamlet by Shakespeare. And this was more like a pit in front of the
stage. There were no seating arrangements given for
them. They had to just stand and watch the play. And this also was considered as an unruly
kind of the crowd and it was mainly because of them that the London government did not
want to encourage the play houses or the staging of the plays much. And this, the groundling, the groundling crowd
was also a very cheerful lot. They used to cheer the hero; they used to
boo the bad guys so they made the theatre plays very lively and sometimes quite to the
discontent of the other upper class viewers as well. And in fact very often they also could get
very restless because they, whenever the profound things were being said or whenever the play
continued to be in verse, ruminating in philosophical discussions, they could get very restless. In fact this is why we see a lot of other
things being built into Shakespeare’s plays particularly and we find him including a lot
of bawdy and dirty jokes in his play to attract the commoners and keep them engaged. And, there are also sword fights and many such engaging things
that Shakespeare used to include just for the purpose of catering to the taste of these
groundlings. Also, recently we may note there are a lot
of work also being done on the kind of audience they were and the kind of things they forced the playwrights to bring on stage. And the third kind were known as Playhouses
and they were also private houses and quite expensive. And they could house about 500 people at the same time. They were also enclosed which made much difference to the way in which plays
were getting staged then. So, since these were not open in the center,
plays could be staged during night and winter as well. Because the other structure, as we saw earlier
in terms of Globe, major playhouses such as Globe, the open air amphitheatre space made
it quite inconvenient to stage plays during a bad weather or even when there was no sunlight. So this in that sense was more inclusive but
however since it always catered to a private upper class audience it did not have the kind
of popularity that Shakespeare’s typical amphitheatrical ambience had. And if we try to look at the statistics, there
were about 27 playhouses in Elizabethan London and this
is the projected map of Elizabethan London from those times. And we can also notice that there is this
river Thames which divides the city into two parts the other part of London was also known as
Southwark and in fact in Southwark it is generally noted that London’s laws did not apply in
Southwark much. So in that sense this, the area surrounding
Southwark was also seen as an area where a lot of taverns existed and there was also
gambling, prostitution and certain very cruel games such as bear baiting, cock fighting. So it is also said that Shakespeare did not
enjoy bear baiting much in his place we do find talking against these some predominant
kinds of amusements which were also inflicting a lot of cruelty on animals. So having said that, these were some of the major playhouses we
can begin to see over here, The Globe, The Swan, The Hope,
The Rose and we also find that The Theatre and The Curtain they were quite outside, quite
in the outskirts of the city, The Fortune we find over here and also most of the playhouses, most of the inn-yards
that we discussed; we find all of them getting in and around the city of London. We also find that they were not really placed
in the center of the city; they were along the river banks or somewhere in the outskirts perhaps to, not to run in to any
problems with the London government. So what were the performances of those times
like? And the shows were advertised, just like they
are in the contemporary. The way to announce the play was through the
flag which was projected at the top of the theatre. And this was done in such a way that even
the ones who reside across the river could see it. A white flag indicated that it’s a comedy,
a red flag for history plays and a black one for tragedy. So they could see the flag well in advance
and decide whether they wanted to watch the play or not. Also the plays were mostly staged only during
daytime and this was primarily due to two major reasons. Even when the playhouses were an enclosed
space there were no provisions for lights and candles were pretty expensive during those times; and also the, the government
also did not want the shows to go on later into the night due to disciplinary reasons
and law and order issues. And stage curtains were also not getting used then – and just like, if you
have watched a play in the contemporary you would know that right at the outset there
is a curtain which is being moved. So here, in the Elizabethan times, there was no provision
made for stage curtains. And there were very few stage props also getting
used and also the scene changes were indicated
verbally. It was just announced by either a voiceover
or by a character who showed up on stage. So there were no elaborate stage arrangements. And incidentally costumes were the most expensive things that
a theatrical production owned. The companies were quite possessive about
their costumes, guarding them and guiding them which is which why a separate tiring
house or attiring house was built into almost all theatrical structures. And the costumes were very elaborate, very
rich except that, the people used to come even to just watch those their favorite actors
on stage with elaborate costumes and The stage was also projected in a particular
way. This ensured a closer intimacy between actors
and audience and the stage was also called as thrust stage if you noticed it in the graphics
that we had displayed earlier. And this also made much sense for certain
scenes of soliloquy which most of the Shakespearean plays had – so it that it almost felt as if
the actor was directly conversing with the audience and it made a lot of impact on the dramatic craft as well. And because of this open roof, staging a play
had many more challenges than it has in the contemporary because the actors had to deal with many distractions. It is the weather, noise, the unruly crowd
– there was no way in which all of these things could be managed. In fact if we compare it to the contemporary
times theatre was not seen as a sacrosanct space. One could make noise over there. One could exhibit unruly kind of behavior. There was no one to manage the crowd; so,
the actors had to, in many ways, brave these very difficult, these very different and difficult
situations there. And interestingly there was no women on stage. So this could be, this could come as historical
curiosity since most of the plays had very central women characters in play. So how did they manage that? And most of the times young, adolescent boys
were made to play the role of a female on stage and in fact bringing a female on to
stage in front of so many strange men, it was even illegal in Elizabethan England. So nobody wanted to go against the law. You remember, in the movie which was made
out of Shakespeare’s life, Shakespeare in Love, there we see that the main character,
the main female protagonist masking herself even to come for a kind of an audition. So in fact it is said that even historically
during those times there were a few women who used to come and attend these plays and they could not really come freely like the audience in the
men and many of them are said to have masked themselves so that nobody would know who they
were. So, this was a kind of situation for women
during those times. It was, they could neither act nor were they
free to go and watch the play so one could also begin to perhaps understand why there
is a very stark absence of women playwrights during Elizabethan England. And this irony becomes all the more significant
because the monarch was a female herself. And, in spite of that we do not find that
kind of freedom being given to the women of that time because many of
the things were already institutionalized and that England to come a long way because
before they could engage with female artists in a public space. And contrary to the many depictions in modern
cinema or in modern stage one could infer that there was perhaps little
or no kissing or any scenes of physical intimacy during the Elizabethan stage because all of
this was considered quite immoral and bawdy. And now from Shakespeare’s plays and the
other plays of the times we can easily imply that love scenes were mostly verbal. There was no amount of physicality, was possible
or could have been tolerated. And the theatre was always under the scrutiny
of the government or of the puritans so the playwrights and the actors
also, always took, always took much care to ensure that in no way, they offended the sensibilities
of Elizabethan England. Some of the peculiar features of this Elizabethan
theatre, it would sound… Some of the peculiar features of this Elizabethan
drama included, that the actors were the stakeholders and not the playwright, not the playwrights
or the ones who owned this play houses. And there is this concept of the box office
which has lived to the contemporary as we know. The spectators had to drop a penny in the
box kept in front of the theatre. So now you know from where this idea and concept
of the box office emerged. So the set of people, the owners who shared
the profit were also known as the housekeepers. We also noted in the previous section that
Shakespeare also was one of the shareholders of the prominent theatres there. So in Elizabethan times in fact, it was not
just the emergence of theatre, we also see the growth of an acting culture. And we can see that it is in Elizabethan England that the
birth of acting profession, birth of acting as a profession takes place. And earlier it was mostly amateur actors. If we go back a little in time and recall
the previous lectures, initially it was the clergy who acted and then as it moved into
the .. Initially it was a clergy who came as actors and later on when drama became under
the control of the guilds and the townsmen we find such amateur men from the craft guilds
coming on as actors and it is not a professional kind of activity at all then. But by the end of the sixteenth century, we
begin to note a very stark difference in the way the acting is being perceived and also
a certain professionalization not just of acting but also of art in general begins to
happen. So in the sixteenth century, we find most
of these actors being patronized by powerful and wealthy nobles and we also find that they
are heavily encouraged and funded by these powerful figures in London. And, with the emergence of theatre companies
we also find the actors enjoying a lot of protection against the threat of Puritans, against the threat of censorship which was
coming from the London government and also threats of closure. This was primarily due to the, the fear of
infection of plague So the, in a certain way we can say that the
actors were quite ‘covered’ because of this patronage. They had a steady wage. They also, these patrons also ensured that
they could get enough for their livelihood even when the plays were not getting staged
on a daily basis. So, but this stability incidentally was only
for the actors. So whatever we had been talking about – the emergence
of Elizabethan theatre and the prominence of the Elizabethan actors – it only implied
the actors and not the playwrights. This professionalism and this financial stability
and even the protection from the patrons, it was mainly only for the actors and not for the playwrights. In fact during those times, even successful dramatists could not remain financially secure. There were many who were living in poverty,
many who were continuously under the threat of financial insecurity; and here also we
find that Shakespeare rises much above all of them and significantly he is the only dramatist
who enjoyed a similar kind of popularity and a similar kind of financial security and perhaps
way above all the actors put together from the Elizabethan times. This brings us again to the initial point
we began with in the discussions about the Elizabethan period, discussions about Shakespeare
in general. And as and when we note that Shakespeare’s
life is an exception to the rule, this brings us back to some of the original comments that
we made right at the outset of our discussion on Shakespeare that he is perhaps the only
one who survived into posterity in spite of the age dying out in terms of culture, its
literature, its lifestyle so on and so forth. So with this we come to an end of this lecture
and we have noted how Elizabethan Theater developed as a supreme form of art and in
the following sections we will also continue to look at the other forms of art and other
forms of literature which were predominant in Elizabethan times. We shall also be devoting a little more time
to the prose and poetry that developed in the Elizabethan times. So with this, we wind up today’s lecture. Thank you for listening and see you in the
next class.

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