What were Elizabethan theatres really like?
It seems strange, but the boisterous, bustling, familiar precincts of London that Shakespeare trod have mostly vanished from sight. The Great Fire that devastated London in 1666 swept the core of the City into ash and ruin. Almost every building or church of note that lay west of the Tower, with the exceptions of the areas around Bishopsgate and Aldgate, were laid to waste. From the Tower to the Fleet, Tudor London was mostly devastation. The London we see today was built on its bones.
To understand the London of the playing troupes, you must first seek the roots of the city, the ebb and flow of its tides, particularly the torrent of change that was engulfing it throughout the reign of the Tudors....and what London meant for players, playwrights and theatre.
Rooted in commerce & trade, fed by the river Thames, inculcated with a sense of purpose and centrality and commercial drive, London was the dominant metropolis of Britain. 400 years later Disraeli coined it well when he described the City as "that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”.
Prior to the 15th century London had not been a large or overly populous city in a thousand years. London in the Tudor era had a dense, noisome population estimated between 160,000 and 200,000 people, all crammed into a few square miles of buildings. This density of population achieved during the Tudor era opened up the opportunity for a more robust and permanent situated forms of entertainment rather than the opportunistic and transactional formats previously used. In short, an audience was now waiting.
Dominated by the Tower to the east and the impressive bulk of St. Paul's Cathedral to the west, London proper was surrounded by the London Wall, a protective fortification originally built by the Romans, pierced by seven gates: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Moorgate. Suburbs spilled out along major roadways and gates – Holburn, Smithfield, Shoreditch, Aldgate and, most infamously, Southwark which sprawled along the Thames at the southern end of London Bridge.
The suburbs were crucial to the development of London theatre because they were outside the jurisdiction of the London Court of Aldermen that governed the city. Plays were widely considered to be immoral, degenerate and depraved. This is partially due to their roots in the traditional Catholic “mystery cycles”, a series of religious moral motifs and pageants held in many market towns on religious holidays and feast days. These performances were decried by many ardent Protestant supporters and were banned in 1534, although they continued in many rural locations for many years after. London’s Court of Aldermen in the Elizabethan era was of a notoriously Puritan bent. The immorality and sinfulness of theatrical entertainment would continue to be a Puritan rallying cry until all the London theatres were finally closed and banned in 1642.
Plays were widely seen as being potential flashpoints for plague, crime, riots and political or religious dissent. Closures of inn yards and playing houses were frequent. It was the banning of inn yard performances in London in 1572 and the subsequent “banning” of actors in 1575 that spurred the eventual development of the first permanent theatres.
Sir John Spencer, Lord Mayor of London in 1594 described the theatres as "places of meeting for all vagrant persons and maisterles men that hang about the Citie, theeves, horsestealers, whoremoongers, coozeners, connycatching persones, practizers of treason and other such lyke."
Philip Stubbs, author of Anatomie of Abuses published in 1583, was one of the more ardent critics of playgoing:“if you will learn to condemn God and all his laws, to care neither for heaven nor hell, and to commit all kind of sin and mischief, you need to go to no other school, for all these good examples may you see painted before your eyes in interludes and plays.”
Even Anthony Munday, an actor, playwright and sometime provocateur who informed on the Catholic exile community, had little good to say about London’s theatres, describing them as having "no want of young ruffians, nor lack of harlots utterly past all shame, who press to the fore-front of the scaffolds to the end to show their impudency and to be as an object to all men's eyes".
The first permanent theatre in London was The Theatre, which opened in Shoreditch in 1576 on property from the dissolved Holywell priory. Several previous attempts at creating a permanent theatre (notably The Red Lion, which was a converted farm, located in Whitechapel) had foundered. The Theatre, built by James Burbage and John Brayne, was a polygonal timber and plaster building, with three high inward-facing galleries surrounding a yard with a stage, a design that borrowed heavily from both the general architectural design of inn yards and more established bearbaiting rings. By 1577, a second theatre had opened nearby, The Curtain, similar in design.
Southwark was a particularly opportune locale for the playhouses. The area lay outside of London proper, yet was easily accessible to playgoers via London Bridge or a quick boat-ride across the Thames. Southwark was a notorious collection of inns, gaming houses, brothels, bear-baiting and, of course, theatre. The majority of the land fell under the ownership and ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Winchester, making one of London’s most powerful figures the nominal landlord for the dense, vice-ridden, pox-infested stews and brothels that lay at the southern end of London Bridge. “Wincester geese” was a nickname for the whores that plied their trade in Southwark.
At its height, London had almost a dozen playhouses and inn yards actively performing. Playgoing was a broad and common entertainment with each theatre showing an estimated twenty to thirty plays per year. For example, The Lord Admiral’s Men performed 38 plays in 1594-95. The Globe was estimated to hold almost 2,000 people per performance, so the economic scale of the theatre industry in Elizabethan London was considerable. Additional private performances for the Queen, the Court, leading nobility and wealthy merchants were also common. Elizabethan theatre was a great leveler within society, in the sense that it was popular and frequently enjoyed by a wide range of social classes and peoples.
Performances were daytime activities, running six days a week except on religious holidays or when forced to shut down due to plague. Playgoers had the option of gallery seating or to stand in the open yard with the “groundlings”. Wealthier attendees could reserve a gallery box or even a choice seat onstage. Crowds were dense, noisy and often impatient, with catcalls and shouts at the play-actors being a common motif. The theatres had a reputation for pickpockets, lewd behavior (with prostitutes sometimes working the audience) and thievery. As with today’s multiplexes, snacks were available, in the form of hawkers selling apples, nuts, beer, ale, and oranges to attendees.
Plays themselves had evolved from the moralizing, scripture-based mystery cycles into a much more robust secular content focused on historical and moral themes. Tragedies and comedies were also popular. Popular staples could be repeated and resurrected, however the majority of the plays being performed were often new. 21 out of the 38 plays The Lord Admiral’s Men performed in 1594-95 were new plays. They rarely performed the same plays in a row.
Playing companies varied in size and capabilities, depending on their patronage and connections. Patronage of the nobility was a necessity. Play-actors were generally regarded as slightly lower than vagabonds, and performers without the protections and permissions that came from patronage soon found themselves in difficulty. The death of patrons, shifting allegiances and politics often threw things askew. The Admiral’s Men eventually became Prince Henry’s Men, while the Lord Chamberlain’s Men evolved into the King’s Men with the advent of King James I.
Most troupes consisted of sharers - players with an ownership stake in either the theatre or the troupe - and hired actors, who may have had longer term roles as permanent members or on a for-hire basis. Given the frequent turnover of plays, the workload around mastering lines for actors must have been tremendous. Women were not permitted to perform in plays until 1660, so female roles were performed by male actors, often younger boys.
It has been noted that the while the Renaissance in Italy was expressed in art, the Renaissance in England found its true expression and greatness in the literary explosion of the theatre. This article has provided only the briefest of overviews of the extent of Elizabethan theatre, I recommend you read on!
“As in a theatre, the eyes of men, After a well-graced actor leaves the stage, Are idly bent on him that enters next…” – William Shakespeare, Richard II
For more information I recommend the following:
- Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, Liza Picard. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
- Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus, 2005
- Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times, R.E. Pritchard, Editor. Sutton Publishing, 1999
- Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate. Random House, 2009
- The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, Ian Mortimer, Touchstone Press, 2011
- Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt. W.M Norton & Co. 2004