Medieval Drama: An Introduction to Middle English Plays Folk Plays

Medieval Drama: An Introduction
to Middle English Plays
Folk Plays, Mystery Plays, Morality Plays, Interludes.
Excerpted from:
Fletcher, Robert Huntington. A History of English Literature.
Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916. 85-91.
In England the folk-plays, throughout the Middle Ages and
in remote spots down almost to the present time, sometimes took the form
of energetic dances (Morris dances, they came to be called, through
confusion with Moorish performances of the same general nature). Others of them, however, exhibited in the midst of much rough-and-tumble
fighting and buffoonery, a slight thread of dramatic action. Their characters
gradually came to be a conventional set, partly famous figures of popular
tradition, such as St. George, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Green
Dragon. Other offshoots of the folk-play were the 'mummings' and 'disguisings,'
collective names for many forms of processions, shows, and other
entertainments, such as, among the upper classes, that precursor of the
Elizabethan Mask in which a group of persons in disguise, invited or
uninvited, attended a formal dancing party. In the later part of the Middle
Ages, also, there were the secular pageants, spectacular displays (rather
different from those of the twentieth century) given on such occasions as
when a king or other person of high rank made formal entry into a town.
They consisted of an elaborate scenic background set up near the city gate or
on the street, with figures from allegorical or traditional history who engaged
in some pantomime or declamation, but with very little dramatic dialog, or
But all these forms, though they were not altogether without later
influence, were very minor affairs, and the real drama of the Middle Ages
grew up, without design and by the mere nature of things, from the regular
services of the Church.
We must try in the first place to realize clearly the
conditions under which the church service, the mass, was conducted during
all the medieval centuries. We should picture to ourselves congregations of
persons for the most part grossly ignorant, of unquestioning though very
superficial faith, and of emotions easily aroused to fever heat. Of the Latin
words of the service they understood nothing; and of the Bible story they had
only a very general impression. It was necessary, therefore, that the service
should be given a strongly spectacular and emotional character, and to this
end no effort was spared. The great cathedrals and churches were much the
finest buildings of the time, spacious with lofty pillars and shadowy recesses,
rich in sculptured stone and in painted windows that cast on the walls and
pavements soft and glowing patterns of many colors and shifting forms. The
service itself was in great part musical, the confident notes of the full choir
joining with the resonant organ-tones; and after all the rest the richly robed
priests and ministrants passed along the aisles in stately processions
enveloped in fragrant clouds of incense. That the eye if not the ear of the
spectator, also, might catch some definite knowledge, the priests as they read
the Bible stories sometimes displayed painted rolls which vividly pictured
the principal events of the day's lesson.
Still, however, a lack was strongly felt, and at last, accidentally and slowly,
began the process of dramatizing the services. First, inevitably, to be so
treated was the central incident of Christian faith, the story of Christ's
resurrection. The earliest steps were very simple. First, during the
ceremonies on Good Friday, the day when Christ was crucified, the cross
which stood all the year above the altar, bearing the Savior's figure, was
taken down and laid beneath the altar, a dramatic symbol of the Death and
Burial; and two days later, on 'the third day' of the Bible phraseology, that is
on Easter Sunday, as the story of the Resurrection was chanted by the choir,
the cross was uncovered and replaced, amid the rejoicings of the
congregation. Next, and before the Norman Conquest, the Gospel dialog
between the angel and the three Marys at the tomb of Christ came
sometimes to be chanted by the choir in those responses which are called
Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O Christians? Jesus of
Nazareth the crucified, O angel. He is not here; he has arisen as he said.
Go, announce that he has risen from the sepulcher.'
After this a little
dramatic action was introduced almost as a matter of course. One priest
dressed in white robes sat, to represent the angel, by one of the square-built
tombs near the junction of nave and transept, and three others, personating
the Marys, advanced slowly toward him while they chanted their portion of
the same dialog. As the last momentous words of the angel died away a
jubilant 'Te Deum' burst from, organ and choir, and every member of the
congregation exulted, often with sobs, in the great triumph which brought
salvation to every Christian soul.
Little by little, probably, as time
passed, this Easter scene was further enlarged, in part by additions from the
closing incidents of the Savior's life. A similar treatment, too, was being
given to the Christmas scene, still more humanly beautiful, of his birth in the
manger, and occasionally the two scenes might be taken from their regular
places in the service, combined, and presented at any season of the year.
Other Biblical scenes, as well, came to be enacted, and, further, there were
added stories from Christian tradition, such as that of Antichrist, and, on
their particular days, the lives of Christian saints. Thus far these
compositions are called Liturgical Plays, because they formed, in general, a
part of the church service (liturgy). But as some of them were united into
extended groups and as the interest of the congregation deepened, the
churches began to seem too small and inconvenient, the excited audiences
forgot the proper reverence, and the performances were transferred to the
churchyard, and then, when the gravestones proved troublesome, to the
market place, the village-green, or any convenient field. By this time the
people had ceased to be patient with the unintelligible Latin, and it was
replaced at first, perhaps, and in part, by French, but finally by English;
though probably verse was always retained as more appropriate than prose
to the sacred subjects. Then, the religious spirit yielding inevitably in part to
that of merrymaking, minstrels and mountebanks began to flock to the
celebrations; and regular fairs, even, grew up about them. Gradually, too, the
priests lost their hold even on the plays themselves; skilful actors from
among the laymen began to take many of the parts; and at last in some
towns the trade-guilds, or unions of the various handicrafts, which had
secured control of the town governments, assumed entire charge.
changes, very slowly creeping in, one by one, had come about in most places
by the beginning of the fourteenth century. In 1311 a new impetus was given
to the whole ceremony by the establishment of the late spring festival of
Corpus Christi, a celebration of the doctrine of transubstantiation. On this
occasion, or sometimes on some other festival, it became customary for the
guilds to present an extended series of the plays, a series which together
contained the essential substance of the Christian story, and therefore of the
Christian faith. The Church generally still encouraged attendance, and not
only did all the townspeople join wholeheartedly, but from all the country
round the peasants flocked in. On one occasion the Pope promised the
remission of a thousand days of purgatory to all persons who should be
present at the Chester plays, and to this exemption the bishop of Chester
added sixty days more.
The list of plays thus presented commonly included: The Fall of Lucifer; the
Creation of the World and the Fall of Adam; Noah and the Flood; Abraham
and Isaac and the promise of Christ's coming; a Procession of the Prophets,
also foretelling Christ; the main events of the Gospel story, with some
additions from Christian tradition; and the Day of Judgment. The longest
cycle now known, that at York, contained, when fully developed, fifty plays,
or perhaps even more. Generally each play was presented by a single guild
(though sometimes two or three guilds or two or three plays might be
combined), and sometimes, though not always, there was a special fitness in
the assignment, as when the watermen gave the play of Noah's Ark or the
bakers that of the Last Supper. In this connected form the plays are called
the Mystery or Miracle Cycles. In many places, however, detached plays, or
groups of plays smaller than the full cycles, continued to be presented at one
season or another.
Each cycle as a whole, it will be seen, has a natural
epic unity, centering about the majestic theme of the spiritual history and
the final judgment of all Mankind. But unity both of material and of
atmosphere suffers not only from the diversity among the separate plays but
also from the violent intrusion of the comedy and the farce which the coarse
taste of the audience demanded. Sometimes, in the later period, altogether
original and very realistic scenes from actual English life were added, like the
very clever but very coarse parody on the Nativity play in the 'Towneley'
cycle. More often comic treatment was given to the Bible scenes and
characters themselves. Noah's wife, for example, came regularly to be
presented as a shrew, who would not enter the ark until she had been beaten
into submission; and Herod always appears as a blustering tyrant, whose
fame still survives in a proverb of Shakespeare's coinage—'to out-Herod
The manner of presentation of the cycles varied much in different towns.
Sometimes the entire cycle was still given, like the detached plays, at a single
spot, the market-place or some other central square; but often, to
accommodate the great crowds, there were several 'stations' at convenient
intervals. In the latter case each play might remain all day at a particular
station and be continuously repeated as the crowd moved slowly by; but
more often it was the, spectators who remained, and the plays, mounted on
movable stages, the 'pageant'-wagons, were drawn in turn by the guildapprentices from one station to another. When the audience was stationary,
the common people stood in the square on all sides of the stage, while
persons of higher rank or greater means were seated on temporary wooden
scaffolds or looked down from the windows of the adjacent houses.
In the construction of the 'pageant' all the little that was possible was done to
meet the needs of the presentation. Below the main floor, or stage, was the
curtained dressing-room of the actors; and when the play required, on one
side was attached 'Hell-Mouth,' a great and horrible human head, whence
issued flames and fiendish cries, often the fiends themselves, and into which
lost sinners were violently hurled. On the stage the scenery was necessarily
very simple. A small raised platform or pyramid might represent Heaven,
where God the Father was seated, and from which as the action required the
angels came down; a single tree might indicate the Garden of Eden; and a
doorway an entire house. In partial compensation the costumes were often
elaborate, with all the finery of the church wardrobe and much of those of
the wealthy citizens. The expense accounts of the guilds, sometimes luckily
preserved, furnish many picturesque and amusing items, such as these:
'Four pair of angels' wings, 2 shillings and 8 pence.' 'For mending of hell
head, 6 pence.' 'Item, link for setting the world on fire.' Apparently women
never acted; men and boys took the women's parts. All the plays of the cycle
were commonly performed in a single day, beginning, at the first station,
perhaps as early as five o'clock in the morning; but sometimes three days or
even more were employed. To the guilds the giving of the plays was a very
serious matter. Often each guild had a 'pageant-house' where it stored its
'properties,' and a pageant-master who trained the actors and imposed
substantial fines on members remiss in cooperation.
Scenery for the Valenciennes Mystery Play, 1547.
We have said that the plays were always composed in verse. The stanza
forms employed differ widely even within the same cycle, since the single
plays were very diverse in both authorship and dates. The quality of the
verse, generally mediocre at the outset, has often suffered much in
transmission from generation to generation. In other respects also there are
great contrasts; sometimes the feeling and power of a scene are admirable,
revealing an author of real ability, sometimes there is only crude and wooden
amateurishness. The medieval lack of historic sense gives to all the plays the
setting of the authors' own times; Roman officers appear as feudal knights;
and all the heathens (including the Jews) are Saracens, worshippers of
'Mahound' and 'Termagaunt'; while the good characters, however long they
may really have lived before the Christian era, swear stoutly by St. John and
St. Paul and the other medieval Christian divinities. The frank coarseness of
the plays is often merely disgusting, and suggests how superficial, in most
cases, was the medieval religious sense. With no thought of incongruity, too,
these writers brought God the Father onto the stage in bodily form, and
then, attempting in all sincerity to show him reverence, gilded his face and
put into his mouth long speeches of exceedingly tedious declamation. The
whole emphasis, as generally in the religion of the times, was on the fear of
hell rather than on the love of righteousness. Yet in spite of everything
grotesque and inconsistent, the plays no doubt largely fulfilled their religious
purpose and exercised on the whole an elevating influence. The humble
submission of the boy Isaac to the will of God and of his earthly father, the
yearning devotion of Mary the mother of Jesus, and the infinite love and pity
of the tortured Christ himself, must have struck into even callous hearts for
at least a little time some genuine consciousness of the beauty and power of
the finer and higher life. A literary form which supplied much of the religious
and artistic nourishment of half a continent for half a thousand years cannot
be lightly regarded or dismissed.
Mystery Plays seem to have reached their greatest popularity in the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the dawning light of the Renaissance
and the modern spirit they gradually waned, though in exceptional places
and in special revivals they did not altogether cease to be given until the
seventeenth century. On the Continent of Europe, indeed, they still survive,
after a fashion, in a single somewhat modernized form, the celebrated
Passion Play of Oberammergau. In England by the end of the fifteenth
century they had been for the most part replaced by a kindred species which
had long been growing up beside them, namely the Morality Plays.
Morality Play probably arose in part from the desire of religious writers to
teach the principles of Christian living in a more direct and compact fashion
than was possible through the Bible stories of the Mysteries. In its strict form
the Morality Play was a dramatized moral allegory. It was in part an offshoot
from the Mysteries, in some of which there had appeared among the actors
abstract allegorical figures, either good or bad, such as The Seven Deadly
Sins, Contemplation, and Raise-Slander. In the Moralities the majority of the
characters are of this sort—though not to the exclusion of supernatural
persons such as God and the Devil—and the hero is generally a type-figure
standing for all Mankind. For the control of the hero the two definitely
opposing groups of Virtues and Vices contend; the commonest type of
Morality presents in brief glimpses the entire story of the hero's life, that is
of the life of every man. It shows how he yields to temptation and lives for
the most part in reckless sin, but at last in spite of all his flippancy and folly
is saved by Perseverance and Repentance, pardoned through God's mercy,
and assured of salvation. As compared with the usual type of Mystery plays the Moralities had for the writers
this advantage, that they allowed some independence in the invention of the story;
and how powerful they might be made in the hands of a really gifted author has
been finely demonstrated in our own time by the stage-revival of the best of them,
'Everyman' (which is probably a translation from a Dutch original). In most cases,
however, the spirit of medieval allegory proved fatal, the genuinely abstract
characters are mostly shadowy and unreal, and the speeches of the Virtues are
extreme examples of intolerable sanctimonious declamation. Against this
tendency, on the other hand, the persistent instinct for realism provided a partial
antidote; the Vices are often very lifelike rascals, abstract only in name. In these
cases the whole plays become vivid studies in contemporary low life, largely human
and interesting except for their prolixity and the coarseness which they inherited
from the Mysteries and multiplied on their own account. During the Reformation
period, in the early sixteenth century, the character of the Moralities, more strictly
so called, underwent something of a change, and they were—sometimes made the
vehicle for religious argument, especially by Protestants.
Early in the sixteenth century, the Morality in its turn was
largely superseded by another sort of play called the Interlude. But just as in the
case of the Mystery and the Morality, the Interlude developed out of the Morality,
and the two cannot always be distinguished, some single plays being distinctly
described by the authors as 'Moral Interludes.' In the Interludes the realism of the
Moralities became still more pronounced, so that the typical Interlude is nothing
more than a coarse farce, with no pretense at religious or ethical meaning. The
name Interlude denotes literally 'a play between,' but the meaning intended
(between whom or what) is uncertain. The plays were given sometimes in the halls
of nobles and gentlemen, either when banquets were in progress or on other
festival occasions; sometimes before less select audiences in the town halls or on
village greens. The actors were sometimes strolling companies of players, who
might be minstrels 'or rustics, and were sometimes also retainers of the great
nobles, allowed to practice their dramatic ability on tours about the country when
they were not needed for their masters' entertainment. In the Interlude-Moralities
and Interludes first appears The Vice, a rogue who sums up in himself all the Vices
of the older Moralities and serves as the buffoon. One of his most popular exploits
was to belabor the Devil about the stage with a wooden dagger, a habit which took
a great hold on the popular imagination, as numerous references in later literature
testify. Transformed by time, the Vice appears in the Elizabethan drama, and
thereafter, as the clown.
various dramatic forms from the tenth century to the middle of the sixteenth
at which we have thus hastily glanced—folk-plays, mummings and
disguisings, secular pageants, Mystery plays, Moralities, and Interludes—
have little but a historical importance. But besides demonstrating the
persistence of the popular demand for drama, they exerted a permanent
influence in that they formed certain stage traditions which were to modify
or largely control the great drama of the Elizabethan period and to some
extent of later times. Among these traditions were the disregard for unity,
partly of action, but especially of time and place; the mingling of comedy
with even the intensest scenes of tragedy; the nearly complete lack of stage
scenery, with a resultant willingness in the audience to make the largest
possible imaginative assumptions; the presence of certain stock figures, such
as the clown; and the presentation of women's parts by men and boys. The
plays, therefore, must be reckoned with in dramatic history.
Renaissance English Drama
By Anniina Jokinen, Luminarium.
English Renaissance drama grew out of the established Medieval
tradition of the mystery and morality plays (see Medieval English
Drama). These public spectacles focused on religious subjects and were
generally enacted by either choristers and monks, or a town's tradesmen
(as later seen lovingly memorialized by Shakespeare's 'mechanicals' in A
Midsummer Night's Dream).
At the end of the fifteenth century, a new type of play appeared. These
short plays and revels were performed at noble households and at court,
especially at holiday times. These short entertainments, called
"Interludes", started the move away from the didactic nature of the
earlier plays toward purely secular plays, and often added more comedy
than was present in the medieval predecessors. Since most of these
holiday revels were not documented and play texts have disappeared
and been destroyed, the actual dating of the transition is difficult. The
first extant purely secular play, Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres,
was performed at the household of Cardinal Morton, where the young
Thomas More was serving as a page. Early Tudor interludes soon grew
more elaborate, incorporating music and dance, and some, especially
those by John Heywood, were heavily influenced by French farce.
Not only were plays shifting emphasis from teaching to entertaining,
they were also slowly changing focus from the religious towards the
political. John Skelton's Magnyfycence (1515), for example, while on the
face of it resembling the medieval allegory plays with its characters of
Virtues and Vices, was a political satire against Cardinal Wolsey.
Magnyfycence was so incendiary that Skelton had to move into the
sanctuary of Westminster to escape the wrath of Wolsey.
The first history plays were written in the 1530's, the most notable of
which was John Bale's King Johan. While it considered matters of
morality and religion, these were handled in the light of the
Reformation. These plays set the precedent of presenting history in the
dramatic medium and laid the foundation for what would later be
elevated by Marlowe and Shakespeare into the English History Play, or
Chronicle Play, in the latter part of the century. Not only was the Reformation taking hold in England, but the winds of
Classical Humanism were sweeping in from the Continent. Interest
grew in the classics and the plays of classical antiquity, especially in the
universities. Latin texts were being "Englysshed" and latin poetry and
plays began to be adapted into English plays. In 1553, a schoolmaster
named Nicholas Udall wrote an English comedy titled "Ralph Roister
Doister" based on the traditional Latin comedies of Plautus and
Terence. The play was the first to introduce the Latin character type
miles gloriosus ("braggart soldier") into English plays, honed to
perfection later by Shakespeare in the character of Falstaff. Around the
same time at Cambridge, the comedy "Gammer Gurton's Needle",
possibly by William Stevens of Christ's College, was amusing the
students. It paid closer attention to the structure of the Latin plays and
was the first to adopt the five-act division.
Writers were also developing English tragedies for the first time,
influenced by Greek and Latin writers. Among the first forays into
English tragedy were Richard Edwards' Damon and Pythias (1564) and
John Pickering's New Interlude of Vice Containing the History of
Horestes (1567). The most influential writer of classical tragedies,
however, was the Roman playwright Seneca, whose works were
translated into English by Jasper Heywood, son of playwright John
Heywood, in 1589. Seneca's plays incorporated rhetorical speeches,
blood and violence, and often ghosts; components which were to figure
prominently in both Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
The first prominent English tragedy in the Senecan mould was
Gorboduc (1561), written by two lawyers, Thomas Sackville and Thomas
Norton, at the Inns of Court (schools of law). The play is also important
as the first English play in blank verse. Blank verse, non-rhyming lines
in iambic pentameter, was introduced into English literature by
sonneteers Wyatt and Surrey in the 1530's. Its use in a work of dramatic
literature paved the way for "Marlowe's mighty line" and the exquisite
poetry of Shakespeare's dramatic verse. With a new ruler on the throne,
Queen Elizabeth I, who enjoyed and encouraged the theatrical arts, the
stage was set for the body of dramatic literature we today call
Elizabethan Drama.
To cite this article:
Jokinen, Anniina. "Renaissance English Drama:
From Medieval to Renaissance." Luminarium.
10 Aug 2010. [Date you accessed this article].
By Dr. Wayne Narey, Arkansas State University
In 1600, the city of London had a population of 245,000 people, twice
the size of Paris or Amsterdam. Playwriting was the least personal form
of writing, but clearly the most profitable for literary men since the
demand was so great: 15,000 people attended the playhouses weekly.
What is often exploited in the plays is the tension between a Court
culture and a commercial culture, which in turn reflected the tension
between the City government and the Crown. The period from 1576
(date of the first public theatre in London) to 1642 (date that the
Puritans closed the theatres) is unparalleled in its output and quality of
literature in English. The monarchy rested on two claims: that it
was of divine origin and that it governed by consent of the people. The
period was one of great transition. This period of history is generally
regarded as the English Renaissance, which took place approximately
100 years later than on the continent. The period also coincides with the
Reformation, and the two eras are of course mutually related.
Imposed upon the Elizabethans was a social hierarchy of order and
degree—very much medieval concepts that existed more in form than in
substance. The society of Shakespeare's time had in many ways broken
free of these rigidities. It was not that people were rejecting the past;
rather, a new more rigid order was replacing the old. This was set into
motion during Henry VIII's reign in the 1530s when he assumed more
power than had hitherto been known to the monarchy. The Act of
Supremacy of 1534 gave to Henry the power of the Church as well as
temporal power. By Shakespeare's time the state had asserted its
right in attempting to gain authority in secular and spiritual matters
alike. The so-called "Tudor myth" had sought to justify actions by the
crown, and selections for the monarchy, as God-sanctioned: to thwart
those decisions was to sin, because these people were selected by God.
The population of the City quadrupled from Henry VIII's reign to
the end of Shakespeare's life (1616), thus adding to the necessity for civil
control and law. The dissolution of the monasteries had caused much
civil unrest, and the dispossessed monks and nuns had been forced to
enter the work force. Thus the employment, or unemployment, problem
was severe. Puritanism, which first emerged early in Elizabeth's
reign, was a minority force of churchmen, Members of Parliament, and
others who felt that the Anglican Reformation had stopped short of its
goal. Puritans used the Bible as a guide to conduct, not simply to faith,
but to political and social life, and since they could read it in their own
language, it took on for them a greater importance than it had ever held.
They stressed particularly the idea of remembering the Sabbath day.
The conflict between the Puritans and the "players" of the theatre—who
performed for the larger crowds that would turn out for productions on
this article:
Narey, Wayne. "The Sociopolitical Climate in
Elizabethan England." Luminarium.
2 Aug 2006. [Date you accessed this article].
By Dr. Wayne Narey, Arkansas State University
To cite
The old Medieval stage of "place-and-scaffolds," still in use in Scotland
in the early sixteenth century, had fallen into disuse; the kind of
temporary stage that was dominant in England about 1575 was the
booth stage of the marketplace—a small rectangular stage mounted on
trestles or barrels and "open" in the sense of being surrounded by
spectators on three sides. The stage proper of the booth stage
generally measured from 15 to 25 ft. in width and from 10 to 15 ft. in
depth; its height above the ground averaged a bout 5 ft. 6 in., with
extremes ranging as low as 4 ft. and as high as 8 ft.; and it was backed
by a cloth-covered booth, usually open at the top, which served as a
tiring-house (short for "attiring house," where the actors dressed).
In the England of 1575 there were two kinds of buildings, designed
for functions other than the acting of plays, which were adapted by the
players as temporary outdoor playhouses: the animal-baiting rings or
"game houses" (e.g. Bear Garden) and the inns.
Presumably, a booth stage was set up against a wall at one side of the
yard, with the audience standing in the yard surrounding the stage on
three sides. Out of these "natural" playhouses grew two major classes of
permanent Elizabethan playhouse, "public" and "private." In general,
the public playhouses were large outdoor theatres, whereas the private
playhouses were smaller indoor theatres. The maximum capacity of a
typical public playhouse (e.g., the Swan) was about 3,000 spectators;
that of a typical private playhouse (e.g., the Second Blackfriars), about
700 spectators. At the public playhouses the majority of spectators were "groundlings"
who stood in the dirt yard for a penny; the remainder were sitting in
galleries and boxes for two pence or more. At the private playhouses all
spectators were seated (in pit, galleries, and boxes) and paid sixpence or
more. In the beginning, the private playhouses were used exclusively by
Boys' companies, but this distinction disappeared about 1609 when the
King's Men, in residence at the Globe in the summer, began using the
Blackfriars in winter. Originally the private playhouses were
found only within the City of London (the Paul's Playhouse, the First
and Second Blackfriars), the public playhouses only in the suburbs (the
Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, the Globe, the Fortune, the Red Bull);
but this distinction disappeared about 1606 with the opening of the
Whitefriars Playhouse to the west of Ludgate. Public-theatre
audiences, though socially heterogeneous, were drawn mainly from the
lower classes—a situation that has caused modern scholars to refer to
the public-theatre audiences as "popular"; whereas private-theatre
audiences tended to consist of gentlemen (those who were university
educated) and nobility; "select" is the word most usually opposed to
"popular" in this respect. James Burbage, father to the famous actor
Richard Burbage of Shakespeare's company, built the first permanent
theatre in London, the Theatre, in 1576. He probably merely adapted the
form of the baiting-house to theatrical needs. To do so he built a large
round structure very much like a baiting-house but with five major
innovations in the received form. First, he paved the ring with brick
or stone, thus paving the pit into a "yard." Second, Burbage erected
a stage in the yard—his model was the booth stage of the marketplace,
larger than used before, with posts rather than trestles.
Third, he erected a permanent tiring-house in place of the booth.
Here his chief model was the passage screens of the Tudor domestic
hall. They were modified to withstand the weather by the insertion of
doors in the doorways. Presumably the tiring-house, as a permanent
structure, was inset into the frame of the playhouse rather than, as in
the older temporary situation of the booth stage, set up against the
frame of a baiting-house. The gallery over the tiring-house (presumably
divided into boxes) was capable of serving variously as a "Lord's room"
for privileged or high-paying spectators, as a music-room, and as a
station for the occasional performance of action "above" as, for example,
Juliet's balcony. Fourth, Burbage built a "cover" over the rear part
of the stage, called "the Heavens", supported by posts rising from the
yard and surmounted by a "hut." And fifth, Burbage added a third
gallery to the frame. The theory of origin and development suggested in
the preceding accords with our chief pictorial source of information
about the Elizabethan stage, the "De Witt" drawing of the interior of the
Swan Playhouse (c. 1596). It seems likely that most of the round
public playhouses—specifically, the Theatre (1576), the Swan (1595), the
First Globe (1599), the Hope (1614), and the Second Globe (1614)—were
of about the same size. The Second Blackfriars Playhouse of 1596
was designed by James Burbage, and he built his playhouse in the
upper-story Parliament Chamber of the Upper Frater of the priory. The
Parliament Chamber measured 100 ft. in length, but for the playhouse
Burbage used only two-thirds of this length. The room in question, after
the removal of partitions dividing it into apartments, measured 46 ft. in
width and 66 ft. in length. The stage probably measured 29 ft. in width
To cite
this article:
Narey, Wayne. "Elizabethan Playhouses." Luminarium.
2 Aug 2006. [Date you accessed this article].
By Dr. Wayne Narey, Arkansas State University
In the private theatres, act-intervals and music between acts were
customary from the beginning. A music-room was at first lacking in the
public playhouses, since public-theatre performances did not originally
employ act-intervals and inter-act music. About 1609, however, after
the King's men had begun performing at the Blackfriars as well as at the
Globe, the custom of inter-act music seems to have spread from the
private to the public playhouses, and with it apparently came the
custom of using one of the tiring-house boxes over the stage as a musicroom.
The drama was conventional, not realistic: poetry was the most obvious
convention, others included asides, soliloquies, boys playing the roles of
women, battles (with only a few participants), the daylight convention
(many scenes are set at night, though the plays took place in midafternoon under the sky), a convention of time (the clock and calendar
are used only at the dramatist's discretion), the convention of
"eavesdropping" (many characters overhear others, which the audience
is privy to but the overheard characters are not), and movement from
place to place as suggested by the script and the audience's imagination.
Exits were strong, and when everyone departed the stage, a change of
scene was indicated. There was relatively little scenery. Scenery was
mostly suggestive; for example, one or two trees standing in for a whole
forest. The elaborate costumes—for which companies paid a great deal
of money—supplied the color and pageantry. Minimal scenery and
limited costume changes made the transitions between scenes lightningfast and kept the story moving.
There was often dancing before and after the play—at times, during, like
the peasants' dance in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Jigs were often
given at the end of performances, a custom preserved still today at
Shakespeare's Globe. The jigs at the theatre were not always mere
dances, they were sometimes comprised of songs and bawdy
knockabout farces filled with commentaries on current events. Perhaps
the most famous jig was the one performed by Will Kemp, the clown in
Shakespeare's company, over a nine day period in 1599, on the road
from London to Norwich. It was published in 1600 as Kemps nine daies
wonder. After 1600, the bawdy jigs fell into derision and contempt and
were only performed at theatres such as the Red Bull, which catered to
an audience appreciative of the lowest humor and most violent action.
The clowns were the great headliners of the Elizabethan stage prior to
the rise of the famed tragedians of the late 1580s, such as Edward (Ned)
Alleyn and Richard Burbage. Every company had a top clown along with
the tragedian—Shakespeare’s company was no exception: Richard
Tarleton was the clown until his death in 1588, Will Kemp was the
clown until forced out of the company in 1599, to be replaced by another
famous clown, Robin Armin. The clowns not only performed the
aforementioned jigs, but also played many of the great comic characters;
Kemp most likely played Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry in
Much Ado About Nothing, Armin the parts of Feste in Twelfth Night
and the Fool in King Lear. From contemporary documents, we
know there were over a thousand actors in England between 15801642*. Most were poor, "starving actors", but a few dozen were able to
make names for themselves and become shareholders in their respective
companies, and make a good living. The repertory system was
demanding—besides playing six days a week, a company would be in
continual rehearsal in order to add new plays and to refresh old ones in
their schedule. A player would probably learn a new role every week,
with thirty to forty roles in his head. No minor feat, especially
considering that an actor would only get his lines and cues (in a rolled
up parchment, his "roll", from which we get the word "role"), not a
whole script! Over a period of three years, a tragedian such as Edward
Alleyn, lead player for the Admiral's Men, would learn not only fifty new
parts but also retain twenty or more old roles.
* Michael Best, Internet Shakespeare Editions.
To cite this article:
Narey, Wayne. "Elizabethan Staging Conventions." Luminarium.
2 Aug 2006. [Date you accessed this article].
By Anniina Jokinen, Luminarium
First record of a play performed
at Boar's Head Inn in Whitechapel.
Licensing of plays enacted.
Creation of the Earl of Worcester's Men;
The Earl of Warwick's Men;
Lord Strange's Men.
The Earl of Leicester's Men
perform at Stratford.
The Earl of Leicester's Men receive a patent.
James Burbage obtains permission to build
"The Theatre" in Shoreditch; receives a
21-year lease.
A rival, "The Curtain", opens in
Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch.
The Queen's Men created from the companies
of Leicester's Men, Oxford's Men, Sussex's Men,
Earl of Derby's Men, and Lord Hunsdon's Men.
c.1585 The Second Lord Strange's Men.
The Lord Admiral's Men.
"The Rose" built on Bankside
by Philip Henslowe.
Lord Strange's Men along with some of Lord
Admiral's Men take residence at The Rose.
The Earl of Pembroke's Men created.
Sussex' Men perform at The Rose.
Theatres closed due to the plague.
Lord Chamberlain's Men created, Shakespeare
as founding member.
Admiral's Men move to The Rose.
Francis Langley applies to build "The Swan"
in Paris Garden.
"The Swan" built.
Plays banned within City limits.
James Burbage purchases and converts
Blackfriars to a theatre.
Unable to get permission to open.
Second Pembroke's Men.
Burbage leases Blackfriars to the Chapel
After James Burbage's death, the
lease on The Theatre expires.
The Theatre dismantled. Timbers
taken to Bankside to build The Globe.
"The Globe" built on Bankside.
"The Fortune" opens.
"The Red Bull" built in
Lord Chamberlain's Men become The King's
An amalgam of Oxford's and Worcester's Men
become Queen Anne's Men (Queen's Men).
The Rose closed and demolished.
Queen Anne's Men take residence at the Red
Michael Drayton and Thomas Woodford convert
the Whitefriars into a private theatre.
1608 Burbage takes back the lease of Blackfriars.
The King's Men play the winters there.
Children of the King's Revels at the Whitefriars.
1609 "The Cockpit" built in Drury Lane
for the purpose of cock-fighting.
Children of the Queen's Revels
in residence at Whitefriars to 1613.
Fire at The Globe.
The Children of the Queen's Revels merge with
The Lady Elizabeth's Men.
1613-4 Henslowe and Jacob Meade build "The Hope"
on the site of the old Bear Garden.
Lady Elizabeth's Men take residence.
Whitefriars taken over by Prince Charles' Men.
The Globe rebuilt, with a tiled roof.
"The Cockpit" converted to a theatre by
Christopher Beeston. Queen's Men in residence.
At Henslowe's death, "The Hope" turns into
a bear-baiting ring.
"The Cockpit" burned down by rioters.
"The Cockpit" rebuilt; renamed "The Phoenix."
Queen Anne's Men disband after her death.
The Fortune burns down. Rebuilt of brick.
The Red Bull renovated.
c.1629 Whitefriars replaced by Salisbury Court Theatre.
1637? The Swan demolished.
Parliamentary ordinance to suppress all plays.
"The Closing of the Theatres."
The Cockpit and the Fortune occasionally stage
plays illicitly.
The Globe demolished.
1648 The Puritans order all playhouses demolished,
all actors whipped, and theatregoers fined
five shillings.
The Cockpit raided.
1660 The Restoration. King Charles II
reopens the playhouses.
Renaissance English Dramatists
John Heywood
Thomas Sackville
Nicholas Udall
John Skelton
John Bale George Gascoigne
John Lyly
Robert Greene
George Peele
Thomas Kyd
Christopher Marlowe
Anthony Munday
Thomas Campion
Samuel Daniel
William Shakespeare
Ben Jonson
Thomas Dekker
John Marston
Francis Beaumont
John Fletcher
John Webster
Thomas Middleton
William Rowley
Philip Massinger
John Ford
James Shirley
Thomas Heywood
Margaret Cavendish