The late 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was the first great blossoming of London theatre, providing a platform for the talents of playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
During the 16th century there were a number of inns in the London area built around courtyards overlooked by galleries and by the middle of the century some of these, such as the Saracen’s Head at Islington, were being used as a venue for the performance of plays. (The only remaining example of those types of inn in London is the George at Borough High Street).
As the popularity of plays grew during the Elizabethan era official London attitudes became increasingly puritanical, believing they attracted “vagrant persons” and “masterless men” and that actors were “a very superfluous sort of men”. As plays were mostly watched on Sundays it was also felt they were keeping people away from their attendance at church. The Merchant Taylors, who had been performing plays in their hall, ceased to do so in 1573.
There was in fact a difference of opinion over the issue between the London authorities and the Queen’s Privy Council who were in favour of plays and aware that they were enjoyed by Elizabeth herself. In 1574 the city authorities introduced a system of control and censorship and any inn holding performances was required to hold a licence and donate certain sums of money to hospitals within the city. Each play was obliged to be first performed before the mayor and aldermen prior to its public performance to ensure it contained nothing that was lewd, seditious or likely to cause a riot. Yet by the end of the century the London authorities prevailed and playhouses were banned completely in the city.
As restrictions on the content of plays were tightened, companies of actors and playwrights sought the protection of powerful patrons. In fact, in those times everyone needed some status in law (such as a freeman belonging to a Livery Company, an employee of a freeman or government official, or a retainer of a noble). Anyone who was not was considered as a vagabond, rogue or beggar and liable to be rounded up and thrown in gaol. An Act of Parliament of 1572 classed all kinds of performers (including buskers, jugglers, fortune tellers and so on) in the same category as vagabonds unless in possession of a begging licence or “belonging to any baron of this land…”. The actor and impresario James Burbage wrote to and received the patronage of the Earl of Leicester and his company were known as ‘Lord Leicester’s Men’ until receiving a licence directly from Queen Elizabeth. The Lord Admiral’s Men, associated with Christopher Marlowe, had the patronage of Lord Howard, the Admiral of the Fleet (who had defeated the Spanish Armada) and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which included William Shakespeare, that of Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain. Others were named Sussex’s, Oxford’s, Essex’s and Warwick’s Men after their patrons.
Many of the ‘liberties’ enjoyed by former ecclesiastic institutions and estates, under which they were outside of the control of the City authorities, still remained in place long after the dissolution of the monasteries. One such area was the land of the former priory of Holywell at Shoreditch, a hamlet of humble cottages in the latter 16th century. The grocer John Brayne had previously built a performance venue for strolling players at the Red Lion at Whitechapel but it only functioned for a year. In 1576, together with his carpenter brother-in-law Richard Burbage, he erected The Theatre at Holy Well, designed in a circular or octagonal fashion inspired by the inns in which plays were being performed. It probably held between six to eight hundred people in the audience, with many standing in the open central pit around which were more expensive banked seating areas. Burbage also had an interest in another London theatre, based in the former refectory of the Blackfriars monastery and leased out for use by child actors.
Being outside of the City’s jurisdiction Brayne and Burbage were able to hold performances of plays at The Theatre and The Curtain without censorship. Nevertheless, they were the subject of occasional criticism from those who believed it attracted London’s lowlife. William Fleetwood, the Recorder of London, wrote to the Queen’s minister Lord Burghley on the subject in 1584.
Burbage staged performances of plays by Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare (who joined the resident troupe in 1580s) amongst others but from 1594 The Theatre was used exclusively by Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men and his mid-career plays were first performed there, including Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. The leading man of the company was Burbage’s son Richard.