Elizabethan theatre

Richard Burbage, along with Edward Alleyn, was the most successful actor of Elizabethan theatre. The son of James Burbage, owner of the Theatre at Shoreditch, he performed more leading roles in the major plays of the time than any other actor. They included the original performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Richard III, as well as lead roles in Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemist.

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. Yet the playhouses of the time were located outside of the City in the expanding suburbs.

The dominant theatrical tradition in England during the Middle Ages was ‘mystery’ plays. These were moralistic dramas based on the Bible and usually performed in churches or on temporary stages at seasonal fairs by amateur actors or members of guilds. After the Reformation they were viewed as Catholic mysticism and therefore fell out of favour. In their place came secular productions, normally performed by strolling players at inns.

During the 16th century there were a number of inns in the London area built around courtyards overlooked by galleries. By the middle of the century some of these, such as the Saracen’s Head at Islington and the Boar’s Head outside Aldgate, 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). Jerome Savage of the Earl of Warwick’s Company of actors converted a building for performances at the well-to-do suburb of Newington Butts to the south of London, sometime before 1576. It was known as the Playhouse, from the medieval word ‘pleghows’. It finally closed in 1596.

As the popularity of plays grew during the Elizabethan era restrictions on actors and the content of plays were tightened. 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…”. 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. Companies of actors and playwrights therefore sought the protection of powerful patrons.

The actor, impresario and carpenter 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.

The attitude of the City of London authorities became increasingly puritanical, believing performances attracted “vagrant persons” and “masterless men” and that actors were “a very superfluous sort of men”. They distracted young men from their apprenticeships and, 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. The following year 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. By the end of the century playhouses were banned completely within the City.

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.

James Burbage’s company had been performing at the Bull Tavern, within the City on Bishopsgate but needed to look elsewhere for a venue. His brother-in-law, John Brayne, a wealthy member of the Grocers’ Company, had in 1567 built a performance venue for strolling players at the Red Lion at Whitechapel but it only functioned for a year. In 1576, together with Burbage, he erected the Theatre (from the Greek, and later Latin theatrum) at Holywell, England’s first purpose-built playhouse since Roman times. It was of timber-framed construction on a masonry plinth. Designed in a circular or octagonal fashion inspired by the inns in which plays were being performed, it established the shape of playhouses for the following fifty years or more. The Theatre 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 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 amongst others. William Shakespeare joined the resident troupe in the 1580s and later became a part-owner of the company. From 1594 the Theatre was used exclusively by Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men. 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.

The success of the Theatre prompted Henry Lanman to build the Curtain playhouse nearby in Curtain Close just a few months later in 1577, which continued until 1622. It was most likely of similar design but little record of it remains. Possibly Shakespeare’s Henry V was first performed there during a year-long closure of the Theatre. In 1585 Burbage and Lanman made an agreement to co-operate and pool profits. From 1603 the Curtain was home to the Queen Anne’s Men (under the patronage of the wife of James I).

Between medieval times and the 18th century Bankside at Southwark, on the far side of London Bridge, was beyond the jurisdiction of the City authorities. It was a place associated with popular and illicit pleasures such as inns, brothels, bear-baiting and cock pits, much of which developed from the late 16th century. Borough High Street was lined with taverns and Southwark was an ideal place to build theatres outside of the interference of the City.

The Rose, built by Philip Henslowe and in operation from 1587 until 1606, was the first playhouse to be built at Bankside, its octagonal shape inspired by the Theatre. It was the home of the Lord Admiral’s Men, of which Henslowe’s son-in-law Edward Alleyn, one of the most successful actors of his time, was the lead man. Alleyn had first found fame playing the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (c.1588), Doctor Faustus (c.1592) and Barbas in The Jew of Malta (c.1589) and became the great rival of Richard Burbage. Shakespeare’s Titus Adronicus and Henry VI were first performed at the Rose, as were most of Christopher Marlowe’s plays.

The Rose was followed at Bankside by Francis Langley’s Swan theatre in 1595 but that was demolished in 1606, by which time Henslowe and the Admiral’s men had already moved north of the City to Cripplegate. The Swan was described by Johannes de Witt, a Dutch visitor to London, as being built of flint stones supported by wooden pillars and seating three thousand people.

James Burbage died in February 1597 and was buried at St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch. His sons, the actor Richard and theatre manager Cuthbert, inherited his share of the company. The Theatre was well-established and flourishing by then, so it was time to move to a larger and more prestigious location. They therefore purchased Upper Frater Hall at Blackfriars on the west side of the City, another liberty outside the control of the authorities. Unfortunately, they were not welcomed there by their new neighbours, who complained to the powerful Privy Council. The council were effectively the Queen’s government, the most powerful body in the land, so the Burbages were forced to give up on that plan. They then attempted to negotiate with Charles Allen, their landlord at Holywell. Allen, however, decided to terminate their lease and threatened to tear down the playhouse and use the timbers.

Faced with the loss of the Theatre, the Burbages waited until Allen had left his home at Holywell for the Christmas holiday of 1598. They assembled a group of workmen and on the night of 28th December dismantled the building and transported the parts over the river to Bankside. When he discovered the building had been removed Allen attempted to sue the brothers’ carpenter, Peter Street, for the loss of the materials but his case was dismissed. For the following year the Chamberlain’s Men performed at the Curtain at Shoreditch.

The Theatre had been cleverly constructed by James Burbage using timber frames and pegs in case of such need. Its parts were reused at Bankside and a new theatre built there, reopening as the Globe. It was a twenty-sided polygonal open-air building with a diameter of around twenty-four to thirty metres, making it similar but larger than The Rose. In its centre was a yard for the stage and a standing audience, surrounded by three tiers of seated galleries. The first performance was probably Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in late 1599.

To pay for the cost of the new building the Burbage brothers offered members of the cast shares and four of them, including Shakespeare, took up the offer. About fifteen of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at the Globe including Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Othello and the Taming of the Shrew. Hamlet was first performed at the Globe in 1601 with Richard Burbage in the title role. The building, located at what is now the southern end of Southwark Bridge, was destroyed by fire in 1613 but rebuilt the following year. It was eventually demolished in 1644. (A smaller replica version, which opened in 1997, stands near the original site).

Competition between the Globe and the Rose prompted Henslowe and Alleyn to look for a new site. They hired Peter Street, the carpenter of the Globe, to build the Fortune theatre at Golden Lane, Finsbury Fields. Unlike the previous playhouses it was a square building. That venue continued until closed in 1642 by the puritanical government authorities after the Civil War. Becoming wealthy from his theatrical ventures, Alleyn founded Dulwich College in 1619.

Audiences at playhouses such as the Globe came from all strata of society, from the criminal and working-classes to the nobility, each tending to watch from their own separate areas of the theatre. Being open-air and, without the convenience of modern lighting and heating, performances took place each afternoon at two o’clock.

Special performances were occasionally performed for the royalty or nobility. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost possibly had its debut in such a way during the Christmas season of 1597. The first performance of Twelfth Night was given in the hall of Middle Temple in 1602.

Southwark Fair, held in early September and immediately following Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield, was a major event in London’s annual calendar. The theatres closed during the period of the fair and instead gave themselves over to providing cheap lodging. There was a certain amount of inter-relationship between the theatres and the fairs. Plays occasionally referenced specific attractions at the fairs, such as a performing monkey, or a magician who could make a banquet disappear. Ben Jonson set his entire play Bartholomew Fair, first performed in 1614, at that event. Puppet shows at the fairs sometimes referenced popular plays by Shakespeare and others.

All playhouses around London were forced to close for a year in 1593 due to a plague that hit the City. When they reopened, the first performances of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice were given at the Rose, and The Comedy of Errors at the hall of Gray’s Inn. A play performed at the Rose in 1597 was considered so seditious by the government that all playhouses were closed again for a year as punishment.

Plays in the Elizabethan era were performed exclusively by men and boys (impersonating women where necessary) and generally without scenery, the story being told through the dialogue and costumes. Good clothes were extremely expensive at the time and there were strict ‘sumptuary’ laws detailing which classes of people could wear particular garments. It was not uncommon for the wealthy to bequeath clothes to their servants who, unable to wear them by law, would sell them to companies of actors to be used in plays. It was normal for performances to be given in contemporary Elizabethan costume, even when the play was set in ancient times.

Theatre companies of the time performed a different play each day, normally from a repertory of around forty, requiring the cast to be keeping many parts to memory. Leading actors with principle parts would have needed to deliver around five thousand lines per week. Mornings were spent learning the lines for the afternoon performance and junior actors probably did not have the benefit of a rehearsal or even reading the entire script. If a particular play was not successful on its first night it was normally dropped from the repertoire, whereas the more successful were revived on a continual basis.

During the reign of James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the playhouses pressed to be allowed to operate in the City to prevent the inconvenience of theatre-goers having to cross the river. Thames watermen gained much of their income from the carrying of passengers and in 1613 petitioned against any relaxation of the regulations. Their plea was met by a more successful counter-petition from the players. Playhouses subsequently transferred across the river and away from Southwark.

Sources include: Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; Nicholas Robins ‘Walking Shakespeare’s London’; information from the Globe theatre; Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith ‘The History of East London’; Dan Cruickshank ‘Spitalfields’; Julian Bowsher ‘The topography of London’s early playhouses’ (London Topographical Society); Professor Tiffany Stern, London Historians lecture, September 2020.

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