The growth of theatres in Tudor England, and especially in the reign of Elizabeth, is very much associated with this era. Along with sports and pastimes, theatres provided the workers with some form of break from work. Plays, as we would recognise them, first started in the Middle Ages when priests would use their services to put on a play to show a story from the Bible. Most people could not read or write then, so the only knowledge they could get from the Bible came from these plays as before the Reformation, all church services were in Latin which few could understand.

This later developed into small groups of actors touring around the country putting on ‘teaching’ plays which all had a morality as their basis. Plays called “Jealousy”, “Greed” and “Faith” were common. Plays about Robin Hood were also popular.

However, the government was not happy with the popularity of plays on Robin Hood as they did not approve of the message they spread. In 1572, in the reign of Elizabeth, strolling actors were banned. Another fear about strolling actors was that they might spread the plague throughout the land. Elizabeth gave permission for four noblemen to start their own theatre companies and employ actors.

“I came to a place on my way to London….I thought I should have found company in the church but the church door was locked. One of the parish came to me and said “Sir, this is a busy day, it is Robin Hood’s day”. Robin Hood, a traitor and a thief….it is a weeping matter when people prefer Robin Hood to God’s word.”

Bishop Latimer in 1549.

Others also preached at the negative aspects of plays:

“The blast of the trumpet will call a thousand people to see a filthy play. An hour’s tolling of a bell would only bring a hundred people to a  sermon.”  John Stockwood preaching in 1578

By the time of the Tudors, people wanted to see plays for entertainments sake as opposed to being given a message about correct behaviour. These plays were originally performed in the yards of large inns and the first real theatre as would be recognised by us was built in Elizabeth’s time in 1577 by the Earl of Leicester. This theatre was a great success and more were quickly built. By 1595, 15,000 people a week attended plays in London. The writing of plays became a serious business and many young men desired to be an actor.

The new theatres of Elizabeth’s time, were built around the design of a bear-garden which allowed everybody a view of what was going on. The most expensive seats – for the rich only – were actually on the stage itself. The nest most expensive seats were in covered galleries which ran around the theatre. This allowed people to watch the play but kept them out of the worst of the weather as most theatres had no roof. The cheapest places were in the so-called pit. People would pay about a penny to see the play and they stood for the duration of the play. Rowdy behaviour amongst the audience was common in the ‘pits’.

Plays were put on during the day as there was no satisfactory way to light a stage during the night. As London was mostly made of wood, any use of flames for lighting was forbidden. The stage also had no scenery – the disruption to the play would have been intolerable with scenery being moved onto and off the stage. Instead, one of the actors not in the scene being acted out would tell the audience what the scene looked like. For those who could read, a notice could also be carried across the stage explaining what the stage was meant to look like. Theatres also used to put curtains across certain parts of the stage to represent something such as a bedroom, cave or an inner backroom. Likewise, a balcony built into the stage might represent a balcony or a mountain top, the battlements of a castle or even Heaven.

The actors of the time – women were forbidden to act – usually wore their own everyday clothes for a play as costumes were expensive. Young boys played the part of women and they did need costumes but as much as was possible was done to keep costs down. Sometimes a simple crown was enough to inform an audience that somebody was a king.

The Tudors did enjoy violent plays – rather like their pastimes. At the end of a play, the stage was frequently littered with ‘dead’ characters and murder weapons.

The greatest and most famous playwright in the reign of Elizabeth was William Shakespeare. 

“Without question, the greatest playwright that ever lived…..was William Shakespeare. Almost 400 years after his death his plays are just as vital as when he lived.”  Marion Geisinger

Shakespeare’s first play, “Henry VI, was performed in 1592. Over the next 11 years, he wrote “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth, The “Merchant of Venice” etc. His play “Richard III” was popular as it showed Richard III as a corrupt man – it also received approval from the Tudors – after all, it was Henry VII who had defeated Richard III in battle!

William Shakespeare