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English Renaissance Theatre: Characteristics & Significance

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

The English Renaissance was a time of great change, and the theater was in no way exempt from that change. From the theaters to the plays themselves, the renaissance saw great changes emerge in English theater.

Renaissance Theater

The English Renaissance during the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a time of great change in society and theater. Unlike early theater, which was restricted to the wealthy nobility, during the renaissance in England theaters became public venues. All social classes could come together and enjoy performances. The most affordable seats would be in what was known as 'the yard' or 'the pit' while the galleries offered more private seating. However, there are other characteristics that set English Renaissance Theater apart from its predecessors.

Development of Permanent Theaters

One characteristic of English Renaissance theater was the actual construction of permanent theater buildings. Before Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, the experience of 'theater' was far different than it is today. Actors traveled the country performing wherever they could find a space, whether it was a field or a church hall. Any sets or stages were temporary, with the sets needing to be small and mobile. To further complicate the life of an actor, the Act of 1545 had labeled any actor not a member of a guild as a vagabond, and subject to arrest. To avoid charges of vagrancy, actors had to secure patronages from wealthy nobles so that they would be classified as 'servants' and avoid charges.

Globe Theater
globetheater1

Queen Elizabeth I changed this, however, by allowing non-guild actors to perform in London as long their performances were approved by the Master of the Revels. As part of the royal household, the Master of Revels was tasked with coordinating theatrical entertainment for the court. Thus, acting troupes could claim they were practicing for an audition with the Master of Revels as an excuse for regularly performing in London. The office also had the right to grant licenses to acting troupes. Queen Elizabeth's new rule encouraged acting companies to form in London and build permanent theaters there. Among the more famous is Shakespeare's Globe theater.

Acting Troupes in the Elizabethan Renaissance

In the English Renaissance, acting troupes were always entirely made up of male performers. The laws at the time forbade women from performing onstage, unlike in other countries during the same period. The acting troupes were typically small compared to the number of roles in the play, so the actors were required to play many roles that might be male or female. Actors used changes in voice or costume when they switched roles during the play. Often the plays themselves would incorporate speeches whenever a character assumed a disguise within the plot of the play to make it clear to the audience what was happening.

Hamlet Playbill
hamletplaybill

The acting troupes also faced an extremely demanding schedule in terms of rehearsals and performances. Unlike theater today, where theaters perform the same play sometimes for years at a time, the English Renaissance theaters performed different plays each day of the week. So, in a given week an actor could be performing multiple roles in six different plays. As a result, actors did much of their rehearsing and learning lines entirely on their own. Actors weren't given a full script, but rather a scroll of just their lines with a few cues to guide them.

Renaissance Playwrights

While we associate Shakespeare as the renowned playwright of the English Renaissance, there were many others who contributed to the development of theater during this period. For example, Christopher Marlowe was one of the first dramatists to explore blank verse poetry in his plays. He wrote at a time when England was letting go of its medieval institutions, and Marlowe liked to explore the consequences of newfound freedom, and temptations, in his plays. For example, his popular play Edward the Second explored the fate of ineffectual rulers who allow undue influence by courtiers upon the affairs of state. His play The Jew of Malta told a tale of revenge against city authorities. His perhaps most famous work (Doctor Faustus) told the ancient tale of making a pact with the devil.

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