Theatre Culture Of Early Modern England

Melissa Thomas 2009

Long before the invention of modern technologies, such as radios and televisions, movies, video game systems and the ever popular internet, people in the Elizabethan age created an elaborate system of activities and events to keep themselves entertained. "...they were expressive and eloquent, ostentatious and pleasure-loving, not industrious or hardworking, but bold and self-confident, markedly fearless of death, mercurial and inconsistent, loving change, above all, passionate" (Rowse 353). And one of their main passions was theatre.

Theatre was for people in Early Modern England what television is for us today. People went to the theatre to be entertained, and the poor and the rich alike gathered in playhouses in the afternoon to see plays performed. Shakespeare was one of the most popular playwrights of this time and often if you were going to go see a play performed it was most likely written by him. Henry IV was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, mainly because people of this time loved the character of Falstaff(Weil 4).

Going to a play in early modern England not only involved the actual act of going to see the play, but it was also about paying money to enter the playhouse and mingle with observe and be observed by people of both sexes and many different social classes(Howard 73). There was a wide range of social and educational levels in Shakespeare’s audience, especially since the brothels of London were close to where the theatres were built. (Best).

Even though most everyone went to theatre productions there were not many theatre’s actually built in London. Theatres were instead built on the South bank of the Thames River. This was to avoid the strict regulations of London at the time. The city of London did not approve of theatre because public performances were thought to be a breeding ground for the plague and for unseemly behavior (Howard 73). The theatre often served as a place for prostitutes and their customers, and many people did not like the fact that the theatre allowed several different social groups to mix together (Howard 75). Also since theatre performances took place in the middle of the day they took worker’s away from their jobs which was frowned upon (Greenblat 32). There were no toilet facilities in the theatres and people relieved themselves outside. Sewage was buried in pits or disposed of in the River Thames, this improper sanitation could have been responsible for outbreaks of the plague, which was the only time when then there was less of an audience at the theatres (Elizabethan Era).

Even though theatres moved out of London to avoid certain persecution they were still censored. There was a government branch called the Office of the Revels that’s job was to make sure that plays did not present politically or socially sensitive material (Greenblat 18). Before every theatre performance an official would read a manuscript of the play, taking out any material they deemed offensive (Greenblat 19).  This would become difficult for plays such as Henry IV or any other history play that was essentially about the government.

Theatres in Early Modern England were not like the theatres we have today, they were open-air which means they were much like our modern sports stadiums (and the audience tended to act much like modern sports spectators). The plays were lighted mainly by natural light, and could not take place at night or in bad weather (Hodges 43).

globe.jpgAs seen in the picture to the left of the Globe Theatre, the rectangular stage thrust out into a circular area called the pit. When audiences were purchasing tickets for a play they could choose to either sit here in the pit or to sit in the balconies (Albright 47). Elizabethan general public or people who were not nobility were referred to as groundlings. They would pay one penny to stand in the Pit of the Globe Theater (Howard 75). The upper class spectators would pay to sit in the galleries often using cushions for comfort. Rich nobles could watch the play from a chair set on the side of the Globe stage itself, so an audience viewing a play may often have to ignore the fact that there is a noble man sitting right on the stage(Elizabethan Era).

Theatre performances were held in the afternoon, because there was no artificial lighting, this required the imagination of the audiences during scenes that were to take place at night (Elizabethan Era). Men and women attended plays, but often the prosperous women would wear a mask to disguise their identity (Elizabethan Era). Even though women did attend theatre, and even Queen Elizabeth herself loved the theatre women who attended theatre were often looked down upon. In fact if a woman was attending the theatre it was generally assumed she was a prostitute. This is because the theatre was considered an unseemly place, and most people thought that women should be at home with their children (Howard 76).

Since most theatre performances were often three hours long (Henry IV would have been somewhere around two and a half), the behavior of the audience became very rowdy, the audiences did not keep quiet, or arrive on time, or remain for the whole performance they would simply get up and leave whenever they felt like it. They joined in on the action occurring on stage, interrupted the actors, and even sometimes got on the stage.

They also talked during dull moments, and threw rotting vegetables, especially tomatoes at the actors (Elizabethan Era). A performance of Henry IV was probably very distracting in a Shakespearian theatre.  Shakespeare must have thought so too, moving his play company out of open-air theatres in 1609 to perform at Black-friars which were an indoor theatre that was supposed to produce a more refined audience (Elizabethan Era).

It’s thought that while the upper class theatre goers were better behaved that the groundlings they were not without their streaks of bad behavior. The upper class spectators probably cheered for upper class characters in plays such as Westmorland or Prince Hal. And of course lower class spectators would cheer for lower class characters, and if these two social classes were ever dueling in a play, it was practical pandemonium in the theatre (Audiences). The audiences would also cheer for the good guys, and boo the bad ones.

Though we know a little bit about the behavior of  theatre audiences we do not know much about the actual Elizabethan stage, however because plays of this time were written expressly for this stage, we can get an idea by looking at the stage directions in the play(Albright 38).

Though the theatre seems rudimentary compared to our theatres today, Shakespearian plays were not without special effects. Special effects were a spectacular addition at the Elizabethan theaters thrilling the audiences with  smoke effects, the firing of a real canon, fireworks (for dramatic battle scenes) and spectacular flying entrances from the rigging in the heavens(Elizabethan Era).The stage also featured trap doors to serve as graves, or to allow ghosts to rise from the earth.

There was a wall covered with a curtain that separated the back of the stage from the actor’s dressing room, this wall was called the arras, in Act II, Scene 4 of Henry IV, the prince tells Falstaff to hide from the Sheriff by hiding “behind the arras”, this would have been where the actor hid. Not all theatres were set up like this, there were some indoor theatre’s that had a pit that was filled with chairs, but because only the very wealthy could afford admission to these theatres they were often considered private(Hodges 55).

Even though theatres in Shakespearian England did not employ the use of scenery, theatre companies put a lot of effort into developing their costumes with great care. An acting company held their costumes to be their most valuable items (Hodges 54). The costumes however became a subject of controversy when some aristocrats felt that actors could use them to disguise their social status, outside of the play-house (Howard 145). Costumes were also used to disguise the genders of actors. All actors in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time were men, so young boys were playing female’s parts, and they needed costumes that made them believable as females.

Even though Historians have managed to reconstruct the appearance of original theatres, even building the New Globe in London, much of the information on how plays were performed during this time has been lost, the only thing that gives us an idea as to how these plays were performed is the stage directions found in the text.  We don’t know much about the actors and how they chose to play the parts, except from what is written in first hand accounts of the plays (Howard 48).

The plays were performed daily with a different play every day; because the plays changed daily they needed some way to advertise what was to be shown that afternoon, so Flags were put up on the day of the performance which sometimes displayed a picture advertising the next play to be performed. Color coding was also used to advertise the type of play to be performed - a black flag meant a tragedy, white a comedy, and red a history (Elizabethan Era).

Just as we don’t know much about the theatre, or about the way the plays were actually performed we don’t know much about when King Henry IV was actually performed. It is generally assumed that the play was written and in performance by 1597(Lamb 9), this is not documented. The earliest performance we are certain of took place in 1600 when the play was acted in court for the Flemish ambassador. There were other court performances in 1612 and 1625(Lamb 15). These performances would have been considerably different than the performances described above. They took place in the houses of nobility, and at best a play company was asked to perform for “royals” about a dozen times a year (Gurr 25).

When they did perform for the court, there was a considerable amount of money paid for special effects, and scenery that would not have been used in the normal theatre performances. But the biggest difference in these performances is that they were of course inside and not nearly as crowded and members of nobility were considerably better behaved than the commoners that were found at the play-houses. So when plays took place at court there was typically no rotten vegetable throwing, and no shouting out by the audience members (Gurr 27).

Henry IV does not appear to have been popular as a play in court, so when it was seen it was probably with the distractions described earlier. However, it appears that the distractions were not distracting to theatre goers of the time; this play was actual one of Shakespeare’s more loved plays (Lamb 17). The play was printed in 1598, 1599,1604,1608,1613, 1622, 1623, 1632 and 1639 (Lamb 17). This huge number of printings means that the play was frequently performed and was a “commercial success”. So more often than not when a red flag was flying over a theatre it meant you were in for a performance of Henry IV.  This is thought to be because audiences loved the character of Falstaff, more likely than not they cheered when he was on stage, and laughed at him profusely (Lamb 17). In fact the character was such a crowd pleaser that Shakespeare put him in two more plays.

We may not know much about the way that Shakespearian plays were acted or performed or what the theatre looked like exactly. Nor do we actually know precisely how the audiences acted, but thanks to the scripts of the plays, and historical journals we can make some educated guesses.

Works Cited

Albright, Victor. The Shakespearian Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1926.

Alchin, L.K. "History of the Elizabethan Era." Elizabethan Era. 04 MAR 2008. Elizabethan Era. 11 Nov 2008      <>.

Best, Michael. "Shakespeare's Life and Times." Internet Shakespeare Editions. 2005. University ofVictoria:Victoria. 01 Nov 2008 <>.

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Shakespeare's world." Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.,1997.

Griffing, Jessica. "Audiences." 2006. 09 Nov 2008 <>.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642: 1574-1642. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hodges, Walter. The Globe Restored. New York: Coward McCann Inc.,

Howard, Jean. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Lamb, Sidney. Cliff's Complete Shakespeare's King Henry IV Part 1. Foster City CA: IDG Books Worldwide, 2000.

Rowse, A.L. The Elizabethan Renaissance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.

Weil, Herbert and Judith Weil. The First Part of King Henry IV, New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1997.