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The Evolution of the Elizabethan Playhouse

Within the span of Shakespeare's birth and death there took place a vital melioration of the conditions of English acting and playgoing, together with some slight improvement in the status of the player. It is true that, subject to certain reservations, the stage still remained, as it had been constituted by Act of Parliament, a banned vocation. But, if viewed with no favourable eye by the middle classes, the player had already won the countenance of the court, and taken thereby a stride towards his enfranchisement.

In 1576, or nine years before William Shakespeare arrived in London, an epoch-marking event in stage annals had taken place. This was the erection in Moore-fields, outside the city boundaries, of the Theater, a structure without prototype, ranking not only as the first permanent English playhouse but as the first organised public theatre in modern Europe. It is matter of curiosity, as well as importance, that an event which deflected the trend of Elizabethan dramaturgy and led to the immediate systemization of the player's irregular calling should have been brought about purely by force of outward circumstance.

No evidence exists to show that up to the period when James Burbage solved a difficult problem by building the Theater under protection of a royal patent, either players or playgoers were otherwise than content with the primitive histrionic conditions obtaining in the several inn-yards. For years it had been customary to give performances twice or three times a week on removable stages - possibly the "boards and barrel-heads" referred to in The Poetaster as the later resource of "strutters" - in the yards of well-known hostels like the Cross Keys in Grace-church Street, the Bull in Bishopsgate Street, and the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill.

In divers ways these ill-regulated assemblies had given dire offence to the Puritans who constituted the Common Council. In recurrent periods of plague they were always viewed as a menace to the public health, and every outbreak was marked by prohibition of acting. Despite all protests, the players persisted in desecrating the Lord's Day by their performances. Apprentices had been distracted from their work by the allurements of Melpomene and Thalia; there had been "sundry slaughters and maimings of the Queen's subjects" by falling scaffolds and ill-handled stage ordnance; and, worst of all, young maids and good citizens' daughters had been inveigled into "privie and unmete contracts" in the rooms overlooking the yards. 1

In December, 1574, the Common Council had issued an order imposing municipal censorship of the drama, and it was only a question of time as to when the players would be expelled from the city.2 Forewarned, however, was forearmed, and, when it came, the blow fell on well protected shoulders.

When a decision was arrived at to migrate northwards to the Liberty of Halliwell, in Shoreditch, with the view of nullifying the gravity of the situation, Burbage and his associates were forced to evolve a suitable playhouse out of their varied experiences, both in public and in private, in town and country. For the reason that the old bull and bear-baiting amphitheatres on the Bankside potently indicated how the greatest number of spectators could be accommodated in the least possible space, the Theater was built, like them, of wood and circular or octagonal in shape. Doubtless its near neighbour of a year or so later, the Curtain, was constructed on similar lines. 3

Burbage's house was so elaborately decorated that John Stockwood, in a sermon delivered at Paul's Cross on August 24, 1578, could refer to it as "the gorgeous playing place erected in the fields." "The painted stage" or "painted theatres" is the phrase applied to the two Shoreditch houses at different periods by Gabriel Harvey 4 in his letters, and Spenser in his Tears of the Muses (1591). One recalls in this connection what Johannes de Witt wrote a few years later concerning the Swan, whose columns were "painted in such excellent imitation of marble that it might deceive even the most cunning."

In keeping with his quality as pariah, the Elizabethan player entertained no very lofty opinion of his calling, made no particular effort to keep the temple of the Muses undesecrated. The fact that neither the Theater nor the Curtain was intended solely for dramatic purposes postulated to some extent their internal arrangement. We know from Stow 5 that both were built "for the shewe of, Activities, comedies, tragedies and histories for recreation." What the the word "activities" here implies can be gathered from a characteristic passage in Gosson's Plays confuted in Five Actions (1582), wherein it is maintained that the devil entices the eye in the play-house by sending in "garish apparell, masques, vaulting, tumbling, dauncing of gigges, galiardes, moriscoes, hobby horses, shewing of judgeling castes - nothing forgot that might serve to set out the matter withpompe, or ravish the beholders with variety of pleasure."

Other side shows, such as fencing matches, were also held in the Shoreditch playhouses. The public uses to which they were put were practically without limit. Following on the heels of his visit to London in 1596, Ludwig, Prince of Anhalt, wrote a poem commemorative of his travels, in which he pointed out that the English capital boasted four theatres 6, which were utilised, not only for dramatic purposes, but for the baiting of bulls and bears and for cockfights. Most of these cruel and debasing exhibitions demanded a clear arena: hence probably the main reason why the inn-yard principle of the removable stage was adopted at the Theater and the Curtain.

As a matter of fact little deviation took place at either house from the stage conventionalities and play-going habitudes of the inn-yard era. So insensible was the transition that the space occupied by the groundlings (who remained standing at all save the private theatres for long after Shakespeare's day) inherited the old designation of "yard." 7 That the later term "pit" was a contraction of "cock-pit", in part confirming the statement of Ludwig, Prince of Anhalt, is clearly indicated in Leonard Digges' lines on Shakespeare's Poems (1640):
Let but Beatrice
And Benedicke be seen, loe in a trice
The cock-pit, galleries, boxes, are all full,
To hear Malvoglio that crosse-garter'd gull.


1. Collier's Hist. Eng. Dram. Poetry (1831), i. p. 214 note.
2. The expulsion probably came circa 1582, but the order is undaed. Cf. Mr. E. K. Chambers's review of Ordish's Early London Theatres in The Academy for August 24, 1 895.
3. The Theater and the Curtain were two of the four "amphitheatra" referred to by Johannes de Witt, It is plain to be seen that no square-shaped playhouse existed in 1593, else of a surety Nash would not have written then in The Unfortunate Traveller: "I sawe a banketting house belonging to a merchant that was the meruaile of the world ... It was builte round of green marble like a Theater without;" &c. See the prologue to Old Fortunatus (1599) for indication of the circular disposition of the auditorium of the Rose.
4. The Letter Book of Gabriel Harvey, 1573-80 (Camden Society 1884), p. 67.
5. T. Fairman Ordish, Early London Theatres, p. 45, et seq.
6. The other two probably being the Rose and Newington Butts, both on the south side. Cf. W. B. Rye, England as seen by Foreigners, p. 133.
7. So, too, the signboard by which the playhouse was known, the system of preliminary payment at the door and secondary "gathering" in the galleries, and the three trumpet-blasts shortly before the performance were all relics of the inn-yard period.

How to cite this article:
Lawrence, W. J. "The Elizabethan playhouse, and other studies." Stratford: Shakespeare head press, 1912. Shakespeare Online. 18 Dec. 2011. < >.


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Frontispiece to The Wits, 1663.