Elizabethan Theater in Shakespeare's Time

The plays performed by traveling actors that Shakespeare had seen in Stratford-upon-Avon were far different from what he found upon his arrival in London. The religious pageants and morality plays of the Middle Ages had evolved into full-fledged secular drama. More importantly, London provided the first established spaces especially constructed for playing. It was James Burbage, father to Richard, who opened the first public theater in Shoreditch in 1577. Two important new plays written by university men in 1564 (the year of Shakespeare's birth) were beginning to have an impact on public theater. These were Ralph Roister Doister (the first regular comedy in English) and Gorboduc (the first regular tragedy in English); blank verse and imaginative stories freed the minds of young playwrights even as an established, reliable playing space spurred on production of new plays.

Elizabethan audiences cheered at public executions where victims were put to death by hanging. To add more gore to these “death performances,” enemies of the Crown were “drawn and quartered,” in which the body was sliced open and the entrails put on display. Traitors were beheaded, their heads held aloft by the executioner, then left to rot on pikes as a warning to others who might defy the power of the monarch. Shakespeare's plays had to please these same people. The Globe, in fact, followed the design of a bear-baiting pit.

Drama in England began with folk festivals and religious liturgy. Songs and dances and performances known as “mummings” (the source for the “Mummers Parade” in New Orleans) helped farming communities celebrate the turn of the seasons. Those same people would encounter a higher art in church, in ceremonies like that marked by the tenth-century Quem Queritas tropes. “Quem queritas” means “Whom do you seek,” the words spoken by a New Testament angel to the three women who approach the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. In a chanted exchange, different voices continue the story. Though the text was in Latin, dialogue had been born.

Eventually, entire plots drawn from the Bible and set in English were performed inside churches. These began a tradition of plays that were played out in great “cycles” of stories whose scenes would be mounted on pageant wagons brought from town to town. As the performances grew more comic and more sensational, the Church grew nervous and moved the new plays outdoors. Other plays that taught moral lessons moved to inn yards on moving scaffolds. Though the subject matter of these public plays would remain religious, a new direction had been taken. The theater had gone public both in space and in language.

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