Description of the Elizabethan Theater

by Elaine Anderson
Shakespeare was one of the most famous playwrights in Elizabethan theater.

Shakespeare was one of the most famous playwrights in Elizabethan theater. Images

What is now known as the era of Elizabethan theater began after the banning of strolling players in England in 1572; the only legal theater troupes were employed by noblemen. Once Queen Elizabeth sanctioned the creation of troupes under a noble's employ, troupes began to perform in inn courtyards all across England. However, these spaces were not adequate for larger audiences, so permanent theater structures were built in 1577, ushering in the Elizabethan stage as we know it.


Elizabethan theater houses were modeled after Roman amphitheaters and could seat anywhere from 1500 to 3000 people. Unlike the theaters of today, Elizabethan theaters had fixed stages alongside blood sport rings for events like bearbaiting or cockfighting. Since the Elizabethans also admired Greek and Roman classical architecture, theaters occasionally featured great columns framing the entrances. However, these buildings were not built to last. Made largely of wood and completely open to the elements, the average lifespan of a theater house was six months.


With the construction of more permanent playhouses and the ceasing of touring throughout the country, the reputations of actors began to slowly improve. While acting still was not considered the most noble of professions, actors became far more respectable under the employment of noblemen than they had once been as strolling players. However, women were barred from acting on the Elizabethan stage, and the roles of women were played by young boys.


While several playwrights became popular during the Elizabethan era, none quite managed to outshine William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Both Shakespeare and Marlowe were poets as well as playwrights and both rose from working class families to fame on the Elizabethan stage. Marlowe and Shakespeare's plays focused around heavy themes such as loyalty, death, class structures and religion. These writers have entertained and moved audiences for over 400 years and their prowess helped bring forth a new and respectable era for theater.


The audience in the Elizabethan theater house ranged from noble to peasant, and due to seat prices they were often segregated by class standing. To stand in the pit just in front of the stage cost only a penny, but to be able to sit in the galleries or balconies cost around five pence. The audience members were often rowdy, playing cards, heckling, and eating during shows, and so actors often had to work to retain their attention.

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