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Elizabethan Theatre

Learning resource for Elizabethan Theatre
by

Rebecca Hamilton

on 3 March 2015

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Transcript of Elizabethan Theatre

Elizabethan Theatre
What is it?
English drama during the reign of Elizabeth I, England's first great era of theatre was crowned by the emergence of the world most renowned dramatist William Shakespeare. Work for the stage shows the influence of ancient Greek and Roman playwrights, especially Seneca.
Also known as the 'Renaissance' a time of significant change in the fields of religion, politics and the arts
Staging
The theatre's were built in a lavish style and provided exciting visual effects, using ropes for flying entrances, trap doors for surprising entrances and exits. There are several differences between theatre now and Elizabethan theatre. Here are a few of the main differences;
There was no stage lighting so all of the plays were performed in daylight
The actors only had limited props and costumes
There were no female actors, so female roles were played by boys.
Audiences were a lot different to modern day audiences, many of them would stand in crowds and eat and drink while the performances were on.
The plays were performed in the round, meaning that the audience members are all around the stage
Some theatre's were outside, so were open to difficult weather conditions
The plays were unified expressions as far as social class was concerned: the Court watched the same plays the commoners saw in the public playhouses.
Costumes
Costumes would often be bright in colour and be visually enticing for an audience. As costumes were limited often they would be used in several plays until they were too worn to be used. Also as costumes were expensive often characters would wear contemporary clothing and only the lead character would have authentic costume.
The Law
It was illegal to wear items of clothing which indicated a high rank or status. This would have been disastrous for clothing actors in appropriate costumes relative to a King or noble. These English Sumptuary Laws were strictly obeyed and the penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of property, title and even life! Elizabethan men and women therefore only wore clothes that they were allowed to wear
Elizabethans understood the meaning of different colored clothing in relation to position and status. Nearly every color of clothing had its own meaning in relation to status and rank in Elizabethan theatre; these meanings were totally understood by the audience. The colors, materials and styles of the costumes therefore conveyed an enormous amount of information as soon as the actor walked on to the stage.
Actors
Elizabethan actors did not have a good reputation, they were seen as rogues and were treat with suspicion. As women were not allowed to perform often young boys were hired to play the female roles. Most of the actors did not have any acting training and were only trained in public speaking. This means that some of the performances may not have been 'acted' very well but the audience would have been very used to this.
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare is the most well known Elizabethan play write and is said to have wrote 38 plays, Shakespearean Sonnets and 5 other poems.
All Plays were regulated and were subject to censorship - the content of plays were checked to ensure that they did not contain political or religious elements which might threaten the state
What did he write
Shakespeare wrote many plays and they all fit into one of three categories; Tragedy, comedy or History
Comedies
Shakespearean comedies have a very different meaning to modern day comedy. When he wrote comedy plays this usually meant that there was a happy ending.
Tragedy
Shakespearean tragedies usually involve the fall of the 'Hero.'
History
Shakespearean history plays usually focus around the lives of English Kings
All's Well That End's Well
The play centers around Helena who is the orphan of a famous physician and is left in the care of the Countess of Rousillon. Helena is madly in love with Bertram but stands no hope of attracting him, despite her beauty as she is not of noble birth. However when word that the king is ill she goes to Paris, using her fathers arts she cures him. In return the king offers her the hand of any man in the realm, she chooses Bertram. Her new husband is appalled by the match and flees the country. The play then centers around Helena earning the love of Bertram.
Themes
Gender
The time in which this play was written women were not looked upon as equal to men, especially if you were of a lower class. So Helena marrying Bertram would have been seen as unacceptable. However Shakespeare reverses the gender role; making the audience love Helena and dislike Bertram. She takes on the traits of the 'hero' which would usually be a male character.
Social Class
From the beginning of the we are told that Helena possesses 'true' nobility and honor which you cannot be born with. Bertram however born into wealth and status, has no honor or nobility to speak of. This is another way Shakespeare manipulates the audience to like Helena and dislike Bertram. This theme is also reversing the social norm; the king orders Bertram to marry Helena, he sees that she has qualities that make her equal to him. It would have been rare to see the social status' merging; marrying someone of a higher or lower status.
Marriage
Usually Shakespearean comedies marriage is the thing that is suppose to make everything turn out well. However in this play Bertram is being forced into an unwanted marriage. By the end of the play it is questionable whether either character will enjoy the marriage. This play uses marriage as a device to explore whether or not marriage is the most important thing in society.
Performance History
In 1741 the work was played at Goodman's Fields, with a later transfer to Drury Lane. However a lot of actresses fell ill during the run, so the play was given an 'unlucky' reputation and this may have stopped other performances of the play.
An operatic version of the play was performed at Covent Garden in 1832
Full transcript