The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) ushered in an era of well being, new
discoveries and artistic pursuits in England. The theatre as entertainment flourished
and became popular. Its popularity matched that of 5 th Century Greece. The Elizabethan
age is often extended till 1642 when the theatres were closed under the Puritanical
revival. Here are its most prominent characteristics:
In the Elizabethan Times, Drama became the national passion with a wide variety of
people from merchants to peasants vied for a place in the social order and stability in
the Elizabethan. The new Elizabethan introduced a hero who was not ascertain of his
fate and was full of doubts and passions that catapulted drama as the favorite pass time
for many The use of expansive metaphors in text and performances were so successful
lead to the opening of first public theatre known as ‘The Theatre’ by a carpenter James
Burbage. This was the spark that ignited the passion that led to Charlotte Marlowe, Ben
Jonson and Shakespeare and his famous "The Globe" in the future.
This age is also known for experimentation leading to new discoveries which provided
rich content for drama, poetry and prose. Use of theology, geography and science
provided new dimension to literature of the time.
However, with the crowing of James I content became a tool for glorification of absolute
royal power. The drama of the time became an exercise for propaganda glorifying the
King and the monarchy. The development of the proscenium stage was attributed to this
age only. There was emphasis on visual with the designer gaining importance in this
There were political considerations as well as uncontrolled large crowds encouraged
immoral behavior with the coming of Puritan age theatre was resigned to private homes
and public houses until the its revival by Charles II in 1660.
2- The theatre
Renaissance period influenced many properties of the theatre like actors were attached
to companies that performed throughout the country. They enjoyed aristocratic
patronage and survived the lean winter moths easily on such appreciation. Lord
Admiral’s Men which had Christopher Marlowe on the ranks were the leading company
of the time with Lord Chamberlain’s Men had a budding William Shakespeare.
The performances were held in open like the public courtyards, inns etc with lavish
entrances behind them and windows. Spaces were craftily used to create the scenes of
heaven and hell etc. Specifically constructed theatres were still not available.
The facial features, body language and more garments of an actor were cleverly manipulated to
establish drama in his/her personality. There were scare props so costumes became lavish with
loud and extravagant appearances. Costumes used by actors like red wig, long hooked nose gave
a sense of comic chrome to the vindictive and greedy nature of man. There were many
features of Elizabethan theatre that was violative of sanctity of godliness with
Tranvestism being quite popular (men dressed up as women on stage, a Biblical sin).
There were mainly three forms of drama:
1. Tragedy with spectacular and violent deaths of the protagonist. Revenge became the
ultimate pursuit in most tragedies with Romance as the main objective,
2. History plays also ended in catastrophe or in triumph with the nation projected as the
hero. Histories valorized patriotism, often of jingoistic nature.
3. Comedy was the third form. The main aim was to make people laugh but they were
not as prominent as the other two genres.
With Shakespeare’s ;The Comedy of Errors” and "Taming of the Shrew", humor became
farcical. The superficiality of Court comedies like "Midsummer Night's Dream" was
another highlight of the age.
There were also satirical plays for the likes of Ben Jonson etc who preferred the
substance over show. Tragedy became the most popular genre and was replete with
violence, horror and gore.
Among the various popular themes was Anti-Semitism as Elizabethan society and is
reflected in plays of the periwas rife with such hatred as seen in Christopher
Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Revenge was another popular theme. Be it a ghost like in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish
Tragedy or a Prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the motive of revenge became the main
counter-motive in drama especially tragedies. Practical set plays and costumes also
added to the passionate rendering of such revenge plots and realistic portrayals on
Another theme that was prominent was the supernatural as the society of the time was
highly superstitious with people believing in the supernatural forces. Ghosts became the
prime moving force in many tragedies.
Use of psychology was extensive and was founded on the theory of humours inside a
human body, namely, blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Mental health was a
function of correct balance between these humours or bodily fluids like in Ben
Jonson's Every Man in His Humour , also referred as the "comedy of humours".
Several devices were used to instill a level of awe and intrigue in the drama. Asides or
private conversations and soliloquy are used to engage with the audience and became
quite popular. .
Iambic pentameter with five two-syllable units or "feet" was the most popular
construction of the age. Use of Blank Verse without the iambic pentameter was also used
profusely in Elizabethan plays. It was usually restricted to the characters of noble origins
Rhymed couplets or couple verses of poetry are used to signal the end of a part or act,
Use of abuses and insults is also extensive in the Elizabethan drama with verbal dueling,
a strong suit of Shakespearean plays. Like s of ‘ungrateful fox’ or ‘a plague-sore" are
plastered all over his plays.
Clever wordplay and puns were employed like in Romeo and Juliet to incite a level of
layering to the characters.
Use of subterfuge like a disguise was used frequently as a means to obtain secret
information like in Shakespeare's As You Like It.