The Commercial Theater in England

views updated

The Commercial Theater in England

From Participants to Audience.

As religious sensibilities changed in sixteenth-century England, styles of participation in drama altered. In the later Middle Ages many English men and women had taken part in the mounting of the great mystery cycles, but as these plays came gradually to be abandoned, and later to be suppressed, the vigorous traditions of community participation in drama disappeared. Where once English men and women had been active participants in staging local theater, they now became a receptive audience for plays that were performed by professional troupes of actors. London, far and away the largest city of the realm, became the great center in which a national theater emerged at the end of the sixteenth century. The playwrights who wrote for the new commercial theaters in London were, by and large, highly educated men. They possessed the advantages of humanist education, with its attention to the ancient dramas of Greece and Rome. From their boyhood days, most of these figures had likely participated in the classical dramas regularly staged in secondary schools throughout the country. At the same time, London's commercial theaters were always paying propositions, and those who wrote for them needed to take account of the educational level and middlebrow tastes of urban people. London's theater survived on the penny admissions paid by the city's day laborers, shopkeepers, and servant class. Thus the thorough imitation of Antiquity that was to be found in dramas staged in urbane courts throughout Europe never played a role in the public theater of England. Late Tudor drama had no wealthy patrons to underwrite production, so it had to appeal to an audience that was truly broad. This called for fast-moving, adventurous productions filled with elements of spectacle, song, and even occasional outbursts of violence. The evidence of attendance at these dramas as well as the steady proliferation of new theaters in the capital point to the growing popularity of the theater during the later years of Elizabeth I's reign. This popularity steadily mounted under the early Stuart kings in the seventeenth century.

Legal Considerations.

Yet before the professional theater could flourish, certain legal considerations and controversies had to be resolved. As elsewhere in Europe, city governments in England feared the itinerant troupes of players and entertainers who increasingly set up shop in the streets and market squares. Vagrancy, perceived as a great social ill at the time, caused urban governments in many places to look upon the spontaneous performances of street players as a form of beggary, since troupes regularly "passed the hat" to underwrite their expenses. They also perceived such spontaneous productions as a threat to public order because actors or plays might express dangerous political or religious sentiments that could foment rebellion. In London, like many cities throughout Europe, local officials might have preferred to legislate the theater out of existence altogether, if the actions of Parliament and the queen had not intervened. In 1572, an act of Parliament specifically exempted "players" from the list of people considered vagrants, so long as they worked in noble households or were employed by other persons of high degree. Two years later, Elizabeth granted one of her court favorites, the Earl of Leicester, a royal license that allowed his own players to perform in the city of London, so long as the royal censor, known as the Master of the Revels, first observed the troupe's plays. While London's officials tried to countermand the queen's will, Leicester's troupe set up shop in the town in 1574 and began performing regularly on weekdays.


introduction: In August of 1597, a play performed at the new Swan Theater in London caused a great uproar and excited the wrath of the queen's Privy Council. Exactly what was in the play The Isle of the Dogs has remained a mystery, since all copies were seized and destroyed. Its authors, Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, were soon forced to leave town. The following order of the Council shows that it was frequently dangerous to write plays in late sixteenth-century London.

Upon information given us of a lewd play that was played in one of the playhouses on the Bank-side, containing very seditious and slanderous matter, we caused some of the players to be apprehended and committed to prison, whereof one of them was not only an actor but a maker of the said play. [That was Ben Jonson.]

For as much as it is thought meet that the rest of the players or actors in that matter shall be apprehended to receive such punishment as their lewd and mutinous behaviour doth deserve, these shall be therefore to require you to examine those of the players that are committed, whose names are known to you. Mr. Topcliffe, what is become of the rest of their fellows that either had their parts in the devising of that seditious matter, or that were actors or players in the same; what copies they have given forth of the said play and to who, and such other points as you shall think meet to be demanded of them, wherein you shall require them to deal truly as they will look to receive any favour.

We pray you also to peruse such papers as were found in Nashe his lodgings which Ferrys, a Messenger of the Chamber, shall deliver unto you, and to certify us the examination you take …

source: "The Privy Council Orders the Arrest of the Other Members of the Company and the Other Co-Author, Thomas Nashe, for Interrogation, 15 August 1597," in English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Ed. Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, William Ingram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 102.

London Theaters.

Despite royal sanction the players still faced the determined opposition of London's leadership, and two years later the troupe's leader, James Burbage, decided to build a company outside London's city walls in the northern suburb of Shoreditch. Here in the area known as the Liberties of London, the troupe might be free from interference from the city's officials. Long tradition had identified these fringe suburbs as areas of license, sexual immorality, and disease. The city's lazarettes, the place of isolation for those with leprosy and other contagious diseases, had long been located there, as were many brothels. Initially, then, the move to the Liberties bolstered the shady reputation of theaters in many Londoners' eyes, and the theaters were widely condemned—perhaps nowhere more vigorously than in the sermons of the city's Puritan preachers. At the same time, the sense of danger and the forbidden proved to be a popular draw for those in search of excitement. Burbage had grasped that the freewill gifts of his audiences were never going to provide sufficient income for the new scale of his enterprise, and so he introduced the paid admission. For just a few pennies, Londoners could indulge their longing for spectacle and drama to relieve the tedium of daily existence. Burbage called his new structure simply the Theater, and the design he chose was for a simple polygonal structure with three tiers of galleries that surrounded the stage. Later in 1598, as the lease on the land on which the Theater was built expired, the company had the building dismantled. They carted the timbers across the Thames and constructed the new Globe Theater, the site that in the seventeenth century was to see some of Shakespeare's greatest triumphs. But in the months and years that immediately followed the building of Burbage's original Theater in Shoreditch, other acting troupes copied the structure, and soon Leiceister's original company had considerable competition. A few months after Burbage's house had opened in Shoreditch, a rival company erected another theater known as the Curtain in the same area. A few years later, two financiers, Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley, built the Rose at Bankside, on the southern shores of the River Thames. With the construction of the Rose, a small theatrical district began to grow in Bankside. By the end of the century the Swan and the rebuilt Theater of James Burbage (now the Globe) had also taken up residence there. Finally, to the north of the city, the Fortune was the last of the great sixteenth century houses to be constructed. But even it was to be followed in the seventeenth century by a series of new theaters constructed like a ring around the city.

Restrictions on Actors.

English law prohibited women from appearing on the stage, thus making it necessary for female roles to be portrayed by men. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries boy troupes were popular in the city as well. One of these, the "Children of Pauls," was a group of young boys originally drawn from the ranks of choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral. Another troupe, the Children of the Royal Chapel, served the Tudor court as choristers and performers. A series of able playwrights wrote for both boy companies, and by the end of the 1570s these troupes were competing successfully against the adult companies in London's new commercial theaters. The Children of the Royal Chapel, sometimes called merely the Chapel Boys, had by this time actually blazed a trail in occupying a theater within the city walls in London. At Blackfriars monastery, an institution whose religious mission had been abolished by the Tudor monarch Henry VIII, the boys' impresario Richard Farrant decided to convert a series of rooms into an indoor theater. The City of London opposed his designs, but since the boys were royal choristers and Blackfriars' monastery possessed liberty from the City of London's control, town officials were unable to stop his plans.


At the end of the 1580s the star of the adult troupes moved in the ascendant. Between 1587 and his death in 1593, the great playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote a series of widely admired tragedies that were generally unsuited to being performed by boys. Marlowe relied on the commanding skills of the actor Edward Alleyn, a figure who was larger than life, to play his Faustus and other major roles. At the same time opinion in London also turned against the boys, as the managers of the troupes involved themselves in religious controversy. Puritanism, a fervid religious opponent of the theater, was at the time coming to influence the city's ministers and officials, despite the growing opposition to the movement on the part of the queen and court. In the Marprelate Controversy of 1588–1589, the archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift attempted to silence this Puritan opposition by a strict application of his authority to censor the press. Widespread indignation inspired pamphleteers to publish furtively a series of satirical tracts under the name "Martin Marprelate," and these, in turn, soon inspired many Londoners to withhold their tithes. As the controversy mounted, the leaders of the boy's troupes supported the archbishop's position, and as a result, public sentiment turned against them. Both the Children of the Royal Chapel and the Boys of Pauls spent the next decade largely touring the countryside, staging their plays for provincials throughout England. By 1599, the situation had cooled off, and the Boys of Pauls returned, to be followed a few months later by the Children of the Royal Chapel. They took up residence in private theaters, the Chapel troupe returning to its former space at Blackfriars. Eventually, there were eight of these private theaters in London and, like the boys' troupes themselves, these theaters appealed to a more cultivated clientele. They were fully enclosed, protected from the elements, and lit with candles. For these luxuries the private theaters charged anywhere from three to six times the admission fees of the much larger public theaters on the city's outskirts. In the early seventeenth century they performed the most up-to-date repertory in London. Blackfriars was always the most successful and exclusive of the private theaters, and in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Children of the Royal Chapel scored a number of successes in the productions they staged there. At this time, the troupe developed a particularly fruitful relationship with the comic author Ben Jonson. He seems actually to have preferred to write for boy troupes, perhaps because, unlike other playwrights of the time, he was jealous of his texts. The troupes' impresarios tightly managed the actors, thus allowing Jonson to preserve the integrity of the dramas he had written. Buoyed by the success of Jonson's light, satirical fare, the Children of the Royal Chapel staged a string of early seventeenth-century successes.

Practical Considerations.

The early theaters were not always profitable. They were ordered closed during times of epidemic and plays were not permitted during certain seasons of the year, including the 40 days of Lent and periods of royal mourning. An outbreak of the plague during 1592 also resulted in a long period of closure that forced many playwrights to scramble to find new sources of income. The lack of proper artificial lighting meant that plays could only be performed during daylight hours at the large public theaters. Particularly bad weather cancelled many performances, since the theaters were open to the elements. In order to make them profitable the owners of early theaters sometimes allowed other amusements. The designs of the earliest theaters, with their galleries arranged above a pit for standing spectators, were equally well adapted to bear baiting and cockfighting, both popular amusements at the time. The earliest theaters seem to have alternated their plays with these "sports." But by around 1590, these sidelines were no longer necessary to establish profitability. In 1587, for example, Philip Henslowe remodeled his Rose theater, expanding its seating from around 2,000 to 2,400. His renovations effectively curtailed the structure's adaptability to bear baiting. The building of larger theaters became a trend. Built around 1595, the Swan had a capacity for around 3,000 patrons. The Swan, however, seems always to have been a particularly unlucky theater. In 1597, a performance there found disfavor with the government and the queen's Privy Council banned all theatrical performances around London. The company disbanded, and when the theaters reopened, the Swan proved unable to recover. Amateur groups, several touring professional troupes, and prizefight events rented out the building. By the 1630s, contemporaries noted that it had "fallen into decay." The decor of places like the Swan alternated between the grand and the mundane. The stage and columns supporting the galleries were ornamented with rich carvings, and the stage's roof was usually painted underneath so that it appeared like an elaborate canopy. The floors of the pit, though, were paved with industrial slag, a waste material frequently used on sixteenth-century streets. Above in the galleries, there were benches upon which people might sit, but the space accorded each spectator seems to have been less than twenty inches wide.


Theater owners and troupes were remarkably pragmatic in choosing the works they performed. They favored authors who could turn out plays quickly and who had a keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of the players in their particular company. Plays frequently had multiple authors, and actors in the troupes often moonlighted as playwrights. Artistic value was not as important as dramas with a broad popular appeal, and writers who could churn out a great succession of suitable plays had the greatest success. Writers often took advantage of recent spectacular events in the city, such as notorious murders and other crimes, for their material. This meant that authors had to work quickly, investigating these tragedies and quickly exploiting them in popular stage productions. Consequently many late sixteenth-century English dramatists were more like modern journalists than literary artists. At the same time, the late sixteenth century did see the appearance of a group of sophisticated playwrights who became known as the University Wits. The term was at first used disparagingly by the actors in London troupes to describe the more sophisticated tastes and elegant style of a group of playwrights who possessed university training. These included John Lyly (1553–1606), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), George Peele (1558–1596), and Thomas Nashe (1567–1601). John Lyly was the first of this group to make his mark upon the theater. Trained at both Oxford and Cambridge, he made his way into court circles in London with the aid of powerful patronage. In his prose literary works Lyly established a complex and ornate style which became known as "euphuism," in reference to the author's first romance Euphues, published in 1578. His most successful play was Endimion, a work in which his central character Cynthia is a flattering portrait of Elizabeth I. Although euphuism had many imitators, by the end of the century

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

a new fashion for fast-paced dramas made Lyly's ornate verse and stately prose seem old fashioned.


The greatest of the university-educated playwrights of the time was Christopher Marlowe, who had been born the son of a Cambridge shoemaker and later attended the university in his hometown. The queen's minister Thomas Walsingham recruited Marlowe as an undergraduate to spy for England. He traveled to France where he uncovered evidence of plots being staged against England's monarch. Returning to Cambridge, he received the MA in 1587, but only after a row with his college's administrators, because Marlowe refused to take holy orders, a condition of the scholarly stipend he had received to this point. He settled in London, sharing rooms with the playwright Thomas Kyd and making acquaintances with powerful friends at court, including Sir Philip Sydney and Sir Walter Ralegh. In the very same year that he arrived in the city, he startled London viewers and actors with his innovative play, Tamburlaine the Great, the first English drama to be written in blank verse, a form of unrhymed poetry that was immediately hailed for its great strength of expression. He followed the successes of Tamburlaine with The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Doctor Faustus, all three tragedies. Although the last play is among his most famous, many critics consider Edward II (1592) to be his most accomplished work. In it, he relates the story of an ill-fated homosexual king murdered by his powerful barons in a plain, but powerful style. Before Marlowe's time, the writing of historical plays had been a relatively crude dramatic genre. In Edward he elevated the historical play to a point of high art, one that was to be extended even further in the early seventeenth century by the great histories of Shakespeare. Of the three masterpieces that Marlowe wrote in the final years of his short life, Dr. Faustus has been much revived in the twentieth century. It was the most religious of Marlowe's creations, with its personification of the battle between good and evil and its powerful condemnations of the overweaning pride of humankind. In 1593, Marlowe came under suspicion of heresy; he appeared in court to answer charges that he had uttered "atheistic" statements. On his way he was killed at the home of Eleanor Bull, apparently in a quarrel, although mystery has long surrounded the precise circumstances. It appears plausible that the play-wright's espionage activities doomed him to an act of official assassination.

Other Playwrights.

Other members of the circle of university-educated playwrights in London—George Peele, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe—each produced interesting works that shaped the tastes of lesser dramatists. After graduating from Oxford, George Peele came to London where he at first staged civic pageants and wrote ceremonial verses for the court. After writing several works of middling quality, Peele completed The Old Wives Tale. The work satirized contemporary dramatic genres and displayed a warm-hearted comedic style. Thomas Nashe, a Cambridge-educated playwright, seems to have been altogether more tempestuous. Seemingly expelled from Cambridge before he took the MA, he came to London around 1587 and began to collaborate with Marlowe on the writing of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Several years later he established his literary reputation with the publication of a short pamphlet, Pierce Penniless, that told the story of a writer so hard up for cash that he sells his soul to the devil—a fate that Nashe seems to have shared. Several other Nashe pamphlets attacked great figures in the Elizabethan world, and from time to time he fell afoul of the authorities. In 1597, he collaborated with the playwright Ben Jonson in writing The Isle of the Dogs, a drama produced at the Swan Theater which caused such an uproar, the Queen's Privy Council issued an order for the destruction of all London's theaters. Although the destruction never took place, the theaters remained closed for several months, and the scandal forced Nashe to flee town. The reason for such a violent reaction has long remained a mystery, since the government immediately seized and destroyed all copies of the text. The author Thomas Kyd (1558–1594) is today remembered for a single masterpiece, The Spanish Tragedy, first produced around 1589. Unlike his roommate Marlowe, Kyd was not university-educated although he had received primary and secondary schooling in London. He had studied Seneca's tragic forms, and he adapted these as the structure for his famous tragedy. While the work


introduction: Christopher Marlowe's play, A Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, made use of a tale that had recently circulated in Germany about an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for magical power and wisdom. Marlowe elevated the original simple story by adding elements of classical tragedy, including the following concluding monologue by Faustus just before he is led off by the devil. For Marlowe, Faustus became symptomatic of humankind's pride and its ambitions of mastering Creation. The play, like Marlowe's earlier and popular work, Tamburlaine the Great, helped to establish blank or unrhymed verse's popularity upon the Elizabethan stage.

Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven
That time may cease, and midnight never come.
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day, or let this hour be but a year,
A month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent, and save his soul,
O lente lente curite noctis equi:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
Oh, I'll leap up to my God. Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament,
One drop would save my soul, half a drop, ah my Christ.
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ,
Yet will I call on him, oh spare me Lucifer!
Where is it now? 'tis gone:
And see where God stretches out his arm,
And bends his ireful brows:
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God.
No, no, then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth gape, O no, it will not harbour me.
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist,
Into the entrails of yon' laboring cloud,
That when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.
Ah, half the hour is past.

[The clock strikes the half hour]

'Twill all be past anon.
Oh God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,
Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me,
Impose some end to my incessant pain,
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd.
O no end is limited to damned souls,
Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or, why is this immortal that thou hast?
Ah Pythagoras' metempsychosis were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be changed
Unto some brutish beast. All beasts are happy, for when they die
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements,
But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.
Curst be the parents that engendered me.
No Faustus, curse thy self, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.

[The clock strikes twelve.]

O it strikes, it strikes, now body turn to air,
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell.
Oh soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the Ocean, ne'er be found.

[The devils enter]

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me.
Adders, and Serpents, let me breathe a while.
Ugly hell, gape not, come not Lucifer,
I'll burn my books, ah Mephistopheles!

[Faustus exits with the devil.]

source: Christopher Marlowe, A Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (London, 1604): fol. F2-F3. Spelling and punctuation modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

is a masterpiece in its own right, it has long been seen as the model for Shakespeare's even greater and far better known seventeenth-century tragedies. Long standing but unproven theories have speculated that Kyd also wrote a version of the story of Hamlet that has since been lost, but which influenced Shakespeare in the writing of his play. He died in 1594 after having been implicated in heresy together with his roommate Marlowe. Kyd had been tortured to give evidence against Marlowe, and never seems to have recovered fully from his wounds.


Another great playwright who was perfecting his craft as the century drew to a close was Ben Jonson (1572–1637) Jonson went on to write a series of brilliant comedies in the years between 1605 and 1614. This achievement came after a long period of apprenticeship, in which he followed a variety of careers and became embroiled in several controversies. After receiving a brilliant education at the public school in Westminster under the direction of the English humanist William Camden, he served for a time as a bricklayer with his stepfather. He then became a mercenary who fought in Flanders, before going to London to try his fortunes as an actor. In 1597, he worked with Thomas Nashe on the ill-fated play, The Isle of the Dogs, the work that for a time threatened to extinguish the London theater altogether. A year later he became embroiled in another court trial after killing a fellow actor in a duel, and he narrowly escaped execution by pleading that he was a member of the clergy. The independent streak that Jonson continued to display throughout his life might easily have snuffed out the life of a lesser soul. Many Tudor playwrights died in brawls or fell afoul of royal and civic authorities, but Jonson survived to write a series of fine works, most of which date from the period between 1605 and 1614. King James I frequently recruited him to produce formal masques for the court.


England's greatest poet and playwright is also in many respects the country's most enigmatic and least known. Unlike the university wits that stormed onto the new commercial stage in London in the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare did not possess a higher education. Little is known about his early life, in part, because the author seems to have lacked the desire for self-promotion typical of the more flamboyant figures like Marlowe, Kyd, and Nashe. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, the son of a prosperous local glove maker and one of the town's councillors. He likely attended a local school, but he may not have completed his education. His father's business soon went bad, and the future playwright seems to have entered into a hasty marriage with Anne Hathaway in 1582, just as he turned eighteen. Six months later the couple had a daughter, who later married a prosperous local physician. The marriage also produced twins in 1585, one of whom died at age eleven, the other surviving to live a long life. Between the births of these children and 1592, nothing is known of Shakespeare's life. He may have left Stratford to tour with a troupe of London actors, as some have argued. But in 1592, the first notice of Shakespeare as a writer establishes that he was already well known on the London scene. The university wit Robert Greene referred to Shakespeare in one of his own plays as an "upstart crow" and hinted that the author had plagiarized some of his verses from other dramas.


Other evidence suggests that at this time Shakespeare served a kind of apprenticeship alongside professional playwrights in the city, and scholars have identified a long list of plays in which the author may have played a role. But since many of the texts used in late sixteenth-century theaters were the products of players, troupes, and groups of authors, it is impossible to identify Shakespeare's contributions with any kind of certainty. In 1594, Shakespeare bought into the company of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a popular troupe in the city. How he earned or received the capital to do so has never been established, but some evidence suggests that the powerful Earl of Southampton was his patron at the time. By 1594, Shakespeare had already completed three of his famous comedies: The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew. Other works from this early period included his famous Richard III and Titus Andronicus. In this period Shakespeare lived close to the Theater, which was still on its original site in Shoreditch, and in the years between 1594 and 1598 he continued to write plays, usually at the rate of about two each year. Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet are among the best known dramas from this period of Shakespeare's first maturity. As the uproar over the production of The Isle of the Dogs threatened London's theaters with permanent closure, Shakespeare began to invest in other businesses, including a brewery. Even though the crisis the play occasioned eventually subsided, the playwright's fears of the uncertainties of theatrical life seem to have persisted. He later bought several properties to secure his future. Besides threats of closure, the examples of many of his fellow playwrights who fell victim to charges of heresy and sedition no doubt deepened his concern. In 1599, the Lord Chamberlain's Men moved into the new Globe Theater in Bankside, a building constructed from the remains of Burbage's original Theater in Shoreditch. In the first decade of the troupe's residency at the facility Shakespeare produced his greatest works. These included his finest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It ; his great Roman historical plays and tragedies, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra ; and the tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. By 1613, this extraordinary period of creativity and productivity was largely at an end. In that year the Globe Theater burned down, and the author seems to have retired from any further involvement with his company. It has never been determined whether Shakespeare spent the last years of his life in London or in Stratford.

Tudor Roots of Stuart Achievement.

The enormous achievement of Shakespeare, an achievement that belongs more to the seventeenth than the sixteenth century, can easily obscure the other craftsman-like, accomplished, and even brilliant playwrights who plied their craft in the Elizabethan period. While much drama in this period was little more than crowd-pleasing and soon forgotten after its initial performances, many playwrights produced truly great works in Elizabethan London. Had Shakespeare never written his later plays, the achievements of Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe might now loom as large as Hamlet or Macbeth. The plays of the late sixteenth century garnered the attention of the urban population and forged an art form that was distinctly middlebrow, aimed as it was at a broad, truly popular audience. Within forms that audiences found pleasing, many of England's most learned playwrights still managed to elevate their dramas and at the same time make their moral, political, and intellectual pronouncements intelligible to a wide swath of the urban population. In this way, learned authors played an important role as transmitters, both of the knowledge contained in older medieval traditions as well as that drawn from the newer humanist learning of the Renaissance.


M. Banham, ed., The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

G. K. Hunter, English Drama, 1586–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

S. Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

S. Trussler, Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theater (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

About this article

The Commercial Theater in England

Updated About content Print Article