Students often ask me “What exactly is Elizabethan theatre?” I am convinced part of the confusion lies with the title, itself. Is Elizabethan theatre an historical period, just Shakespeare’s plays, a theatre style, or all of the above?
Sometimes, performance styles are associated with periods in history (and hence, theatre history) and Elizabethan theatre (or Elizabethan drama) is one of these examples. Historically, Elizabethan theatre refers to plays performed in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Students of theatre often forget Shakespeare was not the only playwright during this time (somewhat understandable when they hear the term “Shakespearean drama” so regularly). Shakespeare’s contemporaries included the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Heywood and Robert Greene. These and other playwrights also wrote and performed their plays in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Many of the conventions used in public performances of Elizabethan plays were so recognisable, today Elizabethan theatre is not only referred to as a specific period in theatre history, but also as a theatre style.
Here are some of the more identifiable acting and staging conventions common to Elizabethan theatre:
Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” is literature’s most famous soliloquy. This popular Elizabethan convention is a literary or dramatic technique in which a single character talks aloud inner thoughts to him or herself, but not within earshot of another character. Typically, a soliloquy is lengthy with a dramatic tone.
The aside existed in Shakespeare’s times, but happily continued into the melodramas of the 19th century many years later. An aside is a convention that usually involves one character addressing the audience “on the side”, offering them valuable information in relation to the plot or characters that only the audience is privy to. The audience now feels empowered, knowing more about the events on stage than most of the characters do.
Acting in Elizabeth’s England was frowned upon my many in society as a profession unsuitable for women, as it was rough and rowdy instead of genteel. As a result, women were not legally permitted to act on the English stage until King Charles II was crowned in the year 1660 (even though women were already acting in various European countries in Commmedia dell’Arte plays for some years). Shakespeare and his contemporaries therefore had no choice but to cast young boys in the roles of women, while the men played all the male roles on stage.
Existing before Elizabethan England and also outliving it, the masque was normally performed indoors at the King or Queen’s court. Spoken in verse, a masque involved beautiful costumes and an intellectual element appropriate for the mostly educated upper class. Masques were allegorical stories about an event or person involving singing, acting and dancing. Characters wore elaborate masks to hide their faces.
Eavesdropping was a dramatic technique that sat neatly between a soliloquy and an aside. Certain characters would strategically overhear others on stage, informing both themselves and the audience of the details, while the characters being overheard had no idea what was happening. This convention opened up opportunities for the playwright in the evolving plot.
Presentational Acting Style
It is generally agreed by scholars Elizabethan acting was largely presentational in style. Plays were more overtly a “performance” with clues the actors were aware of the presence of an audience instead of completely ignoring them as part of their art. Movements and gestures were more stylised and dramatic than one might ordinarily expect in a modern naturalistic or realistic drama, speech patterns were heightened for dramatic effect, and the use of conventions such as the aside, prologue, epilogue and word puns directly connected characters to the audience watching. The aside, the prologue, the soliloquy and the epilogue were all variations on a characters’ direct address to the audience when staged.
Elizabethan plays commonly consisted of dialogue that was poetic, dramatic and heightened beyond that of the vernacular of the day. While often the lower class characters’ speech was somewhat colloquial (prose), upper class characters spoke stylised, rhythmic speech patterns (verse). Shakespeare took great care in composing dialogue that was sometimes blank (unrhymed), but at other times rhyming (couplets) and often using five stressed syllables in a line of dialogue (iambic pentameter).
Play Within A Play
This Elizabethan convention was a playwriting technique used by Shakespeare and others that involved the staging of a play inside the play itself. It was not a flimsy convention, but rather one that was used judiciously and with purpose. One of the most famous examples of this convention occurs in Hamlet, when the title character is convinced his uncle Claudius murdered his father for the throne. So Hamlet organises an out-of-town troupe of performers to attend one evening and perform a play before King Claudius that involves the same plot line as the events in the larger play (murder of a King), but in a different setting … all to let Claudius know Hamlet is on to him!
In terms of stagecraft, Elizabethan dramas used elaborate costumes, yet quite the opposite for scenery. Acting spaces were largely empty (bare stage) with isolated set pieces representing many of the same and minimal use of props (a single tree equalled a forest, a throne for a King’s palace). This explains the use of rich dialogue full of imagery, as there was no set on stage to designate the scene’s location. However, Elizabethan costumes were often rich and colorful, with a character’s status in society being denoted by their costume, alone. There were no stage lights of any kind, with plays strictly performed during daylight hours. A simple balcony at the rear of the stage could be used for scenes involving fantastical beings, Gods or Heaven, while a trap door in the stage floor could also be used to drop characters into Hell or raise characters up from beneath. Entrances and exits were at two doors at the rear (tiring house) and not the side wings, as is the case in modern theatre. An Elizabethan actor exiting side stage may well have landed in the groundings after falling off the edge of the (three-sided) thrust stage that jutted out into the audience!
So how does a contemporary student of theatre interpret 16th century Elizabethan theatre conventions? I once taught a Year 12 Theatre Studies class where we produced various Shakespearean scenes from some of The Bard’s more popular works. Without changing a single line of dialogue, a group of students performing Act I, Scene I of King Lear modernised it into 70s anti-authoritarian punk. Lear wore leather pants, large leather boots and an armless t-shirt emblazoned with a huge Union Jack. He was Johhny Rotten from the Sex Pistols in an Elizabethan drama. It was easy to dress Lear’s three daughters in a variety of 70s punk outfits. The slutty, bitchiness of the older sisters Goneril and Regan were expressed through colored hairstyles, heavy make-up, tartan skirts, stockings and high leather boots.
Shakespeare is rarely performed today in Elizabethan costumes. Directors find an angle from which to address the play, often modernising the setting, usually finding a recent parallel that fits so snugly, dialogue remains exactly as Shakespeare wrote it. High school students can have lots of fun with a modern audience in the use of the aside, even breaking the fourth wall completely and running through the house (that would be the theatre term “house”, meaning audience, not your own house!). Experimenting how to perform a soliloquy without allowing your audience to fall asleep is a challenge, too. Contemporary costumes worn by students can be symbolic, home-made, found in op-shops, non-naturalistic etc.
Students today should be familiar with minimal use of props from high school or university theatre classes and plays, so prop acquisition or construction with a modern Elizabethan play is easy. If not in a serious scene, the convention of eavesdropping can be hammed up for comic effect with the audience and even spoken verse does not have to be taken too seriously in a modern setting involving students. The Elizabethan convention of word puns can be hilariously witty if used wisely with contemporary references.
Modernising Elizabethan conventions just takes a bit of brainstorming and before you know it, the creativity will flow! It is simply a case of understanding the nature and purpose of when and why these conventions were used in Elizabethan theatre, and then adapting them for a contemporary audience and/or setting.