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Elizabethan Theatre. Why was Elizabeth ’ s reign such an important period in the development of the theatre? How does it still influence us today?. Introduction.

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elizabethan theatre

Elizabethan Theatre

Why was Elizabeth’s reign such an important period in the development of the theatre?

How does it still influence us today?

  • Throughout the middle ages plays were performed by workers in towns and were religious based, often retelling stories from the Bible.
  • However, this ended after Henry VIII’s break from Rome and formation of the Church of England in 1533.
  • Therefore playwrights took inspiration from the Roman theatre and writers like Seneca, who wrote about crime, revenge, witches and ghosts.

Elizabethan writers introduced theatre audiences to horror, the supernatural and GORE…

elizabethan playwrights

The most well known playwright of Elizabethan times is Shakespeare. But there were also other writers who in their time were just as, or even more famous than the Bard.

christopher marlowe
  • vBorn 1564
  • vStudied at King's School, Canterbury and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge with scholarships.
  • vFor many years served the Elizabethan secret service as a spy involved with several extremely confidential missions.
  • vHad several brushes with the law, including being involved in an “affray which resulted in someone’s death”, arranging the counterfeit of some coins and “failing to keep the peace” with two constables.
  • vIn May 1593 he was involved in a scandal when his room-mate and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd was found with heretical papers. Under torture, Kyd claimed they were Marlowe’s, and accused him of atheism.
  • vHowever, before the Privy Council took definite action on these charges Marlowe was stabbed in a tavern brawl on the 30th May 1593 and died aged 29.




  • vAccording to the inquest Marlowe met with three men, Frizer, Skeres and Poley in a tavern in Deptford. They stayed there all day until an argument broke out and Frizer stabbed Marlowe in the eye out of self-defence.
  • vBut there are several strange things about the murder. Why did Marlowe agree to visit three men he had never met before? How come a friendly meeting got so out of hand?
  • vIf it was a murder that had been planned in advance, why had they spent the whole day there? Why hadn’t they of just waited for him to be executed under the charges of atheism?
  • vIf there wasn’t some kind of conspiracy, how come the Coroner of the Queen's Household, William Danby, just happen to be staying nearby and decided to officiate, with no outside help?
  • vHow come Frizer happened to be under the service of Thomas Walsingham, a close friend of Marlowe’s, at the time this took place? How come Robert Poley was under “Her Majesty’s Service”?
the answer
  • One theory is that he didn’t even die at all! With the help of his powerful friends he staged his own death and fled the country to escape execution. To make money he continued writing plays under the name…

William Shakespeare!

Evidence suggests that the real Shakespeare was an illiterate businessman!



Ben Jonson was born into a poor and unhappy family. He was first recognised as a writer with his play Every Man In His Humour. This play painted a brilliant picture of Elizabethan life. Ben Jonson was thrown into prison several times, for his political writings and also for killing a man in a duel. Other famous plays were Every Man Out Of His Humour, and Jonson’s masterpiece, Volpone.



Lyly began his career as a writer

with several novels, called Euphues.

He then began writing plays, at first

mainly for young acting groups made up from boys choirs. His plays often contained songs and commented on court life. His famous plays are Endymion (1591), Galathea (1592), Love's Metamorphosis (1601), and The Woman in the Moon (1597).

thomas kyd 1558 1594
Thomas Kyd 1558 – 1594

Kyd was well educated and shared a room with the other famous Elizabethan writer Marlowe. Kyd's play, The Spanish Tragedy (1589), was the most popular and influential tragedy of Elizabethan times. Other plays attributed to him are Cornelia and Arden of Feversham. In 1593, he was arrested on the charge of heresy. He was eventually released but died in poverty and disgrace.

the performances
The Performances
  • The theatres often had mechanisms that allowed “angels” and “gods” to be lowered down onto the stage. Stages were also equipped with a trapdoor leading to a “Hell” beneath the stage. The trapdoor was also used as a grave in theatrical funerals.
  • There was very little scenery available for theatres, so the writers often used to dialogue to explain to the audience where the scene was taking place.
  • Costume was very important in Elizabethan theatre. Actors wore colourful and elaborate costumes that would tell the audience the characters status, family ties or profession.
  • The emphasis that was given to a character’s clothing made the theme of disguise a common convention of Elizabethan theatre. In order to exchange places with another character or conceal his identity, all an actor needed to do was to change his costume.
  •  The Elizabethan theatre also used a variety of sound effects. Music played an important role in the setting the mood of the plays. Other sounds created were thunder, running horses, falling rain, and cannon blasts.
shakespeare today
Shakespeare Today
  • Elizabethan theatre is still plays a part in our day to day lives, mostly through the influence of Shakespeare. You can find references to his work in films, novels, plays, musicals, songs, poetry, artwork, satire…Even today his characters and storylines continue to inspire…
shakespeare in language

Elizabethan theatre has had a very important effect on today’s theatre, and other parts of every day life. For example:

  • Shakespeare coined over 1600 words still used today including countless, critical, excellent, lonely, majestic, obscene and its.
  • Names coined by Shakespeare:

-         Imogen in the play Cymbaline,

-         Jessica in the play The Merchant of Venice

-         Miranda in the play The Tempest

-         Olivia in the play Twelfth Night

-         Cordelia in the play King Lear

and lastly
And lastly…

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", if your lost property has vanished into thin air, if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, laughed yourself into stitches, if you have too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare!”