THE ELIZABETHAN THEATRE

by HILDA D. SPEAR

Perhaps I should start this lecture by mentioning a few dates. We are talking about a time some 400 years ago when Queen Elizabeth I was on the English throne; she reigned for a long period from 1558 to 1603 - 45 years in all; Shakespeare was born in 1564 and he died in 1616, so he was essentially an Elizabethan, though he survived the Queen by 13 years. He grew up in the little country town of Stratford-on-Avon where he went to the local Grammar School and learned the 'small Latin and less Greek' which Ben Jonson attributed to him. Round about 1585/6 he went to London and his first play (the first part of Henry VI) was produced about 1590.

The City of London then was rather like a small town of today. The river dominated the scene. The first three slides show views of contemporary London. Slide number 1 shows us London Bridge with the panorama of London stretched out behind and Southwark Cathedral in the foreground; very different from the London Bridge of today, it had houses and shops along its entire length like the Rialto Bridge in Venice with its bustling market booths. The second slide looks over the river to the City around Westminster and in slide number 3 we can see "Julius Caesar's ill-erected Tower" (Richard II), across the river, towards the left at the top; the Tower is referred to in several of Shakespeare's English histories - it is significant in all three parts of Henry VI; it was the place where Bolingbroke confined the King in Richard II and the place where Richard III imprisoned the two little Princes and then murdered them; in Henry VIII Archbishop Cranmer is ordered to the Tower by his enemies but is saved by the intervention of the King.

The first theatres for Elizabethan drama were of two kinds and both were make-shift: Inn-yards and Great Halls. As far as we can see, despite the example of ancient Greece and Rome, there were no specially-designed buildings for presenting plays until the last quarter of the century.

This page is part of Dr. Hilda Spear's Lecture on The Elizabethan Theatre