The English Dramatic Tradition

We have always been attracted to entertainment in any form, let it be singing, performing or reading. For instance, the most popular kind of entertainment during the Middle Ages was singing and playing music, reciting interesting stories with action, or doing acrobatics. During this time, many noblemen had entertainers in their household. People then loved stories (as well as today), and the most popular stories were called ‘romances’, which were English versions of French stories – all about heroes and chivalry. The best known of these is the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
The earliest sort of entertainment however, was the Greek theatre, a theatrical tradition that flourished in ancient Greece between the 600 century, and the 200 century before Christ. The central action in the Greek plays was influenced by the polis of Athens, and the political and military power of the age. Athenian Tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays were some of the earliest theatrical forms to emerge in the world.

Drama was a relatively new phenomenon in the Elizabethan age, and it was a mix of two traditions in England; the tradition of early religious drama, and the tradition of popular entertainment. Inspiration was taken from the Greek theatre, and also the medieval dramatic tradition. Many ideals were adopted from France, and the stories reflected the new ideals such as chivalry, honor, courage,courtesy and concern for the weak and the poor.


The main genres of the English Renaissance Theatre were history plays, comedies, and tragedies, all to some extent influenced by old Rome, and classicism in Greek drama and tragedy. The plays would be in five acts, they would begin in medias res, and the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, a kind of emotional cleansing, as a result of watching the characters suffer. History plays depicted episodes and events in European history, while the tragedies more directly attempted to recreate Greek tragedy. The early plays were written in rhyme-verse, but the playwrights later on turned to poetry and prose. The actors were of boys and men only, who were set to play both the male and the female roles.
The English Renaissance theatre was also highly influenced by the medieval dramatic tradition, which covered especially mystery plays, and morality plays. Generally speaking, mystery plays were representations of stories and episodes from the Bible, and therefore often played in cathedrals. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the idea of performing scenes from the Bible was taken by the craftsmen. The morality plays, which were a new kind of play that arose in the 15th century, were allegories that focused on representing abstract morals and ideas, by letting characters in the plays symbolize those. The main theme in those plays was the struggle of man against the seven deadly sins, and the central mission was to make the protagonist choose a godly life over an evil. Short and witty ‘stand-in’ versions of those plays were simply called ‘interludes’, and could easily fit in a couple of times during an evening.

The stage; public theatres and private theatres:
The first English profitable public theatre was invented in 1576’s London, and was simply called ‘The Theatre’. Before 1576, the plays had no permanent venue, but needed to be performed in so called inn-yards, or in streets. Due to the lack of artificial lightning in the public theatres, the plays were performed during the day; more specifically at two o’ clock in the afternoon. The stages were left bare, or with only a table or a tree to illustrate the particular scene, while the costumes were expensive and bright in textile and color. The public theatres attracted a varied group of people, basically from citizens, merchants and manual workers to noblemen; however the lower classes were most common. The private theatres for instance, did not, as they were simply more expensive. In opposition to the public theatres, those had artificial lightning, were roofed, and the audience consisted mainly of gentlemen and other upper-class people.

There are no detailed plans of the public theatres. The only illustration of the inside of a theatre is ‘De Witt’-drawing of The Swan (built in 1595). It was widely different from the theatres of today, which is clearly shown from this illustration and the sketches showing the outside. The shape was octagonal (eight sides and eight angles), or rectangular with three wooden galleries around the stage, and the stage was sticking out towards the center of the ground floor. The audience was unprotected from the weather during the performance. It was not necessary to have more than a tree or a table to visualize the particular setting of a scene. Only, when it was absolutely necessary, objects were used on the stage – such as crowns, lions, cages etc.

Before the Elizabethan Age, entertainment like concerts, theatre and circus was a privilege and mainly appealed to the upper-class. The noblemen hired minstrels, who were travelling entertainers, but according to law, only minstrels attached to a lord was allowed to travel in the countryside. Those, who were not protected by a lord, were considered as vagabonds or beggars and treated accordingly. In the 16th century the minstrels became unpopular because the need for them reduced increasingly. Later the theatre became more popular among the lower class (more public). The wealthy people, however, still had a privilege as they could afford to have the players come to their houses to perform.