Shakespeare

In the first section of our History of Theatre,  we looked at the beginnings of theatre in Greece,  its migration to Rome,  and its decline during the Middle Ages. In this section we’ll examine the rebirth of the theatre and its domination by a playwright of genius. It is during this period that theatre re-emerges from the Church and becomes secular theatre – although it remains largely under the control of the state, be that sovereign King or Republic.

Renaissance and Reformation

During the 15th and 16th Centuries, European Society was influenced by the Renaissance – a “rebirth” or rediscovery of the classical worlds of Rome and Greece – and by a movement toward nationalism – the building of coherent nation-states such as England, France and Spain (with Germany and Italy following later). The impact of these changes on the theatre went beyond mere secularization of an art form that had been dominated for centuries by the Church.

The Renaissance, while having a major impact on the other arts, had less influence on theatre in England than in Italy, where classic Roman plays were revived for performance. Of greater impact was the Protestant Reformation and the movement toward nationalism which accompanied the Reformation. The rediscovery of the classics did influence the development of the stage – first in Italy, then in France and England and the rest of Europe. It was in Italy that the first steps were taken toward the development of the proscenium, or “picture frame,” stage with which we are so familiar today.

In the England of the 15th and 16th Centuries, however, the proscenium stage was still in the future. The stages on which the works of a growing body of “play-makers” were performed evolved from the use of the enclosed courtyards of inns to stage performances. These “apron stages” were surrounded by galleries and were therefore “open” stages. Indeed, they were so “open” that members of the audience not only sat in the galleries surrounding the stage on three sides, and in the ground space around the elevated stage, but on the stage itself. The emphasis was on dialogue as opposed to blocking or action, and the plays still had a moralistic tone. The themes of religious virtue were replaced by those of loyalty to government or to a stable society.

The term “play-maker” refers to the fact that the emphasis was on the performers. Troupes or companies of actors developed a repertory of plays for performance. These companies were still guild-like in their organization, with a group of owner-actors, journeymen and hirelings. The plays that were performed were based on simple plots or previous works, and a writer “made” a play more as a technical than a truly creative process.

The Protestant Reformation and the break of England from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII influenced a change in this pattern. England in the 16th Century moved back and forth from Catholicism to Protestantism, back to Catholicism during the reign of Mary, and back again to Protestantism with the accession of Elizabeth I. For intellectuals, including those who “made” plays based on the works of the classic world, the choice between revival of Latin works (associated with the Church in Rome) or Greek works (associated more with Protestantism in the England of the time), could literally be a choice between life and death as a heretic. It’s no wonder that playwrights began to avoid a revival of the classics in favor of original, secular works of a general, non-political and non-religious nature.

Theatre companies were still somewhat beyond the pale of normal society during this time. Fear of plague that might be carried by the traveling companies, as well as the possibility of civil unrest that might be occasioned by patrons who had too much to drink, made civil authorities sometimes ban the performance of plays and even refuse entry into a city or town by the company. Theatres were also associated, in the minds of merchants, with temptation for idle apprentices to while away their time watching entertainment instead of working. In the view of the wives of play-goers, theatres were associated with the women of ill-repute who frequented the areas surrounding the play-houses and public inns where performances took place. Ultimately, these concerns led to the licensing of official companies by the throne, and the domination of theatre by the state.

Elizabethan Theatre and Shakespeare

It was in this world that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote and acted in his plays in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre produced a number of notable playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson; but Shakespeare towers above them. We won’t enter the controversy concerning the “authorship” question. (Well, maybe we will, we take it on faith that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him).

Shakespeare had the good fortune to be a share-holder in the companies he was associated with, earning him income as a maker of plays, an actor and an investor. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, he wrote plays that are timeless for their understanding of human nature and character. He was a member of several companies including the Lord Chamberlain’s and King James I’s own company, and was also a part owner of the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses.

At this time, the plays written and performed in England were still presented in open-air theatres such as that displayed at the top of this page. Although Hamlet exhorts the actors in the play of that name to be natural in their performance, this would not be “natural” acting in the way that term is understood today. Shakespeare and his contemporaries did encourage a more natural style of speaking, as opposed to the declamatory style then practiced by some, but was not likely an advocate of the type of realism and natural character portrayal that we see in today’s theatres. Space doesn’t allow us to do justice the comedies, histories, tragedies and poetry of Shakespeare – for that you might want to try a site such as The Complete Works of Shakespeare – suffice it to say that, for sheer beauty of language, combined with eternal themes of humanity, Shakespeare represents the verie height.

The Republic and The Restoration

In 1642, six years before the execution of Charles I, Parliamt closed the theatres in England and until the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 we have little of theatre in that country. However, it was during this time that the influence of French theatre, and through it, Italian notions of theatre architecture, was experienced by English actors and royalists in exile.

Theatre in France, and subsequently in England, was beginning to focus more on the mechanics of scenery and spectacle. The plays themselves were often masques in which costume, dance and clever scenery and scene changes were more emphasized than acting and plot. Louis XIV, the “Sun-King” appeared as himself in the Ballet Nuit. Theatres began to display the proscenium style of architecture, although the forestage remained the principal place where the acting took place, and the area behind the proscenium was reserved for the display of scenery changes which were slid into view by means of panels on tracks. It was also during this time, when theatre was designed specifically for the royal pleasure that theatres began to be roofed in.

Theatre was also influenced by two French playwrights, Jean Racine (1639-1699) and Molière (1622-1673). Molière (born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was the author of some of the best comedies in European history, including Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, Le Femmes Ssavantes and Le Malade imaginaire. Racine was as great a tragedian as Molière was a playwright of comedies, writing Bajazet, Mithridate, Iphigénie and Phèdre. Both playwrights had an influence in turning theatre away from classical style into more contemporary subject matter.

It was at the time of the Restoration of the Crown in England, that women first began to appear on stage (a convention borrowed from the French), instead of female roles being played by boys and young men. Although theatres were again licensed and controlled by the state, with the dawn of the 18th Century approaching, it would not be long before the echoes of the Republican period in England and the influence of similar movements abroad would force a broadening of theatre’s appeal – first to property owners and merchants, and ultimately to the masses.    Next–>