Elizabethan Theater Characteristics

By Bridgette Redman
The Globe Theatre was built in 1599 for Shakespeare and his Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Elizabethan theater marked a heyday of English theater with such playwrights as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, Thomas Kidd and Ben Jonson. Elizabethan theater had several characteristics that differ from today's theater-going experience, though there are troupes today that try to recreate it in what is called "original practices." Original practices perform shows under similar conditions to and following the conventions of English theater during the years 1562 and 1642.

Natural and Universal Lighting

Elizabethan Theater made use of natural and universal lighting. Shows were performed in the afternoon in open-air theaters or grounds. Those shows that were performed indoors were done to candlelight where audience and actors shared the same lighting. Modern-day companies that recreate Elizabethan theater leave the house lights up and forgo the use of spots or hanging lights.

Minimal Sets

Acting troupes in the Elizabethan era took their shows on the road and performed in barns, innyards, nobleman's houses, from the backs of wagons or in city squares. Permanent structures were often theaters in the round with audiences on all sides of the stage. This meant set pieces had to be minimal, often limited to a few curtains or a backdrop of wood.

Live Sound Effects and Music

Actors created all sound effects using theatrical devices for such sounds as rain or cannons. Many actors were also musicians and it was common to have singers and instrumentalists perform before, during and after a show. An actor in William Shakespeare's company, Philip Henslowe, recorded in his diary that the company owned trumpets, drums, a treble viol, a bass viol, a bandore and a cithern. Other Elizabethan instruments used in the theater included recorders, lute and fife.

Audience Involvement

People came and went during the show, causing playwrights to include expository summaries. Audience members would sometimes catcall, boo, throw things or talk directly to the actors. They could walk around during the show, talking and eating. In response, actors would talk and interact with the audience. Many playwrights wrote speeches in which the actors would deliver monologues directly to the audience.

Doubling and Cross-Gendered Casting

It was common for actors to form companies, usually under noble sponsorship. The same 12 to 15 actors would fulfill all roles, playing multiple parts in a single play. Also, acting was considered an inappropriate profession for women and female roles were played by young boys. Comedy often played upon this with Shakespeare writing comedies in which boys dressed as girls who disguised themselves as boys. Modern companies that use original practices recreate this with gender-blind casting.

Company Structure

Elizabethan theater had not yet developed a structure in which different jobs were given to different people. Instead, everyone in the company did nearly every job. Actors were in charge of props, costumes and selling tickets. Playwrights performed as actors. There were no directors and the company decided casting and blocking. A typical company had shareholders and managers, actors and apprentices. Some actors became permanent company members and shareholders in their own right.

Elaborate Costumes

Costuming in Elizabethan theater was elaborate, colorful, rich and helped distinguish between social classes. Most costumes did not attempt to be authentic period recreations; instead, they were all Elizabethan. England was ruled by sumptuary laws in which particular fabrics, colors and styles of clothing were limited to specific classes, though actors in licensed companies were exempted from these laws. When a character wore a particular costume, it immediately communicated societal roles. At the Globe Theatre, each actor had his own costume, often one that a rich patron donated.

About the Author

As a professional writer since 1985, Bridgette Redman's career has included journalism, educational writing, book authoring and training. She's worked for daily newspapers, an educational publisher, websites, nonprofit associations and individuals. She is the author of two blogs, reviews live theater and has a weekly column in the "Lansing State Journal." She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University.