Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Tudor Rose Renaissance English Drama

Renaissance Drama | Medieval to Renaissance | Sociopolitical Climate | Elizabethan Worldview | Playhouses | Staging | Timeline



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Renaissance English Drama: Elizabethan Playhouses
By Dr. Wayne Narey, Arkansas State University

pageant wagon The old Medieval stage of "place-and-scaffolds," still in use in Scotland in the early sixteenth century, had fallen into disuse; the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England about 1575 was the booth stage of the marketplace—a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and "open" in the sense of being surrounded by spectators on three sides.

The stage proper of the booth stage generally measured from 15 to 25 ft. in width and from 10 to 15 ft. in depth; its height above the ground averaged a bout 5 ft. 6 in., with extremes ranging as low as 4 ft. and as high as 8 ft.; and it was backed by a cloth-covered booth, usually open at the top, which served as a tiring-house (short for "attiring house," where the actors dressed).

In the England of 1575 there were two kinds of buildings, designed for functions other than the acting of plays, which were adapted by the players as temporary outdoor playhouses: the animal-baiting rings or "game houses" (e.g. Bear Garden) and the inns. Play at an Elizabethan Inn YardPresumably, a booth stage was set up against a wall at one side of the yard, with the audience standing in the yard surrounding the stage on three sides. Out of these "natural" playhouses grew two major classes of permanent Elizabethan playhouse, "public" and "private." In general, the public playhouses were large outdoor theatres, whereas the private playhouses were smaller indoor theatres. The maximum capacity of a typical public playhouse (e.g., the Swan) was about 3,000 spectators; that of a typical private playhouse (e.g., the Second Blackfriars), about 700 spectators.

First Blackfriars, by Effie W. Best At the public playhouses the majority of spectators were "groundlings" who stood in the dirt yard for a penny; the remainder were sitting in galleries and boxes for two pence or more. At the private playhouses all spectators were seated (in pit, galleries, and boxes) and paid sixpence or more. In the beginning, the private playhouses were used exclusively by Boys' companies, but this distinction disappeared about 1609 when the King's Men, in residence at the Globe in the summer, began using the Blackfriars in winter.

Originally the private playhouses were found only within the City of London (the Paul's Playhouse, the First and Second Blackfriars), the public playhouses only in the suburbs (the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, the Globe, the Fortune, the Red Bull); but this distinction disappeared about 1606 with the opening of the Whitefriars Playhouse to the west of Ludgate.

Public-theatre audiences, though socially heterogeneous, were drawn mainly from the lower classes—a situation that has caused modern scholars to refer to the public-theatre audiences as "popular"; whereas private-theatre audiences tended to consist of gentlemen (those who were university educated) and nobility; "select" is the word most usually opposed to "popular" in this respect.

James Burbage, father to the famous actor Richard Burbage of Shakespeare's company, built the first permanent theatre in London, the Theatre, in 1576. He probably merely adapted the form of the baiting-house to theatrical needs. To do so he built a large round structure very much like a baiting-house but with five major innovations in the received form.

First, he paved the ring with brick or stone, thus paving the pit into a "yard."

Second, Burbage erected a stage in the yard—his model was the booth stage of the marketplace, larger than used before, with posts rather than trestles.
De Wiit's Sketch of the Swan
Third, he erected a permanent tiring-house in place of the booth. Here his chief model was the passage screens of the Tudor domestic hall. They were modified to withstand the weather by the insertion of doors in the doorways. Presumably the tiring-house, as a permanent structure, was inset into the frame of the playhouse rather than, as in the older temporary situation of the booth stage, set up against the frame of a baiting-house. The gallery over the tiring-house (presumably divided into boxes) was capable of serving variously as a "Lord's room" for privileged or high-paying spectators, as a music-room, and as a station for the occasional performance of action "above" as, for example, Juliet's balcony.

Fourth, Burbage built a "cover" over the rear part of the stage, called "the Heavens", supported by posts rising from the yard and surmounted by a "hut."

And fifth, Burbage added a third gallery to the frame. The theory of origin and development suggested in the preceding accords with our chief pictorial source of information about the Elizabethan stage, the "De Witt" drawing of the interior of the Swan Playhouse (c. 1596).

It seems likely that most of the round public playhouses—specifically, the Theatre (1576), the Swan (1595), the First Globe (1599), the Hope (1614), and the Second Globe (1614)—were of about the same size.

The Second Blackfriars Playhouse of 1596 was designed by James Burbage, and he built his playhouse in the upper-story Parliament Chamber of the Upper Frater of the priory. The Parliament Chamber measured 100 ft. in length, but for the playhouse Burbage used only two-thirds of this length. The room in question, after the removal of partitions dividing it into apartments, measured 46 ft. in width and 66 ft. in length. The stage probably measured 29 ft. in width and 18 ft. 6 in. in depth.

To cite this article:

Narey, Wayne. "Elizabethan Playhouses." Luminarium.
       2 Aug 2006. [Date you accessed this article].

Continue to:

English Drama: From Medieval to Renaissance

The Sociopolitical Climate in Elizabethan England

Elizabethan World View

Elizabethan Playhouses

Elizabethan Staging Conventions

Timeline of Elizabethan Playhouses and Acting Companies

Backto Renaissance Drama
Backto Renaissance Literature

Site copyright ©1996-2010 Anniina Jokinen. All rights reserved.
This page created by Anniina Jokinen on August 2, 2006. Last updated August 10, 2010.


Renaissance English Dramatists
John Heywood
Thomas Sackville
Nicholas Udall
John Skelton
John Bale George Gascoigne
John Lyly
Robert Greene
George Peele
Thomas Kyd
Christopher Marlowe
Anthony Munday
Thomas Campion
Samuel Daniel
William Shakespeare
Ben Jonson
Thomas Dekker
John Marston
Francis Beaumont
John Fletcher
John Webster
Thomas Middleton
William Rowley
Philip Massinger
John Ford
James Shirley
Thomas Heywood
Margaret Cavendish

Elizabethan Theatre
See section
English Renaissance Drama

Images of London:
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR

Search | Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums