Elizabethan theatre was a complex system of different rules and principles related to stage, acting and other aspects of drama creation and production. Despite the fact that English theatre was rather young as new Renaissance philosophy required fresh approaches and methods that were incompatible with old medieval traditions, Elizabethan theatre already managed to create a wide range of theatre conventions. This paper is devoted to the analysis of theatre conventions of Elizabethan drama, namely structure and thematic content of plays, the role of troupes and actors, and peculiarities of set design and costumes, among others. These conventions will be studied on the basis of the plays created by three leading playwrights of the Elizabethan era, namely Christopher Marlowe (1564 –1593), William Shakespeare (1564 –1616) and Ben Johnson (1572 –1637).
Elizabethan theatre should be interpreted only in the context of this historical period as the time between 1562 and 1642 that is usually defined as the Elizabethan era was an age of important scientific and geographical discoveries, huge political turmoil and great economic shifts. The theatre historians usually address this period as “the breakthrough years," marking "the expansion" and "flowering" of Elizabethan drama” (White 265). The English Renaissance that largely overlapped with the reign of Queen Elizabeth could be primarily characterized by the revival of national pride, great interest in ancient culture, and strengthening of the kingdom supported by successful external territorial expansion and increasing military potential. These features of Elizabethan era had, first of all, a profound impact on the thematic content of plays. They were often grounded on the Greek and Roman chronicles and myths that reflected the growing interest in ancient culture that was typical of the Renaissance cultural tradition. There were many plays that explored the history of England, particularly the victories of the kings and other glorious moments of English past. However, Elizabethan playwrights did not overlook common people, often including them as collateral characters supposed to entertain the audience. Although Elizabethan drama was rather tolerant to the political turmoil in the state in general, “the representation of class conflict” was a theme the plays of this period often addressed; however, in most cases, it was hidden or disguised (Mathur 33). Another innovation that enormously influenced the conventions of Elizabethan drama was the establishment of the first permanent theatres. The first permanent theatre was opened in 1567, and it was called The Red Lion (Hattaway 50). However, it did not appear to be successful and soon was closed. The first long-lasting permanent theatres appeared in 1576 (Hattaway 52). Earlier theatrical troupes usually worked at inn yards, and it significantly limited the choice of tools and techniques they could use. Nevertheless, the establishment of permanent theatres led to profound changes in almost all spheres of Elizabethan drama. Thus, it changed the way actors interacted with the audience and the methods of stagecraft, among others.
The theatrical conventions of this period could be divided into three groups such as conventions related to the structure and peculiarities of the play, acting, and stagecraft. The most crucial aspect of theatrical conventions was the principles applied to plays and performances. In most cases, plays were written as a combination of prose and poetry. If the playwright chose to follow this rule, they usually reserved poetry for the speeches of nobles or other important characters, whereas the representatives of the lower social class spoke in prose. One of the important characteristic features of Elizabethan drama is the use of soliloquy (Hattaway 72). Since it was traditional not to leave the audience to guess the thoughts and feelings of the characters, playwrights used the soliloquy, which is a monologue when a character expressed everything he felt in very different cases. The soliloquy could be addressed either to the audience or some inanimate object (but it was used quite rarely). It should be mentioned that the audience, according to Elizabethan theatrical conventions, was a very important element of the play. It often happened that the soliloquy became the most famous part of the play that was used for advertising and commercial purposes. In addition to the soliloquy, the so-called asides were also the actor’s remarks addressed to the audience. Interestingly, it looked like the other character present at the stage did not hear those remarks. It usually helped playwrights to create some comical atmosphere or show some hidden intentions of characters (Streitberger 190). This strategy also allowed the audience to feel more important as they “knew” information still secret for other characters. Moreover, this trick allowed increasing the interest in the play and strengthening psychological connections between the audience and the events happening on stage. Among other important theatrical conventions, it is necessary to mention the usage of eavesdropping in plays. This element is quite close to asides in its nature, but technically it is slightly different. According to this convention, characters strategically overheard some important remarks made by other characters, and their disclosure became significant for the further development of the plot. Another crucial convention related to the structure of plays was the usage of play-within-a-play technique. It was not obligatory, but playwrights often employed this technique to introduce a new theme or intensify the aspects of the play that could not be highlighted in a different manner. The plays using this device were usually quite short and performed by the secondary characters.
Acting was also regulated by a number of important conventions. One of the most striking peculiarities of Elizabethan theatre that differ it from the modern one is the fact that all roles were played by men as it was considered immoral for a woman to be engaged in this profession. In fact, the image of theatre as entertainment was not as sophisticated as it is nowadays. For instance, in London, after theatres became permanent, they were located in the area with brothels, bore fighting spots, and other similar venue. Therefore, being an actress for a woman of Elizabethan England was inappropriate. Usually, female roles were played by young boys no older than twenty years old, who could also be apprentices to more experienced actors. However, it must be highlighted that the cause of this convention was not only the social morale but also official legislation that forbade women to act at theatres. Speaking about acting conventions, it is also necessary to mention that the presentational acting style prevailed during the whole Elizabethan era. This style suggested that acting should be expressive and clear enough for the audience to have no doubts about the intentions and actions of characters (Streitberger 191). Hereby, the movements and gestures were usually very “pronounced” and stylized. Being natural was not what was expected from an Elizabethan actor. The actors were rather trained in dancing and singing than in special acting strategies as dances were an important element of plays and were usually included before and after the play. It is worth noting that clowns were also more popular and important than tragic actors. They were headliners of every performance, and every troupe tried to find the best clown they could. In Shakespeare’s troupe, for instance, it was Richard Tarleton and later Will Kemp and Robin Armin (Narey).
The stagecraft conventions were partially stipulated by the above-mentioned peculiarities of the play structure and acting style and partially by actual physical limitations of the theatre premises. First of all, all props were to be suitable for fluid and swift action changes (Narey). In almost all plays, the place of actions quickly moved, for instance, from a castle to a forest as it is done in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream. Another crucial feature of Elizabethan theatre props was their minimalism. The scenery was rather symbolic than realistic; thus, one tree may represent the whole forest, among others. The opposite situation was with costumes. The troupes of this period usually spent quite much money on elaborate and sophisticated costumes for actors. They had to draw attention of the audience much more than props. As costumes were very expensive, they were not usually changed during the play, while only some minor adjustments were possible (Narey). These changes in costumes and scenery could also mean the change in location and transition between scenes or acts.
All these theatrical conventions can be perfectly illustrated by the works of three most important playwrights of the Elizabethan period, namely Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. Marlowe’s plays became popular prior to Shakespeare’s works, so he can be considered one of the first significant authors of Elizabethan drama. Marlowe did not create many plays, but the ones he wrote were extremely successful. It can be explained by an extraordinary talent of their creator; however, at the same time, the role of Edward "Ned" Alleyn who was one of the most famous actors of that period should not be underestimated. In fact, the majority of leading roles in Marlowe’s plays were created especially for this actor. Alleyn also expressed much interest in the content of the soliloquies as he recognized them to be the “visiting card” of the role. For instance, in Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta where Alleyn played the main character named Barabas, he pronounced several impressive and thought-provoking soliloquies. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe frequently made use of asides. However, in this play, they were not meant to add humor but rather make the text more complex and reveal psychological tensions of the main character.
It is obvious that the most important representative of Elizabethan drama among the playwright was William Shakespeare. He was very creative and inventive with regard to the usage of traditional theatrical conventions, but it would be a mistake to say that his plays were revolutionary in terms of structure or acting principles. The strongest aspect of Shakespeare’s oeuvre was rather his enormous talent in constructing impressive and realistic psychological portraits of characters. In technical aspects, his plays usually contained all traditional conventions. One of the most famous soliloquies in theatrical history is related to Hamlet. In fact, his “to be, or nor to be – that is the question” are probably the most frequently cited words in Elizabethan drama (Shakespeare, “Hamlet” 59). This play also contains a famous example of play-within-a-play when Hamlet made the troupe of visiting actors play a scene of the king’s death. This trick allows Hamlet to see the reaction of his uncle and mother towards this sensitive subject, and in this way, he receives the clues necessary for further actions. The same play-within-a-play was also used by Shakespeare in comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream when the mechanicals decided to stage a play as a gift for the wedding of the nobles. This play can also serve as a good example for traditional division of prose and poetry. For instance, Quince who was one of the mechanicals called the others to start practicing the play using prose sentences. He says, “Here is the scroll of every man's name, which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the duke and the duchess, on his wedding-day at night” (Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night's Dream” 12). In addition, this play proves the importance of clowns who played the roles of mechanicals and were supposed to make the audience laugh.
Ben Johnson was less famous than Shakespeare, but his contribution to the development of English theatre was very significant. In his popular comedy titled Every Man in His Humor, Johnson shows a unique approach to several theatrical conventions. He used traditional actor types such as the rich man, his son and the servant but skillfully modified them to correspond to the social realities of Elizabethan England. According to the sketches of the actors who played in this play, the costumes of the nobles (primarily Kno'well and his son Ed. Kno’well) were luxurious (Hattaway 151). They had elaborate details; however, in the case of Johnson’s play, they were also used to show degradation of the upper social class. Johnson also used classical structure for this play but shifted the philosophical focus from the central part to the prologue where he developed a set of complex ethical dilemmas crucial for the Elizabethan society. Moreover, Every Man in His Humor is an example of creative modification of thematic conventions where the idea about the national pride is interwoven with the concerns about the moral degradation of the society.
All things considered, the conventions of Elizabethan theatre resulted both from the general social climate of the epoch and material factors such as the peculiarities of the venues and the price of costumes, and others. Among the most important conventions, there are female roles played by men, the usage of soliloquies and asides, the minimalistic props and many others. The examples of all these elements could be found in plays created by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Johnson, among others. These theatrical conventions made Elizabethan drama a unique notion in the history of European art.