The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 16th century

When we speak of the “Elizabethan” period, we usually mean to include much of the reign of James I as well; for the manners, dress, and general characteristics of the time are the same.

One of the most remarkable things about the Elizabethan period is the number of people who wrote books.

Books and pamphlets were written about religion; and the adventures of the Elizabethan seamen had a great influence on the stories of this time, with their new tales of monsters and savages in far-off lands to make people wonder.

Richard Hakluyt wrote a chronicle of voyages and discov­eries, telling the adventures of Drake and Hawkins and Frobisher and many more like them. His book was eagerly read.

Others wrote chronicles of English history; for example Stow, Holinshed, and Camden.

Edmund Spenser (1552—1599), the poet, is best known through his two works “The Shepherd’s Callender” and “The Faerie Queene”. “The Faerie Queene” won fame for Spen­ser. This long poem really forms an allegory. It tells the tale of the adventures of twelve knights, who are supposed to represent virtues. In his other characters Spenser meant to represent various prominent people of his time. For instance, the Faerie Queene herself wasElizabeth.

There were a great many plays written at this time. A writer of James’s reign who had travelled in other countries once declared that “in order to pass over grief, the Italians sleep, the French sing, the Germans drink, the English go to plays”.

During the Middle Ages there had been many plays dealing with religious subjects — acted first inside churches, and later in the market-places of towns, with comic scenes put in to make the people laugh. They were acted at the season of Christmas and Easter, and on other big Church feasts.

In the later Middle Ages another kind of play became pop­ular— the “morality” play. In this type of play all the characters were vices and virtues and abstract qualities, such as Death, Riches, Pleasure and so on. At the end of the story the virtues triumphed over vices, so the plays taught a kind of lesson.

In Elizabethan times people made up “secular” or world­ly plays, usually funny ones; or sometimes the play would be a tragedy.

Until this time all plays had been acted (once the acting in churches had ceased) on wooden platforms set up in the public places in towns and villages, the most convenient spot the actors could find. But now people began to build thea­tres as separate buildings.

The Blackfriars Theatre was built in 1576, and the Globe, so closely connected with Shakespeare, in 1599. And there were a number of others.

The Globe was situated in Southwark — it is marked on a map ofLondonmade in 1616. Theatres of Elizabethan times were nothing like the comfortable places we sit in today. They were rather rounded in shape, as a rule, open to the sky, without a roof, so that it must have been very awkward when it rained. The well-to-do members of the audience sat on seats in raised balconies immediately facing and along the sides of the stage; the poorer people stood in the pit in front. They ate fruit and sweet-meats and smoked long clay pipes and laughed and amused themselves; and if the play or the actors did not please them they showed it quite plainly.

The stage itself was a raised wooden platform with very little furniture, and no moveable scenery; what they had was very much of a makeshift, and left much to the imagination of the audience. When the actors wanted to show the district in which a scene took place they simply put up a placard at back of the stage with the description of the district in it — and you had to create the scene in your mind.

Boys acted all the female parts in Elizabethan days, and they were specially trained for that purpose. A traveller of James’s time reports having seen women act inItaly, but inEnglandthe custom did not begin till the time of Charles I.

Christopher Marlowe is a well-known playwright of this time. He made plays of murders and dark deeds that thrilled the audience. Ben Johnson wrote comedies or “hap­py” plays. He also made masques. A masque was a kind of pageant introducing legendary characters. It contained music and singing and dancing, and the performers had gor­geous costumes. Masques were held in honour of great occa­sions, and the persons in the masque referred in their speeches to the Sovereign or nobleman in whose honour and presence their masque was played.

But above all the Elizabethan age produced Shake­speare — the greatest writer of plays the world has ever known.

From Social Life in England by J. Fennimore

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