Why was Theatre so important to the Elizabethans?

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wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Theatre was important to the Elizabethans for several reasons.  One reason was self expression.  The common people during this time period were often less educated and might even be illiterate.  They watched plays for the same reason we read books or watch television today.  It is a form of self expression for both the players and the audience.  Of course, the simplest reason would be entertainment.  There were no televisions, movies, or video games.  Theatre provided an important source of entertain for the people.  Some types of theatre also provided socialization and a way to show ones position.  People who could afford the higher balcony seats would have been boasting their social position in a way.  The theatre was a place of expression and experience that was offered in few other ways for the Elizabethans.

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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The primary importance of theatre to the Elizabethans was its entertainment value. There was an upsurge of interest in theatre during this period (1562 - 1603) due, to a large extent,  the patronage of Queen Elizabeth 1. Before this, plays were mostly produced by touring theatre groups who would travel from town to town and present their productions in pubs, taverns, inns and in the open. During Elizabeth's reign, theatre became more structured and organised, so much so that permanent structures were built and there were about 17 theatres erected during this period.

Plays were attended in these public playhouses by both royalty and commoners alike. They watched the same plays at the same time. The only distinction was in the seating. Royalty, the upper-class and those who had the means occupied the best seats (usually on the upper levels), whilst commoners had to make do with standing around the stage. In this regard, then, theatre was important in the process of socialization. The lower class could 'rub shoulders' with the gentry and royalty, as it were.

Theatre offered the commoners, the poor, a break from a life of drudgery. Since most of the common folk were uneducated, theatre served as a means of education about social issues, ethics, morals and values. The antagonist or villain in the play more often than not, got his or her "just desserts".  

Most of the plays were presentations related to the lives of those in the upper echelons of society, thus providing meaningful insight into the trials and tribulations experienced by those who would otherwise have been completely out of reach. In this sense, then, theatre levelled the playing field, often mocking the snobbery and arrogance of the wealthy and the privileged, providing, at times, scathing criticism of corrupt practices, greed and abuse. Playwrights had to be careful, though, to not offend their sponsors, who were wealthy and well-connected patrons.

With its better structure and organisation, theatre had become a business during this era. Many employment opportunities were created: carpenters, builders, costumiers, actors, playwrights, entrepreneurs, etc. were all gainfully employed. Many, like William Shakespeare, became relatively wealthy. Official lists were kept and laws were enacted dealing specifically with theatre.

The boom in theatre during this period has led to it often being dubbed as Renaissance Theatre. It is a pity then that, with the rise and influence of Puritanism, the English Parliament banned the staging of plays in London theatres from 2 September 1642.  

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