Master of Revels and Censorship
Every play had to be submitted to the Master of Revels for licensing before performance. He acted as the official censor and would often force the deletion of passages or references that were deemed offensive. Gerald Eades Bentley, in “Regulation and Censorship” from The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642, observes that
most of the censoring activities were intended to eliminate from the stage five general types of lines or scenes: 1. Critical comments on the policies or conduct of government. 2. Unfavorable presentations of friendly foreign powers or their sovereigns, great nobles or subjects. 3. Comment of religious controversy. 4. Profanity (after 1606). 5. Personal satire of influential people.
The Office of Revels was originally established to select and supervise all entertainment of the sovereign, but as time progressed, its power grew. In 1581, a patent was issued that centralized the regulation of all plays and players with the Master of Revels. The man holding this position became quite powerful and prestigious, for he could significantly change the tone and intent of any production through censorship or could prevent the production from occurring altogether. The position was also very lucrative, as the Master of Revels received a tidy sum for each play that was licensed.
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Asides are brief comments spoken privately to another character or directly to the audience. They are not heard or noticed by the rest of the characters onstage. The character would suddenly turn toward the audience and deliver the aside from behind his hand, thus hiding it from the rest of the players. This technique was used often by Elizabethan dramatists as it helped to let the audience in on the character’s thoughts.
Blank verse is unrhymed poetry that still contains a rhythm and meter. This was the primary form used by Elizabethan playwrights, although prose and many other forms of poetry are also found throughout their plays. Serious characters of high stature and nobility often speak in blank verse, especially when discussing important issues, while comic and lower class characters are less likely to do so.
Iambic pentameter is the rhythm used in Elizabethan blank verse. Each line has five two-syllable units, or “feet,” with the second syllable of each unit receiving the heaviest stress. Iambic pentameter is relatively close to the natural form of spoken English. For example, “She WENT to SEE a PLAY a-BOUT a KING” is a line of iambic pentameter.
Name-calling was an art form during the Elizabethan Age, and this is reflected in the plays from that period. Characters often engage in “verbal dueling” by hurling...
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Boys’ companies were performing troupes that were made up entirely of young boys. The practice of using boys in the English theatre dates back to the early 1500s, when choirboys sang and performed at court for the king, and during Elizabethan times, these acting companies were still usually under the training and direction of a choirmaster. During the latter part of the 1500s, boys’ companies were very popular. Their popularity faded around the turn of the century, however, due to several scandals that took place. In 1597, Nathaniel Giles, manager of the Chapel Children, was charged with kidnapping boys and forcing them into servitude as actors, and in 1600, Henry Evans, another manager of the Chapel Children, involved the boys in several politically controversial plays. Public support for the troupes waned, and boys’ companies dissolved around 1608.
Masques were short entertainments that were held at Court as one part of a royal evening of entertainment. They were much shorter than regular plays. Masques usually contained romantic and mythological themes and consisted of elaborate settings in which players posed, danced, and recited poetic lines of dialogue. Nobles and guests of the Court would often take part, and although women were banned from appearing on the public stage, they were allowed to participate in Court masques. Queen Elizabeth I held very few court masques during her reign,...
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Compare and Contrast
1600s: Women are not allowed to perform in plays, and all the female roles are played by boys or men.
Today: Some of the most notable and highly respected performers are women.
1600s: Names do not have a standard spelling. Shakespeare’s name appears in several variations, including: Shakespeare, Shaksper, and Shakespere.
Today: Names are spelled consistently, and, for legal purposes, each person’s signature is consistent as well.
1600s: Most plays are performed outdoors during the day to take advantage of the natural light. Plays performed indoors must be lit by candlelight.
Today: Most plays are performed indoors in the evening. They are illuminated by electric lighting.
1600s: One of the most common surgical procedures is bloodletting, done through an incision in a vein or the application of leeches.
Today: Thousands of sophisticated surgical techniques are available that have been proven safe and effective.
1600s: There are no sewers or drains, except for the gutter which runs down the middle of the street. Garbage is dumped into the gutters and accumulates there until the rain washes it away.
Today: There are sophisticated sanitation systems that maintain the cleanliness of cities and help to prevent the spread of disease.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the various aspects of Elizabethan costume. If you were a nobleman or noblewoman of the time, how would your costume be different than those of the lower classes? What are some of the elements of your dress that would indicate your social status?
What do you think a typical day was like for members of an Elizabethan acting troupe? What were some of the difficulties they might encounter in trying to prepare for a performance?
Elizabethan Drama gives some clues into the remedies, medicines and herbs used to cure ailments during that time period. What were some of these treatments? Do we still use any of them today?
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Everyman in His Humour
Ben Jonson’s Everyman in His Humour was first produced in 1598 by Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It is Jonson’s first important play and is also the first play to be labeled a “comedy of humours.” Humours were bodily fluids that were believed to control a person’s temperament. If an individual had too much of any one humour, he would exhibit that characteristic to excess. In the play, Jonson emphasizes these “humours” and achieves his comic effect by exaggerating each character’s quirks, almost to the point of caricature. The play was extremely popular and raised Jonson to the position of a celebrity. Because of its popularity, other playwrights also began to copy the style. Everyman in His Humour was originally published in 1601, and a revised version appeared as one of the plays in Jonson’s folio of 1616.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s most well-loved play, Hamlet was first produced around 1600 with Richard Burbage, the leading actor of Shakespeare’s company, in the title role. It is believed that Shakespeare himself played the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy that tells the story of the melancholy Prince of Denmark, who vows to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle, the king. It was well received by Elizabethan audiences who were probably already somewhat familiar with the story. Hamlet was...
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Hamlet was adapted to film by Laurence Olivier in 1948. Many still consider this the best version of the play ever recorded. Olivier gives a stunning performance in the title role. The film was released by Universal-International and is now available on home video.
The British Broadcasting Company has produced several excellent audio book versions of Shakespearean plays. Their version of Hamlet is performed by Kenneth Branagh and features Derek Jacobi. It is published by Bantam Doubleday Dell. This audio book contains the fulllength, unabridged version of the play.
Christopher Marlowe’s epic work Tamburlaine the Great has been recorded on audio cassette by The Center for Cassette Studies.
The Marlowe Society maintains a website on Christopher Marlowe at http://www.marlowesociety. org with comprehensive information on Marlowe’s life, a newsletter, and links to other interesting information.
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What Do I Read Next?
The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” was one of the worst natural disasters in history. Between 1347 and 1352, the plague swept through Europe causing widespread hysteria and death. One third of the population of Europe died from the outbreak. It affected many aspects of daily life and was also reflected in the art and literature of the time. Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death (1969) provides an in-depth look at this horrific catastrophe.
The Globe Theatre has been rebuilt in Bankside, London, just a few yards from the site where the original playhouse once stood. Theatrical entrepreneur Sam Wanamaker did extensive research in order to be as authentic as possible to the original. The story of the theatre’s reconstruction and the research that went into this ambitious project makes for fascinating reading and also provides a great deal of information about the Elizabethan theatre in general. One book on the subject is Shakespeare’s Globe Rebuilt (1997), edited by J. R. Mulryne, Margaret Shewring, Andrew Gurr, and Ronnie Mulryne.
Will Kempe was one of the principal actors of Shakespeare’s company. He was famous for his comic roles, and Shakespeare wrote many of the clown characters in his early plays specifically for Kempe. He originated the roles of Bottom and Falstaff. The other members of Shakespeare’s company were interesting characters in their own right. There have also been many intriguing Shakespearean actors...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bald, R. C., Introduction, in Six Elizabethan Plays, Houghton Mifflin, 1963, pp. vii–xvii.
Bentley, Gerald Eades, “Regulation and Censorship,” in The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590–1642, Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 145–96.
Brockett, Oscar G., “English Theatre from the Middle Ages to 1642,” in History of the Theatre, 3d ed., Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, pp. 161–88.
—, “Theatre and Drama in the Late Middle Ages,” in History of the Theatre, 3d ed., Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, pp. 117–21.
Doran, Madeleine, “Common Plots in Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by Laura K. Egendorf, Greenhaven Press, 2000.
Egendorf, Laura K., “A Historical Overview of Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by Laura K. Egendorf, Greenhaven Press, 2000, p. 22.
Gassner, John, “Elizabethan Drama,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by John Gassner and William Green, Applause Theatre Books, 1967, pp. xi–xxii.
Green, William, “The Spanish Tragedy,” in Elizabethan Drama, edited by John Gassner and William Green, Applause Theatre Books, 1967, pp. 73–77.
Knoll, Robert E., “Theatricalism in The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris,” in Christopher Marlowe, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 91–109.
Palmer, D. J.,...
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