Elizabethan Theater: Entertainment or Distraction?

Life during the Elizabethan era had some freedoms that previously weren’t available to the masses. Education was one of these new freedoms. Before, if you weren’t of the nobility, you didn’t get a chance to go to school. Period. Under Elizabeth’s rule, boys, whether from noble families or not, were “educated to be literate members of society”, according to The National Endowment for the Arts. Girls, on the other hand, did not have the expectation to be educated. “By 1600, at least one-third of the male population could read” (Nat End). Religion had a lot to do with this increase as the Puritans funded many of the schools. 

Religion was ever-present in the lives of the Elizabethans. In fact, Queen Elizabeth decreed that everyone must attend worship services of the Church of England of which she was the head. Anyone who didn’t attend, were faced with heavy fines if they couldn’t prove illness. So what if you were Catholic, which had gone out of taste with the monarchy? It wasn’t illegal to be Catholic. It was only illegal to “hold or to attend a Mass” (Nat End). And as far as the theater went, it was not approved by the Puritans. “Puritan leaders and officers of the Church of England considered actors to be of questionable character, and they criticized playwrights for using the stage to disseminate their irreverent opinions” (Nat End). Even Parliament was worried about plays spreading opposing politics and heresy. Yet the Queen loved the theater and protected them. As a compromise to the Puritans, the theaters and performances had to be outside of London, so most of the theaters were built just outside of the city limits. But why was entertainment so important to the Elizabethans?

At a time when work was hard, the death rate was high due to frequent plagues, and more and more people were educated and able to imagine a much broader world beyond their own walls, entertainment was both a distraction and a way to view other people’s lives. It was also a way to poke fun at religion and politics in the guise of making fun of characters who just happened to have similar traits to those they represented. If there was any way to find any kind of entertainment out of life, the Elizabethans were ready for. They went to plays. They held annual fairs. The wealthy held feasts and banquets for anything worth celebrating from a couple getting engaged, to the wedding, to jousting, hawking, and hunting victories. The poor went to dances and tournaments. Troupes came through villages with actors, dancers, jugglers, and animals (Era). They enjoyed dog fighting and bear and bull baiting. And of course, plays, where everyone from the most wealthy and noble to the lowliest was welcome for the price of a ticket, which ranged in the price of admission. 

Plays were also a social affair, which added to the entertainment. The round theaters gave the audience views of not only the stage, but also a view of everyone else in the audience and their behavior. Audience members were not shy about shouting out how they felt about what was going on with the actors on stage. Much like one of today’s sporting events where the spectators react to great catches or fumbled misses, attending a play during the Elizabethan period was a few hours of entertainment on many levels.  
Works Cited
“Elizabethan Entertainment.” Elizabethan Era. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-entertainment.htm
“Elizabethan Theater.”  National Endowment for the Arts presents Shakespeare in American Communities.  https://web.archive.org/web/20170725155908/http://www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org/education/elizabethan-theater
“The Elizabethan Age.” National Endowment for the Arts presents Shakespeare in American Communities.  https://web.archive.org/web/20170725155845/http://www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org/education/elizabethan-age