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How the Protestant Reformation Made Elizabethan Theater

Last week I got podcasty with Elizabethan Theater, which is appropriate considering Shakespeare’s birthday is coming up.  I’ll be doing several episodes on the theater – this was a general introduction to this great Elizabethan institution, and then my next episodes will be more focused on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Burbage, and the other great personalities of that era.

Here are some random facts about Elizabethan Theater, and then you can learn more by listening to the episode, below.

  1.  Pageants and play acting have been around for centuries.  But they evolved as Biblical plays, where actors would tell the stories of the Bible.  As such, they were centered around holidays and feast days, and were really religious in nature.
  2. When the Protestant Reformation took hold in England, these mystery plays were identified and included in the lists of popish things that were meant to be wiped out.  They remained in England in more remote places like Cornwall, in part because they were in Cornish. The language barrier made them harder to police.
  3. Suddenly there was a demand for more secular themed plays, and there were out-of-work actors who could no longer go around performing as they always had. Enter the playwrights who would introduce three new secular themes: comedy, tragedy, and history. These themes weren’t based around any kind of feast days or religious themes, so they could be performed all year.
  4. Ironically, it was the reformers, though the other end of the spectrum, who fought to destroy Elizabethan Theater. Eventually when the Puritans took control of the government during the English Civil War they did ban plays.
  5. Lots of towns didn’t want the plays and the theater.  They were afraid of the security risk of a huge anonymous crowd of people, and they were also afraid of spreading the plague. The plague was a huge business risk for theaters, because they would always have to close for several months in the summer if there was a threat of plague.
Listen to the full episode below, and let me know what you think in the comments below!