Tudor Theatre

By Tim Lambert

In the Middle Ages, plays for ordinary people were often religious. They were based on Bible stories or were meant to teach the people Christian values. The actors were usually amateurs and plays were performed on carts or wagons. They were financed by craftsmen’s guilds.

However, in Tudor times theatre became separated from religion. The Tudors wrote secular plays, both comedies and tragedies. In the early and mid-16th century, secular plays were put on for the rich and in educational establishments such as schools and universities. Classical plays were performed and modern comedies.

In the 16th century groups of professional actors became common. However, Tudor governments were suspicious of actors. They were regarded as layabouts who did no useful work. From 1572 actors had to hold a licence from a noble. Without protection from some powerful man, actors were likely to be arrested as vagrants!

In the early 16th century actors performed in market squares or in inn courtyards. However, in the late 16th century theatre became more and more popular and it eventually became worthwhile making a purpose-built theatre in large towns. In 1576 a man named James Burbage built the first theatre. Others followed. Those who could afford the best seats were sheltered from the weather. However, the poor customers stood in the open air. They were called groundlings. Rich people sat on the stage!

There were no female actors in Tudor times. Boys played women’s parts. Plays were usually held during the day because of the difficulty of lighting a stage.

William Shakespeare