Elizabethan theatre emerged from a travelling group of actors who performed on makeshift stages throughout the first half of the 16th century. It wasn't until 1576 that an official playhouse was built for these roving performers, followed by nearly a dozen more throughout the following decades. Elizabethan-era actors were truly dedicated to their craft and consistently pushed the envelope to deliver a quality performance.
The cast of an Elizabethan production was entirely male, and members played several characters within a performance; females included. Costumes were used to illustrate and separate the introduction of a new character, and were brightly coloured and luxurious. The costumes and colours were extremely important as they were used to reference the individual roles of the cast. At one time, Elizabethans outlawed brightly coloured clothing, granting permission to only wealthy people, royalty and actors.
Props were an essential tool for actors on the Elizabethan stage. Many of the plays had scenes involving sword fighting. The actors regularly practised and trained to brandish their swords realistically and prevent injury. When a dramatic death was staged within a play, a red handkerchief was pulled from the costume to symbolise blood. To provide further realism, the stage was often set with furniture props such as beds, tables and chairs.
Elizabethan theatre generally ran over two hours in length, without intermission. The main goal at this time was to illustrate, verbally, exactly what was going on in the play, whether it be comedy or tragedy. Some of the theatres housed 3,000 spectators, most of which did not have a playbill to follow, or any knowledge of the story being told. The playwrights of this time, Shakespeare being the most popular, wrote extremely melodramatic, poetic verses that were quite lengthy. When an actor delivered his line, he often stood facing in varying angles of the stage, mouth wide open, clearly and carefully enunciating every word with fierce, carefully placed emphasis, so that every spectator could follow the plot.
Because the Elizabethan stage was designed to be viewed from three sides, it was impossible to have any type of backdrop. Relying on sunlight during the day and candlelight at dusk, the plays were entirely reliant on costume representation, voice projection and exaggerated gestures of the entire body and face. When a comedic character delivered a saucy line or a female was being portrayed, the actor would often flutter his lashes, squint his eyes and scamper across the stage. Royal characters had slow, deliberate gestures and were treated with respect as they often attended the plays. Hands pointed to the skies and swept gracefully across the breadth of the stage when these dramatic motions were called upon within the script.
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