Queen Elizabeth came to be known as one of the greatest rulers of the English empire. Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a more efficient government was created. The church was unified, the English empire was expanded, and language, literature, and theater flourished to a greatness that would be impossible for almost any other period of English history, or any other European empire, for that matter, to match.
Although there was a great rise in literature,it was theater that catapulted to greatness during Elizabeth’s reign. Out of Elizabeth’s era came Elizabethan theater. Elizabethan theater has such a variety of topics, that would make it virtually impossible to talk about in ten pages. The focal point of this paper will be on Queen Elizabeth’s contributions to theater as well as her favor to Children of Paul’s, or Paul’s Boys (a Boy Company) and the Queen’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men (two Adult Companies).
Prior to Elizabeth’s reign, those members of the Tutor family enjoyed entertainment consisting mainly of court tournaments. Within these court tournaments bear baiting was the most popular event. Although Elizabeth found this hugely diverting, theater was her entertainment of choice, for Elizabeth found such cruel spectacles… an unattractive feature of the age (Somerset 367). However, regardless of her opinion, countrymen saw nothing wrong with bear baiting, and continued the event.
Even though Elizabeth was a great lover of theater, that does not mean that theater, was not put down routinely. The Puritans found Elizabeth’s interest in theater to be utterly reprehensible, actors to be a contemptible breed, and the theaters that they performed in nothing more than brothels (Somerset 368). But throughout Elizabeth’s forty-five year reign, she protected and uplifted the adult and boy companies, when enemies from the clergy and sometimes the council sought to put them down (Clunes 27).
To the Queen’s interest, some six to ten plays were given every winter at court and she saw many others when in progress throughout the country or while attending weddings or banquets in London. (Clunes 27) Within time, Elizabeth was awarding more performances in court. That is one of the ways Elizabeth helped the theater arts to florish. The more performances that were given, the more theater became popular, and the more the people of England wanted to see it. The Companies
Children of Paul’s, Children of the Chapel and the Queen’s Revels, Children of Windsor, Children of the King’s Revels, Children of Bristol, Westminister School, Eton College, Merchant Taylors School, The Earl of Leicester’s Boys, The Earl of Oxford’s Boys, Mr. Stanley’s Boys) These two umbrella catagories would be the main source of theatrical entertainment. When Elizabeth took the throne, boy companies were very much in existance. The boy companies had a very recognized place in the theatrical world, since the middle ages (Hillebrand 9).
Watching the boy companies perform became her favored pastime during the first ten years of her reign. The majority of performances awarded by the queen were given by the boy companies; between 1558 and 1576 the queen awarded seventy-eight performances. Out of those seventy-eight performances forty-six went to boy companies and only 32 went to adult companies. Out of those forty-six performances, twenty-one of those were given by Elizabeth’s favored boy company, the Children of Paul’s. This was all do to the great leadership of Sebastian Westcott.
Sebastian was made master of the song school in 1560 (Chambers 12). Little is known of his earlier life, but throughout his tenure as director of Paul’s Boys, they were to perform no less than twenty-seven times at court between 1560 and 1582. The boys’ performances, though enjoyed by the queen, would come under great scrutiny from Puritan preachers. In a pamphlet attacking a specific boys, group the writer unknown stated: plays will never be suppressed while her majesty’s unfledged minions flaunt it in silks and satins…
These pretty upstart youths profane the Lord’s day by the Lascivious withering of their tender limbs and gorgeous decking of their apparel in feigning bawdy fables gathered from idolatrous heathen poets (Pg 368 Somerset). These were sentiments shared by many Puritans but that was not to stop many of the court appearances. The Paul’s Boys would go on to perform such pieces as The Bugbears (a translation from the Greek of Euripides, by Lady Lumley), Error, Titus and Gisippus, The Marriage of Mind and Measure, Scipio Africanus, and Cupid and Psyche.
Westcott Died in 1582, which would start the downfall of the Paul’s Boys. They would change masters three more times and give less and less performances at court. The next septennial period, 1583-90, would witness the extinction, for a decade or more, of the boy companies. It is stated that the ultimate success of the professional organizations may largely have been due to their employment of such university witts as Marlowe, Peele, Greene, Lodge and Nashe. (Chambers 5) The adult Companies were no better liked than the Boy Companies.
In many instances Elizabeth was called upon to intervene with royal rule. For example in 1574, Elizabeth was annoyed to hear that the city fathers had turned down a request from the Leicester’s Men that they might be permitted to perform in recognized places in London (Somerset 368). Without much reservation, she overturned the city father’s decision and issued the Leicester’s Men a license allowing them to use, exercise and occupy the art and faculty of playing… stage plays… as well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as well as for our solace and pleasure (Somerset 369).
This was not the only instance where royal intervention took place. Another illustration of the queen’s backing of theatrical events took place in 1583. A scaffold had collapsed in one of the tournament games, causing eight deaths. The city authorities then used this as an excuse to close all playhouses in the interest of public safety (Somerset 369). This would start a formation of Adult companies by the queen and wealthy nobleman. Ater being taken in by wealthy nobleman and the queen, adult companies were assured protection from puritan city authorities.
During the period of the 1580’s, the Queen’s Men would become the most famous of all Adult companies. Not only were they wearing her livery, the twelve hand-picked actors were considered to be the best in the profession (Chambers 109). They were sworn in as her servants and were able to commence in doing what they did best, entertaining the queen and her court. The Queen’s Men was the main attraction at court. During the Queen’s Men’s theatrical life, they would tour throughout England; no group drew a larger crowd than the Queen’s men.
They would travel to places like Canterbury, Cinque Ports, Southampton, the Welsh boarder, and the Yorkshire hills in Airedale (McMillin MacLean 39). They would also go on to perform many plays including The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Phillyda and Corin, Felix and Philiomena, King Leire, Selimus, The True Tragedy of Richard III, Peele’s Old Wive’s Tale, and many more. (Chambers 114) But what made the company a favorite besides the point that it was the Queen’s company, was actor Richard Tarlton. Richard Tarlton was considered to be a comic genius (Somerset 369) Through Tarlton’s acting, the Queen’s Men would be even more popular.
He pleased everyone; it is said that just his appearance would send the audience into uncontrollable laughter (Somerset 370). But he pleased no one more than the queen, (McMillin and MacLean xiii). Tarlton was not considered a dramatic actor; his talents ran more to jigs and themes (Chambers vol. II 109). When Richard Tarlton died in 1588, the Queen’s Men began an irreversible decline. Their fall was unforeseen. In 1590-1 they gave four Court plays to two by their rivals; in 1591-2 they gave one, and their rivals six (Chambers vol. II 6).
The Queen’s Men were reduced to forming a coalition with the lord Sussex’s men (Chambers vol. II 6). After the decline of The Queen’s Men, it was the Chamberlain’s Men who were favored more than any other Adult performing company at Queen Elizabeth’s Court; It is The Chamberlain’s Men who made the English history play count in the 1590’s (McMillin and MacLean xiv). It is rather complicated to try and explain the history of the Chamberlain’s Men. Henry Carey was the first Lord Hunsdon and patron of Hunsdon’s men, and The Hunsdon’s Men existed from 1564 to 1567.
Henry Carey then accepted office as Lord Chamberlain in 1585, and took under his patronage The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. After the Death of their first patron, his son George Carey, the 2nd Hunsdon took on the job as patron and again changed the name to Hunsdon’s Men. When the office of Chamberlain was offered to him, George again changed the name back to Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Chamberlain’s Men were housed in the theater known as the Newington Butts and for a short time at the Cross Keys Inn. They later relocated to The Theater and when The Theater was dismantled , the troupe was rehoused in the Globe Theater.
The Chamberlain’s Men were not only housed in The Globe, but the principle men of the troupe, Richard and Cuthberg Burbage, Pope, Phillips, Heminges, Kempe, and Shakespeare, designed and built it, paid for the leased land that the theater sat upon, and ran the theater. It was said that from a dramatist’s and actor’s viewpoint… oustandingly the most attractive playhouse in London (Thomson 18). They would go on to perform shows written by Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and shows written together by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
The group put on such plays as Othello, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, King Lear, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Anthony & Cleopatra, The Fair Maid of Bristow and many, many more. Though they performed plays by other playwrights, it was Shakespeare who was their principle playwright. Though we may have lost many documents from the period of Elizabeth, or may not have found all documentaion, we mantained enough to see, if not immensely, a little bit of the profound effect Queen Elizabeth had on the arts.
If Elizabeth had not meddled in the affairs of the arts Elizabethan Theater may not have had such a lasting affect on following generations. She not only stood up for and protected professional acting troupes, she influenced and helped popularize the backing of Adult companies by pulling in wealthy citizens and convencing them to take on Adult companies in their name, offering them protection and finacial backing. Through her help and the support of her council we can enjoy Elizabethan theater and theater in general for years to come.