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Elizabethan Theater, Playhouses
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William Shakespeare Biography - Elizabethan Theatres, Playhouses & Inn-yards
Picture of the Bear-Ring - predecessor of the Hope Theatre

There were three different types of venues for Elizabethan plays: Inn-yards, Open air Amphitheatres and Playhouses. The Inn-yards were the original venues of plays and many were converted into Playhouses. e The Amphitheatres were generally used during the Summer months and then the Acting Troupes moved to the indoor playhouses during the Winter Season.


Inn-yards The early days of Elizabethan commercial theatre. Performances held in private London Inns. Inexpensive. Held indoors or the yard. Audience capacity up to 500

Open Air Amphitheaters

Think of a public outdoor structure like the Coliseum or a small football stadium with a capacity of between 1500 and 3000 people
Indoor PlayhousesA small, private indoor hall. Open to anyone who would pay but more expensive with more select audiences. Audience capacity up to 500

For pictures and examples of all of the different types of Elizabethan Theatres and their locations in London together with their proximity to each please click Locations & Descriptions of Elizabethan Theatres

The inn-yards therefore originated as a natural progression for theatrics from town squares and public spaces or halls. Another form of popular English entertainment at the time was bear and bull baiting. Purpose built bull and bear rings were built for this particular purpose. These rings were of a similar design to the later amphitheatres but the floor consisted of earth and there were of course no facilities for human entertainers, the actors. These blood sport arenas also had protective walls around them made made of stone (flint). This was not required for the purely theatrical buildings. The seating arrangements for the spectators were tiered seating. The natural progression was to combine inn-yards with bear rings adding some essentials to suit the human entertainers and the idea of the Elizabethan amphitheater, as we understand it, was born. Cock fighting pits were also a popular form of entertainment. These cock-pits were housed in purpose built indoor structures. The first playhouses were introduced using these buildings.



The early days of commercial theatre involved performances in public spaces such as town squares. Elizabethan acting troupes travelled the country and sought lodgings at inns or taverns. The natural progression for the troupes was to negotiate with the tavern owner, or vintner, in order to stage a performance at the inn. All parties would therefore benefit. The bigger the audience at the inn, the more profits were made. In the Elizabethan days the usual form of transport was on horseback, so all of the major inns had large cobblestone yards. The obvious progression was to stage the plays in the inn-yards. The inn-yards were surrounded by balconies which led to the rooms which provided lodgings for travellers.

  Elizabethan Inn-yard

A fee was charged to playgoers for entering the inn-yard, and then an additional fee was added on if they wanted to go up to a balcony level. In 1574 the City of London started regulating the Inn-yard activities. James Burbage was making considerable profit from Theatrical productions at the Inn-yards and these new City of London regulations no doubt had a significant effect on his decision to create an amphitheatre outside the boundary of the City of London Wall. He achieved his goal by building Theatre, Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch, London in 1576. The very first theatre which soon led to the opening of similar theatres and the demise of many London Inn- yards. Inn- yards outside of London continued to flourish.

The first theatrical entrepreneurs were James Burbage and his bother-in-law. They already had experience of the profits to be made in staging plays in inn-yards. They built the first theatre, appropriately called 'Theatre' in 1576. They combined their experiences of the inn-yards with the other forms of entertainment and produced an amphitheatre. This was created by modifying the features of the existing blood sport rings with the addition of a fixed stage, unlike the trestle supported stage  used in the inn-yards. This allowed the stage productions to become far more sophisticated with the use of props such as canons (although these massive props often had to be left on stage for the entire performance) and a much larger stage area for the actors complete with trap-doors. Special effects were also a spectacular addition allowing for smoke effects, the firing of a real canon, fireworks (for dramatic battle scenes) and spectacular 'flying' entrances. The other important feature was the cobbled yard, as opposed to the bare earth floor suited to animals. This allowed the 'pit' area to house playgoers, even on wet days. Thus the Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneurs created Theater that we know today.

Theatrical entrepreneurs of the Elizabethan era, starting with James Burbage in 1576, were in the position to create real spectacles with their productions. Perhaps to further 'legitimise' the novel idea of permanent, purpose built theaters, a strong resemblance to the Greek theater and the Roman Amphitheater design was encouraged. This wonderful connection with the classics was providential as the blood sport arenas used for bear and bull baiting were already a feature of Elizabethan entertainment. Moving from this type of entertainment to the Elizabethan theatre was an easy step. Both types of entertainment could be housed in one amphitheatre connecting the old with the new. Not only did this make perfect financial sense it also linked the Elizabethan theater of the Renaissance period with the much admired classical theater and literature of the Greeks and Romans. The Elizabethan playwrights continued this theme by producing Tragedies and Comedies of a similar genre. William Shakespeare himself drew on the history of the ancients in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The massive popularity of the Roman Amphitheaters was about to be repeated hundreds of years later in Renaissance England (the first permanent Roman theatre was built in 54 AD). The classical theme of the Elizabethan theaters continued and various sections were labelled with names taken from the Roman theatre. The
' Herculean ' pillars, strongly featured in the interiors designs of the Elizabethan theaters, were painted so that they appeared to be made of marble. The Elizabethan stage wall was called the Frons Scenae and decorated with classical Greek and Roman images. So the innovative theatrical entrepreneurs of the Elizabethan era, using classical Greek and Roman history, were creating a clever and specific image for their theaters. But the Amphitheaters were not just about emulating the classical styles of the Greeks and Romans. They were about profit. The design of the London theaters, or Amphitheaters, were guaranteed to house as many playgoers as was possible in a cheap, but impressive looking, building built with timber, stone (flint) and plaster which took less than six months to build. The profit margin of the fixed venue theaters increased five-fold as the acting troupes no longer had to spend their time travelling erecting and dismantling stages and all of the associated expenses which would have been incurred.

The huge success of the plays produced at Inn-yards and theatres and with play going becoming the height of fashion it was not long before a vast amount of plays were being produced indoors. The indoor theatres called playhouses were born ! The playhouses of course helped the acting troupes considerably as playhouses allowed for an all year round profession, not one restricted to the summer at the mercy of the English weather. Playhouses  also allowed for luxury and comfort for courtiers and the nobility when watching a play. Many plays were produced in buildings which were suitable for the purpose. The Gray's Inn and Whitehall were two such theatres and easily converted into playhouses. Purpose built playhouses were also built such as
Salisbury Court playhouse.

In 1576 the very first Amphitheater was built in Shoreditch, London, called 'Theatre'. For the Elizabethans this was a totally new innovation in entertainment. It would have had the same effect as the movies did at the turn of the 20th century. It was exciting! It was popular! It was the place to go! It was a booming industry!  There was money to be made! The world of Theater, playwrights and actors exploded on London. It became fashionable for Noblemen to keep their own troupes of players. As with any new industry there were, initially, no regulations. Various companies of players were formed. Copyright William Shakespeare info did not exist and, as rivalry was fierce amongst Theatrical entrepreneurs, many plays were copied during performances (hence the Quarto texts) and produced soon after by a rival company. 

There were many play venues in and around London. Click on the links for details of each venue. To fully appreciate the proximity of the locations please click
Locations & Descriptions of Elizabethan Theatres.. The names , dates and locations of Elizabethan Theaters, Playhouses and City Inns are as follows:



1576Theatre, Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch, LondonAmphitheater
1576Newington Butts, Southwark, SurreyAmphitheater
1577The Curtain, Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch, LondonAmphitheater
1587The Rose, Bankside, SurreyAmphitheater
1595The Swan, Paris Garden, Surrey (See Top Picture)Amphitheater
1599The Globe, Bankside, SurreyAmphitheater
1600The Fortune, Golding Lane, ClerkenwellAmphitheater
1600The Boar's Head, Whitechapel, LondonAmphitheater
1604The Red Bull, ClerkenwellAmphitheater
1576The Bear Garden  Bankside, SurreyAmphitheater
1576The Bull Ring  Bankside, SurreyAmphitheater
1614The Hope  Bankside, SurreyAmphitheater


1576Paul's, St. Paul's Cathedral precinct, London Playhouse
1576The Blackfriars, Blackfriars, London (the first)Playhouse
1596The Blackfriars, London, (the second) Playhouse
1616The Cockpit, Drury Lane, Westminster, London Playhouse
1629Salisbury Court, LondonPlayhouse
1576Gray's Inn Theatre, LondonPlayhouse
1573Middle Temple Inn Theatre, LondonPlayhouse
1576Whitehall Theatre, LondonPlayhouse
1606Whitefriars, London Playhouse
London Inn-yards
1576 - 1594The Bull Inn, , London Inn-yard
1576 - 1594The Bell Savage, London Inn-yard
1576 - 1594The Cross Keys, London Inn-yard
1576 - 1594The Bell, London Inn-yard
1576 - 1594The White Hart, LondonInn-yard
1576 - 1594The George Inn TheatreInn-yard

Strolling players of actors had been popular for centuries in England but as there were no initial regulations it was possible to use plays as a vehicle for propaganda. Plays could be used to encourage criticism of the state and freedom of thought in terms of both religion and politics. Queen Elizabeth, ever concerned about her popularity with the people, realised that although it would be prudent to enforce some regulations that it would be foolhardy to apply too many restrictions.  She had controlled the troupes of strolling players in 1572 by granting a license by royal patent to organised acting companies, thus initiating legitimate troupes such as Earl of Leicester's Men. Any players  might at any time be required to show their credentials. And under Queen Elizabeth political and religious subjects were forbidden on the stage. Plays still however often led to heated debates in Theaters and arguments erupted. The subject matter of the plays would often be vulgar and bawdy. The behaviour of some the audience was the worse! The Globe Theatre didnít just show plays. It was also a bear pit, brothel and gambling house. Crime increased and following the performances the crowds were noisy and unruly. The reputation of actors was remained disreputable, a legacy from the rogues and vagabonds who had previously roamed the country putting on plays.  But the vast crowds and the popularity of the London Theaters needed some additional controls. Published plays soon required a licence, which provided a form of censorship by the state. 

The objections to Theaters escalated and the Church, London Officials and respectable citizens raised even more objections to Theatres.

 Theaters were not only used to show plays. There was gambling and in some there was even bear baiting. Not only were there objections about the bawdy nature of some of the plays, the rise in crime but there was also the real risk of the crowded theatres encouraging the spread of the plague. The outcry was such that in 1596 London's authorities banned the public presentation of plays within the city limits of London. Theaters were forced to move to the South side of the River Thames. The map showing the Locations & Descriptions of Elizabethan Theatres illustrates the rapid growth of theaters in London. Click the link for more details of:

Elizabethan Theatre - Descriptions of all London Theaters including Swan, Rose,
Bear Garden, Cockpit, Hope, Curtain Theaters

Elizabethan Theatre Facts - Structure and design

Elizabethan Theatre Locations - Map of William Shakespeare's Elizabethan London
with theater names and locations

Elizabethan Playwrights and Authors - Plays and Books by Christopher Marlowe,
Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton and Kyd

Elizabethan Acting Troupes who visited Stratford
Lord Strange's, Leicester's, Essex's, Berkeley's and Worcester's men

Visiting the New Globe Theater - a London vacation

William Shakespeare Biography - Elizabethan Theaters, Playhouses & Inn-yards

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