​ ​
Actors in the Elizabethan Time Period



The Elizabethan time period was when Queen Elizabeth's influence was the most over England from 1550-1650. During this time, entertainment was obviously different than times now. Although it was different, plays were still a large form of entertainment. These plays took place in the theater, in temporarily put up tents, and sometimes just out in the open. The actors in this time period were often times either overlooked and looked at as lowly people, or were highly glorified. It's very important to look at the lifestyles and specific actors in this time period and the acting companies which they traveled with.



​ General Info about Actors in this time period



To begin the dive into the Elizabethan time period, looking into who these people were first in general will help to expand the understanding of these peoples lives. First, all actors were men (Yancey 16). Women were played my men or on rare occasions boys whose voices had not yet changed (Olsen 623). Before a law in England was passed, most actors were amateur. They used it just as a side hobby, where they joined each other to form a company, and moved from town to town. Very rarely did they get paid. Because they traveled around and did not get paid much, they were labeled as tramps and often suspected of begging (Yancey 16). Because they had no regular source of income, only the most prosperous actors had horses. This made travel very dangerous for most actors, because of bad roads, the possibility of dangerous weather, and the chance of robbery (38). This caused the actors to only carry a few costumes, props, and a repertoire of short plays they wrote for themselves (16). The acting style was also quite different. Shakespeare's poems often times make fun of the acting styles of other acting companies, with their ranting style of acting (extremely dramatic-yelling, stomping around, huge sighs). Typically, an actor was categorized as a tragedian or a comedian, which also fit the style of the plays in this time period. One well noted comedian was Richard Tarleton, who was known for his clown portrayals (Olsen 624).
Within the traveling groups of men, there were also boys who traveled with them. Most of these boys who went into acting had well-trained musical voices. Often they came from the choir schools of St. Paul's Cathedral (Hodges 86). The boys who traveled with the men mostly stayed off the stage, running errands and fetching props for the actors (Woog 69). Actors had to change very quickly off set, as they were often times required to learn many parts in one play, sometimes in under three weeks (64). This made changing very difficult, because the clothes were styled after an idea of a smooth and unbroken fit. Costumes were very stiff and stood out from the body, and included an intricate system of fastenings, laces, and cords. The boys would help the actors quickly undue these complex costumes to change to the next character (Yancey 47). The top actors were based in London most of the time (Woog 63). So most professional Actor-Sharers(actors who also managed the traveling company) hoped to earn around 100-150 pounds a year when 200 was a good income (Yancey 45).

The Brad Pitt of the Elizabethan time era


Within the traveling groups of men, there were also boys who traveled with them. Most of these boys who went into acting had well-trained musical voices. Often they came from the choir schools of St. Paul's Cathedral (Hodges 86). The boys who traveled with the men mostly stayed off the stage, running errands and fetching props for the actors (Woog 69). Actors had to change very quickly off set, as they were often times required to learn many parts in one play, sometimes in under three weeks (64). This made changing very difficult, because the clothes were styled after an idea of a smooth and unbroken fit. Costumes were very stiff and stood out from the body, and included an intricate system of fastenings, laces, and cords. The boys would help the actors quickly undue these complex costumes to change to the next character (Yancey 47). The top actors were based in London most of the time (Woog 63). So most professional Actor-Sharers(actors who also managed the traveling company) hoped to earn around 100-150 pounds a year when 200 was a good income (Yancey 45).
Although there were a lot of mediocre actors in this time period, there were a few highly praised actors. One contemporary writer, Thomas Nashe, commented about the actor Alleyn that none of "those admyred tragedians that have lived ever [have lived ever] since before Christ was borne, could ever perform more in action than famous Ned Alleyn." (Woog 63). Perhaps the most well known actor, second to only Shakespeare himself, is Richard Burbage. Burgbage lived from 1567-1619. He had an established reputation, better than even his fathers by the age of 20. His father started a lawsuit that carried on past his death, and when his family won the case, Burbage used the money to erect the Globe Theater. This is where he performed most of his acting, all of his most important lead roles. Richard Burbage is particularly known for his role as Richard in Richard III. He also was a well established painter, who supposedly painted only women.




​ Acting Companies


Now in London there was a law passed by the London legislators stating that only actors who were registered servants of noblemen could go on tour. This law was aimed to eliminate the problem of vagabonds drifting around the country. Because of this law, many servants begged to be certified. There were a few acting companies who were the top acting company's who really competed with each other and were the stars of the time .Two of these companies would be Lord Chamberlain's men and The lord Admiral's men. The Lord Chamberlain's men boasted Shakespeare, but as an ordinary poet, and Richard Burbage as an outstanding actor. This particular company changed the company's name many times over a period of 25 years. They were successively known as Lord Strange's, the earl of derby's, first and second lord hunsdon's, second lord chamberlain's company, until it finally passed under royal patronage and became known as King's company with the succession of James in 1603 (Yancey 37). The company's good fortune was ensured when it came under the sponsorship of Henry Carey, Elizabeth's lord chamberlain, in 1594, when the company finalized the name, The Lord Chamberlain's men. One of Carey's Functions was to supervise entertainment for the queen (38). It was with Shakespeare that they were able to perform a large range of plays, including darker comedies in the late 1590's, comedies, and tragedies. Most of the plays Shakespeare wrote were more complex than other common writers' work (Andrews 46). Their closest rivals, The lord Admiral's men, also boasted another very well known poet of today, Christopher Marlow. But in that time, they saw him as just an ordinary, ungifted poet (Woog 67). The Admiral's men typically performed 6 plays a week over a plan of 40 weeks, when the plays were most typically seen (63). As stated before, boys sometimes were in company's. Sometimes a large group of boys made up a children's acting company who had an adult master who supported and trained the youth, then took all profit (Woog 69).

Works Cited


Andrews, John F, ed. Shakespeare's world and Work. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribrer's sons, 2001. Print. 3 vols.
An Elizabethan inn yard. N.d. -student.lboro.ac.uk. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
Hodges, C. Walter. Shakespear's Theater. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966. Print
Nathan field from the lord Chamberlains men. N.d. Shakespeares England. Internet Shakespeare. Web. 20 Apr. 2010
Olsen, Kistrin, ed. All Things Shakespeare. Vol. 11. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.
"Richard Burbage." Theatre History. N.p., 2002. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
William Shakespeare. N.d. BensGarden. Web. 20 Apr. 2010
Woog, Adam. A history of the Elizabethan Theater. San Diego: Lucent, 2003. Print.
Yancy, Diane. Life in the Elizabethan Theatre. San Diego: Lucent, 1997. Print.