The word “Renaissance) is a French word that means “Rebirth.” So just what is being reborn in the Renaissance? Well after the end of the Roman empire most of Europe underwent about 1000 years of relatively little social and cultural development, at least as far as the thinkers of the Renaissance that was about to explode on the scene across Europe thought. The cultural thinkers of the late 14th century looked back into history and saw two bright examples of the wonders that humanity was capable of: Greece and Rome. The Roman Empire had achieved great growth and development of its culture and power, building on the even earlier Greek models. So, the thinkers of the Renaissance began to give a rebirth to those ideas and to update them to reflect their own “modern” sensibilities that had grown out of a millennium of Church dominated culture.
This period was a significant awakening of the arts and learning in Europe. It lasted from the late 14th century until early 17th century. Starting in the relative peace and prosperity around Rome in Italy, it then spread, like the ripples of a splash in a pool of water, slowly outward until it had covered nearly all of Europe.
One of the most significant causes of the Renaissance was the beginning of the middle class in society. Prior to the end of the Middle Ages (i.e. between Rome and the Renaissance) there had really been only two classes in society: the wealthy, land-owning nobility and the peasantry who worked the land for the nobles in a largely manpower-driven agricultural society. After the waves of Bubonic Plague that had swept the continent and wiped out nearly half of the population of Europe, manpower was greatly diminished and the resulting entrepreneurial spirit that rose to fill the gaps left by depleted populations, developed a middle class: non-noble, non-landowning merchants, traders, and craftsman who were enterprising enough to take advantage of a golden opportunity.
This new moderately wealthy segment of society now had three things that made the Renaissance possible: disposable income and time to enjoy life and an innate human desire to show off! The new middle class gave more people than ever before some degree of economic power. As another result, this greater emphasis on enjoying this life, led to a decline in the influence of the Medieval Church. Salvation was no longer the only pathway to achieve potential happiness in this life. There is a noticeable shift away from the Church and religion as the primary influence in society and culture.
This was also a period of great exploration. Many of the voyages of discovery of the New World and other places occurred during the early and later Renaissance. As manpower dwindled, the need for greater efficiency of the manpower that remained resulted in a spurt of innovations and invention. Many of the tools developed to speed up work or to make it more efficient were started in this period. It is also a period where cultural examination happened, and the inherent value of our human nature began to be recognized. This resulted in a development of an awareness and valuing of humans for their humanity, not just as creatures of God. This new philosophy and study of what makes humans tick is called humanism. Humanism began to find its way into nearly every aspect of society and culture. People started to look after the less fortunate, the downtrodden, the overworked. We, as a society, began to understand what it really meant to be a human in this world. It was this last idea that really shifted socially and culturally away from focusing on the Church and the afterlife. When this world came into focus for those who did not have to work sunup to sundown just to survive, there was a realization that this world has beauty and pleasure to offer of its own.
Italian Renaissance Theatre
We will begin our look at the Renaissance by exploring the theatre in the place where the Renaissance began, Italy!
Though they intended to adopt the classic theatre of the Romans and the Greeks, the Italians made some updates to the styles and types of plays. These changes included significant developments and a new concept that led to the development of improvisational theatre. In fact, improvisational theatre developed into a whole new branch of theatre – the Commedia dell’Arte. We will discuss that in more detail a little later in this supplement. There were also changes to the acting style. There was no longer the reliance on the chorus and the singing of the text, though that did persist in another new form of theatre, Opera, which will also be discussed in more detail below. The rules for what made a play good and acceptable were based in the Aristotelian ideals in The Poetics, but they made some additions and some changes in interpretations of those rules of dramatic criticism. Another area of significant change included the theatre spaces and theatre architecture. A major development of the Renaissance was in the area of artistic expression. The painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance gave society a whole new view on what was beautiful and what could be done with the arts. In fact, many of their styles and techniques continue to show up into modern art. One area that was impacted in a significant way by these developments in the arts was theatre scenic design of the settings that plays took place in. Gone, for the most part, are the old backdrop building of the Greeks and the Romans. Instead, luscious and beautiful paintings took the place of depicting the location where the action would take place. Again, we will examine this idea in more detail below.
New types of plays (besides neo-Roman and Greek style plays)
Let’s begin our analysis of the changes by looking at some of the new forms or genres of plays developed during the early Renaissance in Italy.
The first of these is called Intermezzi. This genre was developed to fill in the gaps between the acts of larger plays. Often, the new sets would take considerable time to change between scenes, and instead of leaving the audience sitting or standing in the dark, they would put on a short play or scene. Intermezzi were short pieces based on mythology. They would often be lavishly costumed and extravagant in the way they were staged and performed.
The next type of play developed is called the Pastoral. These plays are set in nature (the unspoiled landscape of forests, glens, gardens, etc.) and were meant to represent how life was meant to work in an ideal world. They derived from Renaissance interpretations of the Greek Satyr plays. However, in place of the often overt sexual content of the Greek plays, the Italians would focus more on the nature of love and its struggles that humans go through. They would also usually involve a happy ending. For the Renaissance audience a happy ending meant that the true love would lead to a marriage and happiness for all involved.
The third type of new genre developed by the Italians is called Opera. This is a form of theatre that has remained very much unchanged into our modern times since it was developed in the Renaissance. As theatre enthusiasts looked at the theatre of Greece and Rome, they realized that theatre had begun as a musical performance where the dialogue was all sung to musical instrument accompaniment. They developed their own version of an all music, all sung theatre performance. Basically, opera is meant to be a fusion of music and theatre as it had been, but the artistic developments of the Renaissance arts affected music as much as it did everything else. New instruments were created and developed. New styles of music that were rich and lush to the ears of the audience became the norm for the Renaissance, and that made its presence known in the theatre as well, with opera. What opera came to be was a dramatic performance set entirely to music.
The last new genre developed by the Italians in the Renaissance is called the commedia dell’arte. This was a new genre for the Italians. It was loosely based on the Satyr plays and the Pastorals, but it was all improvised. This was a genre made up of professional performers, who would frequently travel from town to town. The characters were essentially stock characters, that would use masks, similar to the Greeks, but not the same. They were half-masks covering only the top part of the face, leaving the mouth uncovered. Since these plays were performed in close proximity to a relatively small audience, they did not need the amplification of the Greek masks. Instead, these masks were meant to show the audience what character the actor was portraying. Like the stereotypical characters, the masks were based on stereotypes as well and were quite similar all across Italy. The masks would have been used for all of the characters except the male and female young lovers.
Though the plays were improvised, and often dealt with real-life situations, they were filled with comic bits of action and dialogue. The costumes, like the masks, were all based on stock characters and meant to convey certain stereotypical ideas and images. For example, the Arlecchino, or Harlequin, character. This character was usually dressed in a checked or particolor costume that was often called “motley.” Since the type of character had no real counterpart in the Greek and Roman theatre, it is believed that the Harlequin character developed out of the Medieval tradition of the court fool, or King’s Fool.
A Commedia dell’Arte troupe would consist of about 10 members (7 men and 3 women). Women would perform the stock characters of the young lover, the mother (often a mean or vengeful character), and the old woman or witch.
Another development that came about with the Commedia is the use of physical humor that the audience would laugh at, but that sometimes involved mild violence. A tool developed to make something seem much more painful than it actually was, is the slapstick. A slapstick is a device made of two pieces of wood hinged together in a way that when the handle is swung against a person, even a very modest tap, then the hinged piece would slap against the handle piece and make a very loud sound. In this way, a light touch could be made to sound like a very hard slap. Because of the way this device was used in the physical comedy of the day, the term “slapstick” has come to be applied to many different forms of physical comedy.
Italian Renaissance Theatre Criticism
When it comes to the rules of theatre for the Renaissance, the Italians adopted the ideas that the Greeks and Romans had used – based on the writings of Aristotle in The Poetics. These ideas were pretty common throughout all of the Renaissance period, though some areas developed some local modifications to suit the local audiences. These rules came to be called the Neo-Classical ideals (meaning “new classics” – named after the French Renaissance concepts). As dramatic criticism (i.e. the rules that should be followed) these rules borrowed from early rules but there were also some that were changed or updated. The first of these is likely the most important, because it led to many changes in later historical periods as it was continually reinterpreted. Here are the basic rules of the Renaissance:
Verisimilitude – Aristotle mentions that drama should have verisimilitude, that is it should be “true to life.” As artists in the Renaissance interpreted this idea, it did not reflect our modern ideas of realism. Instead, it was more focused on the premise that if something “could” happen, then it was acceptable. The main way this changed Renaissance theatre though was through the impact it had on stories in plays and to some extent the acting in plays.
The Unities – This is another thing that Aristotle alludes to. If something is going to be true to life, then it must conform to the basic unities of time, place, and action.
Time – Originally, the unity of time meant that the action of the world of the play must all occur within the span of time that the play takes place. That is, if a play lasts 2 ½ hours, then everything that happens within the play cannot exceed that 2 ½ hour span of elapsed time. That proved too difficult to do in even the best storytelling, so the unity of time was relaxed to say that all action that happens in a play must occur within the same 24-hour window of elapsed time. That is, if a play’s action begins at noon, the story must end by the noon of the next day within the story of the play.
Place – The unity of place conforms with the fact that the audience is seated in a theatre and is not moving from location to location, so the action of the play must take place within a single setting. Action that occurs offstage (like a duel or another piece of the story) could not be shown on stage, but it could be reported by someone who had witnessed it and enters the location of the play and tells the other characters about what happened.
Action – The unity of action refers to the nature of the storyline, or plot. Basically, it means that there can only be a single story. All of the action that takes place must serve the primary story. No subplots, or episodic plot structures were acceptable.
Tragedy – like the Romans, the Renaissance critics expected tragedy to involve royalty and larger than life, high-ranking role models. They also had to have sad and tragic endings.
Comedy – again like the Romans and their new comedy, Renaissance comedy dealt with common people and domestic issues. They were also expected to have happy endings.
Don’t mix genres – Renaissance critics would NEVER accept a mix of tragedy and comedy! They had to be distinct types of plays, just like the Romans had maintained
Moral lesson – Plays were expected to teach a moral lesson, or at least to offer the audience a glimpse at right behavior as interpreted by the moral codes of the local culture, again, like the Romans.
Morally Acceptable – All characters must be morally acceptable to the audience. This does not mean that every character in a play had to be a good person. It just meant that the character had to be true to the character’s own nature. A villain, for example, would not be accepted to do something nice for someone. Whereas the hero, would never get angry with anyone except the villain.
No onstage violence – unlike the Romans, any violence or fighting or other improper behavior could not be shown on stage. Instead, it had to happen at another location and could only be talked about in the play’s locale.
No Chorus and No Supernatural characters – in another departure from the rules of Greek and Roman theatre, the Renaissance plays did not use a chorus. It would not be true to life for a group of people to walk around together and speak in unison. For a similar reason, there were no supernatural characters depicted in plays – no ghosts, gods, spirits, witches, etc.
Generally, the way these rules affected theatre in the Renaissance is that strict adherence to the rules was expected. In fact, how closely the rules were followed determined the “quality” of the play. Non-adherence to the rules would either end the run of the play or prevent it from ever getting performed in the first place.
Theatre production in Renaissance Italy
Once again, the early Renaissance theatres looked a lot like the Roman theatres. Many of the Roman theatres had lasted through the Middle Ages and were still around as models for the Renaissance builders. The easiest way to understand the developments of theatres in the early Italian Renaissance is to reflect on examples of those developments as they developed. (Images will be provided in class.)
One of the oldest remaining Italian Renaissance theatres is the Teatro Olimpico (built in 1584) in Vicenza, Italy. Though built on a smaller scale, it is built on the same model as the Roman theatres built nearly 1000 years earlier. It has many of the same features as the Roman theatres: semicircular orchestra, a scaena with a building façade as a backdrop behind a raised wooden performing area. The only major differences are that there is a roof (so candles would have lit them originally) and the doors of the scaena are slightly lager to allow scenery to be seen “inside” them.
This scenery was a development of the artistic styles growing throughout the various arts in Renaissance Italy. One of these developments is the use of perspective scenery. This is scenery that uses a vanishing point to create the illusion of depth and distance. The scenery behind the doors of the scaena would have the appearance of a street that continues to the horizon. In fact, the space behind the door would only be about 5 feet deep!
The next theatre we will consider at is the Teatro Farnese (built in 1618) in Parma, Italy. It is an interesting theatre because it is the first theatre with a Proscenium Arch. Its auditorium area still has the semicircular orchestra, but the seating at the sides has been extended to an elongated “U” shape to create more seating for larger audiences. In addition, the floor space of the orchestra is larger and was used to accommodate standing audience members who would pay less to view the play than those who could afford seating. The decorations are still reminiscent of Roman style. In the front of the scaena, we would notice that the center door of the scaena has been enlarged so much that it dwarfs the rest of the scaena, and instead of having a raised stage in front of it, the playing space has been moved inside the door, creating the first proscenium arch around the performing space in any theatre.
The next example of a Renaissance theatre space is the Venice Opera House, “La Fenice,” (built late 18th century on earlier Renaissance theatre foundation). It is an example of the type of theatre built for the very popular genre of Opera. It has the horseshoe-shaped auditorium of the Teatro Farnese, but instead of the bench seating around the orchestra, they implemented the new type of seating known as galleries and boxes. These were used to appeal to the upper levels of society as they offered more comfort. When originally built, this theatre did not have seating in the central area (as it does now to accommodate modern audiences). It would have been set aside as standing room. This standing room in the orchestra allowed for many more people to see the opera than could be accommodated in seats. This area was referred to as the pit, and it became a common element of most Renaissance theaters. Another interesting detail about this theatre is the very large proscenium arch. No longer just a big door, it encompasses the entire front wall of the theatre, so that the proscenium is formed by the gallareies and boxes that sit right up against the front wall of the theatre space. The Venice Opera House is still in use today, though, as mentioned, the standing room has had permanent seating installed to accommodate modern audiences’ expectations.
Scene Design – Italian Renaissance
As mentioned previously, the Italians introduced perspective to the scenery of the stage. This scenery was designed to give the illusion of depth. If the scene appeared to continue into the background, it gave a sense that the scene setting was much larger than it actually was, and it had a greater effect in the world, or at least it appeared to do so.
The scenery elements were painted on flat panels at the side of the scene and would then be shifted via a pole and chariot system, which is also sometimes called the “groove and pulley” system or “track and wagon” system. Essentially, this consisted of a system as illustrated in this short video on YouTube, where you will see an example of this type of scenery system in use in the Drottningholms Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Renaissance in England was delayed by civil war (the War of the Roses) but after Henry VII came to power in the early 16th century, England was relatively peaceful and ready for new things, culturally and socially. As a result, the English Renaissance started in the reign of Henry VIII (Henry VII’s son) but flourished under his daughter’s reign, Elizabeth I (1558-1603).
As a result of Elizabeth’s strong influence on England in every way, and on the development of culture and art, the English Renaissance is usually referred to as the Elizabethan period.
Two major playwrights to know about
There are two significant playwrights from this period in England that you should be familiar with. Out of many, these two stand out in terms of their additions to the nature of plays and just for their skill with writing poetry and dialogue.
The first is Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). He is most famous for his updated versions of many of the morality plays and stories from the earlier Medieval period of English plays. One of his most famous is a version of Doctor Faustus, the German morality tale.
His poetry drew on the classic tradition of Chaucer’s Heroic Couplet, but he was a true master of the language. At one point, he referred to his own writing as the “mighty line” because he intentionally used powerful and dramatic verse and, at the same time, he emphasized the strength and subtlety of language.
The other notable playwright is William Shakespeare (1564-1616). He is probably already familiar to you. His plays were all fairly impactful, and he is often considered to be the finest English playwright. Shakespeare was an actor first, and then he became a playwright who also acted.
His plays were different from the accepted Renaissance standards of quality. However, unlike most other playwrights who strayed from the rules, Shakespeare’s attention to the humanity of his characters brought the new ideals of humanism to life on the stage. Essentially, his plays were so great that the fact that he did not follow the rules did not matter. The audiences loved his plays because he was very careful to craft them to appeal to all levels of society. He took the ideals of the Renaissance and matured them into their true potential.
Elizabethan Theatre production
Unlike the new theatre spaces that were developed in Renaissance Italy, in England, the theatres retained a lot of the elements of the Medieval stages. There were two categories of theatre spaces in Elizabethan England: Public theatres and Private theatres.
Public theatres were those built specifically for performing plays or that were adapted to perform plays in outdoor/open air theatres. These were all built outside of London city limits because the law prohibited public theatres inside city limits. Most were built on the south bank of the Thames River, just across the London Bridge from central London.
These theatres were open air buildings that used sunlight to light the plays, so the plays were performed in the early afternoon. Like the Medieval stages these theatres had a platform stage, that was usually a type of thrust stage. It had a trap door that could be used for surprise entrances and exits, and a second story stage house. This was used as a musicians’ gallery, or for storage, or on occasion for performance (think about the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet). At the top of the theatre, there would be a flag to show on performance days. The color of the flag would indicate what type of play was being performed. These theatres varied in size, but most would hold from 1500-3000 spectators. Some of this capacity was available standing room in the open space around the platform stage, referred to as the pit.
We are able to have a better understanding of what the experience would have been like to see a Shakespeare play because on the 1980s a replica of the original Globe theatre (as closely as possible) was built in London very near where the original one stood in the 17th century until it burned down in 1613. They still allow audience to stand in the pit for performances, and they use very similar gallery and box seating in three tiers in a circular, almost ¾ round area surrounding a thrust stage.
Private theatres were built into existing spaces, usually large rooms in a private residence or other place of business in the city of London. These could be inside the city’s limits because they were naturally a little more selective about who would be in the audience, and thus did not incur the wrath of the city leaders and lacked the closeness that often spread disease (including the plague) that was a problem in the public theatres.
Private theatres were indoor spaces, so they used candles and light through windows to light the stage and the audience. They were usually quite small, though this varied. One of the more popular private theatres in the Elizabethan period was Blackfriar’s Theatre, built in an old monastery. It seated about 750 people. The reason that the audience was more selective is that these theatres were more expensive to attend and only the upper classes, and some well-to-do merchant class citizens could afford to attend.
Like the public theatre, these theatres usually had a thrust platform stage across one end of the room and would often have a second story to be used for musicians, storage, or as a performing space. They would often have limited gallery seating built along the walls, and the pit would sometimes have benches, but would also have some standing room.
Scenery & Costumes
Again, as was the custom throughout England in the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan period theatres did not use any significant scenery. There might be a few set pieces to suggest a location, but the details would be incorporated into the dialogue, and the imagery would be left to the imaginations of the audience members. Props were also very limited, with the exception of some small hand props that would also suggest rather than fully detail a location or time period.
The playwrights would include hints and information about time and location into the wording of the play and into the action that the actors would perform. Costumes were very rarely set in any particular time period or location. Instead, the actors would wear the clothing of their day, with a piece or two to suggest social status or character. However, there was one detail about costuming that made actors a bit skittish. In the Elizabethan period, England had certain laws, called “Sumptuary Laws.” They dictated that only certain colors and fabrics and accessories could be used by certain social and class levels of society. Well, when an actor needed to portray a character above his class level, he could be arrested for wearing the clothes of someone above his class! To remedy this, acting companies would purchase licenses for specific actors to wear clothing above their social levels, including monarchs. That way, they could look the part, even though actors were considered among the lowest members of society – even lower that pickpockets and thieves!
Acting in this period was limited to a few select groups of men. These acting troupes would have about 25 people in them – with a wide range of ages. There would usually be a mix of veteran actors and young men and boys who were usually apprentices to learn how to perform and to run an acting company.
Legitimate companies were licensed by the Crown, and they usually had “patrons” or sponsors who were high-ranking members of court. Some of these companies were made up of shareholders, who took a share of the profits based on their share holdings (this is the kind of company that Shakespeare belonged to). There were some that were smaller and that would hire performers, or hirelings, who were contracted for a season or specific time period and were paid a wage under contract. Every company would have some limited number of apprentices, who would be assigned to shareholders. However, there were NO WOMEN allowed to perform in England in the Elizabethan period. It was outlawed by Parliament. All roles were played by men, except for the women’s roles in plays that would be played by the young boys before they reached puberty and their voices changed.
Other popular entertainments
In addition to acting, the theatres were often used for other types of popular entertainments that were devised to fill the time of the audiences. These were often spectator events, but equally often they were gambling opportunities, much like the clandestine versions of these entertainments that still exist today around the world. These entertainments included bear baiting, dog fighting, and cock fighting.
Bearbaiting was an event where a bear would be tied or chained to a pole in the middle of an arena and then dogs would be set on it to fight. Wagers were often made on how many dogs the bear would kill before it was overcome by the dogs. This cruel “sport” was enjoyed by a huge percentage of the population of London, in particular. In fact, one of the public theatres was named the Bear Garden because it hosted bear baiting regularly and would alternate with performances of plays.
Cockfighting was another popular “sport.” This is an event where specially raises birds would be set to fight, usually to the death, for entertainment – much as it exists clandestinely today. It was so popular that the royal palace had its own cockfighting ring on the grounds.
Dog fighting, too, was popular, though slightly less so than either bear baiting or cockfighting.
These other entertainments would compete with theatre for audiences. Their popularity lasted long after the Elizabethan period though most were eventually outlawed because of their cruelty and because of the immorality of the gambling that went along with it.
Theatre after Elizabeth
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, she had no heir to follow her on the throne, so she selected her cousin, James, who was already the King of Scotland to be her successor. Theatre as it had developed throughout her reign and since her father’s time continued until 1642.
King James I had enjoyed a particular style of theatrical entertainment while he was the King of Scotland, and he brought that with him to England where it became popular, too. Especially at the palace, as a special event for the King and his guests. It has existed in England under the earlier kings and queens, but James I made it very popular. These were called Masques. A masque is an elaborate staging of myths (similar to the Italian Intermezzi) but these were designed and staged specifically to celebrate and honor and praise the monarch. They included an often freely adapted story, sometimes with casual suggestive sexuality, as well as a lot of singing and dancing. These became very popular with the highest levels of society, the nobility in particular. It was one way, since masques were not considered “acting,” that women could perform.
The ending of theatre in England
As noted above, the Elizabethan age lasted after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, but only until 1642. Due to political pressure brought about by the religious upheavals that resulted from Henry VIII’s split of the Church of England from the Pope, the forces of Protestantism eventually forced the theatres to close. These protestant extremists were known as the Puritans. Ultimately, the Puritans were a major force in creating the Civil War in England in the middle of the 17th century which ultimately deposed the King (Charles I) and beheaded him! They also had a major hand in ending of theatre in 1642. According to the Puritans: Theatre was a waste of time, exposed the audience to people of the lowest sort (whores & thieves), and plays contained messages of immorality. All of these arguments had been made by the church in Rome 1200 years before! Again, in England, it’s ironic that the Church brought theatre back in the Middle ages as a way to educate the populace, only to be outlawed and ended by the religious majority in the 17th century.