chapter  2
Theatrum Vitae Humanae
Pages 96


‘All the world’s a stage’

In Elizabethan England, the founding of the first public and commercial theatre run by professional actors’ companies coincided approximately with the end of the religious plays. In Coventry, the complete cycle that was typical of the Passion and Corpus Christi Play was performed for the last time in 1580. In theory, Shakespeare could have seen such performances in his youth. In 1576, James Burbage built the first permanent professional public theatre, the Theatre, in London’s Shoreditch. It was followed in a relatively short space of time by several others: in 1577 performances were given at the Curtain; 1587, the Rose; 1595, the Swan; 1599, the Globe (which was principally played by the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, the troupe to which Shakespeare belonged); 1600, the Fortune; and 1605, the Red Bull. Each of these theatres was situated either south of the River Thames in Southwark or north of the city boundaries. From the start, the city fathers of London took a decisive position on public theatres. In a similar tone to that used by church leaders and city fathers in all large cities in Europe, who from the beginning of the sixteenth century repeatedly turned against religious plays because they contained and propagated things which they considered to be ‘immoral’, the London city patriarchs also accused the theatre of promoting ‘immorality’. On 3 November 1594, the Mayor of London

wrote a letter to Westminster on the subject of contemporary drama:

At this time, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus were being performed again at The Rose. On 13 September, the new Mayor of London wrote to Westminster that the plays contained

In 1595, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II were brought into the repertoire. On 28 July 1597, a third Mayor of London sent a third letter to the government. He, too, complained that the plays still consisted of

In this year, Henry IV was first performed. Clearly, the moral criticisms of the plays had little to do with the dramas which were actually

performed in public. Equally invalid was the political argument that the theatre encouraged rebellion, rioting and a multitude of other crimes because of the numbers of people gathered there, as the Mayor of London maintained in the same letter (28 July 1597). He suggested the theatre was a place for ‘contrivers of treason and other idele and dangerous persons to meet together … and what further danger may bee occaisioned by the broyles plotts or practises of such unrulie multitude of people yf they should gett head, your wisdome cann conceive’.