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Architecture of Elizabethan Theatres

Picture of an Elizabethan Theatre

Picture of an Elizabethan Theatre

Architecture of Elizabethan Theatres Architecture of Elizabethan Theatres
The Architecture of Elizabethan Theatres - think of a public outdoor structure like the Coliseum or a small football stadium with a capacity of between 1500 and 3000 people and this gives you a good idea about the architecture of an Elizabethan theatre.

James Burbage built the very first theatre with his brother-in-law John Brayne, appropriately named 'The Theatre'. The architecture of 'The Theatre' was designed as a construction which was similar to a small Roman amphitheatre - the Elizabethan Amphitheatre. The features of the existing blood sport rings were used with the addition of a fixed stage. The other important feature was the cobbled yard, as opposed to the bare earth floor suited to animals.

Architecture of Elizabethan Theatres - classical elements of Greek architecture
Classic Greek and Roman architecture was admired by the Elizabethans and sometimes great columns framed the entrances of many great Elizabethan houses. Two great columns were included in the architecture of the Elizabethan theatres which were called 'Herculean' columns or pillars - these were elaborately painted to resemble marble. The architecture of the Elizabethan theatres was deliberately designed to reflect elements of Roman or Greek architecture thus elevating the shabby reputation of plays and actors to the much admired Greek or Roman classical plays.

Architect of the Elizabethan Theatre
James Burbage had many ideas about creating the first Elizabethan theatre. He started his career as a joiner and was therefore experienced in carpentry. But he did not have the knowledge required to create the similarity to the classical Greek and Roman theatres. But he knew a man who did. James Burbage consulted Dr. John Dee (1527-1608) on the design and construction of 'The Theatre'. The notorious Dr. Dee, renowned as an Elizabethan  magician and alchemist, was also extremely knowledgeable about architecture. James Burbage relied on Dee's extensive architectural library to design the plans for the construction of The Theatre.

Architecture & Structure of Elizabethan Theatres

  • Amphitheatre facts: Open arena - the actors would also get wet if it rained.
  • Size of amphitheatre : Up to 100 feet in diameter
  • Varying Shapes : Octagonal, circular in shape having between 8 and 24 sides
  • Building materials: Timber, nails, stone (flint), plaster and thatched roofs. Later amphitheatres had tiled roofs
  • Building Duration: 6 months
  • Overall design: The open air arena, called the 'pit' or the 'yard', had a raised stage at one end and was surrounded by three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies overlooking the back of the stage. The stage projected halfway into the 'pit'
  • Audience Capacity: 1500 plus. Up to 3000 people would flock to the theatre and its grounds
  • The Grounds of the theatre: Bustling with people. Stalls selling merchandise and refreshments. Attracted non playgoers to the market
  • Toilet Facilities: None . People relieved themselves outside. Sewage was buried in pits or disposed of in the River Thames. All theatres closed during outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague - disease would have spread via the rats & fleas
  • The Entrance to the theater: Usually one main entrance. Some later theatres had external staircases to access the galleries
  • Access to the Balconies & Galleries: Two sets of stairs, either side if the theater. The first gallery would cost another penny in the box which was held by a collector at the front of the stairs. The second gallery would cost another penny
  • The interior design: Design was similar but far smaller version (1500 -3000 crowd capacity) than the Coliseum of the Roman period (50,000 crowd capacity) allowing the maximum number if playgoers in the space available
  • Lighting: Natural lighting as plays were produced in the afternoon. However there was some artificial lighting mainly intended to provide atmosphere for night scenes
  • Heating: There was no heating. Plays were performed in the summer months and transferred to the indoor playhouses during the winter
  • Stage dimensions: Varying from 20 foot wide 15 foot deep to 45 feet to 30 feet
  • The height of the stage: A raised stage - 3 to 5 feet and supported by large pillars or trestles
  • The floor of the Stage: Made of wood, sometimes covered with rushes. Trap doors would enable some special effects e.g. smoke
  • The rear of the Stage: A roofed house-like structure was at the rear of the stage, supported by two large columns (pillars) 
  • The 'Herculean' columns or pillars: The 'Herculean' pillars were made of huge, single tree trunks. These were drilled through the centre to eliminate warping of the wood
  • The 'Heavens' - a roof area: The pillars supported a roof called the 'Heavens'. The 'Heavens' served to create an area hidden from the audience. This area provided a place for actors to hide. A selection of ropes & rigging would allow for special effects, such as flying or dramatic entries
  • The stage wall called the 'Frons Scenae' taken from Latin: Behind the pillars was the stage wall. A doorway to the left and right and a curtained central doorway from which the actors made their entrances. Above the door area was a highly decorative screen called the 'Frons Scenae' (taken from the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres)
  • The Stage Gallery above the Stage Wall - The ' Lord's rooms': Immediately above stage wall was the stage gallery that was used by actors (Juliet's balcony) & the rich the nobility -  known as 'Lord's rooms.' The stage wall called the 'Frons Scenae' taken from Latin: Behind the pillars was the stage wall, covered by a curtain. Above the curtain was a highly decorative screen. The 'Frons Scenae' was the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres
  • The Balcony above the Stage Wall - The ' Lord's rooms': Immediately above stage wall was a balcony that was used either by actors (Juliet's balcony) or the rich the nobility -  known as 'Lord's rooms.'
  • The 'Lord's rooms': Considered the best seats in the 'house' despite the poor view of the back of the actors. The audience would have a good view of the Lords. And the Lords were able to hear the actors clearly. The cost was 5 pence & cushioned seats were provided
  • The 'Gentlemen's rooms': There were additional balconies on the left and right of the 'lord's rooms' which were called the 'Gentlemen's rooms. For rich patrons of the theater - the cost was 4 pence & cushioned seats were provided
  • The 'Tiring House': The stage wall contained at least two doors which lead to a leading to  small structure, back stage, called the 'Tiring House'. The stage wall was covered by a curtain. The actors used this area to change their attire
  • The 'Hut': Above the 'Tiring House' was a small house-like structure called the 'hut' complete with roof. Used as covered storage space for the troupe
  • The 'pit' (also referred to as the 'yard'): The stage projected halfway into the 'pit', also called the 'yard' (if tiled or cobbled) where the commoners (groundlings) paid 1 penny to stand to watch the play. They would have crowded around the 3 sides of the stage. 
  • Access to the Galleries: Two sets of stairs, either side if the theater. The stairways could also be external to the main structure to give maximum seating space
  • Seats in the galleries - Three levels: The seats in each of the three levels of galleries were tiered with three rows of wooden benches, increasing in size towards the back, following the shape of the building. The galleries were covered affording some shelter from the elements. 
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