The Elizabethan Playing Companies

We cannot be sure which playing companies Shakespeare was associated with during his Lost Years, but we do know what his life as a travelling player would have been like.


Queen Elizabeth I loved the theatre and together with her courtiers patronised and protected it. Early in her reign she decided that keeping a household company to stage the elaborate masques her father had enjoyed was much too expensive, so she established a new system whereby licensed playing companies, under the patent of a nobleman, competed for the honour of playing at court, albeit probably more for the prestige than the money, particularly during the Christmas season which the Queen generally celebrated at Greenwich.

The Queen’s Master of the Revels, for many years Master Edmund Tilney, had the job of licensing the companies and their plays. His role did involve censorship, but for the most part it was quality control, ensuring Her Majesty got entertainment of the highest standard. He also protected the companies from the city authorities, especially in London, where the urban middle classes feared it might take their apprentices away from their work and offend their Puritan sensibilities. However it was much loved by the working classes and was perhaps the one thing they had in common with the aristocracy.

Many noblemen patronised playing companies which toured the country in their names and brought their patrons a great deal of recognition and prestige, potent weapons in the wars for power and influence fought between Elizabeth’s courtiers. The Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester, kept a company of players from as early as 1559. When the new vagabond laws were enacted in 1572, he was the first nobleman to obtain a royal patent for his company which was led by James Burbage. (see The Burbages: First Family of Theatre)

In 1583 the Privy Council authorised Master Tilney to recruit all the best players to form a new larger company under direct royal charter, the Queen’s Men. Many players were taken from Lord Leicester’s Men, but if his enemies thought this might clip his wings they were mistaken. Even while his own company played on, albeit as a shadow of its former self, Leicester soon became the de facto patron of the new company, subtly directing their plays and movements.

In 1585 Charles Howard, grandson of the Duke of Norfolk, married to Katherine Carey, the Queen’s own cousin, became Lord Admiral and one of England’s richest men with enormous power, especially over the counties of Middlesex and Surrey where the new playhouses had been built outside the city walls. He also commissioned Master Tilney to recruit the best players for his own company, one of whom was the up and coming Edward Alleyn. (see Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe)

Contemporary sketch of an Elizabethan playhouse.
An Elizabethan Playhouse

On Lord Leicester’s death in 1588, the remaining members of his company, now left masterless, were taken up by the newly invested Lord Strange, Ferdinando Stanley, to augment the company he took over from his father the Earl of Derby and form Lord Strange’s Men.

Lord Strange’s Men were in joint occupation of James Burbage’s Theatre with the Lord Admiral’s Men when a falling out occurred which split both companies. In the aftermath Edward Alleyn, the erstwhile leading player of the Lord Admiral’s Men, defected to Lord Strange’s Men while a rump of the Lord Admiral’s company took to the road. There is evidence the remaining players formed a new company, possibly under the leadership of the Burbages, which acquired the Earl of Pembroke’s patent. However, this company proved short-lived and folded after returning penniless from a tour of the provinces in the autumn of 1593 (see The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3).

In 1592 social unrest followed by plague led to an extended closure of the London playhouses. In 1594, when it was safe to re-open them, England’s two most powerful men, Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral and his father-in-law, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, determined to bring stability to the theatre and established two major companies under their patronage.

The Lord Admiral’s Men, led by Edward Alleyn and managed by his brother John, took up residence at The Rose, which was owned and built by Edward’s father-in-law Philip Henslowe. Meanwhile the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, led by Richard Burbage and managed by his brother Cuthbert, took up residence at The Theatre which was owned and built by their father, James Burbage. Under a succession of patrons, both companies survived well into the following century.

While the companies bore the names of wealthy, aristocratic patrons, the players themselves saw little of that wealth. The patron might provide a few members of the company with their livery and pay them something when they played for their guests, but for the most part the companies were largely self-funded and self-directed. They were in fact co-operatives owned by the core members of the group as sharers. All decisions were made collectively and income shared equally.

The company might also include a few hired men as minor players and general roustabouts as well as two or three boy apprentices. Players were usually apprenticed at about the age of twelve. Most apprentices were recruited from theatrical families and there are many cases of sons following fathers or several brothers of one family being players. There were no women in the company and wives and children were left at home, which was usually London.

The companies spent most of the year on tour in the country, returning to London for the Christmas season, and might stay through Lent when playing was forbidden. Playing within the city of London itself was highly restricted, only a few inns being licensed to hold performances. Most of the inns had only open yards to play in, such as The Bull on Bishopsgate Street, the Bel Savage and the Boar’s Head, but some, such as The Bell and the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street were enclosed. However, only the Queen’s Men had undisputed rights to play in the city and even they could only play three days a week.

While on tour, the companies were required to stage their first performance in each town in the guildhall or church for the town’s aldermen and dignitaries in order to get their authorisation. They might also be invited by the local lord to play an interlude for his guests after dinner. Thereafter they played in inn-yards and market places, charging entry of a penny. However, those pennies were hard to get as wary countrymen were not willing to put their money down before seeing the goods. Fights and riots often broke out and the players’ swords were not just for show. There were several killings, not only between local and player, but also between players themselves.

These were repertory companies which meant they worked with a set cast and list of titles. The same cast played all the roles, which might involve a great deal of doubling, and wherever they played, they performed a different play every day. This extended to London where they might stay for several weeks at a time, presenting a different play every day. This meant, of course, that players had to have stored in their memory dozens of roles from dozens of plays. Players might be typecast to some extent, based on their age and abilities, but the necessity of doubling meant they might still be playing very different roles within one play. Female parts and children were played by boy apprentices, though some players might play female roles into their early twenties.

The company bookholder (the equivalent of the modern stage-manager) would have the only copy of the complete playbook which would have to be authorised and licensed by the Master of the Revels. Each player would receive a scroll with their own lines and their cues. To a large extent, the written texts were only a guideline as extemporising was expected, especially by clowns. The bookholder would write a plot, i.e. a list of the cast and their entrances and exits, which was hung up in the tiring house (dressing room). New plays were rehearsed for only a few days, the cast expected to come to the first rehearsal with their lines already learned.

There was no scenery so location was indicated by props and dialogue, which, while making for a bare stage, meant that the action could move fluidly from one location to the other. Costumes could be sumptuous, but would have been distinctly Elizabethan with a few touches to indicate another time or place. Special effects such as bladders of blood, fake heads and fireworks were used liberally to great effect. This was theatre in the round with no proscenium arch, so there was no pretence at realism and players interacted with the audience.

Elizabethan Player, Will Kemp
Elizabethan Player, Will Kemp

By 1594 all the city inn-yard playhouses were closed and the only available playhouses, such as The Theatre, The Curtain and The Rose, were outside the city walls. The template for the Elizabethan playhouse was James Burbage’s Theatre, a solid, half-timbered structure, an almost round polygon, three galleries high with two external staircases. It was open to the sky to let in the light, but with a tiled roof over the galleries to protect patrons from the weather. The stage, which jutted out into the central yard, was covered by a roof held up by pillars. In the early 1590s a hut was added above the stage to house suspension gear for flying effects which was surmounted by tower topped by a flagstaff which flew a flag on play days.

All the interior walls were brightly painted with scenes from ancient mythology. The underside of the roof above the stage was painted blue with stars, the sun and the moon. The stage was entered by two doors at the back which led into the dressing room, or the tiring house as it was then known. Between the two doors there was an alcove with a curtain known as the discovery area.

The patrons paid a penny to enter through large doors opposite the stage. Those that preferred not to stand in the yard with the groundlings could pay another penny to climb up into the galleries. The upper gallery was divided into gentlemen’s rooms and cost another penny to enter. The nobility did not have to mix with the hoi-polloi but could enter through a back door and pay sixpence to sit in the lords’ room beside the stage. For new plays the entry fee might be doubled.

The imminent start of the play was announced by a trumpet blown from the top of the playhouse. There was no artificial lighting so plays were staged in daylight. Performances began in the afternoon and were finished by sunset. There were performances every day, except during Lent and on Sundays, though these rules were often broken by the London playhouses. Patrons certainly got their money’s worth as the performance started with a clown act, plays could go on for hours (though might be cut back for winter performances) and involve spectacular battle scenes and more clowning and then end with a jig, or dance, involving the whole cast, which might be followed by another clown act.

The closest we can come to sharing the Elizabethan theatre-going experience is at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, a replica of the original Globe playhouse, where plays are staged very much as they were in Shakespeare’s own time. A performance at the Globe can be seen on my YouTube channel, Shakespeare on YouTube.


© Pauline Montagna 2015



Herbert Berry, (edited by) The First Public Playhouse: The Theatre in Shoreditch 1576–1598, McGill-Queen’s University Press (1979)

Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574–1642, Cambridge University Press (2009)

William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London, Cornell University Press (1992)



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