Woven Threads Podcast Episode Three


When you think about the Elizabethans and the culture connected to that time, there is one name you can’t really ignore. William Shakespeare is still known all around the world for his plays; The fairies, the tragedies and the balconies. Theatre has been at the core of the arts here in the Uk for a long time and there are today 39 theatres in the west end alone. You can see modern drama, classic romance or just a good old musical almost every night of the week. But where has our love of the theatre come from? The british theatre industry as we know it today really originated in the 16th century but what did it look like back then? Let's find out!

Hello and welcome to Woven threads, a podcast by Cluth. This is the show exploring craft craftsmen & women and culture. This is the final part of three episodes in this set about Elizabethan 16th century crafts, and in this our third episode we will be exploring the culture of Elizabethan theatre. Some of the questions that have come up during my exploration of this subject were how is Shakespeare connected to the history of this art form here in the uk? What would it have been like to see a performance in the 16th century and how is it still connected today? Let's find out.

Most theatre in England grew from church services. In the mid 1300's it became truly popular when religious leaders encouraged the performance of plays based on stories from the bible or the lives of saints. Different to the church sermons which were given in latin, these performances were given in the language of the normal people, purposely to teach the mainly illiterate normal people about christianity. They would drive a wagon around and stop in various villages and towns to perform, and became so popular that villages ended up often creating spaces for public theatre.

Elizabethan theatre is sometimes known as english renaissance theatre, renaissance coming from the french word meaning rebirth. This era saw massive growth in british arts in general but especially performance arts made its mark on history even up to the present day. The reformation of the 16th century changed many things in english culture, and with religious drama being more or less thrown out of the window, that gave rise to the first theatre companies. Essentially if you were a rich man who likes some entertainment you could endorse a group who could perform in your name. In the mid 1500s “Leicester's men” were formed from people in the Earl of Leicester's household. In 1576 they built the first playhouse in finsbury fields in London. Over the next sixteen years 17 new open air public theatres were built and the age of theatre had begun. New companies also flourished and were fiercely competitive. No two more so than the admiral's men and the lord chamberlain's men.

If you were a well to do gentleman from the 16th century you wanted your name on an acting troupe. It's as fabulous as it sounds. The Admiral's Men were first named Lord Howards men, after their patron Charles Howard. When he became an admiral in 1585 their name also changed, to reflect his new position. Charles Howard was an interesting chap, he was Elizabeth's cousin and had a lot of prominent roles during her reign. He was a commander of the english forces against the Spanish and was apparently chiefly responsible for the victory.

A powerful patron like Howard could make a great difference in a company's fortunes. Though there is little evidence that he was actively concerned with drama, Howard was almost alone among Elizabeth's closest councillors in opposing the Lord Mayor of London's 1584 drive to close the public theatres. The theatres stayed open. When Howard became England's Lord High Admiral in 1585, the group's name was changed to reflect his new title.

Shakespeare started his career with the Pembrokes men who he wrote his early plays for, but then when the two companies had the legal monopoly of the london stage he joined The Lord Chamberlain's men whose patron was the guy who chose who played at the court. This was the place to be if you wanted the attention of influential people.

The Companies in general would have different people involved financially and also creatively. They would have a landlord/housekeeper who would own the actual playhouse and the objects inside it. Then there would be around 8-12 players, or actors who would also share in the expenses of putting on a production and the profits for creating one.

If you wanted to go and see one of the newest plays in London you would go to one of the top three theatres of the time, the originally named “The Theatre” “The Curtain” or “Red Lion”. All of these buildings were on the north eastern edge of London and they were outside the walls of the city and not under the laws that governed the city. The city was run by merchants who were all about making money in a serious way and not so much about the Arts. They were all about the puritan values and hard work. The earliest elizabethan dramatics that were performed in pubs and inns did not go down well with this lot, but the court at westminster which was to the west of the city LOVED them and they were regularly summoned by the queen for parties or by various nobel men and women to perform at their houses. When the playhouses were built, they went to where there were no restrictions with the prostitutes and the bear baiters. It was the setup of these playhouses that was essential to the success of the english renaissance drama, they could become a fixed and permanent pastime.

The theatre at this time was a popular way for anyone of all classes and social status to be entertained. It was cheaper to stand in the pit in front of the stage and the price of entrance was affordable for most working class people. It was a slightly less highbrow form of entertainment than today with the people in the pit fully getting involved in te productions with food throwing and whatnot, but if you were an upper class merchant or nobleman you could pay to a bit more and sit in the “ Lords rooms” or galleries near the stage. Not really the best view but you could be seen by the rest of the audience and that was what mattered. Women also were frequent theatre goers, gentlewomen being accompanied by a servant or their husbands were just as commonly seen as men. This was just another way the theatre became a leveler between the different classes and also the different sexes.

Now before we gave a closer look at the set up, let's take a quick break to pop to the loo or grab a cup of tea.

Break: While we are all making use of this break to get a cuppa I wanted to let you guys know of something super exciting on its way. We are starting a patreon site. What the dickens is that I might hear you say! Well Patreon is a really exciting membership platform, think Netflix but with cool podcast related information and products rather than saucy period dramas:) If you would like to support the work that goes into the podcast, receive extra episodes, exclusive content and input into future episodes then this is the place! We will be launching our membership benefits very very soon so keep your ears peeled! Now back to Elizabethan drama.

The playhouses performed a different play every day and so there was a great pressure on the playwrights to churn out a vast number of plays, and many playwrights worked freelance moving between companies. Shakespeare on the other hand was the resident playwright for the chamberlain's men from 1594 to his death. He was clever in that when he joined the company he brought his scripts with him which was unusual for the time as often they were considered the property of the company not the author. The general agreement is that all in all he wrote 37 plays, a mix of tragedy, comedy and history.

The playwrights would write characters for their actors, and the leading actors of the day had a real influence on the material. For example an actor with Shakespeare's company called Will Kemp was a celebrity in his own right, and was a very popular actor with a lot of Shakespeare's comic roles being written for him while he was with the Chamberlain's Men. What’s interesting is especially in his tragic plays, Shakespeare would write with an actor called Richard Burbage in mind and his acting style was slightly different from some of his contemporaries. While they often played the tragic roles of the time very over the top, he was known for his ability to inhabit a character and to “paint emotions in lifelike colours”. Because of this a lot of Shakespeare's later tragic heros, like Hamlet, Othello and Lear were less Bombastic than some of his fellow playwrights. It seems that the company became known for a more naturalistic style of representation and I wonder if that is one of the reasons the plays have been able to stay relevant for such a long period of time.

Female roles were played mostly by boys who’s voice hadn't dropped yet and were dressed in costumes that were usually ordinary clothes that reflected the social status of the character the actor was playing. They also wore wigs which, by their colour and styles, showed the age and status of their character.It wasn’t until the early 1660s that women were allowed to act on stage and take on the female roles but that is a podcast for another time.

In Shakespeare’s time, clothes reflected a person’s status in society – there were laws controlling what you could wear. As plays had kings, queens and wealthy people in them, the actors’ costumes reflected their characters social status. Costumes were mainly the modern dress of the time. So for less important roles, actors might wear their own clothes. However, for a play set in ancient Greece or Rome, the company might try for an ‘ancient’ look for the important characters by giving the main characters togas over their normal clothes. The company reused costumes if they could – changing a cloak, or putting on some expensive lace. Sometimes they had to have a new costume made. A company probably spent about £300 a year on costumes, which in today's money would be over £35,000!

Some of the accounts for the Rose theatre have survived. These show that the owner, Henslowe, paid £20 10s 6d for just one black velvet cloak, embroidered with silver and gold. At about the same time he was paying, on average, £6 for a new play. The company usually owned some costumes and reused them as often as possible. Actors left each other clothes in their wills, some sound as if they were costumes. Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to England in 1599, said that important people often left clothes to servants in their wills. The servants were not allowed to wear expensive clothes, so they sold them to actors. In this way they could get past the sumptuary laws of the time and have accurately dressed performers.

The wonderful thing about all of this cultural history is that it is still within touch today. Shakespeare went from being the most popular playwright of his time to being possibly the most famous writer in the world. Everyone has heard of his and even if they are not fans they will know at least some of the storylines of his plays. I personally think that it was his ability to transfer human feelings and emotions in such a way that even if the context of our lives are different now we can still relate to him. He wrote about themes that are universal and it has been said that “His influence over Western culture, literature, and the English language has been so significant that it is important to have an understanding of Shakespeare to understand the modern world.” As fellow author Ben Johnson noted in his preface to First Folio, the star of Elizabethan theatre was "not of an age, but for all time" (Wagner, 275).

Here in the Uk in London the Royal Shakespeare company is leading the way in sharing Shakespeare's work with as many people as possible. They want to make theatre as accessible as possible and so just as in Elizabeth's time you can see a play in the globe theatre in the pit for £5. So you can see a performance by some of the best actors in the uk, performing shakespeare's work for around the same price as a cup of coffee. There is definitely less food throwing than there would have been, but it's an amazingly dynamic experience that I would highly recommend.

Theatres all over the UK have been struck hard by the pandemic and are relying on our support so they can get back to bring us performances as soon as possible. The arts have been one of the main industries hit by the pandemic, and are so important for our general well being. So if you can please look to supporting your local theatre and making a donation. The link to help support the Royal shakespeare company is:

And with that draws to an end the woven threads set on Elizabethan craftsmen, craft and culture. I would like to massively thank my Shakespeare expert and dear friend Julia Foster for geeking out with me while I was preparing this week's episode. She has always been the font of all information and has taught me so much about Shakespeare over the years. Yay for clever knowledgeable friends!

We will see you next time on Woven Threads for a new set of three. I am super excited to talk to you all about one of my first loves - wool. Join us then for such joys as some of the british isles knitting traditions, find out about the fish girls of shetland and why they are so cool and we look at how knitting can affect mental health for the better. Have an amazing week my lovelies and we will see you soon!

Be sure to check out the blog post for this episode at and subscribe to the podcast on whatever podcast platform you use. I’d be grateful if you could leave a review, and share it with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you have any thoughts on today’s episode, or topics you’d like me to further touch on, email me at Thanks again. See you next time.

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