The Passionate Pilgrim 1.11: Acting in the Age of Elizabeth

Some of the most significant questions a modern person can ask regarding the London theater in the 1580s and 90s have to be “what did it look like, what did it feel like, and how did it sound?” We have volumes recording the activities of the various companies and their managers, not to mention those who actively opposed them, and the successes and failures of everyone who had a financial or political interest. We know how the theaters were shaped, how many people could fit inside, and what their stages could provide for the presentation of a given play. We know who the major and even many minor playwrights were.

The actual actors on the other hand, the people onstage delivering the words to the audience, are not so well noted. And often less well grasped is how they were understood.

It seems to me that one of the most important things about the Elizabethan theatre is the development of acting as an art. To explain this point I want to highlight three of the most prominently remembered actors of the age, Edward Alleyn, Will Kempe and Richard Burbage.

“Ned” Alleyn, as he was commonly known, came to fame as the voice of Tamburlaine, the title character of Christopher Marlowe’s extraordinarily successful play. He went on to play the same role in Tamburlaine, Part II, and then took the leads in  several more of Marlowe’s plays, including Faust in Dr. Faustus and Barabbas in The Jew of Malta. He is also believed to have played Orlando in Robert Greene‘s Orlando Furioso, and perhaps Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (which I have earlier said I believe to have been co-written by Marlowe).

Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait
Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait

Alleyn was, by all reports, a bombastic actor. Which is to say that he commanded the center of the stage and blasted out his lines in a fury. In this regard, he was very well matched for the roles that Marlowe wrote for him, characters who were larger than life, given to prolonged proclamations and violent action. To this day this style of theater is very successful. No one should underestimate it. I think it is probably fair to say that before Alleyn the theatre was not nearly so loud.

But times change and styles change. By the mid 1590s Alleyn’s style was literally being shoved off the stage.

In fact, while avoiding the London plague of 1593, Alleyn was leading a not terribly successful tour with Pembroke’s Men in the provinces of Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester, and York when Gabriel Spencer, then being groomed as a lead player for Pembroke’s in London, was killed by playwright Ben Jonson in a street fight.

It should not be forgotten that Alleyn was a minor player in an earlier dispute between his brother, the tavern keeper John Alleyn and William Bradley who John claimed owed him fourteen pounds. In 1589 John Alleyn filed papers in court against Bradley whereupon Bradley counter claimed against Alleyn, Tom Watson, a noted poet, and Alleyn’s solicitor asserting that he had been threatened with physical harm and feared for his life. The matter went unresolved until, for some reason, Bradley decided to attack the playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of the roles that had made John Alleyn’s brother Ned famous, in a narrow street known as Hog Lane in the district of Shoreditch outside of London not far from the theater where Marlowe’s plays had been performed.

What Bradley hoped to accomplish with this maneuver is unclear. Perhaps he thought that Marlowe could be intimidated or otherwise convinced to intercede with Ned to convince his brother John to make a compromise. Or, as some have suggested, he really thought his life was in danger and therefore attacked Marlowe who was known to be friends with Tom Watson, perhaps hoping to thereby discourage both Alleyn and Watson.

Thomas Watson, 1557 - 1592,
Thomas Watson, 1557 – 1592,

Regardless, Tom Watson suddenly appeared and, defending Marlowe, challenged Bradley who, as the court recorded afterward, engaged him in a sword fight that ranged up and down the street and succeeded in wounding Watson but then was killed when Watson, then on the ground, managed to pierce his heart with a single thrust.

Marlowe spent several weeks in gaol, Watson several months, but both were finally exonerated. Neither Ned nor his brother were ever detained for this, but the incident, and the later death of Gabriel Spencer, attests to the uncertain and even dangerous life of the theater in the age of Elizabeth.

Finally, it must be noted that many scholars have cited the Bradley/Watson duel as one of the likely inspirations for the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Next: A Little Bit More About Ned Alleyn


 Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

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