Elizabethan Drama in English Literature: Characteristics, Themes & Dramatists


The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) ushered in an era of well being, new discoveries and artistic pursuits in England. The theatre (as Elizabethan Drama) as entertainment flourished and became popular in.

Its popularity matched that of 5th Century Greece. The Elizabethan Age is often extended till 1642 when the theatres were closed under the Puritanical revival.


Here are it’s 5 most prominent characteristics of Elizabethan Drama:

Elizabethan Society

In the Elizabethan Times, Drama became the national passion with a wide variety of people from merchants to peasants vying for a place in the social order and stability in the Elizabethan.

The new Elizabethan introduced a hero who was not ascertained of his fate and was full of doubts and passions that catapulted drama as the favourite pass time for many.

The use of expansive metaphors in text and performances was so successful that it led to the opening of the first public theatre known as ‘The Theatre’ by carpenter James Burbage.

This was the spark that ignited the passion that led to Charlotte Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare and his famous “The Globe” in the future. This age is also known for experimentation leading to new discoveries which provided rich content for drama, poetry and prose.

The use of theology, geography and science provided a new dimension to the literature of the time. However, with the crowing of James, I content became a tool for the glorification of absolute royal power.

The drama of the time became an exercise for propaganda glorifying the King and the monarchy. The development of the proscenium stage was attributed to this age only. There was an emphasis on visuals with the designer gaining importance in this age.

There were political considerations as well as uncontrolled large crowds that encouraged immoral behaviour with the coming of the Puritan age theatre was resigned to private homes and public houses until its revival by Charles II in 1660.

Elizabethan Theatre Facts

Renaissance Period influenced many properties of the theatre like actors were attached to companies that performed throughout the country. They enjoyed aristocratic patronage and survived the lean winter months easily on such appreciation.

Lord Admiral’s Men which had Christopher Marlowe in the ranks were the leading company of the time with Lord Chamberlain’s Men had a budding William Shakespeare.

The performances were held in the open like the public courtyards, inns etc with lavish entrances behind them and windows. Spaces were craftily used to create the scenes of heaven and hell etc.

Specifically constructed theatres were still not available. The facial features, body language and more garments of an actor were cleverly manipulated to establish drama in his/her personality.

There were scare props so costumes became lavish with loud and extravagant appearances. Costumes used by actors like red wigs, and long hooked noses gave a sense of comic chrome to the vindictive and greedy nature of man.

There were many features of Elizabethan theatre that were violative of the ghost-like sanctity of godliness with Transvestism being quite popular (men dressed up as women on stage, a Biblical sin).

3 Forms of Drama

  • The Tragedy with spectacular and violent deaths of the protagonist. Revenge became the ultimate pursuit in most tragedies with Romance as the main objective,
  • History Plays also ended in catastrophe or in triumph with the nation projected as the hero. Histories valorized patriotism, often of jingoistic nature.
  • Comedy was the third form. The main aim was to make people laugh but they were not as prominent as the other two genres.

With Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and “Taming of the Shrew“, humour became farcical. The superficiality of Court comedies like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was another highlight of the age.

There were also satirical plays for the likes of Ben Jonson etc who preferred the substance over the show. Tragedy became the most popular genre and was replete with violence, horror and gore.

Elizabethan Drama Themes

  • Anti-Semitism: Among the various popular themes was Anti-Semitism as Elizabethan society and is reflected in plays of the periods rife with such hatred as seen in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
  • Revenge Tragedy: Revenge was another popular theme. Be it a ghost-like in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy or a Prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the motive of revenge became the main counter-motive in drama, especially tragedies. Practical set plays and costumes also added to the passionate rendering of such revenge plots and realistic portrayals on stage.
  • Supernatural Elements: Another theme that was prominent was the supernatural as the society of the time was highly superstitious with people believing in supernatural forces. Ghosts became the prime moving force in many tragedies.
  • Comedy of Humours: The use of psychology was extensive and was founded on the theory of humour inside a human body, namely, blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Mental health was a function of the correct balance between these humours or bodily fluids like in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, also referred to as the “comedy of humours“.

Dramatic Devices

Several devices were used to instil a level of awe and intrigue in the drama. Asides or private conversations and soliloquies are used to engage with the audience and became quite popular.

Iambic Pentameter with five two-syllable units or “feet” was the most popular construction of the age. The use of Blank Verse without the iambic pentameter was also used profusely in Elizabethan plays. It was usually restricted to the characters of noble origins and aristocracy.

Rhymed couplets or couple verses of poetry are used to signal the end of a part or act. The use of abuses and insults is also extensive in the Elizabethan drama with verbal duelling, a strong suit of Shakespearean plays.

Likes of ‘ungrateful fox’ or ‘a plague-sore’ are plastered all over his plays. Clever wordplay and puns were employed like in Romeo and Juliet to incite a level of layering to the characters.

Use of subterfuge like a disguise was used frequently as a means to obtain secret information like in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.