Elizabethan Actors

Sketch of ideal Elizabethan actors.

Talent and Training of Actors
The actors of Shakespeare’s time had very little training. There were no acting schools, so the players had to learn by watching and performing. Many of the more experienced actors helped the younger and newer ones by giving them advice and tips. All players needed many skills to be successful. Since there weren’t any microphones, the actors needed a loud, clear voice. Sometimes they needed to be able to speak quickly but clearly so the play could finish in a few hours. A good memory was required, too, since the plays were very long*. The main areas they needed to master were speech, gesture and voice. Speech was a distinct area of criticism in the theater: if you could speak well and with good diction you were more respected.*Fun Fact: Shakespeare hated when actors stubbed lines. 🙂

Reputation of Actors
The reputation of the players was a range of terrible to great. Some were highly respected for their talents and few were wealthy. However it was considered almost a crime to dress as those in a higher social class than you. Actors were often required to do this so many people looked down upon them. Also, they weren’t trusted and considered as a threat in some areas, and they checked the plays for religious and political threats so they wouldn’t upset the state or county.

Actors needed to be able to develop an entire character, using only emotions, speech, and some movements. This was a skill they needed to learn on their own. Also the production gave them very few blocking instructions, cues or directions to help the players. There was limited rehearsal time, as well as not very much time to give individual actors special attention. Therefore the actors needed to be over-all self sufficient.
The help that was provided was from the Book Keeper. Since Shakespeare’s plays were so long, and the copy machine wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries or so, there was usually only one copy of the script. This was given to the Book Keeper, whose job was to make copies of each actors lines, but ONLY their lines and maybe some cues for them. During a production he/she would post an outline of the plot to help them remember and he may even help out the players if they forgot lines during a show.

Day in the Life
A typical day of an actor in a show looked like this:

  • They woke up very early and ate a big breakfast
  • They would have a morning rehearsal.
  • Then they would have a light dinner to get them through the day.
  • On average their show would run from 2-6 pm.
  • Then they relaxed at night and took care of professional duties like counting admissions and clean up.

Companies performed all throughout London, but travel was very difficult. Roads were bad and only the wealthy members could afford to ride horses. The rest walked, since wagons and horse carriages were used for props, costumes, etc. Housing usually meant camping on the roads or staying at inns. They entertained townspeople for extra money and usually there were only 6 or 7 players taken on a tour at a time.

Female Roles (Boys in Theater)
Women were not allowed on stage, so boys often took the roles of girls. The young boys were apprentices to veteran actors. Most of them grew up to be well-respected actors if they stuck with the theater. The boys ranged from 6-14 years of age and although the job was very pressured (they needed to help as stage hands and also sometimes characters) it was always fun and entertaining. They boys needed to be well trained and talented. Some requirements were: loud, clear voice, good memory, able to clown, sing, fence, and perform acrobatics.

Stars of the Stage
Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton was one of the most well-known actors of the time period. At an early age he was able to make people laugh, play an instrument, and fence. He was known for being good at dancing a jig, but the dance was considered a sin. Shakespeare loved him and gave him large comedic roles like: the first grave digger in Hamlet, and Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

James Burbage
James Burbage was the most respected actor of the period. He picked up on acting techniques very quickly. Shakespeare gave him the first leads in: Othello, King Lear, and Richard III. Critics said his acting was “very true to life”, meaning he was good at being realistic. He was also a member of the Kings Men.

Edward Allyen
Edward Allyen was a great tragedian who got fame from his heroic roles. Some of his memorable roles were the leads in The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine, and Dr. Faustus. He also opened the Fortune Theater in 1600.

Other Famous Actors of the Time
Edward Alleyn (1566 – 1626)
Robert Armin (1568 – 1615)
Christopher Beeston (1570 – 1638)
Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619)
Henry Condell (1568 – 1627)
Nathan Field (1587 – 1619)
John Heminge (1556 – 1630)
William Kempe (1560 – 1603)
John Lowin (1576 – 1659)
William Rowley (1585 – 1642)
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Joseph Taylor (1586 – 1652)

“Boys in the Theater.” Elizabethan Actors. 11 Apr. 2008

Elizabethan Actors. 10 Apr. 2008 .

Woog, Adam. A History of the Elizabethan Theater. Farmington Hills: Lucent,

Yancey, Diane. Life in the Elizabethan Theater. San Diego: Lucent, 1997.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *