The theatre traditions of the English Renaissance evolved from the medieval performances of the municipal cycles of playlets or “mysteries” (meaning: provided by craft-skilled sponsors). These cycles were based on biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, often performed by local talent, with little sense of artistic discipline. These took place in the open air, particularly with such guild-sponsored performances on festival occasions. Full theatres such as those of Roman times were not built, though modest arenas were often established, and temporary stages (including wagons) were employed for mobile street performances.
The biblical plots of these plays increasingly gave way in the 16th century, under the influence of Humanists, to less festive morality plays with allegorical characters (such as the Virtues and Vices of Everyman). These were often performed indoors in suitably spacious buildings. The Humanists also revived the performance of the classical drama of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and the tragedies of Seneca. These were also often performed indoors in great halls, as many courtly celebrations were throughout the period. Meanwhile after the Reformation a secular drama replaced the “papist” tradition of biblical cycles in public with more worldly plots of an historical kind, usually classical or nationalistic and with increasingly professional performing companies, protected from local vagrancy laws by aristocratic patrons.
These plays initially were performed in merely expedient venues, such as manor or civic halls, palaces, and innyards. However, after the Red Lion of 1567, more successful purpose-built theatres opened in London with James Burbage’s construction in 1576 of The Theatre at Shoreditch, on the northern outskirts of the city, escaping puritanical civic restrictions. For financial reasons Burbage later moved the structure of the Theatre over the Thames to a site where other theatres like the Rose had been established, at Bankside. Shakespeare probably began his career in several of these early theatres. However, the new luxuriously rebuilt theatre at Bankside became the admired Globe in 1599, still conforming to the current pattern of hollow, open-air theatres, with pillars supporting a roof over a thrust stage projecting into a yard for standing spectators, while three galleries inside the outer walls provided the more expensive seating. However, with the increasing success of these commercial companies, sponsored by aristocrats and court officials, such as Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, command performances were regularly solicited at royal palaces. Shakespeare’s company ultimately earned the definitive title and status of the King’s Men. Such companies survived until the Puritan Parliament closed the theatres in 1642 at the start of the Civil War against Charles I.
When the theatres reopened in 1660 the restored monarchy favored the model of indoor theatres developed in France and Italy, to which the court had been accustomed in exile. The newly built indoor theatres in London adopted a stage frame, or proscenium arch, marking off the performers from the audience, and behind it were developed the elaborate patterns of scenery characteristic of the more flamboyant baroque style which replaced the neoclassical decorum favored by earlier Humanists like Ben Jonson. The introduction of actresses to replace the boys who had played female roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean times also induced more provocative behavior on and off stage.