, , , ,

The Interior of the Swan Theatre (1596) by Johannes de Witt

On the 3rd November 1594, a document from the Lord Mayor, Sir Cuthbert Buckle to Lord Burghley relays fears about the influence of plays on ‘the good policie of a Christian Common Wealth’ (Chambers 317). Furthermore, theatres themselves are seen as places frequented by:

…all vagrant persons & maisterles men that hang about the Citie, theeues, horsestealers, whoremoongers, coozeners, connycatching persones, practizers of treason, & such other lyke, whear they consort and make their matches to the great displeasure of Almightie God & the hurt and annoyance of hir Maiesties people, both in this Citie & other places about, which cannot be clensed of this vngodly sort (which by experience wee fynd to bee the very sinck & contagion not only of this Citie but of this whole Realm), so long as these playes & places of resort ar by authoritie permitted. (Chambers 317)

The list of criminal epithets at the beginning of the passage suggests that London is becoming a Satanic breeding ground. However, the metaphor indicating that criminality is ‘the very sinck & contagion…of this whole Realm’ is associable with the plague that closed Elizabethan theatres from July 1592 until 8th October 1594.

On February 3rd 1594, a document from the Privy Council is sent to the Lord Mayor fearing that the rumoured reopening of theatres may cause another outbreak of the plague:

[C]ertein information is given that very great multitudes of all sorts of people do daylie frequent & resort to common playes lately again set vp in & about London, whearby it is vpon good cause feared that the dangerous infection of the plague, by Gods great mercy and goodness well slaked, may again very dangerously encrease and break foorth…’ (Chambers 314)

The signifier ‘common playes’ reveals the Elizabethan government’s excess of authority, because it attracts the ‘vngodly sort’. Therefore, the Elizabethan government’s authority becomes structured around the plague that kills undesirables by allowing them to attend the theatres. In order for the Elizabethan government to re-establish control over its own laws, theatres must be closed. The overriding fear is that the plague will spread throughout the country, and usurp Queen Elizabeth I’s rule.

The distancing of the queen from plays that ‘haue ben before commonly played in open stages before all the basest assemblies’, and from visiting theatres packed with the ‘infected’ not only protects the queen and her courtiers but also indicates a division between Elizabeth and her subjects (Chambers 300). The theatre is blamed for making Elizabethan subjects ungodly. In other words, the government has no power other subjects who congregate within a space that corrupts them. Claire McEachern explains how they become corrupted:

Theatrical activity and appetites are literally corporeal threats: both originate from, and return to, the body. Whereas in royal discourse a common appetite for theatrical pleasure links the monarch with her subjects, the discourse of order emphasizes a far greater leveller, the common vulnerability to mortality. (McEachern 41)

McEachern’s association of ‘order’ with ‘mortality’ that is in opposition to ‘theatrical appetites’ reveals the tension between Elizabeth and her subjects. Along with the plague, theatrical ‘pleasure’ signifies an excess of authority because it emphasises mortality. The real fear is that whatever the ‘vngodly’ enjoy may spread to the Elizabethan court and so transform it into a dangerous anarchic space.


Buckle, Sir Cuthbert. ‘The Lord Mayor to Lord Burghley’. 1594. The Elizabethan Stage Vol. IV, by E.K. Chambers. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1923.

Cecyll, R. et al. ‘The Privy Council to Sir Cuthbert Buckle, Lord Mayor’. 1594. The Elizabethan Stage Vol. IV, by E.K. Chambers. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1923.

Corporation of London. ‘Corporation of London Reply to the Queen’s Players’. 1585. The Elizabethan Stage Vol. IV, by E.K. Chambers. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1923.

McEachern, Claire. “Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic”. Shakespeare Quarterly. 45:1 (Spring 1994), 33-56.