Elizabethan acting Essay

This essay has a total of 862 words and 5 pages.


elizabethan acting





Elizabethan acting was far from ‘naturalistic.’ This statement is a widely debated topic.
The repertory of the Elizabethan period was highly differed from that of today as was the
demands on Elizabethan actors compared to today’s actors. Elizabethan playhouses in two
weeks could often present “eleven performances of ten different plays”. Playhouses would
not repeat the same play two days in a row. As an actor from the playhouses could often be
all or a lot of these plays that were all running at the same time, the demands on the
actor were huge. “In the total winter season from August 25, 1595, through February 28,
1596,” one company gave “one hundred and fifty performances of thirty different plays.”
Actors were not only required to “commit to memory an amazing number of new plays each
season,” but he also had to retain old and previous performances in case they were to be
performed again. “A leading actor of the Lord Admiral’s company… , had to secure and
retain command of about seventy-one different roles, of which number fifty-two or
fifty-three were newly learned.” The huge repertory demands of the actors gave them little
time for interpretation of roles.


Since 1939 debate has been waged over the Elizabethan acting style. Alfred Harbage wrote
that two styles of acting could have been present in the Elizabethan period. They were
natural or formal. Harbage wrote:

Natural acting strives to create an illusion of reality by
consistency on the part of the actor who remains in character
and tends to imitate the behavior of actual human being placed in his imagined
circumstances. He portrays where the formal actor symbolizes. He impersonates where the
formal actor represents. He engages in real conversation where the formal actor recites.
His acting is subjective and “imaginative” where that of the formal actor is objective and
traditional. Whether he sinks his personality in his part or shapes the part to his
personality, in either case he remains the natural actor.


The Elizabethan actor is compared closely to the orator. Oratory and acting shared similar
voice and gesture techniques and it was said that “ whoever knows exactly today what was
taught to the Renaissance orator cannot be far from knowing at the same time what was done
by the actor on the Elizabethan stage.” The actor used conventionalized gestures that
represented different emotions “as in a sorrowfull parte, ye head must hang down; in a
proud, ye head must be lofty.” In Chirologia the book which is divided into three
sections, lists and describes sixty-four gestures. By learning these conventionalized
gestures actors could apply them to any role and any emotional state. “The result was that
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