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Elizabethan England

Popular Amusements and Entertainment

by Kavitha Kareti

Long before the invention of modern technologies, such as radios and televisions, CD's and videos, video games and the internet, the Elizabethans created an elaborate system of activities and events to keep themselves entertained. Although there was work to be done, leisure was an important part of the lives of the English people during the Elizabethan Age. Most of this leisure came either after church on Sundays or on the holidays. Much has been written about the Elizabethan people: "...they were expressive and eloquent, ostentanious and pleasure-loving, not industrious or hardworking, but bold and self-confident, markedly fearless of death, mercurial and inconsistent, loving change, above all, passionate" (Rowse 353).

During the Elizabethan Age there was great cultural achievement, particularly in the area of music and drama. In that time, musical literacy was expected in the upper class of society. Many Elizabethans made their own music. The laborers would sing while they worked, and the townspeople would sing or play music after meals. The lute, virginal, viola, recorder, bagpipe and the fiddle were favored instruments of that time. A popular form of entertainment in the countryside was the ringing of church bells. Elizabethans also loved to hear music. Since there was no access to a recording studio, the music had to be performed. In the major towns, official musicians, better known as Waits, gave free public concerts. The wealthy people hired musicians to play during dinner.

Dancing was also a popular activity. The dances were mostly performed by couples. This was one of the best opportunities for interaction between married people. Dancing varied according to social class. Dancing at court and dancing in villages were two separate things. The upper class favored courtly dances. Some of the court dances included the Brawl, the Volte and the Pavane. Morris dancing, which included the wearing of bells, was performed as part of the summer festivals. Ordinary people were more likely to do traditional "country" dances. These dances included the jig, the dump, the hay and the trenchmore. Some of the dances that were performed had foreign names, usually French or Italian. The Pavane, Cassamezzo, Lavolta, Coranto and the Galliard were just a few. Dancing in the Elizabethan Age was considered "a wholesome recreation of the mind and also an exercise of the body" (Davis 240).

In the Elizabethan Age drama was at the high peak of its cultural achievement for all time. There were a variety of plays including action, humor, violence, and plays with musical interludes. This period witnessed the first entertainment industry, especially in theater. Although the first performances were done in the courtyards of large inns, the very first public theater in London was built in 1576. Theaters were mostly to be found in London, near the court. However, plays were attended by all the people, with the audience reflecting society from the lowest to the highest levels. A constant demand for entertainment led London companies to take minor performances, like folk players, puppeteers, and acrobats, on the road. The plague often interrupted the run plays and even closed down theaters, making road performances necessary.

Elizabethan theater was the work of a few men: proprietors, actors, playwrights and workmen. The actors creating theater often received rewards, became respectable and would slowly move up in social standing. Some of the brilliant actors were the Burbages (James, Richard and Cuthbert), Philip Henstoe and Edward Alleyn. The brilliant playwrights included Christopher Marlow, William Shakespeare, and Ben Johnson. The rise, maturity and decline of Elizabethan Theater coincided with Shakespeare's dramatic career. By the year of Shakespeare's death, there was a transition from plays to literature. Elizabethan drama owed its strength and richness to the fusion of many elements. It was a mirror of the whole society.

Sports played a major role in the leisure time of the Elizabethan Age. Some of the indoor games included dice, chess, checkers and a variety of card games. The card games included primero, trump, gleek, new cut and many others. If the cards and dice were too passive for the men, wrestling was an alternative for them. With wrestling, however, came injuries like broken ribs, internal injuries, broken necks and more.

England is so far north that in the midsummer there was plenty of light late into the evening. This gave the people more time to spend outside after their work was done. Some of the outdoor games included golf, horse racing, shovel-board, sliding, swimming, fishing, hunting, fencing, dueling and cricket. In that time it was not tolerable for a man to be unskilled at tennis, bowling, archery and hunting. Tennis was a respectable sport which could be played with either a racket or hand. Bowling and tennis games were not played far from home. While the upper class enjoyed tennis, the common folk preferred football. If a field could not be found, the village street was used. All levels of society enjoyed the sport of hunting. Horses, dogs and hawks were kept and trained for hunting deer, rabbits and other wildlife.

Another major part of the Elizabethan lifestyle had to do with feasts and festivals. Every season of the year had special days that drew the people together to celebrate. In the spring, Shrove Tuesday was one of the festivals observed in the Lenten season. Feasts and a carnival were held and bell ringing, masking, gaming, and begging were among the activities. One of the greater festivals of the year was held at Easter time. The Mayday celebration consisted of the decorating of the maypole and dancing around it. In the summer, bonfires were burned and dances were held to celebrate Midsummer's Eve on June 24. Also in June, St. John the Baptist's Festival was an important civic occasion. In the fall, harvest festivals were held. On All Hallow's Eve, Elizabethans celebrated by ducking for apples, dancing and bell ringing. The winter holidays began with Christmas, ran through New Year's Eve and ended on the Twelfth Night, January 5. These holidays included gifts, bonfires, wassail, yule logs, music and jollity.

From the beginning to the end of each year, Elizabethans found ways to keep themselves entertained. They were a creative group of people who pursued leisure activities with great passion.

See also "Sports and Entertainment"

Works Consulted

Davis, Williams Stearns. Life In Elizabethan Days. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1930.

The information in this book is very diverse. Each chapter focuses on the different aspects of the lives of the Elizabethan people. There are not many pictures in this book.

Emerson, Kathy Lynn. Everyday Life In Renaissance England From 1485-1649.Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1996.

This book is nicely written, and it has great information. The information is very detailed. The book does not have many color pictures. It is a very good book.

* Haigh, Christopher. The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

This book has beautiful pictures, in full color. The information in this book is very detailed.

Rowse, A.L. The Elizabethan Renaissance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.

This book has very good information about the Elizabethan Age. However, it is very difficult to read. There are very few pictures in this book.

* Severy, Merle. The Renaissance: Maker of Modern Man. Washington: National Geographic Society, 1970.

The pictures in this book are wonderful. They are authentic paintings in full color. Altogether there are 450 illustrations.

Singman, Jeffery L. Daily Life In Elizabethan England. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

This book is an excellent source. It has solid information and it is very well organized. The information is very helpful.

* Source for Visuals


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