Subversive theatre in Renaissance England

Eric Rasmussen and Ian De Jong investigate the subversive potential of Renaissance theatre.

In the late summer of 1597, a monster emerged from the humid stench of London’s Bankside. News of the monster quickly reached Robert Cecil, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth. Cecil determined that the monster was a threat to national security and arranged for its swift destruction. The nest where it had bred was raided and neutralised; the people who had nurtured it were called to account and imprisoned.

The monster in question was a satirical play called The Isle of Dogs. Its co-author, Thomas Nash acknowledged that in writing the play he’d created a monster: 'it was no sooner borne but I was glad to run from it'. No copy of the play exists today, so we can only guess at its contents. But the Privy Council clearly viewed it as 'seditious' and ordered not only that the dramatists and actors be imprisoned but that all theatres in the city be closed for months as a punishment. This governmental response may seem like overkill, but the Queen and her enforcers were keenly aware of the potential danger posed by theatre's ability to subvert cultural norms. In Renaissance England, the development of theatre paralleled, and may have helped to spark, dramatic, culture-wide shifts in religious, economic, social, sexual and even political perspectives.

Engraved view of London by C J Visscher showing the Globe

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

The Globe Theatre in the foreground of Claes Visscher’s panorama of London, 1616.

View images from this item  (5)

Theatre historian Andrew Gurr has estimated that as many as 50 million people paid to see live theatre in London during the golden age of English Renaissance drama. London loved theatre. And with theatre’s popularity came a reorganising of social strata in which class divisions were no longer safe. After all, William Shakespeare, the son of a Stratford glover, earned enough in a decade of playmaking and acting to buy a share in a theatrical company as well as an opulent house in Stratford-upon-Avon. He even applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. When the request was granted, Shakespeare effectively entered the nobility. This social step epitomises the potentially subversive nature of theatre: it allowed the playmaker son of an artisan father to style himself a gentleman.

Drawing of Shakespeare's house by George Vertue

Drawing of New Place by George Vertue

As an actor and playwright, Shakespeare earned enough to buy the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain


Governmental authorities understood the potential disruptions public theatre could cause in a well-ordered cultural hierarchy, so took steps to control the performances of plays from the very beginning. As early as 1574, even before the first theatre was built, the Lord Mayor of London and the Common Council laid heavy restrictions on the times, places, contents and purposes of theatrical entertainments. Although the municipal government was decidedly anti-theatre, its animosity had little effect. Beginning with the construction of the first purpose-built playhouse in 1576 until the closing of the theatres in 1642, theatre’s popularity and commercial success steadily increased.

Petition to the Privy Council against using Blackfriars as a playhouse

Petition to the Privy Council against using Blackfriars as a playhouse

In 1596, residents of Blackfriars petitioned the Privy Council to stop Shakespeare’s company from opening the Blackfriars Playhouse. The residents feared that ‘vagrant and lewd persons … under colour of resorting to the plays, will come thither and work all manner of mischief’.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © The National Archives

Subversive playwrights

The successful playmakers who emerged during this period were a decidedly subversive group. There was Christopher Marlowe, accused of being an atheist, suspected of homosexual tendencies, an ex-spy who was murdered at age 29 in the suspicious company of other spies. There was Ben Jonson, who had been apprenticed to his bricklayer stepfather as a youth, soldiered in the Low Countries, killed a fellow actor in a duel and became a Catholic while in prison for the killing. And there was George Wilkins, a thug who had a long arrest record for brutal assaults (including kicking a pregnant woman in the belly). Wilkins was Shakespeare's landlord in London, and collaborated with him on Pericles.

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

In this famous note, the double agent Richard Baines claims that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ and sneered at anyone who didn’t love ‘Tobacco & Boies’.

View images from this item  (11)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

When Sir Francis Walsingham formed an acting company under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth, he dictated that plays written for and performed by the Company of Players, the Queen's Men, should feature patriotic representations of English history with wholesome Protestant morals, and ought to be written in stately verse. Although some early playwrights adhered to this party line, Marlowe broke frame to take serious risks: writing about a Mongol warlord, Tamburlaine – in blank verse, no less. More seriously, whereas the government had called for morality plays with English heroes, Marlowe's foreign infidel repeatedly commits heinously amoral acts and is never struck down by the hand of divine justice. And Marlowe's Tamburlaine was a runaway success.

Even when Marlowe wrote apparently orthodox plays, he still found ways to push against the government’s expectations, as well as societal conventions. Doctor Faustus, his best-known work, presents itself as a familiar moral tale of the perils of pride and excessive learning, and yet somehow manages to question the very legitimacy of that moral dramatic framework. The Massacre at Paris, perhaps Marlowe's most obscure play, disrupts expectations in similar ways. The play promises to be a fairly straightforward, nationalistic condemnation of Frenchness and Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, in the course of the play this expected straightforwardness collapses into recognisably Marlovian political angling and moral shades of grey.

Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe's subversion of form and subject matter. The two may have collaborated on King Henry VI Parts 1–3, choosing as their subject a weak and ineffectual monarch in a decidedly unpatriotic series of plays. Much like Marlowe's earlier Edward II, Shakespeare’s own Richard II deals with the deposition of another inept king. The scene in which Richard is forced to yield his crown was omitted from printed versions of the play throughout Elizabeth's reign, and was perhaps left out in performance as well – no doubt the official government censor, known as the Master of the Revels, did not wish to encourage audiences to contemplate removing a sitting monarch, given the Queen’s advanced age and debatable fitness for rule. Indeed, when the Earl of Essex planned a coup to overthrow Elizabeth, his henchmen commissioned Shakespeare's acting company to perform Richard II, presumably to get Londoners in the mood for a forced deposition. Although the rebellion failed, theatre's potential for political subversion was clearly understood.

Many of Shakespeare's plays actually deal with unstable political situations, especially those commonly referred to as the ‘great tragedies’. Hamlet's famous indecision originates in the death of Denmark's monarch; Macbeth's plot involves two separate regicides, though both occur offstage. King Lear provides some of Shakespeare's most complex reflections on the nature of kingship. The image of the ‘poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old’ Lear (3.2.20) wandering mad on the heath may not have unsettled James I, devoted fan of theatre as he was. But it certainly does raise questions about the actual differences between monarch and subject, questions that resonate with performers, critics and students to this day.

The extant manuscript of Sir Thomas More – a play to which Shakespeare contributed a few speeches – gives us a peek of insight into the type of subversive material that the censor was on the lookout for. The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, has written on the first page of the manuscript 'leave out the insurrection wholly'. The government was obviously concerned that a stage representation of a riot by unemployed Londoners against foreign workers who had taken their jobs might breed real riots in the theatres and the streets of the city.

The Book of Sir Thomas More: Shakespeare's only surviving literary manuscript

Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More

On the left of this page, Edmund Tilney suggests censoring the play to ‘leave out the insurrection wholly’.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

All plays performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre had to be approved by the Master of the Revels, with the curious exception of those staged by the Children of the Queen's Revels, a company of boy actors under the patronage of Queen Anne, for whom the poet Samuel Daniel was appointed as the official licenser of plays. Dramatists flocked to this company where they (rightly) assumed that a sympathetic fellow writer would be more likely to allow subversive plays to be staged than a rigorous government censor. In 1605, Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston went so far as to make fun of King James's Scottish accent in Eastward Ho! (Jonson and Chapman were subsequently imprisoned and 'in danger of having their ears and noses slit' as punishment, all the while blaming the offensive passages on Marston.) In the following year, John Day's Isles of Gulls, a thinly veiled attack on the government, occasioned such a scandalous uproar that the playwright and entire cast of boys were imprisoned.


Religion was another favoured target of theatrical satire, and one that was seemingly tolerated by the Master of the Revels. Characters such as Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night exaggerated extremist Puritanism for comedic effect. Roman Catholicism was usually represented with more seriousness, but hardly more concern for psychological realism. In Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, the outwardly Catholic Duke of Guise reveals in his first soliloquy that he is in fact one of Marlowe’s trademark atheist villains. In Shakespeare’s King John, Cardinal Pandolf acts as the Pope’s proxy, repeatedly acting against England’s interests. Sometimes, of course, Puritans were represented seriously, and Catholics were represented comedically; for instance, one scene in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus has Faustus use his new magical powers to beat and abuse the Pope, a scene clearly written for laughs. The theatre used humour to skewer Puritans and slander to skewer Catholics: the common denominator was irreverence.

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

In this puritanical pamphlet, Stubbes rails against the ‘wickednesse’ of ‘stage-playes’ and the dangers of ‘women wearying Dublets’.

View images from this item  (37)

Usage terms Public Domain


The Puritans deeply disapproved of the theatrical practice of cross-dressing female roles. Women were not part of the theatrical guilds, so acting companies cast boys in most women’s parts. This practice represented the ultimate in theatrical deception to religious eyes: boys were not women, and presenting boys in the guise of women misled audiences, both about boys’ natures and women’s natures. When playmakers and companies realised that this casting habit bothered the Puritans, they predictably leaned into it. With increasing frequency from the 1590s onward, English Renaissance plays deployed not only cross-dressing actors but cross-dressing characters as well.

Photograph of Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario and Rhys Meredith as Sebastian in Shakespeare's Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Sebastian and Cesario - looking remarkably similar due to makeup and wigs

Men playing women disguised as men: Shakespeare exploits the playful potential of cross-dressing in Twelfth Night.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © Colin Willoughby / ArenaPal

Whereas casting conventions called for boys to perform women’s roles, the trope of the cross-dressing character called for a female character to don a male disguise. Thus, a boy actor taking the role of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice would, in the course of the action, cross-dress as a woman for the part of Portia, then cross-dress again (or back?) when Portia adopts the persona of Balthazar. This fluidity leads, in several of Shakespeare’s plays, to highly fascinating reflections on the relationship between gender, performance and identity; more importantly to Renaissance London, it would have further ruffled Puritan feathers. But the Puritans would ultimately get their revenge, and certainly the last laugh, when they came to power and succeeded in closing the theatres in 1642.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Photogravure images of Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Ellen Terry as the cross-dressing Portia, a woman who disguises herself as a male lawyer.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Public Domain

  • Eric Rasmussen
  • Eric Rasmussen, Foundation Professor and Chair of English at the University of Nevada, is co-editor of the award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works andWilliam Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays

  • Ian DeJong
  • Ian DeJong is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada. His scholarship centers around the cultural construction of Shakespeare. His work has appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.