Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Theater in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700



  • “Early Modern” refers to the period between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.
  • During the Early Modern period mercantile economies emerged, the New World was explored and colonized, and reformations in Church and State took place.

The European Renaissance: Humanism and the Classical Past

  • “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and was first used in 1550 by artist and critic Giorgio Vasari to define a rediscovery of classical values that he claimed had disappeared during the Middle Ages.
  • In 1450 Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1400–1468) invented the printing press, which promoted the spread of texts and commentaries.
  • More attention was paid in the arts to lifelike representations of humans and the visible world, as opposed to the flat, ornamental portrayals of the medieval era.


  • Funding for the arts was most prominent in Florence, Italy, where the Medici family supported the arts to entertain their courts.
  • In England, William Shakespeare’s troupe—the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later named the King’s Men)—was supported by courtly patronage.

Science and the “New Philosophy”

  • Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) redefined government based on the exercise of power, not moral authority.
  • In science, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) proposed that the earth rotates around the sun, as opposed to the medieval geocentric view that all things revolve around the earth.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) use of the telescope and scientific methods led to a questioning of the belief in divine creation.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

  • Martin Luther (1483–1546) wrote a series of theses in 1517 challenging the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences (paying for the removal of sin) and other corruptions, and arguing that the Bible was the sole authority and that faith alone leads to salvation.
  • The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) resulting from the Reformation ended with the Peace of Westphalia.

Monarchy and Government

  • During the late sixteenth century monarchs adopted “divine right of kings,” by which God was said to give the king absolute power over Church and State.

New World Encounters

  • Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 prompted massive efforts by Europeans to conquer and colonize territories and resources.

Professional Theater, 1500–1700

  • Professional theaters, including the Hotel de Bourgogne (Paris, 1548) and Red Lion (London, 1567), opened to the public during the late sixteenth century.
  • Public theaters, including the Globe Theater in London, were open-air and contained stages that extended into the audience.
  • Scenic practices were influenced by the rediscovery of Roman writer Vitruvius’s Treatise on architecture.
  • The Italian stage design most influenced Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due to its use of pictorial representations to create three-dimensional space and the use of the proscenium—an archway or frame in use up through the nineteenth century.
  • The need for extreme effects was characteristic of the Baroque style, which focused on spectacle and the opera.

Commedia dell’arte

  • As theater became a public, private, and courtly institution, acting became an official profession and troupes were created to perform internationally.
  • The commedia dell’arte (“comedy of professional artists,” 1500s) consisted of 10–12 male and female actors who performed scenarios based on love and intrigue.
  • Lazzi were improvisational elements used to enrich the audience; examples included contorting one’s body in order to catch a flea.
  • Stock characters included Pantalone—a rich miser, and Arlecchino—an acrobatic servant in motley-colored costume.
  • Economically, commedia dell’arte troupes relied upon a sharing plan, in which performers shared both risks and profits.
  • Censorship in both Catholic and Protestant countries remained significant due to charges of immorality in the theater.
  • Licensing made acting a legitimate profession after the 1600s and brought theater under government control.

Drama of Early Modern Europe

  • Greek and Roman plays, as well as Aristotle’s Poetics, were translated into Italian, and debates over Aristotle’s treatise led to Neoclassicism, which emphasized decorum, verisimilitude (likeness to reality), dramatic probability, concentrated action, and uniformity of subject and tone.
  • Unities of time, place, and action—which convinced the spectator of believability (i.e., a play taking place in the span of real-time hours rather than imagined over a course of days or years) was critical.
  • More plays were composed in vernacular languages rather than Latin.