Elizabethan Drama in Bristol

Bristol took drama to its heart in Elizabethan times, developing two of the earliest playhouses outside London.

The Guildhall shown on Millerd's Map of Bristol.

The medieval Guildhall was the leading performance venue in Elizabethan Bristol. The old building is long gone, but it appears here on Millerd's map.

Did Shakespeare come to Bristol? It would be surprising if he didn't. As one of the largest cities in the country after London, Bristol drew flocks of Elizabethan entertainers. Roving players had come to the city earlier, but there was a rapid increase from the start of Elizabeth's reign.

The Queen fostered drama. She enjoyed plays and pageants, and her reign saw a blossoming of theatrical art. Innovative, complex plays were replacing the simple morality tales of medieval times. The Renaissance had brought a resurgence of interest in Roman drama. At the universities Elizabeth watched plays in Latin. At her own court she encouraged the new English drama, a heady meld of classical sophistication and lively populism.

Bristol had no university then, but the Free School of St Bartholomew put on performances at civic events. Latin was drilled into boys in the grammar schools. So we can guess that the plays were classical dramas. Declaiming in a dead language was thought to teach good speech and morals. Even the puritanical John Northbrooke, curate of St Mary Redcliffe, approved of school plays.

Northbrook condemned all commercial theatre as the school of Satan. He thundered that it brought men and women into the devil's snare of filthy lusts. Elizabethan drama could be bawdy. It aimed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Slapstick and farce could be mixed with elegant poetry and psychological depth.

The Queen herself adored spectacle. So when she visited Bristol in 1574, the city fathers laid on a stunningly elaborate pageant. The schoolmaster of St Bartholomew's naturally expected to devise it. He was indignant when Londoner Thomas Churchyard was hired to script and direct the three-day entertainment, but the scale of it would have been far beyond local experience. The centrepiece was a mock war. Two specially-built forts were assaulted by land and water. The speeches probably had less impact than the gunpowder.

Travelling players could come under suspicion, like other itinerants. So the Vagabonds Act of 1572 required players to have royal or aristocratic patronage. No patron was more important than the queen. Her Master of the Revels head-hunted the best from existing troupes to create the Queen's Men in 1583. The result outshone all other companies for the rest of the decade. The Queen's men came to Bristol more than any other company: five times in the 1580s and six times in the 1590s. They often arrived when Bristol was thronged for the massive St James Fair.

They were among many companies hired to perform for the mayor and aldermen at the Guildhall in Broad Street. This grand civic space could accommodate a paying audience in addition to the corporation. Yet there are signs that it wasn't large enough. In 1576 the door of the Guildhall was damaged by the press of people at a play by the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Years later William Shakespeare joined a company of the same name. He seems to have learned his craft as a roving player, probably in the troupe of Lord Strange, which performed Shakespeare's first plays in the early 1590s. Strange's players took to the road in 1592 and 1593, when plague closed the London theatres. They came to Bristol in both years. The company could boast the most famous actor of his day - Edward Alleyn, a golden-voiced tragedian. In August 1593 he was in Bristol, playing in Harry of Cornwall and anxiously writing to his new bride left in plague-ridden London.

Lord Strange died in 1594 and some of his troupe formed, with Shakespeare, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The company included Richard Burbage, by then Alleyn's major rival as a master of tragic roles. Shakespeare himself seems to have played in minor parts. In the week of 11-17 September 1597 the Lord Chamberlain's Men played at the Guildhall in Bristol.

Did they perform one of Shakespeare's plays? It is likely. The great dramatist was regularly feeding the company with scripts which captivated audiences. Yet the flow could not keep pace with demand. A company would perform a different play each night. So the works of other authors were included in their repertoire.

Until recently it was thought that there were no professional playhouses outside London in Shakespeare's day. Now in-depth research for the series Records of Early English Drama has revealed Jacobean playhouses in Bristol, Preston and York. Bristol actually had two - one in Wine Street and the other in Redcliffe Hill. Neither survived the Puritan clampdown on drama during the Commonwealth. In fact the Wine Street playhouse seems to have gone out of use in the 1620s. The number of touring companies coming to Bristol fell in the 1600s. Elizabeth's reign saw a wealth of drama in Bristol not to be rivalled until Georgian times.

Further reading: Records of Early English Drama: Bristol, edited by Mark C. Pilkinton (University of Toronto Press, c.1997).