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Shakespeare: General Q & A

What types of entertainment did they have in Elizabethan England?

In Elizabethan England, during the times when plays were not completely outlawed, going to the theatre was the favourite activity of the masses. When disease ravaged London, actors would travel across the English countryside, entertaining farmers. There were also many days devoted to feasting, such as Mad Day, Midsummer Day, and Ascension Day (just to name a few), when people would drink and make merry. Dances were popular, whether you lived in London or in a small town, and so was getting together at the local pub for sing-alongs. Games like chess, checkers, and tennis were extremely popular; Miranda plays chess in The Tempest and Queen Elizabeth herself was known to love the game. For a comprehensive list of Elizabethan sports and games, please click here. Reading was also very popular, and most educated people could read their favourite books in more than one language.

The Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's Day, showing the Bear Garden. From an enlarged drawing of the 'Antwerp View' of London.The upper classes engaged in tournaments of fencing and hunted for sport. All classes seemed to delight in the vicious form of entertainment known as bear-baiting, but it was without doubt Queen Elizabeth's favourite pastime:

Elizabeth took especial delight in seeing the courage of her English mastiffs pitted against the cunning of Ursa and the strength of Taurus. On the 25th of May 1559, the French ambassadors 'were brought to court with music to dinner, and after a splendid dinner, were entertained with the baiting of bears and bulls with English dogs. The queen's grace herself, and the ambassadors, stood in the gallery looking on the pastime till six at night.' The diplomatists were so gratified, that her majesty never failed to provide a similar show for any foreign visitors she wished to honour.

Much as the royal patron of Shakespeare and Burbage was inclined to favour the players, she waxed indignant when the attractions of the bear garden paled before those of the theatre; and in 1591 an order issued from the privy-council forbidding plays to be acted on Thursdays, because bear-baiting and such pastimes had usually been practised on that day. This order was followed by an injunction from the lord mayor to the same effect, in which his lordship complained, ' that in divers places, the players do use to recite their plays to the great hurt and destruction of the game of bear-baiting, and such-like pastimes, which are maintained for her majesty's pleasure.' (The book of days 58).

Elizabethan bear-baiting. From Cassell History of England, Vol. 2.

Shakespeare alludes to bear-baiting in Macbeth: "But, bear-like, I must fight the course" (5.7.2).

You can read more about Elizabethan England in the theatre section.

Chambers, Robert. The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities. London: W. & R. Chambers, 1883.

How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Entertainment in Elizabethan England Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) <>.


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