The Elizabethan Festival Cycle

The performance of plays was under the jurisdiction and mindful monitoring of the Lord Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels. No play could be performed publically in the capital or elsewhere without their explicit knowledge and approval. Their role was to censor or remove any seditious or embarrassing material from the text or the performance itself. Indeed as an aspiring writer or dramatist there was no greater honour or acknowledgement of one’s expertise than to have a royal commission or have a play presented especially at court before the sovereign of the realm. It is generally acknowledged that plays were initially “tried out” either in the provinces or at the Inns, Schools or Universities before going public or in some instances being presented at court for the first time. However, as an erudite and educated woman, the Queen, who was not easily impressed, made her summer progresses visiting the provinces of Merrie England and these too were occasions where unique theatrical processions, masques or “show-plays” would be specially devised for her personal delight and approval. To attract the Queen’s eye and secure privilege was therefore an ideal goal for any actor, dramatist or poet and many were subsequently tempted to try their hand and secure royal patronage. The astrologer and companion/secretary to the Earl of Southampton, John Florio writes in his English/Italian conversation book (“First Fruits”, 1578):

“Where shall we go? To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place. Do comedies like you well? Yea sir, on holy days. They please me also well, but the preachers will not allow them. Wherefore, know you that; they say they are not good. And wherefore are they used? Because everyman delights in them. I believe there is much knavery used at those comedies: so I also do believe.”

Among those who did were the Queen’s paramour Robert Dudley who presented Gorboduc (written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton 1561/2), which offered moral counsel to the Queen on the advantages of marriage and the unity of the realm, something which she was not at the time inclined to pursue. Gorboduc was first performed at the Inner Temple in 1562 as a Senecan tragedy imbued with elements of the morality play or masque which coincided with the visit of King Phillip IInd of Spain, who was then a potential suitor. The aristocratic poet, Sir Phillip Sidney criticised it as a comedy and its overall poetic style, its staging and impoverished set design thus:

“But if it be so in Gorboducke, how much more in all the rest, where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Affricke on the other, so many other under kingdoms, that the player when he comes in, must ever begin telling where he is, otherwise the tale will not be conceived. Now you shall have three Ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of a shipwreck in the same place, then we are to blame if we accept it not for a Rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it as a cave: while in the meantime two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?”

George Peele’s “Arraignment of Paris” (1580), another hybrid of play and masque, featured the handing of a golden apple (a symbol of Venus/Aphrodite) to the Queen seated in an enclosure which coincided with the visit of the Duke of Alençon to the English court. Among the most popular theatrical genres in England were of course Court plays and Masques, the ecclesiastical and liturgical Mystery and Morality plays, with Miracle and Mummer’s plays being largely regional affairs, and finally the numerous Revels, Pageants and Fairs celebrated seasonally on set or prescribed occasions of the Elizabethan Festival Cycle. As the English calendar year was aligned to that of the Roman year, New Year plays began on the first or the 24th March continuing with April/May with the Spring and Easter celebrations, through to the Midsummer Madness of June and July in which tournaments and history plays were favoured. The Harvest Season followed suit in August through to September, followed by celebrations into the month of October culminating in All Hallow’s Eve which was the end of the Celtic New Year and through to Yuletide or Saturnalia ending in Twelfth Night and usually concluding sometime around Valentine’s Day on the 14th February.

Court Plays:

Court plays or masques were frequently presented at court or commissioned for a particular occasion such as for the Queen’s birthday, her hereditary accession or some other royal occasion such as St. George’s Day which signalled the commencement of Springtime (eg: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”). Following on from the medieval tradition Holy Days, Saint’s Days and Feasts were often chosen as occasions for the performance of plays where the reigning monarch was usually the focus of ceremony or praise. Other plays were devised and presented because they were linked to a particular incident or topical situation such as the dissolution of the Spanish Armada, the arrival of a foreign ambassador or the suppression of some treachery. Court plays might also be held at the numerous Inns of Court, for example Blackfriars, the Middle Temple and so forth and occasionally at Universities, but often the performance, sometimes intended as a “one-off” would take place at the home of some aristocrat or dignitary. Also favoured were the Blackfriar’s theatre, Westminster Hall, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Chapel or Windsor Castle.


A Set of Commedia d’elle Arte masks

Masques, whether impromptu or rehearsed usually combined dramatic dialogue, poetry, dumb-show, spectacular acrobatics, musical interludes, song and dance into one spectacular public or exclusive performance. They usually featured lavish costumes, impressive sets and other theatrical contrivances or mechanical devices. Often actor’s parts were undertaken by members of the court or even those literary figures of invention as well as conventional players. It is quite possible that the actors had some symbolic affinity with the characters they portrayed because they were perceived as “caricatures” in their own right. Some were essentially small parties or even grand court or social occasions. There was a sense of immediacy in the genre almost akin to the spontaneous happenings of our modern dramas in the 1970’s. Certain situations were what might be termed a “set-up” with often obvious conclusions intended to raise the profile or status of the monarchy or the region they visited. The traditional barrier between audience and spectator or the actors themselves participating in the world of drama, fantasy and social reality was often transgressed or manipulated in some way to obtain the maximum impact or effect. Formal masques or public processions were especially popular during the Jacobean period although not unknown from much earlier times in the form of street theatre or folklore pageant. Although devised by playwrights many masques might be commissioned by the Lord Mayor of some city, the rich mercantile class or the aristocratic élite. Usually some allegorical content distinguished this complex form from others, and the genre was favoured by Ben Johnson who also invented the “anti-masque”, which was quite satirical, more ribald and realistic than those naive flights of fancy and imagination favoured by the leading nobles, aristocrats and their minions. The Masque of the Nine Worthies at the close of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost” is a typical example as well as the masque of Juno & Ceres in the “Tempest”. “Twelfth Night” is also considered to have been influenced by both folkloric traditions and includes elements of the masque. Shakespeare’s comedies contain much of what was derived from the Italian Commedia d’elle Arte especially where the comic or tragic characters or narrative are concerned.

The composers, authors and performers composed plays and wrote songs on the theme of idealised courtly love as well as satirical attacks on the dogmas and traditions of political or religious organisations who interfered in the liberties and rights of commoners and nobles alike. Employing comical and monstrous masks, exotic costumes and other theatrical effects these were often performed in the manner of a pageant, procession, puppet show, dramatic play or opera, a form later plagiarised by the ecclesiastics and Franciscan clergy in the Mystery Plays (14 Stations of the Cross). As the more pious adherents of the Catholic world vied for the heretic souls of Europe, namely the underrepresented artisans, weavers, and peasants various missionary establishments arouse to support them- namely the Franciscan and Dominican orders. Each owed their existence to the classical views on faith, reason and theological beliefs resolutely propagated by St. Thomas Aquinas and the more humanist ideals espoused by the Platonic philosophical schools of Roger Bacon (1294) and St. Bonaventura. The founder of the Franciscan order, St. Francis of Assisi as a monk and of the latter persuasion, having clearly transgressed the law of celibacy, was himself dangerously close to being branded a heretic by the authorities in Rome. Though this period saw the old adherents of pagan belief being forced into either a reconciliatory humanist stance or towards even more rebellious, libertine inclinations. For example France saw the development of heretical underground movements such as the Cathars, England witnessed the arrival of the radical theologian John Wycliffe (circa 1330-84) and the Lollards and in N. Europe the followers of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328).

The greatest radical literary figure towards the end of this period was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who produced his own political work (De Monarchia), a theological quest and spiritual revelation through hell, purgatory and paradise (Divine Comedy) as well as various poems, and sonnets. When the printing of books and pamphlets finally arrived in Europe (circa mid 15th century) many other alternative or heretical groups began to flourish and that in itself gave rise to the Great Reformation in Europe.
The songs of the troubadours, like the pageants of Mummer’s and Miracle plays, therefore appealed to a broad spectrum of people who were ostracised by monarchic and religious autocrats who had vested interests in diminishing regional freedoms and consolidating their control over disparate districts and ethnic populations of western Europe. These included many nobles, knights, migrant agricultural workers, peasants, artisans, merchants, innkeepers, and in particular the widows of noblemen who had lost their estates when their husbands had died in the crusades. The outcasts sought to throw off the moral yoke of blind obedience to Church and State that had been so cleverly devised to deprive them of individual freedoms. In opposition to the hypocritical advocates in the Roman Catholic Church, who espoused the denial of nature, poverty and celibacy, the troubadours proclaimed that the road to salvation or liberation lay in personal experience and the ardent pursuit of one’s ladylove (eg: “Taming of a Shrew”, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “Romeo & Juliet”). More pertinently they advocated and endorsed pre-marital sexual affairs which was an affront to the celibate doctrines of the Puritan Church Elders as well as some Catholics. Indeed, through their poetry and songs, the medieval troubadours may have themselves influenced the development of modern popular theatre and opera establishing themselves during the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century as the Commedia dell’Arte. In England they were no doubt an influence in Shakespeare’s paradoxical theme plays and comedies (eg: “Love’s Labours Lost”, “Comedy of Errors”, “Merrie Wives of Windsor”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”.) as well as the forerunners of the annual farce or pantomime staged in the New Year. Although the exact origins of the troubadours is lost in the mists of time they are thought to have begun in the Provence district of France although similar schools and groups may have existed in parts of Britain, Italy, Spain, and the northern districts of Picardy in France.

In the latter regions they were known as the Trouvères, among whom are listed Conon de Bethune (d. 1224), Thibaud (IV) de Champagne, the King of Navarre, Adam de la Halle, and Rutebeuf (13th century). Adam de la Halle travelled with his patron Robert II of Artois and was best known at the court of Charles d’Anjou at Naples. In literature the allegorical themes of “Everlasting Providence”“The Holy Grail”, the “Stations of the Fool”“Perceval and the Doomed Lovers”“Tristan & Iseult” and the “Virtuous Knight”Galahad or Gawain have their origins in the oral traditions of the troubadours. These stories, that contain mythic and folkloric leitmotifs from an earlier time, emphasised gallantry, gentleness, self-sacrifice, sensitivity, and courtesy to women. They especially implored macho or misogynist men to come to terms with their feminine side and refrain from “manly lusts”. They also offered a series of choices to the spiritual adept – to accept the companionship of a lover as a holy sacrament or to renounce it in favour of a death as a hero in mortal combat (eg: “Two Noble Kinsmen” or “Two Gentlemen of Verona”). However, these allegorical themes owe much to earlier Gnostic and Orphic traditions which were amalgamations of pagan matriarchal themes to the esoteric eastern traditions of tantric religion. In direct contrast to strict orthodox western doctrines eastern Tantra asserts that only through physical contact with a woman can a man understand the nature of reality and develop his spiritual powers (Siddhi) to deal with it. Essentially, this secular, pantheistic tradition emphasised individual knowledge, freedom, justice and truth and recognised Jesus Christ as a semi-divine angel or messenger of God. Understandably, this underground stream of occult philosophy was a direct threat to the domination of the Roman Catholic Church and their beliefs and practices were vehemently condemned as heretical witchcraft. The most well-known of these dualist or pagan heretical sects were the Bogomils, the so-called 13th Tribe who finally settled in Bulgaria and the Cathari or Albigenses of S.W. France who were considered advocates of the Devil by many mainstream theologians of the time.

Mystery Plays:

A Medieval manuscript illustration of a Mystery Play

The term mystery play actually refers to the Latin use “misterium” referring to the trade or guild such as tailors, bakers, silversmiths etc who sponsored or took part in them. Although originally sponsored by the clergy or monarchy, eventually, these plays became ever more popular and elaborate so that special buildings were constructed for their presentation to the public (see Globe Theatre). Indeed, as they became more popular numerous groups of travelling players, some more legitimate than others staged productions in all the major towns of England sometimes in courtyards of traveller’s inns, as well as the regular rural fairs and fêtes. By the late 16th century the orthodox religious play, that was an attempt to redeem lost souls or at worst strengthen the doctrinal views of Catholic against Puritan, had died off in England being gradually replaced by the more professional scripted performances which we know today as Elizabethan drama. Access to scripts of various quality and authenticity were therefore paramount to their ongoing success and there were plenty of aspiring scriptwriters, composers and poets to meet the popular demand of the period. The Mystery Play, as its peculiar name suggests, contains some esoteric element either from arcane pagan or more recent Christian sources for illumination by the audience through the work of the playwright and actors themselves. These began as early as the tenth century and continued to be performed in the church precincts by priests and some talented members of the congregation. It might for example explain to those gathered why the meek should inherit the Earth, why Judas betrayed Christ, why Eve was tempted by the serpent or some other bone of religious contention, of which there were many being bandied about in the medieval world. However, to compete with popular gatherings such as fairs and fêtes, these mysteries had an element of folkloric customs, pagan superstition as well as moral edification attached to them perhaps in order to attract the irreligious, secular or ignorant portion of the population to mainstream Christian moral values and ideas.

Morality Plays:

Morality plays were popular during the 15-16th century when the Reformation gave rise to a re-examination of orthodox Christian and alternative moral values. Although clearly the Medieval Mystery play had performed a similar role in the previous era. This form is essentially didactic and similar in application to a formal dramatic interlude to explain some subtle relationship between the plot/actors. Usually, the roles of the actors fell into clearly discernible good and evil characteristics; whether that was as protagonist or antagonist leaving the leading players or characters as victims of their own design. This dramatic or narrative tradition can easily be discerned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s series of narrative poetry (The Canterbury Tales, A Knight’s Tale, A Miller’s Tale etc). These tales illustrate through the use of popular and well-established caricatures the moral implications of “good and evil”.
Therefore the King and Queen, the Fool, the Devil, The Pope and the Knight were often directed and portrayed as they would have been in street theatre or outdoor stage productions. Just as in the case of Mummer’s Plays (see below) there were often allegorical portrayals for example of the seven deadly sins (Pride, Anger, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Ignorance, and Deceit), just a sample amongst those favoured. Dramatic personifications of the 12 months, perhaps even of the festivals themselves (literally Father Christmas), the seven traditional planets and the four seasons all according to the time were quite common. These productions borrowed and improvised upon the “dramatis personæ” from the Italian Commedia d’elle Arte with their own immoral and moral characters.
However, other characters might be featured such as the “eponymous everyman” representing mankind generally or some form of Memento Mori. Political or religious debate was also something of a moral issue often represented in these plays whereby comic characters might represent pomposity, pedantry, arrogance, duplicity, hypocrisy etc. The theatre of the world (Theatrum Mundi) was a Renaissance concept which suggested that theatre was a representation of the “Mind of God” in which human beings played their individual part. This idea was strongly delineated in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” where the Seven Ages of Man are represented;

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

Miracle Plays:

The miracle play, often confused with the Mystery and indirectly with the Morality Play, is largely a French invention with festive gatherings or processions often featuring the lives of Catholic saints or martyrs or major miraculous themes or events that were described in the Bible. More pertinently, Miracle Plays often concluded with a triumphal appearance of the Virgin Mary. These plays were central to the observance of the liturgical calendar as a series of cycles throughout the year so, Christmas (25th Dec), Epiphany (6th Jan), Candlemass (2nd Feb), Easter or Holy Week (Crucifixion & Resurrection) and Whitsun (7th Sunday after Easter), followed by Trinity Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi and ending with All Hallow’s Eve (1st November). Winter was synonymous with Darkness, Summer synonymous with Light, while Autumn was symbolic of Death and Spring a reflection of Re-Birth. The Christmas period was a time of revelling and mirth, Spring a time for hope and concupiscence, Summer was climactic, absurdly comic and usually featured contests and tournaments while Autumn was synonymous with horror, tragedy or death.

Mummer’s Plays:

Mummer’s plays were local travelling theatrical productions that featured mythical characters such as George and the Dragon, Jack of the Green, that occurred in the 15th century and were revived sometime in the early 19th century. They appear to be a revival of some older pagan rituals that were designed to take place at specific times of the year and were of three basic types; the swaggering hero and anti-hero, the Sword Dance and the Wooing of Two Lovers. The name for these wandering players varies from any locality, sometimes called “guisers, jonny jacks, soul-cakers, and pace-eggers”, although in Norfolk and Suffolk none exists whatsoever. Nevertheless, strictly speaking the term mummers means to perform in total silence ie: grimace or mime, and perhaps the wearing of masks or taking on of disguises to remain anonymous. Indeed, we do know that productions featured scripts in poetic couplets or quatrains with each performer stepping into a horseshoe shaped circle to do their carefully rehearsed part. The traditional village Morris Dancers, as the name suggests, are just another form of “mummers”, probably of the sword dance tradition. The most popular times for these ritual re-enactments being the Winter Solstice, Easter, Midsummer and late Autumn.

Some anthropological researchers suggest that in form and content they resemble traditions that derive largely from pantheistic Aryan religions in Asia and variations of those customs and beliefs are latent in the narrative and oral legend of King Arthur and the mysterious Holy Grail. Ostensibly, the staging or performance of these ritual customs and traditions derive from Holy Grail folklore but were later appropriated by some members of the illumined clergy, both Protestant and Catholic, in an attempt to lure the tribal, heathen mind of Celts, Gaelic, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Norse peoples away from their “old ways and superstitions”. Although contemporary performers tend to ham up their own idea of how these plays were presented, it is fairly clear that they were deliberately performed in a cold, possibly surreal and almost wooden manner, in effect like human puppets. The inherent knowledge and imagination of the audience would be obliged to do the rest. Elaborate and colourful costumes were an important element in these amateur players who could earn a handsome sum of money during these critical holiday periods for example Christmas Eve (Saturnalia or Yuletide), Plough Monday, Twelfth Night, Wassail and All Hallow’s Eve.

Usually, a presenter, such as “Auld Nick” (ie: Father Christmas) would introduce the characters and announce their intent, for example the first warrior knight would appear boasting of his formidable strength, courage or accomplishments, then another (The Turk) would appear to take him on. A slashing sword combat would take place, and one would fall dead and soon after a Doctor would be called to revive him, and if this failed a minister with attendants (Beelzebub) would arrive to administer the last rites. Therefore within elements of the Mystery plays, Miracle plays and Morality plays we will find vestiges or correspondences to these earlier ritualistic masques or traditions that had taken place prior to the conversion of the British populace to Christianity. For example among the Celtic peoples the time of Christmas was celebrated in honour of the dead with Odin, who was thought to ride his horse across the heavens leading the hunt. Today that task is performed by Santa Claus, alias Old Nick or Father Christmas with a team of reindeer with a bag of presents for children. However, the clergy were keen to sanitise and censor much of what they considered to be inappropriate pantheism or idolatry in any respect to the old pagan ways. Mummer’s plays were often considered a threat by the Church Fathers partly because of their satirical innuendos and symbolic or allegorical content, where for example they were critical of the lies and hypocrisy of the Orthodox Church.


The term “revel” actually means to indulge oneself or take delight in and this preoccupation or custom is ostensibly a typically English pursuit, to relieve the tedium of abstinence or deprivation. During the reign of Elizabeth there were essentially two kinds of theatre in England, one was devised with an overtly orthodox or religious viewpoint (Mystery & Morality Play), the other was secular, ribald and regarded as being of a rather suspicious or doubtful nature. Some vulgar presentations have been discovered as early as 1550 (Gammer Gurton’s Needle) was an early comedy written in English. The term “Revels”, which dates back to the 15th century, refers in part to the latter form which was often accompanied by some boisterous entertainment especially devised by whichever patron chose to finance and promote them. Like wakes, feasts and fairs, there would be jugglers, comic antics, music, poetry, and some spectacular setting or stage-crafted arena. Like the after premiere party or thespian gathering, the revels designed by aristocrats, merchants and players were intended to entertain and amuse as well as expand the kudos of the patron. It was an opportunity for those who had been isolated in communities or personal relationships to come together, to meet old friends or enemies and make useful contacts. The Master of the Revels, who was first appointed on a permanent basis by the crown in 1547, was under the supervision and approval of the Lord Chamberlain, that thereby excesses were avoided. These so-called “Revels” took place during the “dark side of the year”, traditionally from All Saints Day (1st November) right up to the beginning of Lent, although they were generally restricted to the Christmas period during the reign of Elizabeth. Professional companies and individuals would be commissioned from court and paid to perform at these events which might even include pageants and masques.

Pageants & Fairs:

Finally, Pageants or Fairs were usually performed on the back of carts and wagons as well as on foot in the streets, these pageants or tableaux as they were sometimes called had long been a form of local or regional celebration or seasonal festivity incorporating religious, political or even mercantile aspirations. They were often sponsored by the town’s guilds, the mayor or in some cases the monarchy or the clergy. The Italians knew them as “Triumphs” literally meaning being to celebrate or announce some victory over darkness or evil by some heroic effort. The term “trumps” entered magical symbolism and the design of gaming cards where they were known as trumps (see the 22 Cards of the Major Arcana).

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the arts, social change and the sustainable environment. After more than thirty years of voluntary and professional involvement commuting between Yorkshire and Lancashire while working in those areas I finally relocated to Buxton in 2013. This was after the birth of our son Gaspard and to further the career of my French partner, Francoise Collignon who is currently seeking work in the tourism sector. In 1988 I became the Regional co-ordinator for the National Artists Association in Manchester and helped promote the artistic revival in the region. At the turn of the millennium in 2001, while pursuing my vocational interest in symbolism and the natural world, I became involved in environmental conservation and the protection of green space in W. Yorkshire. I was elected editor for Calderdale Friends of the Earth, a monthly postal and online newsletter. In my spare time I was preoccupied as a writer, natural archivist and amateur poet. Over a period of five years I also worked briefly as an architectural technician, landscape designer and mural artist near Holmfirth where I gained invaluable insights into restoration and the development of Green Field and Brown Field sites. In my mid-forties I relocated from Halifax, W. Yorkshire to Manchester where I worked as an artist and freelance set designer for several photographic, film and video companies. My work recieved reviews in Hotshoe International, Avant Magazine, NME, The Face, the Big Issue and one shot (The Wolf) became a best-selling poster for Athena Posters. In the late 80’s I became an active member of the National Artists Association and a subscriber to the Design & Artists Copyright Society. I assisted in the instigation of the first Multi-cultural Arts Conference and the first Black Arts Forum in Manchester. I became editor of a quarterly Arts Magazine concerned with promoting and supporting artist’s initiatives in the region. Nevertheless, in my spare time I wrote numerous articles on the natural world and researched aspects of Dream Symbolism and the study of semiotics and gestalts in literature and art. I was involved as facilitator for the local allotments and helped set up a local nature reserve at Hough End. Finally, I was encouraged by a close mentor in America to write more seriously about the work of the literary genius William Shakespeare and to pursue a role as a poet. Although somewhat reluctantly over the past four years I have given poetry performances, workshops and readings in Manchester. I have recently published an anthology of my poetry entitled “Parthenogenesis” and a companion to Shakespeare studies entitled “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”. I am currently working on a screenplay entitled “Not Without Mustard” about the life of Edward de Vere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: