Theatrical conventions of renaissance
To understand Twelfth Night and the meaning behind the play, you need to understand the context in which it was first written and performed.
The conventions of Renaissance England will give you a sense of how the production would have looked on stage:
- Performances were only allowed to be presented between 2.00-5.00pm (as deemed by the church). With just this short timeframe in which to perform, the plays would have been presented much quicker than they are in modern times.
- Theatre companies travelled across the countryside performing in venues such as markets pubs and in court, which suggests the style of performance was very flexible and the plays where written for flexible delivery.
- There were no sets on the platform stage and only basic props such as swords, letters, torches, beds and chairs were used – relying on the dialogue and action to indicate the time and location.
- Most actors were required to learn more than one role and doubling-up of roles was a common convention.
- Costumes were usually sumptuous and were purchased by the companies from the estates of deceased nobility. They were among the most valuable asset to the playhouse companies, who sometimes paid many times more for a single costume than for a manuscript.
- The players frequently addressed the audience directly by way of asides and soliloquies and the playgoers (audience) were constantly reminded that they were watching a play. Many plays often contained hidden messages and political protests within the storyline but, by reminding the audiences that it was ‘all just a play’, companies avoided legal strife.
- Boy players performed female roles. Women did not act in English playhouse companies until after the monarchy was restored in 1660. Young males actors were apprenticed to members of the company, playing female roles until their voices broke and physical growth made them no longer credible women.
- Disguise was a common feature of a dramatic plot. In cross-dressing comedies such as Twelfth Night for example, men playing female characters disguised themselves as males, and highly complex layers of role-playing and roles within roles were created.
- Actors often extemporised, that is, they improvised during the show and elaborated on the script. This was especially true of the 'clown' or 'fool' characters who would often stage their own show in the middle of the play. This was done to make a clean point about a person/ message within the play or at the audience, even sometimes attacking the royals, but always in the comic way!