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Theatre as the Dominant Form of Entertainment in Elizabethan England (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 11 Apr 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on whether theatre was the dominant form of entertainment in Elizabethan England.

‘Theatre was the dominant form of entertainment during Elizabethan England’. How far do you agree?

Marks: 16 marks + 4 marks SPAG

Stimulus = The Rose Theatre / Spectator sports

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


Elizabethan England enjoyed a variety of different forms of entertainment, including theatre, music and dancing. The growth in participation sports like football, as well as spectator sports like bear baiting, bull baiting and cock fighting, was also evident, as was (via increased education and dissemination of information via the printing press) the growth in literature. Although the theatre was a growing form of entertainment across the country and open to all classes, and most towns across England had a baiting ring, music was still the most dominant form of entertainment. This was because it could occur anywhere, from the comfort of one’s home to taverns and the streets. In addition, it was a weekly occurrence in religious church services. If one is to define dominance in terms of exposure to the population, then music has to be considered the most dominant because it was in a variety of forms across all classes and did not require active participation (other than by those playing instruments) in order for it to be enjoyed.

[The introduction is arguably a little convoluted, but nevertheless clear and sophisticated criteria for the overall judgement is eventually found (that being the extent of exposure/accessibility different forms of entertainment had across the social classes).]

The popularity of plays within Elizabethan England is undeniable. Many purpose-built theatres were established in London, for example, like the Red Lion in Whitechapel, East London in 1567, or the Rose in 1587, close to the River Thames. Despite seating areas being very expensive, the theatre was open to all members of society who could pay one penny to stand. Queues of 2000 people waiting to see a performance was common. The theatre also became increasingly popular as the emphasis moved away from biblical stories to secular plays and comedies, where the ending was unknown. In terms of increasing popularity, the theatre was arguably the most dominant, but it could not be considered the most dominant outright. It had mass appeal, but the central location of theatres meant access was often limited (even with travelling performers), hence not everybody could enjoy it.

[*See the end of this answer for an important point about Shakespeare! Nice analytical distinction which reveals conceptual focus of the answer.]

In comparison, the spectator sports of bull baiting and cock fighting can be seen as more popular as they appealed to the lower classes that made up the vast majority of the population. The fact that most towns had a bull ring reveals just how popular this spectator sport was. With bull baiting, dogs were set upon a chained bull and, because bulls were neither rare nor expensive (unlike the less common bear baiting), indulgence in this sport was common. Likewise with cock fighting, the sport was easy to organise and local arenas were set up in the smallest of villages. Therefore, bull and cock fighting could also be seen as more dominant forms of entertainment because they were easy and cheap to organise, open to all members of the public, and had the added attraction of gambling (even Elizabeth was known to partake in watching it)!

[Accessibility a key issue to raise in assessing the term ‘dominance’. This complements the introduction.]

There were also other alternative forms of entertainment that required more active participation and for this reason they were rarer, despite still being popular. A variation of football, for example, was played with no strict rules on pitch size, player numbers or using your hands. Matches could be played in the street or countryside. Other popular participatory games included wrestling and, for the upper class, tennis. Another pastime, but a less popular one due to limited education and lack of literacy, was reading. Via the printing press, literature grew in popularity with mass production of Latin and Greek classics, as well as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Naturally though, this pastime was reserved for the rich. It is clear that many popular forms of entertainment existed, but their dominance was limited by the fact that they were dependent on a level of active participation to enjoy, and this was often determined by education, wealth or time (something that the lower classes had a lot less of, especially in the rural communities).

[Wide-ranging knowledge exhibited here with a link back to the question, helping to reinforce original judgement.]

Ultimately then, music and dancing were the most popular because wealth and class were not a barrier to enjoying them, although there was a difference in the type of music and dancing enjoyed. The rich would learn lutes and harpsichords, whilst the poor would play bagpipes and fiddles. Additionally, the rich would employ people to play music when they held feasts (although only men were paid musicians) whilst the poor would be exposed to music daily in the streets, taverns or occasional fairs that were held, as well as in their own homes, so it was free. Crucially too, everyone in the country was exposed to music at least once a week when they would attend church on Sunday. Whilst church and religion themselves were not entertainment, certainly the music within services was something a lot of people looked forward to and Elizabeth had little time for the puritanical who wanted to rid the church of bell ringing and choral music, meaning it permeated the lives of all on some level. Lastly, further growth in the popularity of music also coincided with the burgeoning influence of theatre, as music would add to the drama of the storylines being performed. As such, whether by default or direct interest, music was a key component of Elizabethan entertainment and the most dominant form.

[The criteria used to undermine other forms of forms of entertainment is now directly addressed in this answer. The comparative element of this answer thus adds persuasiveness.]

Ultimately, whilst there was a range of popular forms of entertainment, the term ‘dominance’ needs to be defined by the number of people exposed to or partaking in something, without barriers like wealth and class. This is why music was the most dominant. It existed in many parts of public and private life and due to the role it played in church services, provided an additionally vital cultural and spiritual element to how people lived, which served as entertainment too. Lastly, it could be enjoyed without active participation (unless an instrument was played). Enjoyment of other forms of entertainment was restricted by expense, accessibility, time and education.

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

This answer reveals a deep knowledge of the period and provides a range of accurate, relevant and detailed examples that go beyond the stimulus points. The answer effectively analyses why many forms of entertainment cannot be seen as the most dominant, helping to give the reasons for judgement further persuasiveness. The answer is clear and coherent and the answer never deviates from the conceptual focus of the question (except for maybe the overly descriptive introduction).

*Note: The temptation with any question that looks at theatre is to mention Shakespeare. But, the period of study for Elizabeth ends in 1588 and Shakespeare’s first play was released between 1590-91 and the Globe Theatre was not built until 1599. Do not make the mistake of including Shakespeare in your answer!

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