Elizabethan entertainment

As well as visiting playhouses, people in London could watch cruel sports using animals, including cock fighting, dog fighting and bear-baiting. Bears were imported just for this sport. In one of Shakespeare’s later plays, A Winter’s Tale, there is actually a bear featured – although the only acting it does is to chase someone off stage. There would also be a lot of gambling on these sports – or anything else you could bet on. Chess and draughts were popular board games – Miranda plays chess in The Tempest.

The courtiers, or nobles, held jousting tournaments for entertainment. Knights fought on horseback with lances. They hunted with birds of prey. They also played tennis, but the game was rather different in those days and it was played on special indoor courts. There were 14 tennis courts in London in Shakespeare’s time. Common people did not have access to this kind of activity, but might well go ice-skating in the winter, or play sports like bowls or even football.

Shakespeare uses these entertainments to create images in his plays – the Duke of Gloucester when he is about to be tortured in King Lear compares himself to a bear tied to th’stake, as he would be in bear-baiting. There is also a famous scene with tennis balls in Henry V, where the Prince of France sends hundreds of tennis balls to the King of England as an insulting present.

Did you know?

  • In Elizabethan times football wasn’t played on a pitch. It was a game played by gangs in the streets, running for miles. The ball was an inflated pig’s bladder – not quite the game as we know it!
  • Snowballs were as fun in Shakespearean time as they are now – they crop up in two different plays, Pericles and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • The game ‘Blind man’s buff’ where a blindfolded person has to identify another player by touch was known as ‘Hoodman’s blind’. It turns up in lots of plays when people talk of ‘hoodwinking’ someone or something – which we still use today to mean cheating or deceiving someone.
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