Audiences, Immigration and Belonging in Elizabethan Theatres: Putting the archive into performance

Who visited the Elizabethan playhouses? What did it mean to have non-English characters being played on stage? What does dramatic engagement with issues of immigration, identity, and belonging tell us about sixteenth-century theatre? Earlier this month we tackled these questions at a collaborative workshop hosted by TIDE project, Before Shakespeare and the Dolphin’s Back. This workshop explored the diverse communities of Tudor London and their representation in Elizabethan playhouses. Actors from The Dolphin’s Back—Suzanne Ahmet, Jamie Askill, Emma Denly, Tim Frances, John Hopkins, Mark Oosterveen, and Tok Stephen, lead by James Wallace —brought to life a series of sixteen historical documents, including personal letters, petitions, diaries and legalese (that’s right, they made the legal work of Sir Thomas de Littleton entertaining) in conjunction with seven plays, one involving a very amusing Dutch musical number, and even a Dumb Show from Locrine. These readings prompted a great deal of discussion, surprise, shock and at times laughter amongst the attendees.


A Dumb show where Perseus saves Andromeda from The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine (1595).

Kicking off the workshop, James Wallace read from John Lyly’s Midas published in 1591: ‘Traffic and travel hath woven the nature of all nations into ours, and made this land like arras, full of device, which was broadcloth, full of workmanship.’ We were immediately reminded of London’s longstanding commercial and cosmopolitan past, and the awareness on the part of Elizabethan audiences of London’s growing multicultural population. We were then thrown into the world of Elizabethan drama, with a passage from Thomas Wilson’s Three Lords and Ladies of London (1590) in which Wilson’s character Fraud, takes on a disguise as Frenchman, who tricks his English victims Simplicity and Penury into buying various gilded buttons. This satirical passage showing a foreign merchant was more than just a parody of a Frenchman. Fraud’s deception would have been a very real concern to those in Wilson’s audience who would have seen, known or heard foreign merchants in the city.

Delving further into early modern migrant communities in England, the actors then read two letters and a petition that outlined the mixed reception that immigrants received in England. One Dutch migrant impressed upon his wife ‘how friendly the people are together, and the English are the same and quite loving to our nation’ and that she should ‘Come at once’ with their children to England. The letter also pointed to some of the subtler cultural differences between the English and the Dutch, particularly in their culinary habits: he requested that his wife ‘Buy two little wooden dishes to make up half pounds of butter’ as ‘all Netherlanders and Flemings make their own butter, for here it is all pigs’ fat.’ The levity and tenderness of this exchange was put into sharp contrast by the following letter and petition, which sadly painted an all-too-familiar picture of the reception on migrants living in England. In the latter, the Dutch and French congregations in London complained that they had been ‘been most grievously molested by sundry informers.’


Hanse the drunken Dutch soldier gives us song Wealth and Health (1565).

These texts were followed by a pigeon Dutch song sang by a drunken Flemish Soldier in Wealth and Health(1565). The humour of this passage underlined the negative view that English people had of the Dutch. It also raised questions about communication; the actor reading the part of Hans Beerpot, Mark Oosterveen, is fluent in Dutch, but this was a hotchpotch of pigeon English, the odd phonetic Dutch word, and a lot of otherwise baffling vocabulary. What work was such a distorted imitation doing for early modern audiences, English or Dutch? This was then followed by extracts from The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine (1595) depicting the legendary Trojan founders of the nation of England and a series of historical sources illustrating the negative view that English people had of migrants. These included Thomas Staffords 1557 proclamation to rebel against Mary and Philip and the influence of ‘spiteful Spaniards’ and two texts written by the second generation, Italian migrant John Florio First Fruits (1578) and Of the manners of Certain Nations. Florio humorously and disparagingly noted how English ‘Gentlemen, rather loons’ when learning a languages learn only ‘two words of Spanish, three words of French, and four words of Italian’ and then ‘they think they have enough, they will study no more.’ ‘Mange tout Rodney’ how little times have changed.

Often this negative opinion was raised by French and Flemish migrants themselves. In 1593 group of strangers from France and the Low Countries complained that some Londoners had publicly insulted them, calling them ‘beastly brutes, the Belgians, or rather drunken drones, and fainthearted Flemings; and you, fraudulent father, Frenchmen’ and ordered that they ‘depart out of the realm of England.’ These provocative texts triggered a lively audience discussion into how early modern English people politically and legally engaged with migrants’ identity and the presence of non-English people in London. Much of the discussion was focused on an extraordinary letter sent in 1596 to the Lord Mayor of London which ordered that ‘divers Blackmoors… of which kind of people there are already here to [sic] many’ be deported from the city. As one audience member noted on Twitter these texts highlighted how alarming it was that so ‘little our discourse on immigration has changed in c400 years.’


A touching reading concerning the deportation of 10 Black residents of London taken from An open letter to the Lord Mayor of London and the Aldermen his brethren, And to all other Mayors, Sheriffs, &c. 11 July 1596.

This was particularly relevant to the discussion that followed concerning migrants’ property rights and what it meant to be English in this period. This resonated particularly in the light of recent political events and the subject of EU nationals’ rights in this country. Centred around George Wapull’s, Tide Tarieth No Man (1576) a play that has a remarkable focus on the property rights of migrants in London the workshop turned to focus on the legal rights of strangers in London. Introducing Tide Tarieth were two historical documents the first and act of parliament from 1530 which legislated against foreign merchants and fears that they were taking capital outside of England and the second an extract from a legalese of the works of fifteenth century Judge, Sir Thomas Littleton which outlined the various rights to property that different categories of strangers were entitled to. This discussion focused on early modern concepts of denizenship and subjecthood. The term ‘immigrant’ didn’t really enter the English lexicon until the 18th century; instead early modern people used a range of terms like ‘aliens’, ‘strangers’, and ‘denizens’, who were strangers permanently settled in the city who were free from paying alien custom duties and taxes. Then there were ‘free denizens’, who were strangers born in London, or ‘stranger-born’ subjects and ‘English-born strangers.’ With these numerous identities, it is easy to see how complications could trigger anxiety as well as paranoia about resources, rights, and identity itself. These statuses were part of a complex legal structure that broadly defined what it meant to be English through the legal privileges granted and often withheld from migrants.


Who could have thought it possible a legalese made entertaining! The Dolphin’s Back Actors read from Coke Upon Littleton, ed. Thomas Coventry (London:1830).

Our audience was thrown into the deep end of early modern debates surrounding Elizabethan England’s complex and often conflicted relationship with immigration. The event underscored how useful it is to have actors read plays and historical texts alongside each other, especially because the director, James Wallace, emphasised the emotional consequences attendant on legal strictures or licences for deportation, the sense of group identity behind petitions, and gave us all the chance to reflect critically on ideas of identity and migration in Elizabethan society and on the stage. Our conversation during the workshop together with subsequent feedback has shown how this resonates with life in England today.

We would especially like to thank the actors, without whom this would have been impossible to host and whose talent and contributions made the day both highly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. We would finally like to say thank you to the audience who made this a lively, and thought-provoking experience.

Keep a look out for future events…

Haig Smith and Callan Davies

Appendix: Running Order

Midas – Prologue in Paul’s (John Lyly)


J. Fabian to Lord Burghley (BL Lansdowne MS 60, fo. 10, 1589)

Three Lords and Three Ladies of London

[4 angels] Simplicity, Painful, Penury, Fraud
Lady Conscience, Lord Policy, Usury, Dissimulation, Simony

Claes van Wervekin: letter to his wife (Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum, 1544-1652, Joannes Henricus Hessels, Cambridge, 1899, Doc. 263)

William Herle

Petition of a Stranger (Tudor Economic Documents: Volume I, ed. R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power, London, 1924, pg. 299)

Wealth and Health (1565)

Florio’s First Fruits

Florio’s “Of the manners of certain Nations”

Libels set out (1593)

Thomas Stafford’s proclamation (from Scarborough castle, 1557)

The Tragedy of Locrine

An open letter to the Lord Mayor of London and the Aldermen his brethren, And to all other Mayors, &c. 11 July 1596

An Act for Denizens to pay strangers (22 Hen. VIII. C. 8, 1530)

Coke upon Littleton (ed. Coventry)

The Tide Tarieth No Man (1575/6)

Bridewell Court entry: Rose Browne and Elizabeth Kirkham (1577)

Bridewell Court: Alice Morris (1599)

The Baptism of Mary Phillis (St Botolph Aldgate, 3 June 1597)

The Wars of Cyrus

Leo Africanus

William Harborne to Assan Aga

The Battle of Alcazar


4 thoughts on “Audiences, Immigration and Belonging in Elizabethan Theatres: Putting the archive into performance

  1. This sounds like an absolutely fascinating evening, and I wish I’d been there. I do wonder though, if participants may have been a too ready to bring 21st century perceptions to 16th century works?

    I often find myself being lulled into a sense of security while reading Elizabethan/Stuart textss, because it all sounds so familiar. Then I come up against something so bizarre, shocking, or incomprehensible that I wonder if I’ve interpreted anything I’ve read correctly.

    It’s the difficulty of distinguishing between what we say/think/do because we’re the products of our own environment, and what we say/think/do because that’s the way we’re wired as a species.

    So is the lack of change in the “discourse on immigration” over the past 400 years really so alarming?

    Or is it a manifestation of our species-specific response to strangers (in all senses of that word)? As in: Come here, you might be nice to know/Go away, you might be nasty to me. The timeless conflict of Curiosity v. Fear, made more complex by the fact that we don’t all have these qualities in equal measure.

    Something to be recognized, but not easily resolved.


  2. Thanks for this very interesting article on a fascinating subject. It seems to me that acting, and other ways of participating in theatre, such as being present in the audience, can enable us to find ‘others’ and ‘otherness’ within ourselves in ways which we may not otherwise be possible. Ultimately, we all have complex and diverse lineages; we all have and have had complex interactions with others on a regular basis; and we are all more or less influenced by various cultures. It seems to me that performance allows us to understand how those superficially different to ourselves in fact mirror an aspect of our own fluid, multiple and heterogeneous identities. Theatre at its best enables us to discover these many sides to ourselves, and to share these experiences of otherness with others: hence it’s creative, enlightening and empowering potential.

    Liked by 1 person

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