Early modern playwrights were not overly concerned with historical accuracy in their works. Characters in ancient times made references to things that would not happen for hundreds of years. To playwrights of the time, setting and time period were less a matter of physical location and space and more of a way to communicate with their audience. Time periods were a balancing act, a way to both relate to and distance the audience from the play. A play set in London may have been an Elizabethan equivalent to reality television. A play in an ancient location would have taken on a mystical quality. Generally, there were two times in which Early Modern Plays were set: the classical (Ancient Greek/Roman) period and the contemporary Elizabethan/Jacobean period. Theses settings both held their own significance and many playwrights would use a mix of the two time periods to achieve the best possible effect.
When a location was specifically named in a play, it was almost always somewhere in the Ancient Greece or Rome. Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream both take place in Athens. The classical period was to early modern authors what the Shakespearean age is to modern writers: period of romance, idealism, and adventure (Blits 2-3). Great store was placed in the wisdom of the old and wise. Playwrights used this reverence for ancient times to give their plays depth and intellectual intensity (Blits 2-3). The ancient setting might also have a more practical purpose. Theater was, after all, a business enterprise. The more highly educated and wealthier upper class would have had the money to support the theatre and the knowledge to appreciate any ancient reference the playwright included (Blits 10-11).
On the flip side, a play with nothing but ancient analogies would likely go over the heads of the lower class audience. Shakespeare himself had minimal Greek and Latin education (Dickson). For an audience that might not have understood more lofty references, there were plays, like Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, set in what would have been contemporary times. In fact, the main character of the play, Moll Cutpurse, was a real person, and possibly even played herself in some productions (Fearn). This gave the play a different feel, one of closeness or relatability. Audience members of all classes would have been able to recognize the characters, the location, and situations and appreciate that they were seeing their own lives mirrored in art.
More often than not, temporality in a given play was fluid, moving back and forth between ancient references and topical, contemporary allusions. This ambiguity was intentional, as playwrights sought to reach the perfect balance of classic mystery and contemporary relevance. When reading and understanding early modern plays, it is productive to think of the location in time and space as a spectrum. A tendency toward a classical setting may hint at a mystical or sage message to the play while a more “modern” play would indicate perhaps a more lighthearted or concrete message. Either way, temporality is almost always noteworthy.
Further Reading: Blits, Jan H. The Soul of Athens: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lexington Books, 2003.
Dickson, Andrew. “What the Romans Did for Shakespeare: Rome and Roman Values in Shakespeare's Plays.” The British Library, The British Library, 22 Feb. 2016, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/what-the-romans-did-for-shakespeare-rome-and-roman-values-in-shakespeares-plays.