Theatre was introduced from Europe to what is now the United Kingdom by the Romans and auditoriums were constructed across the country for this purpose (an example has been excavated at Verulamium). By the medieval period theatre had developed with the mummers' plays, a form of early street theatre associated with the Morris dance, concentrating on themes such as Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood. These were folk tales re-telling old stories, and the actors travelled from town to town performing these for their audiences in return for money and hospitality.
The medieval mystery plays and morality plays, which dealt with Christian themes, were performed at religious festivals. The most important work of literature surviving from the Middle Cornish period is An Ordinale Kernewek ("The Cornish Ordinalia"), a 9000-line religious drama composed around the year 1400. The longest single surviving work of Cornish literature is Bywnans Meriasek (The Life of Meriasek), a play dated 1504, but probably copied from an earlier manuscript.
There are four complete or nearly complete extant English biblical collections of plays from the late medieval period; although these collections are sometimes referred to as "cycles," it is now believed that this term may attribute to these collections more coherence than they in fact possess. The most complete is the York cycle of forty-eight pageants. They were performed in the city of York, from the middle of the fourteenth century until 1569. There are also the Towneley plays of thirty-two pageants, once thought to have been a true 'cycle' of plays and most likely performed around the Feast of Corpus Christi probably in the town of Wakefield, England during the late Middle Ages until 1576. The Ludus Coventriae (also called the N Town plays" or Hegge cycle), now generally agreed to be a redacted compilation of at least three older, unrelated plays, and the Chester cycle of twenty-four pageants, now generally agreed to be an Elizabethan reconstruction of older medieval traditions.
These biblical plays differ widely in content. Most contain episodes such as the Fall of Lucifer, the Creation and Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, the Nativity, the Raising of Lazarus, the Passion, and the Resurrection. Other pageants included the story of Moses, the Procession of the Prophets, Christ's Baptism, the Temptation in the Wilderness, and the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin. In given cycles, the plays came to be sponsored by the newly emerging Medieval craft guilds.
Having grown out of the religiously based mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the morality play is a genre of Medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment, which represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre. In their own time, these plays were known as "interludes", a broader term given to dramas with or without a moral theme. Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a Godly life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th and early 17th century saw a flowering of the drama and all the arts. Perhaps the most famous playwright in the world, William Shakespeare, wrote around 40 plays that are still performed in theatres across the world to this day. They include tragedies, such as Hamlet (1603), Othello (1604), and King Lear (1605); comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1594—96) and Twelfth Night (1602); and history plays, such as Henry IV, part 1—2. The Elizabethan age is sometimes nicknamed "the age of Shakespeare" for the amount of influence he held over the era. Other important Elizabethan and 17th-century playwrights include Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and John Webster.
The English playwrights were intrigued by Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London. The linguist and lexicographer John Florio (1553–1625), whose father was Italian, was a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, and a possible friend and influence on William Shakespeare, had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. The earliest Elizabethan plays includes Gorboduc (1561) by Sackville and Norton and Thomas Kyd's (1558–94) revenge tragedy The Spanish Tragedy (1592). The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd between 1582 and 1592. Highly popular and influential in its time, The Spanish Tragedy established a new genre in English literature theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Its plot contains several violent murders and includes as one of its characters a personification of Revenge. The Spanish Tragedy was often referred to, or parodied, in works written by other Elizabethan playwrights, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe. Many elements of The Spanish Tragedy, such as the play-within-a-play used to trap a murderer and a ghost intent on vengeance, appear in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Thomas Kyd is frequently proposed as the author of the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet that may have been one of Shakespeare's primary sources for Hamlet.